A high-flying look at the world’s fastest growing water sport.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
When I was 12, a friend received a two-line stunt kite from some weird uncle. The thing came with a handlebar and a bunch of tangled lines and was shaped like a bat wing. In short, it was involved. It required thought. We were unsure of its value. I think my friend had been hoping for one of those neon yellow, slick-bottom Mach 7 Boogie Boards that were trendy at the time. He got a kite instead. Kites were for kids. To a teenager old in 1986, this was a totally sucky gift.
But weird uncle insisted this kite had worth and we trusted him because he surfed. To prove the kite’s value, he drove us to Twin Lakes beach in Santa Cruz, smoking his hand-rolled cigarettes and remarking on the cold wind that had driven everyone from the beach.
The whole ordeal was a complete drag until we launched the kite into the air.
Immediately, we were blown away by the life in the thing. Weird uncle taught us how to cup the wind with the kite and whip it around in wild figure eights. It was so powerful it almost dragged us off the sand. We laughed and yelled and pitched that thing around the sky for two hours. Then we got bored and left.
On the drive home, weird uncle yammered on theoretically about how a bigger kite might actually loft us into the sky for a few exhilarating seconds and a truly huge kite… well, his imagination ran wild. But like most people, weird uncle possessed neither the drive nor the money to actualize such an absurd fantasy. As a result, the kite was unceremoniously dumped in a dark closet, where it undoubtedly mouldered through the rest our teenage years while weird uncle disappeared on the Grateful Dead tour, never to be seen again.
Yet while weird uncle moved on to seedier thrills, other dreamers were actualizing his stoned theories in places like France, Oregon and Maui. Moreover, they were taking it one step further and attaching themselves to surfboards.
Actually, it’s an old idea. Over 700 years ago the Chinese used kites for propulsion. In the 19th century George Pocock used large kites to tow carts and ships using an innovative line system that allowed them to travel upwind. Amazingly, Pocock’s century-old four-line system is the basis of modern kiteboarding.
By 1998 the sport of kiteboarding was officially born. Today it’s the world’s fastest growing water sport. There are an estimated 300,000 kiteboarders worldwide and according to industry sales, kiteboarding has already surpassed windsurfing in North America. While kiteboarders have long been a fixture up the coast at Waddell Creek, north of Santa Cruz, it’s been slow to take off in Monterey County.
This is primarily because it’s tough to learn how to kiteboard off our deep and wave-hammered beaches. Yet across the continent, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I finally stepped into a kiteboarding harness. The Pamlico Sound, a 300-square-mile estuary of waist-deep water between the Outer Banks and the mainland, is internationally recognized as the best place to kiteboard in the world.
Twenty-one years after weird uncle took us to the beach, I realized his lofty ambitions. It was even better than he could have possibly imagined. After a few hours of instruction, I was chattering across the water on what looks like a wakeboard, towed behind a massive, 15-meter kite. The deeper I whipped the kite into the wind window, the harder it yanked me, occasionally lofting me into the air. Thanks to years of technological advancements, the sport of kiteboarding is far easier to learn than surfing and much less gear-intensive than windsurfing. Everything you need fits easily into the trunk of a small car.
The gear has been fine-tuned to such a point, in fact, that even a 15-meter kite can be easily maneuvered with two fingers on the bar. The key, of course, is learning how make the kite behave. That’s why it’s recommended that beginners initially buy a two-line “trainer kite” and learn the basics on it.
But, the sport is not without serious risk. Sudden wind gusts can loft riders 50 feet into the air and smash them into trees, rocks, beaches, boats, buildings or power lines. Until new “quick release” safety features were developed in 2006, disastrous and deadly “kitemares” were more frequent. While more than 60 kiteboarding deaths have been reported since 2000, experienced riders insist the sport has become very safe due to the new safety innovations and widespread professional instruction.
But that’s the key– professional instruction in a safe place. While Monterey County is not the ideal locale to learn how to kiteboard, don’t be surprised to see more kites in the air on windy days.
Certified kiteboarding instruction is based at HWP in Santa Cruz. Lessons run $60/hour. Visit www.hwoodproductions.com/learn/LESSONS.html.