Aloha Classic 2000
It was intended to be nothing but a windsurfing holiday. It ended up being a pure adrenaline rush. Fiona van Ammers about her first PWA-competition at Ho'okipa, Maui, the temple of waveriding. A story full of humor, dedication and thrill.
On the morning of October 8, 2000, I left California for an extended vacation on the Valley Isle, better known as Maui. I was so ecstatic about this adventure I could barely sleep or read on the plane. In fact about two hours before we were scheduled to land, I saw a blanket of white caps across the Pacific and became extremely fidgety. I kept arching over the newlywed couple siting next to me in an attempt to get a better glance at the ocean I would soon be enjoying. I had not sailed in over 6 weeks and, as we say in Northern California, I was jonesing to get out onto the warm Hawaiian water. After landing, I wasted no time. I picked up my rental car and headed straight for the most famous and rumored one of the most difficult wavesailing spots in the world, Hookipa. I spent 15 minutes checking out the shoulder high waves before rigging my 4.7 Ezzy Wave and heading out for my first solid session.
In the next week, I found a place to stay, established some semi-reliable transportation, and figured my way to Sprecks and Kanaha. More importantly, I was sailing everyday, all day, as if tomorrow and the rest of my life might not be windy. No matter what beach I was at, I was sailing full force. If I hadnt been in Maui, people probably would have thought the many bruises and cuts along my legs were from some abusive boyfriend. Especially, if they noticed the stitches in my lip I earned doing a lame freestyle trick I am too embarrassed to even mention. The beating my body was taking was well worth it, because it was just so amazing to be riding long-clean waves in beautiful blue water that felt like a warm bath. Maui was magical and everyday I fell more in love with windsurfing.
Sailing as if the rest of my life might not be windy
As the weeks went by, I noticed that Hookipa was becoming increasingly crowded as the pros were returning from the Professional Windsurfing Association (PWA) events in Europe and preparing for the 2000 Aloha Classic, which was to be held in the second week of November. I was contemplating competing in the Aloha Classic, but the contest was a little intimidating, as most of the other women, if not all of them, lived and/or trained in Maui. Their skill and competition shrewdness was at a level I had never experienced. I was just a rookie from California who had been on the rock for about four weeks. My competition experience was almost nil, since I had only competed, for the first time this year, at a couple of California contests. Yet, I guess it was those handicaps that made the contest appealing to me.
About a week before the official start of the Aloha Classic, the sign ups for the unseated men were being conducted. Some friends had signed up and encouraged me to sign up for the womens event. I was still unsure if I was going to do it, but when I received some haggling from a few Kiwi boys I knew, I made a definite decision to compete I didnt want to look like a wimp. In any case, what did I have to lose? It would be a once in a lifetime experience, and I didnt want to go home regretting not trying. Plus, when you think about it, for $150 you get about 15 minutes to basically sail Hookipa by yourself considering that 99.5% of the time in Maui you have to share your waves with strangers, a $150 is a bargain.
On the first day of the mens trials, I drove up the Hana Highway to sign up for the contest. As I walked up to the trailer to fill out the appropriate papers and pay my entry fee, I watched the mens heats being held in a dangerous northwest, channel-closing, double-mast-high swell and barely any wind. It was like the whole Northshore was barricaded with lines of huge white walls and the men were just flies trying to break through them. I watched man after man, along with all his gear, get trashed on the rocks trying to break down this barricade. This put a tight knot in my stomach, but I convinced myself that the swell would come down before the start of the official contest, and definitely before the womens heats were sent out.
I realised I was a nobody
Although the conditions were intimidating, I proceeded to get in the short queue to sign up. Standing there for a few minutes, I suddenly realized I was in line between one of the best pro women, Angela Farrell, and famous waterman, Rush Randle. In between these two, I realized I was a nobody. I was going to be sailing against women I had read about in the magazines. The feeling reverberated itself when the PWA representative, a dark haired man with one of those pretentious English accents, asked me my name and sail number. I clearly spelled my name, but sail number? I dont have a sail number. The coordinator looked annoyed and puzzled, and I half expected him to tell me that I wasnt qualified to compete. For a brief moment, I thought this might be my way out of doing the contest, but he asked, Where are you from? Uh, California, I muttered Ok, so you are from the US. We will figure out the number later. He then handed me some stickers, a rashguard, and a packet of papers detailing the contest rules and sent me on my way. I walked away feeling like I had just fooled this man into letting me compete in a contest that was way out of my league.
The days before the contest, my nervousness escalated. Every time I thought about how I might perform, I would become immobilized with fear. I was able to distract myself from these thoughts with sailing, but at night, when I was left alone in my bed, my mind would race with thousands of negative images I imagined myself on the sharp-slimy-rocks struggling against the huge surf while the other women doing ridiculously difficult moves like a double back loop.
A close friend of mine recognized my anxiety and gave me some trustworthy advice about mentally preparing for the contest. Per his suggestion, I spent my spare moments visualizing competing in big waves and light wind. I tried to picture every detail I wanted to accomplish in my heat: start the watchs timer, head straight for the channel, sail up wind, tack, sail in, take a wave, jibe through the channel, etc. These mental exercises seemed to give me, at least momentarily, piece of mind.
Hookipa and the New York Stock Exchange
The first morning of the contest came, and being the punctual person I am, I arrived at Hookipa just before the scheduled skippers meeting. The parking lot was jammed pack with cars and the beach was covered with stacks of rigged sails making what looked like a boot camp obstacle course. Shit! I kept yelling at myself as I searched for a place to park and some shade to rig in. I had not visualized this, and my experience from previous contests was that the skippers meetings run an hour late and the heats start an hour or so afterwards.
The aura surrounding this contest was like no other I had encountered. The Aloha Classic, the last stop on the PWA tour, for which many titles were at stake, was not some trivial local event. The stress permeating the air was something more like the New York Stock Exchange, not something you would necessarily expect from a windsurfing contest. This was daunting in itself, but not as much as the big swell that was STILL pounding the beach. Although the swell had come down since the mens trials, the waves were still over-mast high, closing out the channel, and peeling quite gnarly. Not counting my recent virtual sailing, I had never sailed Hookipa in surf this big.
The skippers meeting informed us that Heats 1-27 were scheduled for the first day. I checked the ladder of heats that was up on the wall, and saw that US was in heat number 25, along with Keala Bryant (Hawaiian local), Lucienne Ernst (Dutch woman in the top 5 PWA ranking), and another local Hawaiian girl. There was this sort of silly question going around among the women and even some of the men, who is US Turns out, that was me.
I estimated that heat 25 would be sent out at about 5:00PM, at which time I could expect that the waves would still be big, but the wind would be dying. A sense of doom was taking over my body. I didnt know how I was possibly going to make it through my heat. I was able to fend off my nervousness with the distractions of rigging and fine-tuning my equipment, but when I finally ran out of things to do, the sense of condemnation returned.
The contest was running along smoothly, and the men were relentlessly charging Hookipa. They were smacking the lip, catching nice floaters, and then gliding back up the face of these long blue walls. It was amazing to see, but unfortunately, my uneasiness was becoming so intense that watching the men made me queasy. As the day progressed, my heart rate raced and my stomach moved closer to my throat. I tried to be social and watch the mens heats with everyone else, but it all became too much for me and I resorted to hiding under a small tree at the end of the beach away from all the the other women who didnt look one bit nervous.
Peeing every 5 minutes
Later, I was happy to learn we were all nervous. One girl, name withheld to protect the innocent, told me she was so nervous she had to pee every five minutes. I realize now that being a real competitor means acting tough. If you act as if you are afraid, you will become afraid. The thing is that with a sport like windsurfing, competitions are man on man its independent. There are no teammates or coaches to look to or count on when the going gets tough. Your weaknesses are exposed but its up to you to toughen up and play the game.
I hid under that tree for a long while and wondered if my heat would be called or if the day would run out and our heat would be excused. I was trapped in this sort of loop. Id look out from the tree to see the macker waves roll through and fear would over come me and squelch any desire I had to compete. Id consider packing up my stuff up and leaving, thinking to myself, No one knows who I am, and no one would notice if US missed her heat. But then my competitive show pony self would crawl out from somewhere deep inside of me and say, NO, you can do this. What better day is there than a contest to challenge Hookipa on over-mast high waves? Id make an agreement with myself that I would, as the Nike slogan goes, just do it but then Id see one of the men get hammered by a wave and the whole conversation would start again.
After a few of hours of this mental torture, I heard a rumor that Heats 20 and up had been excused. I quickly headed to the trailer to see for myself. All the tension in my body was released when I realized my heat was excused. As I walked away from the ladder trying to hide my excitement, I saw Keala and she too had a big smile on her face. I asked her what she was going to do now, and she told me she was going to sail Kanaha for an hour or so. Great idea, I thought, what better way to relieve the torturous tension of the day, and so, I did the same.
The following day, I showed up an hour earlier. The swell was still mast high, but the channel wasnt closing out all the time. It seemed possible to time it, such that you could actually get out past the break. I rigged with plenty of time and was feeling a little more at ease. As I was applying all the necessary sponsor stickers, it was pointed out to me that I didnt have my sail number on my sails this would make it difficult for the judges to tell me apart from the other women. Obviously, this person didnt know who I was, US Anyway, I didnt have the stickers, but I worried about not being scored. So, being the creative artist that I am, I used the universal wonder and windsurfing tool, duct tape, and spelled out US on my sail.
While waiting for my heat to begin, I talked the talk with a few people. Rebecca Wolthers, a girl I had competed against in California, asked me to be her caddy and said she would do the same for me. I agreed, but remembering that I only had one board, I jokingly suggested that if I was to lose my kit, she should pick up Dunkerbecks small board and sail that out to me. We laughed, but I realized I had to be somewhat conservative out on the water, since there were no second chances for me. (According to PWA rules, a competing sailor can have another sailor launch from the beach and bring out a kit to them, if their original kit is damaged or lost.)
At about 12PM, my heat was on deck. It was announced that we were going to be judged on our three best waves and no jumps. I had planned on going out on my 5.2, but just before my heat, it appeared that the wind had come up. Jocelyn Hrkach, who is about my size, came in and said that she was powered on her 4.7. I was already nervous and the changing wind made me panic. Should I go out on my 5.2 and risk being overpowered and unable to make nice bottom turns, or should I get my 4.7 and risk being underpowered and unable to get upwind. I decided since we werent being scored on jumps, I didnt need the extra power and it was better to go out on my smaller sail. At the last second, a friend ran through the maze of sails and grabbed my 4.7. We attached it to my board just as my heat began.
I made my way around the Monk Seal that was blocking the launch and headed out. I did exactly what I had imagined those nights in bed. I went through the channel, tacked, came in and took a wave. To be honest, I dont really remember much about the heat all I know was that I made conservative bottom and top turns, probably too conservative, but I didnt make any major mistakes. I was slightly underpowered and had a little trouble getting upwind, but I took the necessary three waves and made it through my first PWA heat. When I came in, I plopped down on the sand with a smile on my face and sighed with relief. It was over and although I didnt sail to my full ability, I felt content with my performance.
A darn good story
The next four days or so, were spent waiting in the sun for the womens loser heats to be run, better known as a double elimination or second chance. The ladder had US-8 and J-11 up in heat 52. There was no US anymore, and I learned that I was now US-8 hmmm, I thought I rather like that number. They ran more men's heats, slalom heats, etc, and I spent the mornings waiting around to be excused and then sailing for a couple hours at Kanaha. At some point during all of this, I messed up my shoulder, which made sailing painful and rigging arduous. In spite of that, I knew I could sail another 15 minute heat boy, was I getting my full $150 worth.
My loser heat finally came. I heard them call heats 51 and 52 next, but I assumed they meant heat 51 was next and 52 would be on deck. Each heat had only two people in it, and I was up against Junko Nagoshi from Japan. The ladder had no indication that both heats would be run at the same time, but it turns out, (be careful here this is tricky) they were running two two-person heats in one time frame. The start gun sounded, and not only did heat 51 go out on the water, but so did J-11, the girl I was up against in my heat. Luckily, I was ready, and just had to pick up my gear and go out, but it shook me up a little.
Its somewhat funny, because Ive heard many stories about people missing their heats they were asleep, on the toilet, or some lame excuse like that. I always wondered what kind of moron would miss their heat, but in all the confusion and tension of a contest like this, I realized I was either a moron or it was possible to miscalculate your heat.
Nevertheless, I was confident about what I needed to do and was psyched for this heat. I was in that sort of zone, where you are slightly nervous, but at the same time looking forward to the challenge or fight that lies ahead of you. The launch was light and I remember all of us shlogged towards the channel. At one point, I think all four of us went down in front of the rocks we were all trying to waterstart, but the wind was too light. Just as a set was coming, I caught some wind and planned out of the impact zone, never looking back. I was slightly overpowered on the wave with my 5.2, which a few friends later remarked was apparent in my bottom turns, but I caught three nice long waves. At this point, I was exhausted, my forearms felt like they were going to give and my shoulder was really aching. I had been keeping an eye on J-11 and hadnt seen her do anything spectacular. According to my watch, I had five more minutes to prove I could sail better than her, so I went out for one last tack. However, when I was coming in on what I thought was going to be the wave Id tear up, I was surprised to see the next heat heading out. My heat was over.
I came in and took a closer look at my watch, and it became apparent that I accidentally hit the stopwatch button during the heat, because it was stuck at 10:51. Note to self: next time wear two watches. Anyhow, I felt better about this heat than the last. I was much more relaxed and enjoying myself this time, and I thought there might be a chance that I would advance. Unfortunately, J-11 apparently took a huge wave on her last tack, giving her the advancement.
Not advancing was a little disappointing because this competition thing was getting fun and I was looking forward to another heat, but it wasnt the end of the world. So, I didnt win and I didnt even advance, but I had a darn good story to tell the bros back home and I finally had a sail number, US-8.
text: van Ammers, photos: van Ammers, Nicky Banfield; © windgirls 2001