Over My Head in Cabarete
todos los fotos
Before that fourth wave hit, it never occurred to me that this was
possible: to be alone in ten-foot seas over a reef I don’t know how
deep. I come up coughing and disoriented in the foam, no
flotation and no one in sight. Torn from my hands underwater, my
windsurfer board and sail, the ride that got me out here, is now
flipping away like a leaf downwind 30 yards ahead. Buried
by the next, and already exhausted by the g-forced subwave turmoil, I
know I’m in trouble. Today is my birthday, which would add irony
to the tragedy.
Zoom out, and the bobbing head of a solo sailor soon disappears amid
the whitecaps and swells, and all you see is the three-mile postcard
smile of perfect beach that encloses Cabarete Bay.
On the north coast of the Dominican Republic, the village of Cabarete
is like I imagine a California surf town in the sixties. It’s
been found by the fair and the fit (the Fitnazis, if you will) and big
changes are coming. For now the main street is not pedestrian
friendly and the inland poverty not well hidden. But all is well
for we ocean-obsessed and water-minded who only face the sea. The
side-shore tradewinds blow up almost every afternoon, and deep outer
coral reefs pile up such waves as wave sailors dream on. German
and Dutch windsurfers discovered Cabarete in the 80s; now it’s an
international destination for boarders, kiters, SUPers and wavers of
In Cape Cod, I’m one of the best sailors in our part of the bay--but
trust me, everyone at Cabarete is better than you. The accents of
the pros around the bar speak of charters from Schiphol and Charles de
Gaulle. For us, this is the Cheap Caribbean, D.R., a 3-hour
kid-friendly nonstop from Newark, 15 minutes from an international
airport called POP. Lest you forget, we’re standing on the
same island as post-earthquake Haiti, 70 miles up the beach to the
left. Hispanola is the second-largest and most populous island in
the Caribbean, where Columbus ended up after discovering America.
He thought it was Japan.
We had spent a day here on a previous DR trip a couple of years ago and loved it, and this time round
decided to decamp the entire week here. We rent our gear at Vela Windsurfing, a
US-owned company that has been in Cabarete for 20 years, though it’s
almost a mile beach walk from our rented condo. Vela's stretch of
sand is a particolored hang-out of beach chairs, volleyball, a cafÈ,
boutique and bar--plus a wet-dream smorgasbord of new boards and sails,
every size and color rigged and ready to go. The staff of tanned
Euros bring a seriously Euro lassai-faire attitude: grab what you like,
swap it out whenever, take care of yourself, ask for help, break it and
pay for it.
Late-winter Cabarete is not easy conditions. Vela’s brochure
recommends advanced-intermediate abilities--that’s me--and explicitly
discourages beginners because of the waves and chop. I’ve sailed
for many years, but mostly on the relative flat water and consistant winds of Lewis
Bay, and I can tell right away that this is a different game. The
big rollers I’m not used to. For the first five days I sail
inside the bay, turning back at the edge of the bigger swells that mark
the start of the reef. For five days I watch stronger sailors
buzz past on their small boards and big sails, disappearing out a mile
to jump the waves. I can sail, but I feel exhausted and
overmatched. “I can handle the wind but not the waves” becomes my
story, the mantra of my disappointment. I’ve sailed the challenge
of Cabarete, but barely.
But today is Monday, my birthday, and our last full day here. So
along with whatever mid-life crisis forces are operating below the
surface, there are two voices in my head as I limp over to Vela this
morning. One voice is the sailors who’d told me it’s not so hard
to sneak through the east reef to the open ocean where the swells
aren’t so bad. The other voice is what my wife Julie always says:
You never regret trying something, but you may regret not trying.
The limp is from a huge blister on my left foot, but I’ll get to that
later. No day but today.
(Julie’s limping too. Her knee: coming in fast her first day,
riding the shore break, her long skeg hit the sand, board stopped
and she flew, falling with her leg between the mast and the
board. The walking wounded of a middle-aged "extreme" vacation.)
I grab a 5.3 sail and a 112 board, the smallest I’ve tried, and walk
out through the shore break. The family, camped out with beach
chairs and umbrellas, is watching. Molly, 10, has my
camera: I beach start, reach out, turn back and come in close for
a jibe before the lens. Then I head straight out,
disappearing into the waves. Molly shoots it all. I see her
photos later and she did a great job: I’m the photographer in the
family and the least documented. How different these pictures
would look had they been the last.
Beyond their sight, I keep going, faithfully, into the rising
swells. Holding on and hoping, picking my way through the
mountains of water, but with no sign of clear seas ahead, just more
swells. And now worse: big waves starting to break over the
reef. I’m tense and not sailing well. Tiptoing through
sleeping giants, I know as soon as I trip over one they’ll all start to
roar. I’ve gone too far looking for perfect Cabarate conditions,
and already it’s time to cut my loses; when I resign and start to jibe
around, I know I’m going down.
Water-starting (using the sail and the wind to pull yourself out of the
water and onto the board) is tough as the swells lift me in and out of
the power of the wind. I get going a few times, but am quickly
overpowered. Small boards are designed to be stable when planing,
balance can be hopeless otherwise. The wind has come up and the surf
rushing diagonally keeps knocking me off, catapulting me from the
board. I keep trying to get going but my strength is gone.
There will be no satisfying last-day sail. Just like that: I’ve
come too far in my hunt, and somehow, failure is not only an option,
Now I just want out. I just want to manage to find some way to
sail back in. I don’t care about the Walk of Shame, of sailors
who end up downwind and have to drag their rigs and sorry asses through
the crowded beach back to Vela. Previous to this morning
that had been my big worry. Imagine.
Meanwhile, all this time in the water not sailing and I have managed to
drift over the main reef. Before I know it waves ten feet high
are rolling up and breaking over me. Now I’m clinging to the
board, waterblind and wondering what comes next. A succession of
waves deliver a left, a right and an uppercut, and I’m
underwater with the rig pulled out of my hands. I had not known
or imagined the ocean’s power here, despite a lifetime of summers at
the Cape. Or I had denied it in hopes of being able to sail
Cabarete with the big boys and big girls.
Later everyone asked about sharks. They never crossed my mind.
In the instant, no board and no flotation, I know where I am and what
it means. My pride is gone and my instinct is to scream for help,
and I imagine the unhinged sound of it--the indignation and helplessess
my fright would not restrain. But I don’t hear it, or won’t,
because the scream stops in my throat. I can see that there is no
one here to hear me. A few sails on the far horizon but nothing
in reach of the strength of my voice.
How is this possible? On windy days the Caberete sky is glittered
with kites and sails, streams of kiters and sailors heading out and
back along the same paths and parallel tacks, making way for each
other. The thought is buried in the next wave and the next, and
now I’m swimming for my life. With no one around, reaching
my rig I know is my one hope. Surviving depends on this: how fast
a loose sail and board will blow away before waves and 30-knot winds,
and how fast I can swim.
Exhausted and struggling, there is no life flashing before my eyes,
perhaps a milisecond of insight into what my blindness has brought me
to. I am angry at this sudden seriousness. In the purity of
the moment I’m not here, I am watching myself from above. I see
myself immersed in the River of Life which, it turns out, is the ocean
in flood. All of your games, your ego and selfishness,
laziness and horniness are swept away. Whatever crises you are
chasing or running away from, you have put yourself here and now you
have to get out.
The water walls piling up out of nowhere are each bigger than anything
I’ve been under. The worst part of the reef on a bad day is
why there is no one here. From the troughs of the waves there is
nothing but sky, water and the racket of the wind. Coming
up coughing, at least I can see my board, 100 feet
away. I hold my breath against the waves and swim.
I’m a strong-enough swimmer, a Pisces damn it, and I grew up
here. I seem to be going fast enough to reach it, but I won’t
allow myself optimism till I have the board in hand.
My worst level of empty fear releases into a semblance of reality as I
reach the rig. My grip on the board is now tight and determined,
adrenalized by knowing what that release would mean. And it is
here, holding on through the blue-green waves, that I see, rising on
the next swell and looking downhill from wave-top, another sailor 50
yards on who seems in the same straits: crumpled, unsailing, adrift and
We kick and swim our boards together and when we’re close enough he
yells his mast is broken. Over the waves and under their threat,
we fall into conversation with surprising normality, like two guys
gazing to the water from the beach. His carbon-fiber mast
snapped, he thought, not by catching on the reef below, but by the
strength of a breaking wave. He wears a black helmet and is
clearly a more experienced sailor, the kind who takes his every
vacation amid the airs of different ports--Hattaras, Aruba, the
Gorge. He’s been coming here for years. Can’t we just swim
and drift in? I ask. He doesn’t think so. A current before
the shore, he says. We try towing but I’m helpless at
hanging on. Then he suggests that one of us take my rig (meaning
him) and sail in to Vela for help. The Vela instructors
will rush out with a big board to pull me in. I’ll stay and hold
on to his broken rig, try to save his equipment, maybe a thousand
dollars’ worth new.
He’s more stuck than I am, but he’s got an excuse--his mast is
broken. I’m just exhausted and frightened. Alone maybe I
would have drifted and rested and tried again when I was clear of the
reef and breakers. But I trust him and agree. In the water,
we exchange almost identical rigs. I feel a twinge about electing
to be suddenly alone again, but it makes sense, he’s the man for the
job. He reassures me we’re through the worst of the waves, then
waterstarts with some struggle and is gone, “Back in two minutes,” he
yells, turning over his shoulder. Well, ten or fifteen at least,
I think. But the craziness is going to be over soon.
OK maybe 20 minutes--but soon there’ll be a mast coming over the
bobbing horizon and the game will be over. Stay cool. Half
and hour later I’m still scanning, still swimming from the breakers…and
how did I know this would happen? Whatever “this”
is. I’m swearing under my breath, and soon over it: what
the f--, where the hell are they? Where’s the dude and
where’s Vela? I could have dropped your sail and done fine
paddling the board in, instead I’m dragging dead weight, trying to save
your gear. And you leave me to drift? My panic is up
The Golden Vanity
When I was little my father played the piano and the family sang songs
around the Fireside Book of Folk Songs. One that stuck from those
days was “The Golden Vanity,” which tells the story of a brave sailor
who is betrayed and left to die. The ship’s captain promises him
riches and the hand of his daughter to sink the enemy’s ship. But
the evil captain leaves the hero to drown in “the Lowland
Sea.” What impressed me most as a kid was an illustration
in the songbook that has never left my mind, and maybe this is
why: the young sailor adrift, holding an oar and looking with
confusion as his warship sails away. Now that’s me in the
picture. Was I betrayed then, left behind, lost? Looking to
the empty horizon, my mind can fathom no explanation.
Meantime Helmet Guy, who it turns out is a civil attorney called Shane
who lives in New Jersey and sails in Barnagat Bay, sails back in to
Vela. He tells the dude there I’m out drifting with a broken
mast. They scan the sea with binoculars but nobody can find
me. They tell Shane they won’t send someone out when they can’t
see me. They stay in their beach shack staring with their
binos. Shane also notices Julie talking to them too, hears her
report her husband lost, she hasn’t seen him for way too long.
Shane hears but decides he doesn’t want to talk to her yet.
Julie had been scanning too, sweeping the horizon with my long lens,
for the sight of me coming in. I’d be easy to spot: black shorts
and the bright white longsleeved rashguard with yin-yang logo that
she’d bought yesterday at Laurel Eastman Kiteboarding next door,
and which the family had presented me that morning in bed. I’d
see these photos later too, none of them of me.
She and the kids went back to the beach chairs, and eventually Shane
just grabbed a board and went back out to look for me himself.
And eventually too Vela sent out their own man out, our pal Wes, the
nice young Brit who set up Julie on our first day.
All this I do not know. I drift and kick and go through the
possibilities: I am too far downwind and they are not looking
downwind. Vela has decided I should just drift in. They
have given up. Helmet Guy is pathological and never told
them about me. I don’t know what to think. I am
heading down the beach, away from my family, no idea what waves or
current or shore break is coming. I’m sick of being alone out
here, of this not making sense, and I am ready to be rescued
already. I am ready for this to be over, and to commit: I will
never to do this again. I will always wear a PFD. I will
fully appreciate my old beloved Cape Cod flatwater.
Half a mile from shore now and out of nowhere a kiter zips by, near
enough to catch me with a hard look. He tacks back closer and
yells, in his indeterminate non-American accent, “Do you need
help?” I scream back my mast is broken, which does not answer his
question, exactly. So he yells again, and this time I say Yes,
help. He immediately slips his feet from his board, drops
it and lets it drift in, his torso still dangling aloft below the wires
of his kite. I’ve been watching kites all week but have never
been under one all powered up. The huge yellow kite blooms 60
feet over our heads as he pulls loose a line with one hand and
instructs me to hook it to my harness. Before I can we are jerked
apart by waves but after more swimming I finally grab his line and hook
in. I am attached to this man and his kite by a cable, and when
he gyrates to lower the kite into its power range, it suddenly lifts
him bodily out of the water, jerking me through the water with
it. I’m still dragging the weight of the rig behind me and pulled
sideways through the surf, but my head is above the ocean and that’s
enough for me. We are zigging clumsily through the water,
the power of the kite released in spurts, and soon we’re into the
bigger waves of the shore break. One last big tumble, a chaos of
wave and board and flapping sail, but that’s sand now under my
two feet and I push out of it. I unhook from the kiter and muscle
the rig up onto the sand. He is long-gone before I can
thank him, my rescuer, down the beach looking for his board.
I’ve landed in the blinking bright light of a blustery beach day in
front of the Tangerine, a crowded all-inclusive resort (or
‘all-exclusive’ as Moll was calling it) at the opposite end of
the bay from Vela. I’ve hauled up their rig and saved my
ass. Soccer goals and chaise lounges are scattered at angles,
browning tourist flesh in the off-yellow light of late afternoon. I
disconnect the broken rig, drop it in the sand and start back, hoisting
the board over my head.
I can’t imagine what Julie and the kids are thinking. They have
no idea where I am or what has happened. Whatever I’ve been
through, I know it’s been worse for them: at least I knew where I
was; they still don’t. Waves are scary but not knowing would have
torn me up.
Looking around, it’s a different day here: the wind has raged up and
the light is sharper, kites and sails are whipping about on the edge of
control. I can’t hear my breath in the wind. There’s a
blond kid running my way, full speed hair whipping, binoculars in his
hand and I focus and recognize it’s one of the Vela guys, the German
kid Julie insulted by asking if he’s Dutch. He pulls up to tell
me he has come to make sure I’m OK. He points to Wes, still out
on the ocean searching for me, his small sail among the breakers on the
reef. Yeah, I’m fine.
Now comes running up the broken-masted sailor, still in his black
helmet. Trailing just behind and breathless is my daughter Molly;
she is sobbing and I feel it as she comes into my arms.
“Do Mom and Joe know I’m OK?"
“Yeah, the Vela guy ran by saying they spotted you at the
Tangerine. I tried to keep up but Mom stopped me and told me to
bring these,” she said, handing over the water bottle and the sunscreen
she was running with.
“Thanks for these, sweetie.”
“When they said they spotted you I still l didn’t know what they meant, maybe you were unconscious or had a broken leg or--”
“I’m fine. I was just drifting with my board.”
The blond guy continues on to to fetch the broken sail, and Helmet Guy
takes the board from me as we make the long walk back Vela. I’m
still limping hard on the big blister I acquired my first day
here. It hurts like hell but acute pain is tolerable: I know it
will heal eventually.
“Mom was using your camera to look for you. We were scared.”
“I was out looking too,” says Shane, “but we couldn’t find you.
We couldn’t figure it out.” Maybe I should have spent more time
sitting on top of the board trying to be seen over the waves, instead
of down in the water resting and holding on.
Limping home: no shame. Back at last from my sail, back to our
chairs and umbrellas, and Julie comes into my arms sobbing too.
I’m sorry; I’m just glad you’re OK. Looking up from her hug,
there’s my son Joe, age 6, meanwhile, showing no emotion. Rather,
he seems distracted and impatient, barely able to keep still on his
beach chair. Almost immediately he starts bugging us about how he
wants to go back to Vela now to practice more windsurfing.
This morning, before my ride, Joe had announced that he was going to
learn to windsurf. The wind had already come up too much for a
lesson, but we agreed to a lesson tomorrow if the weather was good;
meantime he could play with the simulator--a board and sail on the
beach for learning the basics. Now I’m back he wants only
to get back to it. Nothing makes me happier than my son wanting
to learn to sail, but hold your horses, kid, Dad just got back from his
Ordeal. Give me a minute. I fall back into the
umbrella-ed shade. Beer will come, and chicken.
When I wake up on Tuesday morning, the floor is moving and I can still
feel the waves rocking. But as we head down beach for another
breakfast at Vela, Joe is unwavering in his quest for a lesson.
Half an hour later, Wes, who the day before had searched for me among
the waves on the reef, is getting Joe set. “I had the ride of my
life out there looking for you,” he’s smiling, thanking me
almost. Now he’s walking my boy through the shore break for his
first lesson. Big flat board and a little one-meter sail, but it’s a
great start. Joe gets going on his own and even learns a little
360-spin trick. “He kept saying, Good one, mate!” Joe
announces on his return to the beach.
The first morning after we flew in I went for a long sunrise run,
barefoot and blissful the length of the beach and back both ways.
Next day, payback: that fine sand on my winter-white feet had given me
my worst blister in a lifetime of running, big and unavoidable on the
ball of my left foot. In Cabarete there is no alternative to
beach walks and no combination of bandages and socks and watershoes
could seal off the pain or protect it from re-opening. It stayed
with me all week, raw and sandy and worse. The only time I didn’t feel
it was when I was windsurfing. The surface of the board is called
the “non-slip” and is basically sandpaper, so you can sail
barefoot. When I got off the board each day, the pain would rush
back into my foot and I’d stalk the beach with a stupid limp.
Sailors at Vela were using Super Glue on their blistered fingers, but
this was too big for that. I limped for a week there and for
another week once I got home. The adventurous ocean had taken me
elsewhere, but this near-constant pain was way-mundane: a hole in
the most practical part of my foot that couldn’t begin to heal till my
travels were over. Guess where my Achilles Heel turned out to be.
At the airport we run into Shane with his wife and little girl, who had
been running around in the sand with Joseph a few days before. We
chatted before our flight. “You picked the worst time on the
gnarliest day,” was how he put it. “The waves were mast-high on
the reef, logo-high where we were.” I started to tell him about
sailing at the Cape, but broke off to chase my kids who were looking to
turn our last pesos into junk food at the other end of the airport when
the boarding call came.
June 2011 For Henry Starr