Having Brian Talma teach me water sports is like asking Tiger Woods for golf lessons. Shaggy-haired, bright-eyed and deeply tanned, Brian is a Barbadian national hero, a world champion freestyle windsurfer, Olympic athlete and island legend. Across Barbados, his name cracks a smile. When Brian smiles, which is just about all the time, his teeth twinkle like piano keys in a New Orleans jazz bar. Over the course of his 20-year career on the worldwide pro circuit, he has become the go-to guy for anyone delving into beach culture. At home in Barbados, he operates de Action, a brightly painted little surf shop offering rentals, lessons and a sweet place to catch the action on Silver Beach.
"Action!" It's Brian's mantra, bookending his sentences. "Action! We should always choose a life of action!" It motivates me to learn about water sports from this living legend, swept up as I was in his wave of irie euphoria. When I tell him that I hope to windsurf (never tried), kitesurf (never tried) and stand-up paddle-board (never tried) on the same day, he plays a toothy tune with those ivories, followed by a deep belly laugh. Action was definitely in the winds.
(I had been on a windsurfer before. I was five years old, and I would lie between my dad's legs on his long board at the local dam. My dad was among the first wave of windsurfers, and every weekend I would spread out at the back of the board. Shortly afterward, my dad moved onto his next fad, and the windsurfer gathered dust in the garage.)
Cut to Brian, who has windsurfed some of the world's biggest waves in Hawaii, showing me how to pull up the sail. Roger Federer might as well explain how to hold a tennis racket. I barely stand up, and immediately the wind hits the sail, blowing me toward the next north Atlantic island of Saint Lucia. Brian swims after me, laughing loudly, ready to gather me up when I inevitably wipe out. Whatever, windsurfing is old news. On the beach are Canadians learning how to kitesurf, an exploding sport, rapidly gaining converts around the world. Silver Beach, they tell me, is one of the best kitesurfing destinations in the world. Brian, of course, mastered the sport years ago.
Kitesurfing connects you via a harness to a large, specially designed sail called a stunt kite, capable of shredding you across the waves, and launching you nine metres into the air. All you need is a board, a stunt kite, waves, wind … and a certain amount of lunacy. I have three friends mad about kitesurfing; they've all broken bones and twisted knees, and continue to love it.
Controlling and harnessing the wind, directing the kite, relaunching from a crash, and cresting over waves is not something you learn in a couple hours. Kitesurfing enthusiasts in Barbados typically spend two weeks just learning the basics, renting houses or staying in hotels around Silver Beach. Brian explains the appeal of the sport: "You can do anything you want man, there's no limit when it comes to kitesurfing. Ready for your crash course? Action!"
He starts me off on a small stunt kite, showing me how to swing it in a figure eight to get power, and how to keep it at 12 o'clock to steady, sort of like neutral in a car. I barely get the hang of it, as the midday sun, sweat and cheap sunblock sting my eyes. Brian brings out the big kite, admiring my skill the way one admires a teenager behind the wheel of a Ferrari. I slip into a solid harness, and watch as he demonstrates his control, the big kite powerful enough to blow him to Bridgetown. At $1,500 for the kite alone, he's rightfully worried I will end up slamming into a building in the nation's capital. He hooks me in, and within seconds, I crash the kite hard into the beach, feeling the bone-cringing slam of material on sand. These kites can take a pounding. We launch it again, and I crash it again. It's disheartening to be so uncool next to the coolest cat on the island.
When I finally get the kite under control, I try a figure eight and immediately I'm dragged across the white sand. I'm an ant holding onto dental floss in a hurricane. Twisted on the ground, I turn to Brian: "I'm sure your local emergency room is busy enough, let's move onto stand-up paddle-boarding."
Heck, everybody's stand-up paddle-boarding! Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Aniston, Pierce Brosnan, Cindy Crawford, Matt Damon, Kate Hudson, Owen Wilson, Sting. Perhaps it's a prerequisite to look great with your shirt off. The sport involves standing on a long, customized surfboard, oar in hand, riding offshore currents, and surfing onshore waves.
Brian demonstrates. Relaxed, his back is straight and shoulders are square. He looks as comfortable playing on water as he does walking on the beach. I hoist myself up, bent over like a hunchback, slipping and sliding, wobbling and wiping, much to the amusement of all on the beach. I hope they laugh at celebrities, too.
No one in their right mind should attempt to learn three water sports in one day, much less ones that require hours of practice just to reach beginner level. But it did provide a great excuse to hang out with a legendary character like Brian Talma. If you're looking for action in Barbados, you can probably find him at his Silver Beach surf shack.
Special to The Globe and Mail. Catch up with Robin at www.robinesrock.com or on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels.