Friday, March 15, 2013

Did you ever meet a windsurfer on anti-depressants?

I greatly enjoyed reading one unusual and rare text: a thesis presented in a partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Philosophy in Visual and Material Culture. Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, by Peter Francis Wilkinson.

It is a 117 page text, with a lot of science staff, but written well and interesting enough for an average windsurfer to read. However, while reading, you might very soon start to wonder is it an oxymoron to say "average" when addressing the windsurfers?

The question from the title of this article is from one of the chapters of Wilkinson paper entitled equally interesting: "Who needs money when you can go windsurfing? – The Paradox of Resisting Consumerism Through Consumption in a Lifestyle Sport Subculture".

I stumble across Wilkinsons paper by a hint received by unknown friend (@mobednl). It was a love at first sight! A great deal of recognition, and a great deal of agreement. Excellent! Since Wilkinsons Master thesis is available to all, please, you can take it HERE (it's adobe file, takes a little longer to download). If you are really interested, read it. My article is just a set of impressions and random thoughts provoked by this really intriguing work.

Fist, I have to say that every (soul)windsurfer will easily recognise the basic description of his or hers obsession with wind. But, how many did think about it in terms of resistance to mainstream consumerism culture, resistance to cultural expectations or resistance to idea of economic capital as the primary measure of success? Sounds heavy, but can you say it isn't true?

I always knew windsurfers are from their own universe; a special species not only among humans, but also among other sportsmen. It seems that I was right!

Wilkinson writes: "Participants of the windsurfing subculture express through they lifestyle resistance to consumerism, a dominant ideology of our society. In order to pursue this lifestyle, however, individuals must consume quite considerable quantities of material goods. So the question is: what are the participants actually consuming? What motivates them to make sacrifices necessary to participate?"

In order to find the answer, he was, a windsurfer himself, observing, making informal and formal interviews and did a lot of background reading and, of course, good thinking.

Let me start with a question about subculture. I must admit that I never thought about it that way, but actually it is logical and somehow obvious. Wilkinson explains the terminology: he settles with term "lifestyle sport". However, he mentions that there is question about windsurfing being sport at all. I like thinking of Tim Dant who says that it's more like a play, or Belinda Wheaton who mentions the term "art" connected to windsurfing. My opinion, as a hard-core, deep fried, soulwindsurfer – it is all three in one!

Is there a difference between other such sport-no-sport activities and windsurfing (because, there are lot of things out there under the name "extreme", "alternative", "third", "whiz", "panic", "adrenaline" or something like that)?

And, are all those activities also some kind of resistance to mainstream lifestyle? They might be, but windsurfing is nevertheless special and unique among them!


Because, windsurfing actually never make it to the mass attention! The image of windsurfing was used for commercials like an image of freedom and youth, but the action itself was never spread over general population. Unlike some other lifestyle sports which started like obscure activities (mainly board sports, like skateboarding or snowboarding, or maybe mountain biking, paragliding and such) and become commercialized and turned to big business, windsurfing was speared of such bleak fate.

The reasons for that (we, windsurfers are really lucky people!) may be partially in the fact that windsurfing is notoriously hard to learn. You need a lot of hours of practice before you can say you are windsurfing, at least a little bit. This fact goes contrary to demands of modern stressed and make-it-quickly life. Shallow activities, without much commitment, are much more suitable for commercial (ab)use. Again, lucky we – happy windsurfers!

For Wilkinson, as scientist, this is a rare opportunity. Quote: "Windsurfing itself is notable, because it has been speared the co-option of its more popular cousin, so in effect it is an case study of what lifestyle sport is like without the intervention of mass media."

By the way, I can not resist the thought that lately we have the same ongoing process with kite-surfing. Being actually easier to learn (albeit probably more dangerous), kitesurfing will probably make its way to the mass attention and become one of the commercialized so called "alternative", activities. It is just my opinion, but somehow, I feel that windsurfing will endure in it's special status of genuine, authentic freedom giving, lifestyle sport.

The key word is commitment. This is also the determinant of subcultural status in windsurfing. It is reflected not only in the amount of time participants spend in the activity, but where they live, the jobs they take, and the relationships they have. That is how Wilkinson put it, and, of course, he is right. I know it. From personal experience.

Let me say this very clearly: you can't fake being a windsurfer! In most other seemingly similar activities, it is possible to buy a gear, put on some "approved" outfit, hang on with "right" people or go on target places, and become a part of a subculture. In windsurfing, it's nothing like that. You can't pretend to be "one of the guys". There is actually nothing to commercialize on it. You have to go out there on the water, and doing it, and display a physical prowess that can only be gained through countless hours of practice. Only than, you are a windsurfer!

That's the reason why not so many people take windsurfing for their lifestyle sport. It's too demanding. Windsurfing ask from you a great deal of surrender and even sacrifices. It may look like an obstacle, but this is the very reason why it's so great and why those people who do it are really special! They are showing persistence, authenticity, will and power, contrary to mass marketing and consumerism. They are doing it on their own way!

Ok, that's settled. But, why so "heavy" words like "resistance to consumerism" or "resistance to cultural expectations"? Well, here it is, according to Wilkinson: the commitment to put windsurfing ahead of usual priorities amounts to resistance! Windsurfing often requires people to compromise their economic potential (downshifts their income in order to be able to chase the wind), and thus clearly expressing the resistance to dominant cultural values of consumerism, which prizes economic success above anything else.

And windsurfers are preferring - what? They are preferring fun, not the competition; freedom, instead of the rules. They are real rebels, this windsurfers! They don't care about how rich they are, as long as they get their time on the water. They are individuals, hedonists (not sloppy, mind you, but very disciplined) and with some strange out-of-this-world anti-competition ethos...

The Motivation

Wilkinson ask one very important question - whether this lifestyle actually exists, or it is created by manufacturers of windsurfing equipment in some kind of "dream world of escape"?  Maybe windsurfers are just one kind of consumerists, a special kind, but nevertheless, they are slaves of dream world of false freedom? It is a tough question, and probably one able to provoke much discussion. But, Wilkinsons answer – is it really necessary to say that I agree with him? – is positive: yes, it exists, and it is real!

The secret lies in the motivation. Windsurfers are consumers of windsurfing equipment, and some of them may fall pray of advertising and buying something the don't really need. But, mostly, they are not consuming the goods – they are consuming the experience! Windsurfers use their equipment for its real value (experience on the water), not for its sign or presentation value. And here is again the resistance part – going against most of the "consumerism mainstream".

Quote Wilkinson: "Windsurfers above all seek the internal pleasures of immediate experience, variously described as "the stoke", the buzz", "the flow" and do not care for the shallow image-based identity..."

According to interviews with New Zealand windsurfers, top motivators are (at least I understand them to be the top three):

1. getting high and the experience of self-transcendence
2. catharsis or release from tension
3. (surprise) aesthetic - it is simply beautiful!

Fitness and health are low ranking motivators. So, we are not windsurfing because of some ideal of being healthy, strong, attractive or some such silly thing. The same is with experience of "communitas" – communal shared experience. It is present in a form of bonding with your windsurfing mates, but it's not highly ranked among windsurfers. So, you will probably not become a windsurfer just to join the gang.

Again, you can sense the difference between usual motivators and this ones. Average person, and average recreational sportsman or sportswoman, would do a lot just to be healthy and fit and attractive. But, this shallow things are not driving the windsurfers! They are ready to sacrifice their own economic status, change the job, move to some obscure place to live, give hundreds of hours to wind, but not for something stale and trite. They (we) are obviously doing it for a special, although somewhat elusive reason of "being in a flow"!

The Spirit

And now, here comes the stuff I really like! It is what I call "soul" part of the windsurfing. And fro this paper I have learned that some scientists did already called that with the same name (Duncan Humphries "soul-boarders")! Great!

What is "the flow"? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow as: "concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappear and sense of time becomes distorted."

Well, this description is like some ancient yogic sutra! Actually, since I know Patanjali (writer of Yoga sutra text), and I know windsurfing, I could say that Csikszentmihalyi actually describes one of the stage in development of consciousness, or one kind of "samadhi". But, all this connected with windsurfing? Amazing!

And it goes further: Csikszentmihalyi says that from the flow – the pleasure comes. This is, of course, yogic bliss-consciousness!

I will not continue in that direction at this point. This very site is dedicated to such experiences. We may call them "the zone", or "the flow" or "samadhi", who cares. It is important that this experiences are here and, maybe, if we understand them, we can enhance them and make them even more present. All in all, I really have to express my admiration for modern thinkers: they are finally nailing down that spirit secrets of windsurfing!

Bear in mind that we are talking about PRIME motivator for windsurfers! It is maybe hard to put in words (Wilkinson says that people he interview did have difficulty in putting into words what happened to them during windsurfing), but it's nevertheless, very real. And that's the main answer why windsurfers are doing it! Amazing!

Here is how Patrick Laviolette, another scientists, express it: "These activities distort conventional notion of time, spatial perception and motion. Events are rushed up, or slowed in a disproportional way so that sensation of time shift".

Well, you can think about it a little, but I doubt you will say it like that by yourself. My experiences with "common" windsurfer is that s/he knows that on non-verbal level, but the same cultural indoctrination and restriction often does not allow them to think about it. So, they just do it on the water, entering the flow, the zone, the nirvana of windsurfing, regardless of their ability to consciously express it.

Wilkinsons thesis contains many other interesting things, like preparation for windsurfing, which he identifies with some kind of ritual performance of assessment of the conditions and rigging the equipment. Also, he talks about element of chance in windsurfing – the feeling that there is a greater force in play than just an individual. Actually, all of soulwindsurf points which I mentioned in my already classic first article about soulwindsurf, are somehow covered in this paper.

I will finish this article with one quoted sentence from an interview with one of the (soul)windsurfers from New Zealand.

"I asked him if he wanted to be successful in the eyes of the wider society. He said: 'Nah, I just wanna go windsurfing.'"


  1. But it's hard to sit and wait for the winter to go away, so that the windsurfer inside me can come out on the the water again.

    Hang loose and have fun
    Jan B

    1. Uh, it is hard! But, here it is - spring is in the air. Few days more and... :-)