Departing Thought....Departing “Life”
It is only partially tongue in-cheek when I refer to our boathouse as the “Temple of the Downwind.” While I have a passion for a good hull form or the perfect planing foil, as well as the necessary fortitude and enthusiasm to learn how to drive them at least close to the potential their creators have imparted, I am equally fascinated with the physiological science or (PFM)* of what happens to an individual who has slid into the hallucinatory “bump drunk” state that Dave Parmenter describes “ground looping” during good downwind sessions. In his book “The Rise of Superman” David Kotler describes how fully engrossed athletes and artists experience a condition known a Transient-Hypo-Frontality. Through observation and analysis of top form extreme athletes, researchers have found that under certain conditions, our bodies' electrical and chemical systems cause our minds to enter a deep flow state. In this state, the brain's frontal lobes become distinctly under active.
That is, the very part of the brain that maintains our sense of time and self shuts down or becomes Hypo Active, allowing the parts of our creative and instinctual mind that are normally overwhelmed by conscious everyday “life” to take over. It is interesting to note that the loss of self is, in essence, what has for ages been the underlying fear of human death. However, in this case, many who experience Hypo Frontality come to crave its onset. The best learn to “game it,” to understand just what conditions or actions bring flow on, and thus use it effectively. So maybe it is not a loss at all, maybe it is an ascension to a higher form of consciousness.
I suspect it may in fact be a vision of what it is to be an animal, to exist only in the moment: the sure footed cat on the bannister, a trio of pelicans skimming above the waves, or a tiny swallow navigating across continents to one particular tree. Surfers find it. Those that persevere through the relentless humbling struggle that learning to surf entails begin to tap it more and more consistently. The intensity and fleeting reality of riding breaking waves has served to make the obsession of surfers a subject of mainstream popular iconography. Down wind paddling is a bit less ephemeral. It is a struggle of tempo and site picture, timing and balance. Rather then the instantaneous focus of a tube ride or finn release airdrop in surfing, down winding provides an ascension into the light that often comes in the form of a driving hypnotic crescendo of exertion and intensity.
The Valkyrie are the arc angels of norse mythology. The twelve winged handmaidens of the god Oden descended on horse back into the trials of man in order to take those that were in the place somewhere between life and death....When the NE wind rises up above 30mph and the running swell pushing in to the bay from open ocean looks and feels like great beasts rising up out of the canyons, when I turn my boat alone somewhere out around the demarcation line, it can feel like a dozen white stallions are riding down on my back.
Grounding the Loop....The Hypnotic Effect of a “Splinter of Force in an Ocean of Power*”
Those that have engaged in advanced tactical training are familiar with the OODA loop. In the post war heyday of airborne dogfighting, trainers realized that the most successful aces had mastered four distinct phases of deadly engagement: 1) Observe: see your opponent first, thus gaining the most time to -- 2) Orient: put yourself in the most advantageous position, then – 3) Decide: on the most appropriate – 4) Action to take. Pilots and gunfighters that could do this the best, moving through each phase with the most precision and speed, were consistently victorious. I do not contend that down winding shares the intensity of life or death struggle (at least not in the sense of bodily violence), but for the downwinder to be successful, they must learn to analyze, identify, and engage a vast number of cues from nature: visual, aural, and sensual. Often, with a large degree of physical stress and maybe just a hint of fear adding biology's potent chemical cocktail to the game, the “loop” forms gradually. At first, the driver struggles to push the boat into the rhythm of the sea, but over time he or she will begin to see the patterns in the ocean, to connect hull speed, angle of attack, and tempo with the water underneath, letting the boat run with “leviathan.” The ground loop is formed; sometimes fleeting and sometimes going on for an age, it can feel like the craft and driver have been lifted as one by some great beast into another place.
In my mind I know that some precise equation of waterline and wave length, adrenalin, and Beta Waves can explain all this. But my heart just won't let me believe that the beautiful boats and boards that take me to these places are not mythic in some way. On the grey ocean, when the wind blows spindrift against my back and green water drops away under the bow, then, in the howl of the wind, I can hear the horns of the maidens, and the wings of that great herring gull reeling past in the periphery are just a little too large to be just a bird....
* “Pure Fucking Magic” coined by: B.G. and the Gypsy
* “It’s being a tiny splinter of force in all that tremendous power and finding the means to navigate it successfully.” From: Crossing the "Channel of Bones" whilst following the Epic Surf Ski Team
Some of my favorite films of full on flow hackers driving boats and boards:
South African longboat pilot Sharon Armstrong has quietly put out a few smoking videos of paddling through HUGE, complex seas around Durban. Running her boat down wind over what looks to be at least two other ground swells sharon is a master of instinct and observation, boat and driver as one needle of force threading its way through a ocean of power.
This video of Josh Riccio crossing from Maui to Molokai in great conditions opened my mind to how elegant stand up paddle can be. I always thought the flat water stuff just looked so painful but when its really driving the amount of movement and body english that working the board takes is really cool to watch and even more fun to do.
Some people learn to hack flow and then some just live in an almost constant state of creative style. Leah Dawson is a professional woman free surfer (which I venture to guess is about as lucrative as being a surf ski free rider) but everything she does exudes tremendous style. My favorit surfer to watch, Videos of her surfing always feature her laughing out loud at least once along with some of the most elegant body language imaginable.