I concentrated on hauling my windsurfer’s sail out of the river and into its upright position on my board, reminding myself to keep my eyes up and my shoulders back.
I just about had the task accomplished when I spotted an animal close to me. He was shaped like a blimp and bigger than your average horse, only the water shadowed his exact identity. I gasped when his dark nose broke the surface, slanted my direction.
The instructor read my mind and laughed. “We don’t have sharks here. It’s a manatee.”
I began to breathe again. Manatees are cute. Manatees don’t have razor-sharp teeth. They do have a sense of humor, according to the instructor, who told me that sometimes they swim under the boards and tip them over when beginners are learning.
Cool, I thought. Just like everything else in Kelly Park.
I had been windsurfing once before, long ago, in another state. My long-ago “lesson” consisted of a brief demonstration of how to get on the board and pull up the sail; then I was turned loose on the water. I battered myself for a while, but eventually I scrambled to my feet and managed to stay upright. I still remember how I smiled when the wind filled my sail and my board started to glide effortlessly through the waves.
Unfortunately, I had no clue how to turn. Several miles down the beach the wind drove me to shore. It took me over an hour to hike back the distance I had sailed in minutes, dragging my equipment through the water. I was considerably less enthused about the sport when I arrived home than when I had left, and I never tried it again.
“That’s why beginners should take a lesson or two with a reputable school, instead of just renting equipment and going out on their own,” the instructor said, when I related the story to her. “They can avoid needless frustration with quickly learned proper fundamentals.”
Our lesson was fed to us in small, easily digested bites. To start, we waded into the water perhaps 2 feet. Then, we climbed onto our boards – without the sails attached to them – they are attached to buoys to practice foot positioning and balancing on the board. The idea was for us to learn to balance without being overwhelmed by other challenges.
It became obvious I was a natural athlete as I lumbered around my board with the elegance of a 500-pound gorilla, my muscles as soft as concrete pillars. The instructor urged us to relax our legs and experiment with walking on top of the boards. After several tries apiece, our techniques and confidence had improved, though it would have been a stretch to call either of us graceful.
Next, using simulators (safely lodged on the beach), we practiced lifting our sails out of the water and turning. It was lots easier to focus when I knew I didn’t need to worry about ending up being blown halfway to Cuba, or deal with the water knocking my board around. The instructor was there to nurse us along, offering suggestions. Once we’d run through the routine a few times, my body started to remember what it was supposed to do, and I didn’t have to think each step through as much.
Practicing on the anchored boards was next on the agenda. That way, the instructor could keep her eagle eyes glued to us while we struggled to duplicate what we’d done on shore with the simulators. It was harder in the water, but we felt prepared and got the job done.
After another trip to the simulator to learn how to sheet in – that’s windsurfer talk for how you make it go, by pulling in the sail – it was time for the real thing.
I clambered on top of my board, awkwardly hunching to pull up my sail. I felt the instructor’s eyes burning a hole in my backside and jolted into a better posture. Trembling with excitement, I sheeted in and the sail gathered the salty air. Instantly, the board shifted, and I was sailing.
With all the restraint of a third grader, I screamed woohoo. Paul, sailing nearby, shook his head in amusement at my dorkiness, but I would have had to have been blind to miss the huge grin plastered across his face. The best thing? I managed to turn around and make it back again, too!
Thank you Calema.
Calema owes its very different teaching style to its owner, Tinho Dornellas. Tinho, an Olympic Coach, is one of two Master Instructors in the United States. It is no exaggeration to say he is one of the best and most influential coaches in the world, but he is also involved in every facet of the sport. He designs equipment, including the fat, friendly boards we used in our lesson. He and his wife Susie host the largest windsurfing competition in the U.S. – the prestigious Calema Midwinters Windsurfing Festival held every year on the first weekend of March – plus, he’s a star competitor himself. This overachiever told me he thinks Calema is the most progressive school in the world, and that they are always seeking to improve and evolve.
Open year round, in addition to windsurfing, Calema rents kayaks and teaches sailing and standup paddling, the location is perfect for its watersports operation. There are no ocean swells to fight, and the river isn’t tidal, but the area features an almost constant, laminar sea breeze. It’s very safe, because the river is surrounded by land and in most places is only chest deep.
Further, depending on the time of year and the weather systems, it offers a great variety of conditions in a small area, so it’s suited to pros as well as first-timers. Tinho believes one of the reasons their students learn so fast and well is because they constantly have the opportunity to watch and interact with more skilled windsurfers.
You don’t need to be a superior athlete to windsurf, but you’ll need to be moderately fit and you should know how to swim. Children as young as eight years old can join in on the fun; in fact, Calema runs hugely successful kids camps as well as women-only clinics.
You’ll find Calema nestled against the Banana River in Kelly Park, on Merritt Island. Only forty-five minutes from Orlando International Airport, and less than a minute off the Beachline Highway, this little paradise is close to Cocoa Beach and the Kennedy Space Center. So, besides kayaking, sailing, standup paddling and windsurfing, you can also surf (try Florida Surf Lessons), enjoy the beach or even watch a shuttle launch.
Remember to schedule a long vacation!