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Windsurfing in Costa Rica: Swept away in Lake Arenal

By the tenth fall I started to think I was in trouble. I hoisted myself from Lake Arenal’s cold water and climbed back onto my windsurfing board, barely managing to stand. My arms failed me as I tried to raise the sail. I tugged hard, lost my balance and toppled back into the choppy waves.

Before leaving shore, I had been given one warning: If I strayed too far downwind, I would be unable to sail back. Over my shoulder, the volcano loomed. With every fall, the waves pushed me closer to it and closer to the point where I could not sail back.

Lauded as one of the best windsurfing spots in the world, Lake Arenal has long attracted windsurfers from all over the globe. From November to April, the trade winds funnel through Costa Rica’s northern highlands. During that time, Lake Arenal has the most consistent and strong winds in the northern hemisphere.

I heard about Arenal’s legendary windsurfing before I ever imagined I would live in Costa Rica. As a teenager, I spent part of every summer on a windsurfing board in northern Michigan’s Torch Lake, where my grandparents lived.

Though not nearly as consistent as Lake Arenal, Torch Lake occasionally sees some powerful winds, and once my sister, two cousins and I learned to harness it, we were hooked.

Out in the middle of the lake, a strong gust could take your board out of the water, throttling you across the lake at speeds up to 25 miles an hour. Sometimes we raced, but more often we would meet in the middle, lay our sails across each other’s boards and dive into the lake’s deep water.

It was my Torch Lake windsurfing instructor who told me about Lake Arenal. She said it was some of the best windsurfing she had ever experienced. I always remembered that, and though it had been years since I stepped onto a sailboard, last year I finally got the chance to take on Lake Arenal.

The wind turbines on Lake Arenal’s west side seemed to be spinning faster than they should when Tico Times Weekend Editor Ashley Harrell and I left our hotel. Ashley had never windsurfed before and we had scheduled a lesson with Lake Arenal’s only windsurfing outfit, Tico Wind.

Pulling up to Tico Wind’s lakeside headquarters, it seemed we had stumbled upon the area’s most popular picnicking spot. Families on blankets scattered the lakefront and children in wetsuits ran around the lawn.

Windsurfing reached its peak in popularity the 80s and 90s. Many of those who started the sport at that time now have children and grandchildren of their own. Though long-time windsurfers still frequent Lake Arenal’s shore, its popularity amongst the young has waned.

These days, some adrenaline junkies seeking thrills on the water are more likely to turn to windsurfing’s more intense younger cousin, kite surfing, which along with stand-up paddleboarding makes up most of Tico Wind’s business.

We found our instructor Tom Rentschler near the snack booth lathering on sunscreen. By his own count, Rentschler has given 680 people windsurfing lessons. From a 10-year-old boy to a 72-year-old woman, Rentschler said that by the end of just one lesson, every person was able to stand up and sail on the lake.

We started on the simulator, a windsurfing board screwed to a swivel on the lawn. With a sail attached, the simulator’s board moves as it would in the water, allowing us to practice without waves to battle.

With Rentschler’s demonstrations and directions, Ashley quickly learned how to hoist the sail, steer and tack (turn around). I was nervous when my turn came, having talked up my windsurfing prowess considerably for someone who hadn’t windsurfed in six years. But my muscle memory kicked in. After a half hour on the simulator, Rentschler decided we were seaworthy.

We started out on a wide beginner board with a small sail. As promised, Ashley was able to sail right away. We took turns sailing out, turning around and sailing back. The whole time Rentschler had a firm grip on a tether tied to the board.

With each hoist of the mast, every turn and every tack I grew more confident that I could windsurf as I had before. But with its tiny sail, the board plodded slowly through the lake’s shallows. I looked out at the sailors deeper in the lake and I started to grow restless. After a few more successful loops on the tether, I was starting to think the lesson was beneath me. I had gotten cocky.

After a short break, I had convinced Rentschler that I was ready to go out on my own. As Tico Wind Owner Peter Hopley assembled my new gear, he looked worried.

“It’s a pretty windy day out there,” he said. “You don’t want to have to get rescued.”

On the lake’s shore, a Jet Ski sat ready for action. If a guest were to get stranded, Tico Wind would perform a rescue. Getting stuck out there would not be dangerous, but after my overconfident display, it would be embarrassing.

While Tico Wind instructors carried my gear down to the lake, Rentschler gave me the lay of the land. I needed to sail toward the middle of the lake, away from the volcano. He drew an imaginary line up the shore. Beyond that line, it was too difficult to get back.

I climbed into the water towing my new rental gear. Without a problem, I pulled up the sail, grabbed a hold of the boom and took off toward the middle of the lake. The sail filled with wind and I began to pick up speed. I leaned back over the water gaining confidence and setting off to the middle of the lake, confident I would never see the back of the Jet Ski.

When windsurfers talk about the Lake Arenal’s rough conditions, they often fail to mention just how beautiful lake is. Being in the middle out in the water is a treat, let alone flying over it on a sailboard. The feeling brought me back to my times on Torch Lake, to swimming in the water with my sister and cousins.

I let go of the sail, turned to face the volcano and jumped into the water. I dove down deep then returned to the surface to float and take in my surroundings. I paid a price for those few minutes of relaxation.

Lake Arenal’s waves were higher than any I had dealt with in Michigan. Once my sail was down, I was too unsteady to get back up. Fall after fall I moved closer to Rentschler’s invisible line.

When another windsurfer came help, his pink and white sail fluttering near my board, I started to worry.

“Do you need help?” he said.

At that point I knew I wouldn’t make it to shore myself. But maybe this man could get me to shore discretely, allowing me to avoid a humiliating Jet Ski rescue? He told me to grab a foot grip on the back of his board. I held my own equipment with my other hand, and he towed me a short distance.

I tried my best to hang on, but the strain was too much. I lost my hold on the man’s board several times, but he stayed with me. Each time he looped back around and slowed down, allowing me to grab his board again. But by now, everyone on the shore was aware of my struggle. Rentschler had been watching me from shore. He knew I was done. He sent the Jet Ski.

My two-minute ride felt more like an hour. I clung to my rescuers life vest as Ashley snapped photos from the shore. I returned to the Tico Wind base embarrassed and exhausted, but still elated from my adventure on the lake.

Maybe next time with a little more practice – and a lot more humility – I can take on Lake Arenal.

Going there: Tico Wind is located on Lake Arenal’s west side off of highway 142, 20 minutes north of the town of Tilarán. The season extends from Thanksgiving weekend to April.

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