This Side Up

A February baptism to supping


I didn’t know quite what to think of Ted’s invitation to go “supping.”

If it had to do with food, I was there. But somehow I didn’t think my son was inviting me out for dinner. Why, after all, would he just be asking me? And supping? Was this a form of light dining, sort of like supper? It sounded like grazing.

Ted straightened me out.

“It’s SUP, Dad. You know, for stand up paddling.”

I should have figured it had to do with the water.

Ted is a passionate windsurfer. Fanatic is really the word. He has assembled an arsenal of gear from boards to sails, masts and clothing for just about every condition. He’s outfitted a trailer that is on the ready. And he’s programmed his computer and phone so that, at any time, he can call up wind and wave conditions anywhere between here and Cape Cod.

He’s not alone. There’s a subculture of windsurfers. They’re all guys with a core group of about 15, with the eldest in his late 70s (there’s hope for me). When the wind is up – 20 knots and higher – the network comes to life. People find excuses to leave work, plans are made and they come together to scream over the water at speeds of 30 knots. They jump waves, fly 20 feet into the air, and, predictably, get thrown from their boards into the water. Ted wears a head cam and posts videos on YouTube. It’s extreme.

I’ve tried windsurfing and been able to get blown along just off shore and, after falling in several times, mastered jibing to change direction. Even at 10 knots, you are convinced you’re traveling at breakneck speeds capable of injuring yourself. I felt out of control.

But supping is different. You’re the master of your own destiny, at least that’s what I imagined.

Ted took up the sport to fill those gaps when the winds weren’t propelling him. You stand on a board, wider and longer than a windsurfing board. Locomotion is a long-handled paddle held in both hands. Simple…right?

I had seen Ted do it last summer off Narragansett Beach. He even took along my granddaughter, Natalie, who knelt in front of him and held tightly as they rode waves into the beach.

“Looks like it’s going to be calm Sunday, perfect supping,” he said. That was a week ago and, if I’m not mistaken, although we’ve had unseasonably warm winter, still February.

“Do you have an extra board,” I asked, knowing perfectly well he had only one board.

I should have guessed he had it planned. His friend, Dave, would lend me his board and wetsuit. I was out of good excuses short of saying: I’m a wimp or the flat out, “What do you think I’m crazy, going out in the ocean in February?”

No. Instead, I heard myself saying, “I’ll see you in about a half hour.”

“Wear a bathing suit and bring a towel,” were his last words before I hung up. What in February?

Ted hitched up his rig and we headed for Matunuck. The parking lot was being graded, but we found a spot between some orange cones. There were a few beach walkers. They were bundled in parkas, wore gloves and fury caps pulled down over their ears. They were sensible. Most had dogs on leashes that made them all the more reasonable. Ted pulled out his dry suit slipping it over a woven shirt and tights. He topped it off with a billed cap and pair of sunglasses. He could have been on the ski slopes.

I wrestled with the wet suit, inching it up over the bathing suit and to my chest before feeding my arms into the two black tubes that clung to me like a second skin. By the time I had it on I was out of breath, ready to call it an afternoon.

“Boy, it’s beautiful, although there’s a bit of wind,” said Ted. Maybe there was enough wind for him to go windsurfing in which case I could watch. No such luck.

“Do you want gloves?”

“What are you wearing,” I answered.

He fished in his trailer and came up with blue surgical gloves. I took a pair and we headed for the beach, the boards slung under our arms. Ted didn’t as much as pause, walking straight into the breaking waves. Not a soul was out there.

I felt the water penetrate the wet suit, but surprisingly it wasn’t too bad. Not right away.

When we were about waist high in the swells, Ted climbed on his board with ease. Now he was standing.

“Well, try it.”

I wriggled onto the board, lay there a moment and then knelt. Wow, I thought, I’m pretty good.

Then it happened. I put out one foot and rose to stand. The board shot out and I went head first into the water.

Miraculously, my hat was still on when I came up. Water streamed down my face and neck.

“What happened,” I sputtered.

“You went in,” he responded. I wasn’t expecting sympathy, but a clue to my mistake might have been helpful.

I tried again, paying extra attention to my balance. My legs wobbled. The board rose and fell in the gentle swells. I had a fantastic view of the beach and the ferry coming in from Block Island. With some paddling, I gained momentum and stability. I was standing on the water, or just about as close I was going to get to walking on the water. We paddled almost all the way to the Point Judith jetty. I knelt some of the way. I took a couple more dives and I even rode a wave into the beach.

“Well, Dad,” Ted said when we got back to the car, “it’s really fun when there are bigger waves.”

This wasn’t a particularly good day by Ted’s standards.

Yes, I could see that as I did contortions to pull off the wetsuit to feel the chill on my wet skin. It was cold.

“How about this summer,” I heard myself saying. What could I be thinking?


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