Photo: Laura Miles
This is something I've been struggling to write for a week - the passing of Stephan Els. I'm still stuck on the denial stage of grief and probably will be for a while. I still have his emails where we talked about some boards that he wanted to look at when he got back from South Africa - where he was when he died. In my mind, I'm still awaiting his return.
I was in Cocoa Beach last Monday. I'd driven down to pick up some gear that friends had down there and hoped I could bring back to Atlanta and sell. One board, in particular, I thought would be great for Stephan and a big part of my motivation to drive eight hours down there. I picked up the gear in the morning and spent all afternoon at Kelly Park windsurfing. There'd been a couple of kitefoilers and a windsurf foil down there so after packing up and seeing that I'd missed Chris Voith's call, I was excited to call back and tell him what I'd seen and learned (Chris is learning to windsurf foil). I rang Chris up and babbled for five minutes about "foil this" and "foil that". Then Chris paused and asked if I'd seen the web site that day. "Was it down? Did it get hacked?"
Chris began, "It's about Stephan Els."
When you get to a certain age, you can almost tell beforehand what is coming. I don't know why or how but it's a sense. Chris began to tell me and I rushed out, "and he's okay, right?" to dispel my fears but the news was very certain and undeniably tragic. After I hung up with Chris, I sat in my van, with the board that I hoped Stephan would like, and looked out at the water through watery eyes.
I'd met Stephan a few years ago at our Fall Classic when he first began to get back into windsurfing. He'd windsurfed as a teen growing up in S.A. and, now, here in the U.S, with family and job commitments, he was no longer able to pursue his other passion of paragliding so he began to dabble again in windsurfing. He was immediately one of those people whose company you enjoy.
It's those same commitments that encouraged him to make the best use of his time on the water. He'd go out when it was cold or barely enough wind because he couldn't be choosy about his time on the water. Like me, he ended up with a good bit of light wind equipment - wide boards and big sails - so we'd be on the water together when many of our windsurfing friends didn't even show up or were onshore waiting for stronger winds. Yet, quite often, these sessions turned out as memorable as any. Sometimes it was because on a chill winter day, we'd play with the big sail boats in the channel on Lake Lanier, or have an unexpected summer session with a warm breeze.
He was also my "partner in crime". Several times, we decided to take advantage of the upwind/downwind capability of our gear and go visit another part of the lake. We'd go from Tidwell up to Van Pugh or from Sunrise Cove to Van Pugh. It was great fun even when, more than a few times, the wind died and getting home was a chore. It was still a laugh and the feeling the day was well spent.
But, really the reason I enjoyed windsurfing with him so much wasn't just that he didn't mind rigging a big sail but his easy-going attitude and friendliness. It was fun to sail with him whether it was windy or not. It was just good to be in his company. I looked forward to his calls or texts on those days when the wind looked even the least bit promising: "Are you going?"
I always made the effort to ask him about his family when we were talking (usually while rigging). He was very devoted to his wife and sons. As much as he loved windsurfing - they came first. And, it's their loss that I'm the saddest about.
In reading what others have written about him, he touched others - friends, colleagues - in much the same way. And, in those comments, I was reminded that windsurfing was only just part of what he was and no matter how much time we shared, I wished that I'd shared more.
Memorial site for updates and to share your photos and stories of Steph with Jocelyn and the boys. http://www.forevermissed.com/stephan-wilhelm-els/#about In lieu of flowers/gifts, his family asks you to give to the boy’s education fund.
Memorial service will be at 2pm, April 22nd at Dunwoody Baptist Church.
1445 Mt Vernon Rd, Dunwoody, GA 30338
Photos: Barrett Walker