Kiteboarding may be the next big thing
While the weather disappointed some Islanders and visitors, especially earlier this summer, some folks made the most of the occasionally foul weather.
Let the wind blow, they said as their kites filled with wind gusts, while 30 feet below, the wild weather sports carved through the choppy water on their kiteboards, harnessing the wind for a fast, cool, and exhilarating ride. Kiteboarding is an up-and-coming water sport, and its legion of adherents is growing quickly.
Also known as kitesurfing or kiting, kiteboarding is an extreme sport, and it has come onto the national scene just in the past few years, but its origins are difficult to trace. Kitesurfingnow.com claims that kitesurfing can be traced as far back as the 12th century, where it was used as a mode of transportation in China. Modern kitesurfing, however, dates back to the 1970s, when people experimented with para-glider wings and surfboards. Kitesurfing as it is practiced today was created in the '90s by adventurous windsurfers, but it has not been recognized nationwide until recently.
Geoff Cassel, owner of Wind's Up in Vineyard Haven, first learned about kitesurfing eight years ago while he was in Hawaii. He began participating in the sport three years later. "Five years ago there was no one doing it," said Mr. Cassel. "Now there are a handful of people on the Island doing it regularly."
One of these, Mark Begle, is the only kiteboarding instructor on the Island and the owner of SkyHigh Kiteboarding. Mr. Begle has been a kiteboarding instructor here since 2002 and has seen a steady rise in participants since then.
"The first couple years were a little slow, but last year was a big year and this year there seems to be about 30 percent more interest in it," said Mr. Begle. "It's definitely progressively getting more and more for the masses."
A first lesson
Recently, on a day that was ideal for most beachgoers but a day that had only just enough wind for a kitesurfing lesson, and not enough to gain the complete kitesurfing experience, Mr. Begle set out to give a lesson to a Times news intern.
"Ten knots is pretty much the minimum," said Mr. Begle, who estimated that the wind was blowing about 12 knots at the time of the reporter's lesson. "Fifteen knots is really good, and twenty knots can be very fun but only for experienced riders." At the Katama Bay landing on Edgartown Bay Road, the trainee signed the necessary waivers before venturing into the water. Mr. Begle's inflatable black Zodiac crossed the bay on a southeasterly course, landing several minutes later on the bay side of the beach.
An array of kites, lines, boards, vests, and helmets takes up the front two-thirds of the vessel. The trainee wears an impact vest and a helmet, and the lesson begins on the beach with Mr. Begle explaining how to control the kite. It was a two-line, three-meter foil kite, designed specifically for beach use.
Kiteboarding kites do not resemble a typical kite. They take on a crescent shape, similar to that of a stunt parachute. Attached to the kite are lines (two on the beach kite, but usually four on regular kites) that connect to the steering bar, as well as attach to the impact vest worn by participants. The impact vests are fairly heavy, inflatable vests, with many gel-like pads sealed inside. More comforting than restraining, the vests have a hook with which to attach the lines, and a plastic tube that prevents the lines from getting unhooked. The control bar, always red on the left and blue on the right (you figure it out), is just that, a metal bar with lines attached to it.
Lots of strings, but if you can manage them, you can dangle from a kiteboard and fly. Photo by Ezra Blair
The boarder steers the kite by extending his arms, and tilting the bar left or right. While flying the kite, Mr. Begle explained the "Wind Window," and told his student to imagine the kite as the top half of a clock. The neutral position is at 12 o'clock, essentially the highest point, straight above the participant. Moving the kite to the right from neutral, the kite flies at one o'clock, then two o'clock, before touching the ground directly to the right at three o'clock. Likewise for the left side, where nine o'clock is the ground to the student's left, with ten o'clock and 11 o'clock getting higher in the air until the kite reaches neutral.
To launch the kite, Mr. Begle tossed it into the air, and the student proceeded to jolt the kite this way and that in a futile attempt to harness the wind and lead the kite into the sky. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, the student finally managed to get the kite up into the sky and attempted to maintain its position. After what seemed like 15 minutes, but was an hour or so, it was time to get on the water.
Wading through the shallowest part of the bay, about waist high, Mr. Begle helped his student launch the four-line, eight-meter inflatable kite. While significantly larger than the land kite, the difference in difficulty was minimal. The larger kite had more of a pull, but the steering provided no more difficult a challenge than the land kite.
It was time to try the power stroke, a quick fluid movement to generate wind pull on the kite. Steered to the ten and eleven o'clock range, and then quickly back across neutral to the one and two o'clock range, the kite gets pulled strongly and quickly, resulting in the boarder's being aggressively dragged through the water, surprised by the strength of the pull and out of control. At this time, Mr. Begle tried to teach the water relaunch, a means of forcing the kite into the air from the water. In a swift movement that involves bringing the control bar over the surfer's head and then releasing it, the kite is supposed to roll over and get picked up by the wind. Unfortunately, that lesson's water relaunch generally consisted of Mr. Begle lifting the recalcitrant kite into the air, but that's what instructors are for, after all.
Returning to the beach, Mr. Begle explained how to untangle the kite lines before changing to a four-line, ten-meter kite, because of the decreasing wind. But before the power stroke could do its stuff, the wind died away completely, and the lesson was over without the student's ever getting on a waterborne board.
Not only is kiteboarding a challenging sport to learn, the hardware is expensive, topping out at $1,200 for a board, and $1,500 for a kite, and while used equipment can be much cheaper, kiteboarding is certainly not a sport for the miserly. Although most people can be up on a board with the most basic skills in hand after two lessons, a lot of time and commitment is required to become proficient.
"It's a lifestyle thing more than a sport," said Mr. Begle. "It's not a sport that you have in your garage and you do once or twice a year."
As for the future of the sport, Mr. Begle is optimistic. "It's a niche sport for sure, but if you look at how the sport has spread from the west coast, it's only going to get bigger and bigger."
Mark Begle at Skyhigh Kiteboarding may be reached at 508-259-2728 or www.skyhighkite.com.