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A Tropical Thrill, Just Past Baltimore

Windsurfing on Maryland's Gunpowder River: No passport required, and the views are pretty good. Don't worry about upper-body strength. Instructors say students who relax do the best.
Windsurfing on Maryland's Gunpowder River: No passport required, and the views are pretty good. Don't worry about upper-body strength. Instructors say students who relax do the best. (Ultimate Watersports)

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By Carol Denny
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Grabbing a sailboard, leaning back and gliding across a sapphire bay -- on my list of vacation fantasies, this was a perennial. But I'd always figured it would take a pricey trip to the Caribbean to make it a reality.

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In fact, I was able to live the dream during a weekend course offered by Ultimate Watersports at Maryland's Gunpowder Falls State Park, minutes from the Baltimore Beltway. There, windsurfer wannabes can get on board and go with a two-day, six-hour "guaranteed" program. Quick, cool and close: I was sold.

With David, my 18-year-old son, riding shotgun, we pointed the Woody north on Interstate 95 for our adventure. Just after hearing the last track of "Surfin' USA" (old-school and proud of it), we saw the signs directing us to the exit for the park. When we pulled into the Hammerman Area as instructed, a golden beach covered with candy-colored sails told us this was the place.

Before us lay a knockout view of the Chesapeake Bay, pretty as a postcard. The Gunpowder River, nearly a mile wide, rolled toward the bay, with the forests of Aberdeen Proving Ground on the opposite shore. A steady south wind tousled the trees and filled the sails of a few catamarans, another part of Ultimate Watersports' beach-side concession.

Somehow, instructor Marty McHugh spotted us immediately (was it our giddy grins?) and gathered our group of four on the beach for some preliminary instruction. He introduced us to the "simulator," a sailboard mounted on a post in the sand, where we'd practice the basics before entering the water.

I'd been warned that windsurfing required substantial upper-body strength, but company owner Hal Ashman was reassuring. "That's the number one misconception. See that little girl out there?" he asked, pointing to a twiggy youngster, all legs and bright orange life vest, piloting her sailboard with aplomb. "It's all about having the right attitude: 'I can do this.' We teach folks from age 9 to their 70s."

With 23 years in business, Ultimate Watersports has put a high gloss on its lesson technique. The school teaches a thousand windsurfing students each year, Ashman said. "We've got a long history, great instructors and access to a tremendous resource: a sandy beach, shallow water and fresh, clean, non-jellyfish H2O," Ashman said.

Freed of the need to be buff, I concentrated on bending my knees as I balanced on the simulator, keeping my arms straight as I hauled up the sail, and getting into basic position. From there, McHugh showed us how to move into sail position, sliding our feet into the loops fixed to the board. Handling the boom (the bar on the sail) proved a bit trickier. "Your front hand is the control hand. Your back hand is your power hand," McHugh coached. On the simulator, it seemed easy enough.

McHugh waded into the water with us, offering encouragement as we mounted our boards and put it all together: sails up, knees bent, shoulders back, hips forward. It worked. Soon, just as I'd imagined, I caught a breeze. An instant later, I was sailing down the river.

For a full three minutes, it was glorious. Then I heard McHugh's far-off whistle and realized that he was receding from view. Quickly. Time to get the sail on the downwind side and . . . hmmmn . . . how do I do that again? Half a dozen failed attempts later, dragging myself back onto my board, I realized it was time to apply the most important lesson of the morning: self-rescue. I rested the sail on the back of the board, lay on my stomach and began to paddle.

Fortunately, the school's chase boat was on its way. "Mom thought the class was a little too remedial," David explained to McHugh as I returned from my tow. Chastened but exhilarated, I spent the rest of our session working on my 180s.

After a night's rest we were ready for Round 2. McHugh gave a quick refresher, then sent us to our boards. Though the wind was sluggish, I managed a few real tacks across the water, punctuated by many wipeouts. (Still, on a 90-degree day, those dunks in the river felt just fine.) By the end of the session, I'd learned to drop my back hand, or even the whole sail, to keep myself from falling, and made some respectable turns. David, meanwhile, was maddeningly capable, handling the sail like a natural.

Ashman said he has observed that the most successful students tend to have experience in one of two areas: martial arts or dance. "The challenge is to create a harmony between the physical and mental," he said. "The ones who excel are relaxed."

Ah, relaxed. That's when I knew I wasn't really a windsurfer -- yet. But I'll be back. And when I find the right combination of wind, water and a waiting sailboard, I'll fly away.


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