You’ve likely seen them before: A giant kite of orange or another bright color glides across the sky. On the water below, a man in a wetsuit hangs tight. His hands steer the kite; his feet planted on a board; his body swiftly surfing on the waves.
“This is pretty boring,” explained a fellow surfer who was geared up to head into the water on one such recent outing. The wind, too wimpy by his standards, was not strong enough for the more spectacular stunts: air flips, jumps and twists. For a kitesurfer used to literally looking down on windsurfers, simply staying on the water seems a rather bland exercise.
Kitesurfing, kiteboarding, kiteskiing, kitesailing — this sport has many names. It’s an addictive affair, converting former windsurfers and wakeboarders from coast to coast. Dubbed the 3D of windsurfing, it’s a perfect blend of water and air, and lots of adrenaline rushes in between.
“Imagine, if you will, having a jet engine in the air and a razorblade strapped to your feet, that is what it is like,” said Marcus “Flash” Austin, one of the world’s top kitesurfers, in an interview from his Hawaii home a couple of years ago. “Like a rollercoaster ride from hell, you hang on and fly by the seat of your pants, cringing with every ‘wup-tee-doo,’ soaring upon every launch into outer space like Buck Rogers. Everything is strawberry fields from up here, and then someone pulls the plug and your stomach drops; the instinct to abandon ship pulsates through your veins— just in time for a secondary lift to land you like a butterfly.”
Several years ago Austin, who won the Red Bull King of the Air Kiteboarding Championship, and two Kitesurfing World championships, was one of a few enthusiasts kitesurfing off the Maui coast. Today, the sport is catching on from Canada to Croatia, and Maui has become a kitesurfer’s Mecca of sorts, with professional schools and competitions.
Kitesurfing has gained wind in the Pacific Northwest in the last couple of years, and Purdy is one of the kitesurfers’ local hot spots. Seattle’s John Penxa, cofounder of the Seattle Kitesurfing Association, estimated around 90 “kiters” in the area back in 2001, when the sport was in an “embryonic stage.”
For some, kitesurfing is simply a natural extension of other water-surfing sports—an extension that requires less wind. And then there is that temporary release from gravity. The freefall from 20 to 50 feet in the air. The adrenaline rush of your speed, mixed with the wind flowing into your face. Pure freedom.
Got kite; will surf
What is kitesurfing? It’s skimboarding, surfing and flying a kite, all at the same time. The body is the only connection between the kite and the board, and both have to be controlled simultaneously.
“It’s the nearest thing to an anti-gravity device,” Austin said. “One thing that intrigues me is cheating gravity.”
The required elements are simple: a kitesurf kite and a board, a kite control device and accessories like safety release, wetsuit, harness or life jacket.
Brett Nichols of Seattle said it took him about six months to learn. Of course, he did have a lot of surfing experience under his belt. The trickiest part, he said, is to learn the kite maneuvering. With enough practice, it’s easy to get over the part where the kite drags you around.
“You could be in the (cold) water for 20 to 30 minutes, so you are acutely aware of the steep learning curve,” he said.
Steep learning or not, kitesurfers are an interesting bunch. Anything for a chance to “catch big air” (surfer lingo for big jumps). Just check their vehicle cargo.
“Have the gear in your car and watch the wind,” Nichols said. It basically means, be ready to drop everything — work included — on the spur of the moment. Sometimes there is an hour or more warning, sometimes not. The saying “he goes where the wind blows” applies to kitesurfers literally: The rendezvous place changes depending on where the best wind is.
The beauty of kitesurfing is its versatility. “You can get off work at 5 p.m., break out the kite, go into the water for two hours, then go pick up the kids and groceries,” Austin said. “It’s easy to travel with, easy for parents, easy in light-wind areas.”
In lower winds, beginners can learn quickly. In high winds, the sport becomes extreme. At this point, you hang tight and take a deep breath. Once you whisk yourself off the water and launch into the air, again and again, you are hooked—and perhaps learn to understand why others call the sport “a healthy addiction.”
“It’s…Mother Nature’s most addictive drug, a three-dimensional platform of excitement,” Austin said. “The feeling of freedom, to me, is unsurpassed.”