Thursday, July 31, 2008

Allegro Cup – Time for a Little Fun!

Leba, Poland -July 30, 2008 - I recently finished some intensive training with the Polish Olympic Windsurfing Team. Their top two sailors are on their way to Qingdao, China, and for the rest of us, it’s time for a little fun. After a couple days’ break, the rest of the team and I rallied for the Formula Allegro Cup.

For us Olympic-class sailors, Formula is a great opportunity to cross-train with different equipment, and to enjoy some "easy" racing (i.e. only planing races). You’ll see the best Polish RS:X sailors racing right up there next to the international, professional Formula sailors, although minus the state-of-the-art, newest Formula kit. For the pros, it is a taste of how good Olympic-class sailors are, and for us, it’s a chance to see the other, more exciting and less intense side of windsurfing.

The Allegro Cup is a huge regatta held every year in Leba, Poland, a resort town on the Baltic situated on a wide, white sand beach. The Allegro Cup is basically a big promotional event for, which is the Polish version of EBay. The organizers have a huge tent, a stage, logoed vehicles driving around, and thousands of flags staked everywhere. In addition, you gotta put on your sail the biggest bright orange sponsor stickers you’ve ever seen.

The regatta is basically a weeklong party with the Formula sailors as the stars of the show. There is a film and art festival as well as DJs and live bands every night. Although the party is serious, the racing is serious as well. The regatta has the dual title of Formula European Championship. All the pros are here, and behind the scenes is the hard-core Polish race committee whose style I know from all the local regattas. All in all it’s an event completely in the Polish style: race hard, party hard, ignore the bad weather.

Luckily for us, the weather has been incredibly good. So good in fact, that today there was not a cloud in the sky…and not a breath of wind. For me it was a good chance to catch up on the organization of my equipment (scrounging for parts) and take a nap.

Logistics became very complicated the morning before coming to Leba. At 5:30 am. I went outside to make sure my car would start. A couple turns of the key, a few coughs and sputters, and the car finally decided that it would not go to Leba with me. That meant some fast organization. After a few phone calls, I had a ride to Leba with my Formula equipment, which I am renting from my friend Piotr. Unfortunately the ride was leaving about four hours later than I wanted. I re-packed everything, stuffing all my wetsuits, tools, and camping gear inside my duffel with my clothes. I then dragged everything to the bus stop down a big hill.

After waiting 15 minutes for the bus, I was silently thankful that I have one of the earlier stops on the line, because at each stop about 20 more Polish people got on the bus until we were all squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, breathing down each other’s necks. The good weather meant that the inside of the bus was about 95 degrees. After 20 minutes, we arrived at my stop…and then the half-hour walk to the club dragging the suitcase…and I was ready to pack the equipment.

Piotr and I went through his gear and pulled out his Formula board, a fin, a mast, 9.5 RS:X sail, and boom. I threw it all fast into another kid’s van, and away we went. It was early evening when we arrived so the time was spent finding a place to camp, and looking over the equipment. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it was apparent that a bunch of small but vital parts were missing. The next morning was a frantic scrambling to find all the parts. I ended up writing a list of who I borrowed what from…and it read something like this:

• Front fin screw and washer: Natalia
• Rear fin screw and washer: That Czech guy with the big trailer
• Footstrap: Steve Bodner
• Screw and washer for footstrap: Max
• Clip for boom end: Max’s friend
• Acetone: The cute Lithuanian guy
• Marker: That British guy on the race committee.

And so forth…. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to use all that borrowed gear tomorrow.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sailing with Olympians. . . and future Olympians, in Poland

One side effect of being in Poland is that I get to see things from a Polish point of view. This is true in both conversation and in the media. It’s great being outside of the normal American mainstream media with its one-sided perspectives. A realization that hit me the other day was that I am going to be watching the Olympics on television, but from the Polish perspective. It will be really interesting to see, and I’m sure I’ll see more sports besides swimming, gymnastics, and sprinting, such as are normally shown on American television. There might even be some windsurfing coverage, especially since the Polish team has an excellent chance of medaling. For the Games, I’ll be reporting from the Polish perspective, with an American twist. Keep tuned in for sailing updates!

For now, training continues for the Olympic team. After a 2-day break from the Puck training camp, the team is back in action. We’ve changed locations and are now sailing out of a brand-new training facility just outside of Gdansk. I’ve just departed the venue for a regatta in Sopot, but the time I was there I got a good idea of what they are up to. The coach has a few of the good men sailors on the 8.5 women’s sail in order to challenge the top girl, along with the rest of the women’s team. I was surprised at how fast the men were in light air, which just goes to show that good technique can indeed overcome being a heavier sailor. When you take a step back from this scenario, it makes one realize that the limits of this sport can be pushed all the time. How exciting! Anyway, it’s a very, very competitive fleet and they will be training in intensive sessions all week long.

I’m doing a regatta in Sopot with all the kids, who are really good in their own right. They aren’t as flawless as the Olympic team, but they are smart and fast and it is challenging to sail against them. In essence, I am getting the training I would have had if I had started racing as a teenager. I am definitely the oldest kid on the racecourse, but that’s where I fit in the best. The conditions have been challenging as is typical for Sopot, with offshore, very shifty wind. Yesterday we had rain squalls come through and wind anywhere from 5-25 knots. Try rigging for that! And today, the wind was really light, shifty, and offshore. Sometimes the shifts were as much as 45 degrees: very challenging! My first race I placed 4th…and my second race, toward the back third of the fleet. The girl who won the first race finished in the rear of the fleet in the second! Playing the shifts correctly is very important, and it’s difficult to know where to go all the time. It is real sailing, and not just planing, and it’s an important skill to develop.

Apart from my own sailing, it is really great to see how fast the kids are progressing too. Even though I’m getting better, so are they, and it is always challenging to sail with them. For a smaller country, Poland has some great athletes, and they are really celebrated here. Ability in sports isn’t taken for granted. I’m lucky to be involved at this level with their windsurfing team.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Polish Preparation for the Olympic Games

I’m a commuter. I never expected to drive 45 minutes one way to work, nor did I expect to do it in Polish traffic. However, it’s what I’ve been doing every day for the past week in order to train in Puck with the girls on the Polish Olympic team, as they finalize the preparation of their top sailor, Zofia Klepacka, for the Olympic Games. Zofia is one of the top-ranked Olympic-class windsurfer women in the world, and has a very good chance of medaling in Qingdao.

It’s been interesting to see how the Olympic team’s coach is working with Zofia. There really isn’t too much difference in how he is running the training camp as far as what we have been doing on the water, except that most of his focus is on her. He’s been utilizing the rest of us (there are usually four sailors total) as her sparring partners. For example, since Zofia is very fast, she is often sailing in the front of our small fleet and winning races. He’ll pull her out of the race at the windward mark and make her start behind the rest of us. Yesterday the coach also ran some pumping intervals for her on a short course, in which one of us started five seconds ahead of her, to make her work hard to catch up. Three of us went in turn, and then the exercise was repeated. In addition, we have only been doing one session on the water instead of the normal two, so we aren’t quite as tired as normal. After all, the Games are only a few weeks off now. The Polish sailors will depart sometime around the 25th of July.

On another interesting note, not only is Zofia working hard with her coach, she is also doing some PR work with her sponsor. The other day she had a photo shoot with her sponsor that became really involved. The photographers set up a small studio inside the meeting room at the Puck sailing club. A lady was on-site to do Zofia’s hair and makeup (as she is very laid-back, it is funny to see her made up!), and Zofia was walking around in her sponsor’s logos all day. She also had some on-the-water shooting as well, and an interview on the beach.

The Polish Olympic team has some of the fastest girls in the world and it is really good for me to sail with them. My boardspeed is improving and I’m still refining technique, so it is good for me to observe what they are doing. Most importantly, it is sharpening my overall tactical racing skills. To get around the course the fastest, it is important to make the least amount of mistakes. These girls minimize their mistakes, so if I do something that doesn’t work, I immediately know it. However, I am sailing much better than last year and I am now learning tactics really fast. Racing well isn’t as complicated as I once thought. I am improving quickly this summer and am starting to feel really good about my sailing. On another note, I am also enjoying seeing what is happening in this professional sailing program in preparation the Olympic Games, and it’s good to feel that I am playing some small role in it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Welcome to Poland. . . and all its challenges.

The best thing about living in foreign countries is that they test your limits in a big way. However, the harder you try to live a normal life, the more complicated everything becomes. Sometimes, the things you need appear quickly and seemingly by coincidence, miraculously. Then, everything goes wrong…reminding you that miracles can test you as well. This story can be separated into three parts: the car, the flat, and the money.

Part 1: The Car

One of the things I wanted the most when I came back here for another season of training was a car. For Americans, and especially me, a car is equivalent to freedom. Day-to-day existence is much less complicated and all logistics are made 100% easier. With a car in Poland, to go to the sailing club doesn’t take an hour. It takes 15 minutes, and I can bring all the gear I need for sailing, and for campaign work. I’m not dependent on the bus schedules, and my computer and I don’t get drenched with rain biking home that happened last year. Also, I can take short trips and get out of the area if I’m feeling burned out. I’ve always said to my friends here that in order to survive, I needed either a car or a boyfriend (with a car). The benefits of both are obvious, but they’re approximately the same amount of trouble. However, the car doesn’t talk back.

Upon arrival, my German friend who works at the sailing club, Klaus (who looks just like the Terminator), called a friend of his, Lukasz, who had a car for sale. It was a 1995 Ford Escort hatchback, pretty beat up with 135K miles on it, but the conditions were right (the seeming miracle). The insurance was paid through the end of the summer, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the registration. Also, it has a conversion to run on LPG, which costs half the price of normal gasoline. To give you an idea of how much the Polish pay for gas, LPG is about the same price as American gasoline (even at the current high). Normal unleaded is twice the cost. The car runs on both, but a new tank for the LPG was added where you normally find the spare tire. You can’t tell how much LPG is in the tank because there is no gauge on the dashboard, but you can lift up the tailgate and see a gauge on the actual tank, sitting in the tire well.

After a few test drives (in one of which I nearly killed both Klaus and Lukasz in Polish traffic), I bought the car. I had fun for a few nights zipping around town and learning all its idiosyncrasies, quirks, and habits. I am normally delighted by used cars as they have lots of personality, and this one is no exception. The steering wheel is crooked by 45 degrees, but it tracks straight. The bumper is cracked, there are dings all over, and the hubcaps are gone, but it takes the roads well and blends into the rest of the Polish traffic. The little 1.3 liter engine is driven by a chain, not a belt, so the motor has a different sound to it. The engine also has two different sounds running with the LPG and then fuel. However, it did have a disturbing habit of stalling while idling at lights. Then, the morning before the departure to Kiel, the car did not start. I drained the battery trying to start it, and it sat dead in the sailing club parking during the regatta.

Upon our return, Klaus summoned Lukasz to revive the car. Lukasz is a big blue-eyed car mechanic with tattoos on his arms. He is a nice guy but doesn’t speak English so we have some trouble communicating. I understand most of what he says in Polish, but can’t speak back to him very well, so Klaus acts as a frustrated translator. Lukasz jumped the car back to life and, racing Klaus, drove like a maniac back to Karwiny, the suburb of Gdynia where I live. I then took the car and raced around in the parking lot of the Real superstore in Gdansk to get the battery charged up again. I put the car to bed, then tried to start it the next morning: nothing. It was trying, but wasn’t starting no matter how much I stomped on the gas pedal and swore at it in English and Polish for good measure. I was so mad I tore out its ugly tiger-print seat covers and chucked them in the dumpster.

Part 2: The Flat

After settling down, I again called Klaus. We had one errand to run before once again reviving the car: obtaining a washing machine for my flat. Upon arrival here, I immediately began to look for a place to live. I wanted to live in Karwiny again, because it is just far enough from Sopot that it is a good retreat, and is surrounded by lovely forest. So the second miracle of my arrival was finding a beautiful flat quickly. One very sweet girl that I sail with has a father who owns a couple unused flats, and he offered me the use of one for a very reasonable price. He went out of his way to prepare it, and although it wasn’t ready before we went to the Kiel Week regatta, I was able to put a few things inside so I wouldn’t have to drag my whole kit to Germany. However, it doesn’t have furniture except for a table and couch.

One of the most important things one can have in a flat is a washing machine. Laundromats don’t exist here, and it’s not a good idea to hand wash everything all summer long. Once again, it was Klaus to the rescue, letting me borrow his old one for the few months. However, it was located at his old apartment in Sopot, so we had to go collect it. I gifted him some money for gas, cigarettes, and a Coke (more about this in Part 3: The Money) and away we went in his VW van. Klaus also had the idea to lend me his TV, so we would get this as well.

We rolled up to the apartment and parked in front of the gate. We located the washing machine and moved some furniture to get it out into the driveway. Then Klaus went inside the main house to get his TV, and the landlady greeted him at the door. Some pleasantries were exchanged and then the door slammed shut. Out of the windows came the sounds of arguing in Polish. Klaus came running out with the TV, and said, “Go, go!” The washing machine was thrown in the van, and we sped away. Klaus lit a cigarette and we drove back to Karwiny.

We unloaded the machine, dragged it up the stairs with difficulty (much to the delight of the neighbors) and put it in the bathroom. A part was missing, so we couldn’t set it up right away, so we went downstairs and summoned Lukasz to revive the car. He came zooming up with the jumper cables. After a few failed attempts to start it, The Car was rolled out of its parking spot and jumped back to life. The problem was determined to be the battery, and Lukasz would come tomorrow with a new one, plus Klaus would come back and fix the washing machine. However, I think they were both a little tired of me…because they never showed up! After a few polite phone calls, I made arrangements for the next day. If the boys don’t change the battery, I’ll do it myself. It’s back to the bus for me…hopefully I can get everything sorted before I leave in the fall!

Part 3: The Money

I normally do a good job of managing my money. I don’t like to lend money and I keep good track of my debt. However, I’ve unfortunately become the Polish ATM, through some forgetfulness on my part, and some unplanned events. When I first arrived at the sailing club where I was renting a room, I left my jacket with my wallet in it on a bench while helping the team unload the team gear into the storage hanger. I woke up the next morning and prepared to go to my first Polish lesson of the year, which I was really excited about. I dug through my stuff looking for my wallet…and all of a sudden started panicking, realizing that I had left it in my jacket on the bench outside (stupid! stupid!) and this being Poland, home of the best thieves in Europe, was sure it was gone. I ran down and located it, along with my soaked passport. I was late for the lesson. Credit cards…check. Wet passport…check. Drivers license…check. I ran to the commuter train and was gone to Gdynia.

After my lesson, I opened the wallet again to pay my teacher, and….nothing. All my cash had been stolen, including the money I received from selling my old board, which was to go to paying off some coaching debt. It was so much it made me physically sick. Once again I had been knocked back to my knees in getting out of debt. It was my own fault for being forgetful, but it had happened at a time when I was already stressed, not having any housing, and trying to organize my life here. Not to mention, right before a regatta. After a panicked phone call to my manager at 3:45 am his time, I settled down a little.

I realized the money was fully gone right away. Romek and I checked the security cameras, but there were none watching the bench where I had left everything. There was nothing left to do but move on. Even though it was a huge blow, it takes a lot more than that to make me give up (actually, I’ve never found the limit yet!).

Although I’m in the middle of my own financial crisis, it seems like everyone else here is as well. For example: Klaus. A deposit he was expecting didn’t come in, so he had no money, I mean, none. So all the time he was helping me, I was giving him money for gas, cigarettes, food, cash for his wife….to be repaid….at some point. I made a bit back in Kiel when I sold some computer equipment to my Slovak friend. However, then disaster struck. Although I had made it home fine, Romek hadn’t. His van broke down before he left Kiel with the equipment, boat, trailer, and 7 or 8 kids. The kids piled into other Polish vehicles (luckily, they have a huge team) and left poor Romek alone in Kiel. He was without money as well…so another chunk of change went to pay for his return trip (part of his coaching fee). It was a little stressful this week being the ATM, especially as the dollar is totally worthless in Europe now. I’ll pull through. And nobody else is borrowing money from me!

Now I’m basically stuck in my apartment, which isn’t such a bad place to be in reality. I’ve been trying to catch up with my work, and taking long runs in the woods. Next week, if Romek ever returns, we will have a training camp near Gdansk. I’m looking forward to it.

Comparatively, life here isn’t as hard for me as it is for some of the Polish that I see every day on the street. Many of them do an amazing job of getting by with very little, and it is inspiring. However, things are changing for this country, and I can see improvements even only from last year. It’s been an interesting week mostly alone and away from the sailing club, and I’m glad for the perspective.