URBAN ADVENTURE: Kiteboarding
By Danielle Charbonneau
Rick remembers the first time he saw a kiteboarder. He was sitting on the beach at dusk when suddenly he saw a young man being effortlessly dragged through the waves attached to a neon kit. Rick watched as the kite pulled the man’s body along the shoreline for miles, as far as Rick’s eyes could see. Rick imagined the exhilaration — the sense of freedom and weightlessness of being pulled through the water by the wind. While Rick had been a water sports enthusiast since the day he moved to Florida at the age of 19, he had never seen anything like kiteboarding. He didn’t even know what it was called. He went home and started researching. At the time, the sport was so new he couldn’t find anything about it, but he knew he wanted to try it. A whole year passed before he finally learned of the sport. When he tried it for the first time in 2001, there were only about 100,000 people in the world kiteboarding. Now Rick has been kiteboarding for 18 years and teaching the sport for ten.
“I was instantly hooked,” he said. “Since then I’ve never looked back. Most people try it and are hooked for life.”
I, like Rick, remember the first time I saw a kiteboarder. I watched a guy jump out of the water using the power of his kite. He got several feet of air above a crashing wave before landing smoothly back on his board, then weaved in and out of the surf, carving it like butter. I was jealous. I immediately wanted to try it, but thought I probably wasn’t strong or sporty enough. I assumed at the time that kiteboarders need extreme upper body strength to manage the kite — strength I probably didn’t have. So for over a year, I sat in the sand and watched kiteboarders on Pompano Beach, growing evermore curious.
I did this with other adventure sports too, sitting on the sidelines, jealous and cowardly. Then, about a year ago, I said enough is enough. No more sidelines. I made a decision that I would try the activities I had always wanted to, but never had. That decision led to my writing this Urban Adventure column and trying out a whole slew of activities, like Porsche racing, flyboarding, shark tagging, roller derby, and most recently, kiteboarding. Rick, the owner and instructor of Pompano Beach Kiteboarding, was my courageous and patient teacher.
For my first lesson, I met Rick on the sand behind the Pompano Beach Marriott hotel. I was nervous, not knowing what to expect. When I arrived, Rick had laid out three kites on the sand, each a different size. I helped him straighten out the lines attached to the smallest of the three . The lines were attached to a bar used to steer the kite. Step one was to get the kite in the air. Step two was to learn how to lightly steer the kite using the bar.
Unfortunately, I had almost no experience flying a kite. As a kid, I tried to fly the flimsy, diamond-shaped kind (with a single string and a criss-cross frame in the center), but usually ended up sprinting like a crazy person with the kite dragging pathetically through the dirt behind me. Flying a real, two-line kite was actually completely foreign to me. Thus, when the kite took flight on my first try, I tensed my arms and jerked the bar too quickly, causing the kite to come crashing down. I did this repeatedly, over and over, growing fairly insecure in my ability to learn. Rick, however, assured me. He said tensing up is the number one mistake beginners make.
Contrary to my initial assumption, operating a kite doesn’t take Herculean strength. In fact, it’s the opposite. Flying the kite (at least at first) should take very little strain. The wind does the work, not your muscles. To demonstrate this, Rick showed me how to steer the kite with just two fingers. There is a softness and subtlety to the motion. One must find a sort of inner calm to steer with a smooth rhythm. Once my body found that rhythm, flying the kite started to feel like a dance. Watching the kite swoop in a figure eight, my body lightly swayed side to side as I learned the motion.
After about ten minutes with the smallest kite, Rick progressed me to the second, larger kite. Surprisingly, I had more success on the second kite. It seemed slightly less responsive to my jerky, tense movements. I was better able to feel the rhythm. Still, I barely kept the kite in the air. I crashed it over three dozen times.
On my second lesson, I was nervous again. I wasn’t sure if my brain would remember what I had learned two weeks earlier. I was amazed when, on my first try, flying the kite came right back to me. Muscle memory is magical. It was incredible how much better I got from the first lesson, to the second. It was as if the skill had somehow marinated and jelled in my mind.
By the third lesson, Rick progressed me to the largest kite. Now this kite had real power. Wearing a harness around my waist, the kite could easily drag me. As I got the hang of using the bar to steer and feel the power of each turn, Rick instructed me to let the kite drag me on my heels through the sand. I would turn the kite and drag right; turn the kite and drag left. I was giddy with excitement. I was slowly learning the art.
A few times I inadvertently let the kite drag too hard, its weight pulling me off balance. I’d land on my butt or chest in the sand, laughing, but even falling was fun. With each crash I brushed myself off and tried again. It was exhilarating to feel the kite lift me. I could see, however, how beginners have occasionally had horrible disasters. I thought of those famous YouTube videos of kiters smashing into buildings. I asked Rick about such accidents and he kind of chuckled, saying those accidents are easy to avoid.
“All you have to do is let go of the bar,” he said Unfortunately, when one panics, the instant human impulse is to grip harder.
Kiting is often counterintuitive. When you think you need to pull harder to give the kite more power, you actually need to let go (which lets more wind into the kite); and when you think you need to let go, you actually need to pull tighter. Teaching your mind to do this though takes time.
For my fourth lesson, which I have not completed yet, Rick said we will most likely go in the water and learn how to body drag. I can’t wait. While I am somewhat sad I’ve been a slow learner and haven’t made it to the water yet, I must say flying the kite, in and of itself, is pretty fun. It gave me childlike joy.
A few things have become clear. The first is that kiteboarding is not something you learn in one session. Like snowboarding or skiing, you have to commit to learning and progressing. Having a certified instructor like Rick is certainly necessary. The second is that learning the art of flying a kite is just as, if not more, important than learning the board. And as Rick points out, once you master the kite, it can be applied in many places — on a mountain snowkiting, on a lake, or in the ocean. Serious kiters, he said, plan their vacations around wind conditions, traveling to new exotic places. When he’s not kiting in Florida, Rick kites in majestic lagoons in Brazil.
While I know I am still extremely new to the sport, I think Rick might just be right: I could be hooked for life.
Rick is an International Kiteboarding Organization (IKO) certified instructor. IKO instructors are trained in the latest and safest way to teach kitesurfing. Non-IKO-certified instructors are generally self-taught. Rick says he is the only IKO certified instructor in Pompano Beach. He is the owner of, and instructor for, Pompano Beach Kiteboarding. To learn more, visit his website at pompanokiteboarding.com