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Joyful wake

American amputee reinvents himself as Caribbean windsurfer

A story about resilience by Michel Porro, photos ©Michel Porro/Getty Images

Dave Moomaw speeds his windsurf board across Lac Bay on the Caribbean Island of Bonaire, leaving a trail of whitewater in the aqua-colored lagoon. He pivots through a perfect jibe, bracing his sail against the strong trade winds that make Bonaire a tropical windsurfing paradise. Afficionados from around the world hibernate here for weeks often months. Dave is one of them, but he is slightly different than the rest -- the 60-year-old industrial designer from East Aurora, New York sails with only one leg; the other is a prothesis.

Dave lays out his life story while enjoying a fruit punch at the Hang Out Beach Bar overlooking Lac Bay. In the background, windsurfers swoosh past in a carnival of colorful sails and gleeful looking men and women. His quest for speed did not start on the water.

A biker at heart, Dave woke up in hospital after a near fatal motorcycle accident and found that his right leg had been amputated. “I was lucky to be alive really. One evening a car cut me off and I flew 100 ft into the oncoming lane of traffic at 60 miles an hour. After 30 days in hospital I thought I’d get up, get an artificial leg and move on. I did not expect it to be so hard to try to get my life back.”

‘Having a leg that hurts seems like a good excuse for drinking’, Dave explains. It was killing him. He shows a photograph of himself looking fat, unhealthy and unhappy. It took time, but Dave gave up the bottle, and now he has been free of it for some 20 years. He also quit smoking. ‘That was the hardest thing I’d ever done!’ He says that windsurfing makes him happy in a way drink and smoke never could.

Dave has been running his own company Different Design for over 20 years. Dave’s best known accomplishment is probably the Bubble Lawn Mover he built for Fisher Price before going freelance. The toy changed his life in more ways than one. “I got some really good advice from the company lawyer at Fisher Price: Make a list of things you want to do when you retire and start doing some things now.

‘So I did’, explains Dave. ‘Twelve years ago my wife Ellen and I decided to go snorkeling here in Bonaire. I had absolutely no intention to windsurf. I took a 20-minute lesson and the moment I got on that board I thought, wow this is cool! I could not even balance but I was hooked on the feeling, the suggestion that I might be able to learn this. What a challenge. This is what I want to figure out. It took me years to even get planing. I did not know what I was doing. Ten years ago learning equipment was not all that good. I have loved every phase of learning to windsurf’.

“I immediately followed up with an Andy Brandt windsurf clinic in Hatteras, NC, the oldest professionally run windsurfing school in the United States. Later on I did another class in Calema, FL on the Banana River. The instructor there, Tinyo, was helpful in correcting my sailing stance and teaching me to fully commit me to the harness. Then I took a clinic here at Jibe City.

“In the beginning it was really hard. Twice the leg stayed on the board after a serious catapult. The board went off without me and I was searching for parts in the water. I thought, this is not good! Then I started to make a special foot strap but that could not be done on a rental board. The new foot, invented and built by me, does not get caught in the foot strap. The latest prothesis is really good and stays on.

“Each time I return from a trip I have a session with my prothesist Jan Stokosa, he is fantastic. I have done things with Jan ten years before other prothesists were doing it.

“I’m an adaptive athlete,” Dave laughs. “Most people in this sport have an inner tenacity, a stubbornness, a toughness to keep going. We all have something in common. We see what we want to do and have a willingness to go on. You cannot skip stages. It kind of makes it feel like a club.”

Back home, Dave says he works seven days a week. “I get up at 4 am and I throw in two workouts a day. Yes, I do prepare for my windsurfing trips. I know if I don’t, I can’t handle it. Physical fitness is absolutely necessary. So, I’m year round totally fit and in good shape for my annual trip to the tropics. He spends on average two months each year in Bonaire to completely wind down and live the healthy life.

“It really is the best place for me. I can stand in the entire lagoon and the water is at most waist deep. Besides windsurfing every day when wind permits he takes long bicycle rides. When asked about how it’s possible to take such a long leave of absence he proudly states with a big grin: “I just go! My clients don’t like it but they are used to it. They would rather I not go sailing of course. I give them a smile and an e-mail address. You know, when I get close to the end of the two months, people start to line up for projects. I read my mail when I think about it, not even every day, wonderful!”

When asked if people stare, Dave says that mostly kids are curious or scared. What he likes most is when they are inspired, like the eight-year-old boy whose mother came up to Dave on the beach. “Mom,” the son told her, “ “I know I can windsurf because I saw a guy on the beach with one leg who can do it.”

“That makes me feel good,” Dave says.

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ALL PHOTOS: © MICHEL PORRO 2017