Change is better than a rest.
What do the items in the following list have in common? Scottish dancing, curling and speed sailing?
The answer is that they’re all activities of which I had an instinctive loathing – until I reluctantly gave them a go – and then changed my mind immediately.
My mum packed me off to Scottish dancing classes aged 11, believing it would be good discipline. In the era of flower power and psychedelic rock, this was humiliation on such a grand scale that I walked into the village hall with a bag over my head.
But then I spotted Tessa – the love of my prepubescent life, who in school was so out of my league she wouldn’t even register my presence with a sneer. Things were looking up – especially when I discovered that Scottish reels were all about mass participation, formation twiddling and … partner swapping. Which meant Tessa was forced to take hold of me, albeit for a few seconds; and unless she decided to break formation and ruin the dance, there was nothing she could do about it.
Tuesday evenings couldn’t come around fast enough.
Curling – it’s bowls, except on ice with brooms played by miserable old, tweed-suited harridans with faces as long as a winter night. What a ridiculous waste of precious life! I was working in a hotel in Switzerland when Jon the chef told me there was an inter-hotel curling competition and they needed a fourth to make up the Hotel Murren team. Before I had a chance to suggest where he put his broom, he revealed there was free glühwein and schnapps. Off we went. What a blast! It is SO skilful … and violent. You curl your ‘stone’ beautifully to within a few centimetres of the bull; and then when your opponent smashes it out of the park, it’s all you can do to stop yourself lumping him or her. But we were pretty good and went on to win, not only that competition but we remained pretty much unbeaten for the rest of the winter.
Speed-sailing. It was annoyingly huge in the late 80s. I didn’t get it. It was clearly for fat blokes who couldn’t gybe. Slalom was so much better in every way. It was speed sailing with tricky corners AND you had people to overtake and run into.
I got a call from my then sponsor Mistral saying the Weymouth trials were coming up and they wanted me to enter on their new custom/production speed board. It arrived, and reluctantly, with 2 days to go before the event, I took it out at low tide Witterings for a maiden blast.
Waterstarting – not as easy as it looks. It took a while to work a few things out – like it won’t plane if you try to level if off by standing forward. Basically you have to waterstart in the straps – bear away and go, I will never forget the first time it released. There was no ‘semi-planing.’ It was like being shot out of a gun. I couldn’t believe the sensation of speed. The truth was at that stage that I would probably have gone faster on my slalom board – but the thing was so small and I was so out of control that it felt crazily fast. I stayed out until dusk.
At Weymouth we got a weekend of 30 knots and I must have put in 60 runs. It was completely and utterly addictive. And what was that about gybing? The fat blokes didn’t gybe the speed boards because it was bloody difficult – but what a challenge! When you got it right on flat water – it was better than waterskiing, dropping into a carve at 30 knots, feeling that long hard edge bite and your jaw drop open as you screamed around a 50m radius arc.
That same year I joined the British speed tour, qualified for the World Series and spent the next decade following the Pro series from France, to Tarifa to the Canaries and beyond. Speed was like fame – you were never quite fast enough. There was always another level – and there was always the unknown – a little alchemy, a special board and rig combo and that fortuitous gust or wave that might combine to rocket you onto the podium. But best of all you were surrounded by like-minded nutters, many of whom are now my friends for life, hell-bent on beating the clock rather than you. I still did the other disciplines – but realised that I was never more adrenalized than when screeching 130 degrees to the wind through the Sotavento shorebreak in 10cm of water, a gnat’s dicky away from a rib-shattering catapult. It was twice as scary as dropping down a mast high wave. And this was a discipline I was determined to hate.
You can see where this is going. When we get good at something, it’s all too easy to erect a high fence around your comfort zone, and with unfounded prejudice sneer at activities, which we feel we should be doing but would mean becoming a beginner again and maybe looking foolish … so it’s easier to dismiss them from a distance.
Not for the first time in these pages, I am championing the notion of experiment and change, of seeking a new experience within our sport, of which there are SO many.
Next week I leave for Kerry for a series of wave clinics. Irish weather is so like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates (‘you never know what you’re going to get’) that everyone has to be prepared for a new experience, especially if they haven’t tackled waves before. But even before they arrive they have to change the preconception that wave sailing is always a wind driven activity.
Here is a quote from my introductory letter on the topic of SUPs:
“This the way it works with SUPs.
You don’t bring one because you’re not into it …
Then we get a sunny day with 7 knots of wind and a beautiful, clean 3 ft. swell.
You see people out there with a small sail having crazy amounts of fun and learning everything they need to know about wave selection, which wave to ride, when and in which direction – all the time nailing tactical tacks and gybes – and you get miserable with envy.
So I lend you mine.
You enjoy it so much you don’t give it back which means I don’t have one, and I get miserable!”
SUPs are the best practice tools ever invented to the point where I’ve had NO refusals. You just have to embrace a new sensation.
And what about these foiling things? Now there’s a topic for another time…
PH 29th April 2017
PHOTO Harty, far right, reluctant … and then rabidly enthusiastic member of the Hotel Murren curling team.