Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sea, Wind, Sky Sports and the "Coolness Factor"


I have been very happily windsurfing since 1980. I am still amazed at the magic sensation of standing just inches off the water while speeding across its ever changing surface, wind in my face, and the sense of pure, unadulterated fun overwhelming me. Now to me, that is really cool. Most importantly however, it is FUN! It makes me happy, keeps me young at heart, and stokes the fire in my soul for more. But, is it still cool to be a windsurfer? Should the coolness factor take precedence over fun or force promotion of one sport at the expense of another?
Some years ago while out windsurfing, I first started seeing kite boarders on the water. I was somewhat interested in this new wind sport but not enough however, to spend money on lessons and kiteboarding gear when I always seemed to need that new windsurfing board and sail. Plus I was having so much fun windsurfing that I really didn’t think I could have that much more fun kiteboarding. So I just kept watching the sport evolve as we passed each other out on the waves and on the beach.
Soon however, it became very apparent that kite boarding was being promoted everywhere as the cool new watersport while windsurfing was suddenly being relegated to the realm of the “not as cool-has been” wind sport. Simultaneously kiteboarders seemed to be doing everything they could to make sure that everyone else knew they were “kiteboarders” and not “windsurfers”. You could see this commonly reflected by their kiteboarding water wear attire, attitude, bumper stickers and the like. It seemed very important for them to be instantly recognized as part of the new, exceptionally cool, kiteboarding scene and definitely not to be misconstrued as a no longer cool windsurfer. So, being an adventure sport kind of guy most of my life, it quickly struck me as how identical this kiteboarding vs windsurfing situation was to similar events that occurred in other cool sports I have had many years of experience and fun doing.

Skiing vs. Snowboarding

I started snow skiing at age 5 which seems a long time ago from the perspective of my now 56 year old body. For many years we skiers had the slopes all to ourselves and were having lots of fun. Of course we thought we were cool too. Suddenly however, a strange new breed of characters began to appear on the slopes riding wide single boards turned up on both ends, with funky sideways foot bindings. They were called “Snow Boarders”. They didn’t look or act like us either. Gone were the cool tight, striped ski pants, flashy racing suits and stiff florescent colored plastic boots; replaced by big baggy pants, bulky boots and drab, two sizes too big, looking jackets. To many traditional skiers they seemed to be a new breed of young anti-ski establishment, snow-surfer punks with an air about them of “we’re cooler than you”!
Many skiers soon began to dislike them, making all kinds of claims of how they were flattening out the mogul fields, getting in the way of skiers, ruining our fresh powder runs, and not following the established, previously cool skier behaviour protocols. They didn’t fit into the image of whom and what should be on the immaculately groomed slopes of America’s uppity ski resorts. They were seriously threatening skiing’s image of being the most cool winter sport.
Then almost overnight the Winter X Games and other events promoted the glory of snowboarding’s action packed fun. Huge numbers of snow thrill seeking youth from the skateboard and instant gratification generation flocked to this exciting new and now really cool sport. This in turn catapulted snowboarding to the forefront of attraction and perceived ultimate winter coolness.
For some time the traditional downhill snow skiing show struggled with it’s newly “uncool” image. Some skiers were knocked out of their highly self perceived level of coolness and didn’t like it. Regardless, skiing still offered tons of fun for those who stuck with it, or chose to learn to ski vice succumbing to the rapidly growing popularity of snowboarding. Gradually though, snow skiing, although always fun, became really cool again thanks to new ski designs, exciting new risk takers and non-traditional competition events.
The new wider, shorter skis made it easier to learn, to turn and ski more difficult conditions. That led to the enhanced ability to look cool quicker on the slopes. Adding to this was the high energy and excitement of the new winter sports and Olympic skiing venues. The big Aerial events featuring crazy skiers launching into space off huge steep ramps to twist and turn at insane heights and speed above the slopes. Plus the fast paced, big air, mogul competition saw daring young skiers pushing the envelope of these thrilling ski competition events beyond that previously thought possible. Augmenting this new image of skiing were the highly glamorized exploits, in movies and television of extreme skiing by young, brash, risk taking types, similar in mind and spirit to those young, brash, snowboarders some used to despise. All these things helped the sport regain a comparative level of coolness to snowboarding. Slowly over time, both sports learned to accept and live with each other at most areas despite the underlying competition that continues among many participants. Meanwhile there were those who just kept on skiing because they were still having way too much fun doing it, cool or not, despite the snowboard scene.

Hang Gliding vs Para Gliding

Of course one of the really fun things about both snow skiing and snow boarding, and for that matter, windsurfing and kiteboarding, is jumping and getting big air. It’s cool to do, looks even cooler, and is very exciting. Some of us really liked the sensation of being up in the air so much that we sought out a far cooler way to get and stay up there. In the early 1970’s a new adventure sport made an appearance that allowed air junkies like me to get more big air than we could have ever imagined. This sport was called Hang Gliding. Despite its dangers in the early years when the gliders were not very well designed or airworthy, we took to the skies often staying up for an hour or more. We learned to swoop and soar with the eagles, vultures, hawks, and each other, hundreds, if not thousands of feet above the earth. It was the coolest thing ever and was just so much more fun than anything else we had done. For those fleeting moments in our lives we were up there, soaring high in the sky, no longer human but transcended into fledgling man-birds. I was sure back then that it was way, way, more cool to be a hang glider pilot than a skier.
We hang glider pilots had the skies, our launching and landing sites all to ourselves for a number of years and life was good. Then almost overnight a new invader began to compete with us for space and sky. These were guys running down the slope with a big rectangular shaped ram-air parachute canopies lifting them off to hang 20 feet below from dozens of long, thin lines. These were attached from the canopy above to a big padded seat like harness suspending the pilot below as if seated comfortably in a big air, easy chair. They generally flew slower, turned tighter, hogged our thermal cores, and in otherwise just got in our way. Especially troubling were those long thin lines which we feared would entangle our sleek glider wings like a spider web if we got too close, causing us both to plummet like Icarus to our demise far below. In our closed minded hang glider world at that time, they were not very welcome or nearly as cool as we hang glider pilots.
Although at first we would not admit it, after awhile we secretly began to envy certain aspects of paragliding. First their portability was way less of a hassle than a hang glider. No 18 foot long, 10 inch diameter, 75 pound disassembled glider package to haul around. No need for an even bigger four wheel drive, V-8 engine truck with roof racks and a red flag on the overhanging ass end of the glider to get you and your glider up to the launch spot. No, these guys could just carry their “Paraglider” and harness in a big bag stuffed in the trunk of their little Subaru AWD’s or quickly thrown in the back of a Toyota mini-truck. Not only that, they could strap that pack on their back and hike up to a launch site. A much easier task than carrying a that 75 pound plus glider up on your shoulders, not to mention lifting the extra weight and bulk of the harness, helmet, flight instruments, etc.
Paragliders could also land more easily in a smaller area by just basically parachuting in with a little added glide slope or forward speed to deal with. We however, needed considerably more space. The typical hang glider came in faster and glided on final approach longer. Then they took more time to slow down enough, without stalling too soon, before the pilot could flare the glider safely for a stand up foot landing. We did have to admit that those were cool things about paragliding compared to hang gliding. Yet in our minds, it was still way cooler and fun, to zoom and swoop around faster, with a better gliding ability allowing us to soar farther and faster than the more lowly paragliders.
However, we soon perceived rightly or wrongly that many paraglider pilots thought they were the coolest of the sport. They even started wearing more colourful flight suits and gear to not look like us. They tended to hang by themselves in the take off and landing areas, and didn’t seem to want to associate too much with we, now less cool, hang glider pilots. So we started to isolate ourselves from them as well, sure that we were still more cool than they. Then as time went on increasing levels of separation and underlying animosity seemed to develop between us both.
Hang glider pilots were facing the cold, hard fact that paragliding was attracting significantly more new enthusiasts than hang gliding. It felt like we were being crowded out of our own flying sites by the new “bag-wing” crowd. We were so busy competing with each other for launch, air and landing area space that we almost lost track of the most important thing, flying site access rights!
As time went on both sports suffered from land owner concerns of accident and property damage liability leading to closure of prime flying sites both sports shared. The additional loss of access to flying sites and landing areas due to real estate development kept occurring while we also began to feel the heavy weight of increased FAA regulations and airspace controls. This was way uncool for all and the only way to prevent future loss of hang gliding and paragliding sites was to form an alliance. Now both sides were forced to work together through combining of National associations and local clubs. This lead to increased opportunities to work with local, and National officials and agencies towards the common goal of retaining places to get into the air, to soar again, be cool together and have the free flying fun we all lived for.
Sure there are those on each side of the fence, be it the “bag-wing” paraglider pilots or the “rag-wing” hang glider pilots, who may still be caught up in the uncool vs cool idealogy. Yet both sports are now much better positioned to maintain flying site access, landing area rights, work with the FAA and share the same thermals. Somehow keeping our right to do what we both loved and to enjoy the soaring beauty and fun both sports offered, transcended, who’s the coolest and brought increased mutual respect and understanding of each other.

Long Board vs Short Board Surfing

Another excellent example of the impact of the coolness factor is reflected in the history of the great sport of surfing. Born on the deck of a heavy wooden longboard early surfers were cool riding the waves from Hawaii to California. Then the advent of new lightweight but strong materials such as fiberglass, and foam led to a revolution in surfboard shape and technology resulting in ever shorter and lighter weight boards. The momentum shifted to maximum emphasis on the short board. They were fast, highly manoeuvrable on the wave face, you could cut, and slash turns, and do all sorts of amazingly cool things that were hard or almost impossible on a long board.
Suddenly it was no longer as cool to be a long board surfer and with the exception of a few die-hards surfing as a sport went to an almost total focus on shortboarding. Shortboarding was in; it was the cool thing to do. Long boarding was out and uncool. As a result a lot of former long boarders not attracted to riding the shortboards for what ever reason, simply faded away for awhile.
Over time however, a number of those now older guys who still had a passion for surfing and seeking once again to enjoy the pure fun of it, dusted off their long boards and headed for the beach. Other newcomers to the sport found the longer, larger boards much easier to catch waves, stand up on and experience the surfing sensation. Once again long boards began to appear in ever increasing numbers out on the waves.
Of course the slower but beautiful drawn out carving turns of the long board style and the general way they rode the waves, conflicted with the fast, flashy, and radical turning movements of the shortboarders. This of course led to turf battles and wave sharing issues between the two. A lot of shortboarders still thought that long boarding was way uncool but this time long boards were here to stay.
Today as we all know, long boarding has rightfully regained its position as a major form of surfing and is cool again. In the process many have discovered the stoke of surfing who would never have tried it if the sport was just totally focused on short boarding.

Windsurfing and Kiteboarding

That brings us back to windsurfing and kiteboarding. In thinking about the experiences and lessons of the coolness factor on all these sports, the exact same thing has, and is occurring, in our wind and sea sport world. Kiteboarding almost certainly will continue to attract more X-game types and other young thrill seeking, show offs, who are sure they are part of the coolest thing ever on water. Others will try kiteboarding vice windsurfing because it is perceived or promoted wrongly by kiteboarding schools and riders as easier and quicker to learn. Thus the opportunity to look cool on the water sooner. Plus it doesn’t have the board, mast, and sail transportation issues which appeals to those not wanting to deal with the stacking, storing and transport of boards and sails.
Meanwhile Windsurfing will continue to be seen by some of them as uncool or not-as-cool, but to be fair, windsurfing as a sport does still have its own fair share of coolness seekers who have and will continue to perceive their sport as cooler than kiteboarding thus helping perpetuate the issue. Others on both sides just won’t care because, they just want to have fun. So who is the coolest? What is the future impact on our sport of putting coolness over fun? Should we care?
Perhaps what is way more important is simply how much fun we personally are having while out there on the water, the snowy slopes, or in the sky, regardless of our chosen sport or skill level? If it were not for fun and enjoyment would we have taken up the sport in the first place just to be cool? Maybe from my older perspective on life, worrying about being cool, or how cool this or that sport is, is no longer important like I thought it was back when I was younger. Likewise, worrying now about whether my blue helmet, old black wetsuit or bright multi-colored dry suit makes me look like a dork and really uncool, is of no real concern to me. What is far more important is the level of fun and happiness that the pure enjoyment of the sport gives me regardless of my age or level of expertise. After all, who’s to say that I am not having as much fun or personal gratification windsurfing, hang gliding, or skiing, as that kiteboarder, paraglider pilot or Winter X snowboarder?
So don’t let the “coolness factor” be the driving force behind your chosen sport or reason to promote yours at the expense of others. Just get out there and ski, kiteboard, snowboard, windsurf, surf, hang glide, paraglide, play golf, bike, run, paddle your kayak, rock climb, jetski (well maybe not that one), or whatever it is that puts that big smile on your face and makes you feel alive. Do it just because it is fun, not just because it’s cool. Respect others chosen sport passion, fashion, and action and most importantly, work together to ensure continued access to your right to have that fun. NOW THAT’S COOL!

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