Summer's Calling: Wind, water, wonder

Hal Ashman remembers the day his connection to watersport took hold.

He was in college, spending a summer in Ocean City, and found himself on the shores of Assawoman Bay one evening with wind whipping around him and a windsurfing board at his feet. Having never taken a lesson, he mounted the board and grabbed the sail.

"It was pure luck. Somehow I stood in the right place, held the equipment in the right way — and the wind was blowing like crazy — and all of a sudden, things just started working," said Ashman, now 49. "I was flying along the water on the windsurfer with really no experience ... and I knew I was getting hooked."

These days, Ashman works on the beach of the Hammerman Area of Gunpowder Falls State Park at Ultimate Watersports, the business he founded 25 years ago. And he looks for that same glimmer among the middle school-age summer campers. Zipping around on an electric golf cart, amid rows of catamaran sails, neon-shaded kayaks and windsurfing boards, he says he often finds it.

His role as director of the watersport camp is part dad, part teacher, part architect of fun in the water.

It's about 10 a.m., and Ashman is arriving for the day. The temperature is rising fast and the winds are blowing a leisurely 8 mph to 10 mph out of the northwest. Ashore, he fills large water coolers with mostly ice and some water and gets a briefing from a staff member about the day's agenda. In the water, about 70 campers, separated into a half-dozen groups, begin testing out what their counselors taught them just minutes before.

This is the busy time of year, Ashman explains, before he is interrupted by a polite boy who says his stomach aches. Ashman calls the boy's mother to pick him up, gets him a drink, pats him on the back and seats him in the shade.

Wearing a straw hat and sleek black sunglasses, Ashman coordinates the day's activities by walkie-talkie with about a dozen counselors, who run clinics for kayaking, windsurfing, sailing and other sports.While the counselors splash in the surf, he answers calls from the two phones attached to his hip, refills coolers and makes sure the day goes according to schedule.

"We know where every kid is at every moment," he said. "There's never a time where we don't know where it's happening or what's happening."

From May to October, summer campers and folks looking for recreation come to Ashman's business at Hammerman, a short drive south from where he lives on Oliver Beach. In the late fall and winter, Ashman shifts his focus to planning the next summer — pulling together marketing campaigns and reaching out to summer camp programs to fill slots, which cost campers about $395 per week.

He estimates that almost 70 percent of the kids who come for camp return the next year.

Tyler Mostow, 12, has been coming to Ashman's watersport camp for five years. It's fair to say he's hooked.

"People call me a fish out of water. I have a pool at my house. I have to be in the water," Tyler said, his red lifejacket dripping water onto the grass just beyond the narrow beach.

His favorite memory in his half-decade on the water at the state park was when the catamaran he and his cohort were piloting "flew a hull," which is another way of saying it tipped up on one of its pontoons.

"It would have capsized, but it was a lot of fun," he added, before running into the water to rejoin his windsurfing clinic. Moments later, arms straight, legs slightly bent, Tyler was on his board and steering between two jetties, with gulls for an audience.

Ashman has many memories, he says, of kids falling for watersport.

Justin Pugh, for instance, has been at Ultimate Watersports for 20 years — since he was 10 or 11, he says. Now he is the manager.

"This is the best way to beat the heat. When it gets to be 101 degrees, all I have to do is kneel down a little bit deeper in the water," said Pugh, who also teaches fourth grade at Pine Grove Elementary.

Pugh — Ashman calls him JP — started at the camp handing out lifejackets. Then he was promoted and allowed to hand out kayak paddles, and on from there. He learned to love watersport from his dad, Patrick, who was one of Ashman's first instructors.

"[JP's] son is 4 years old. I'm pretty sure we already have a W-4 on file for him because we expect to see him on the payroll in a few years," Ashman said.

At camp, it's almost time for the day's lunch break. Ashman is in a hurry, but he's calm. It's time to open the camp snowball stand. In years past, he rang the "camp bell," a rusty, weather-worn cast-iron bell attached to a skinny, dried out tree. Now the lunch call goes out over walkie-talkie. When it does, dozens of kids stream out of the water, pick up their lunches from a white cooler and sit on picnic tables beneath a white tent.

Ashman tries to put his finger on how the connection to watersport is made.

"They're coming into it the same way I did, with no background. There is not much of a preconceived idea that it's going to happen for them. Then within hours, things are clicking," he said.

Lunch over, the temperature on Hammerman beach is at least 97 degrees. You can tell because the wind tends to die once it gets that hot, Ashman says, and the wind is definitely dead.

The call goes out by walkie-talkie: "Hydration break!" Everyone is required to stop for water frequently. Camp rules.

A dozen kids stream toward an orange water cooler, fill their water bottles and drink thirstily. Then it's back into the water, wind or not.

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