As high as a kite
Definition: kite surfing or kite boarding is a ‘surface water sport' that uses wind-power to pull a rider through the water on a small surf board or kite board. Generally, kite boarding refers to a style of riding known as ‘freestyle' or ‘wake-style', whereas kite surfing refers to a style known as ‘wave-riding'. The two styles require different boards and specific performance kites.
Speed is addictive, which is why kite surfing is the world's fastest-growing ‘extreme sport'. Water sports don't GET any faster than kite surfing, which holds the world record for the fastest means of moving by sail on water: over ninety-two miles an hour to be exact.
It's not just the sheer speed that sets the adrenalin pumping though; it's also the fact that the kite surfer can skim the waves like a vast, vividly-coloured bird; dipping, swooping, and flying up to 100 feet in the air.
An accomplished ‘kiter' can also evolve into a high-wire acrobat of the waves; executing all manner of tricks or ‘freestyle' stunts. Kite surfing, therefore, offers the ultimate thrill cocktail: speed, flight, waves, wind, twanging muscles and skin tight suits.
That said, it doesn't take much imagination to realize that if you're whipping across the waves at 90mph plus, you'll not only be as high as a kite on adrenalin, but also flying in the face of some ‘extreme' hazards. These are as excruciatingly exciting as the sport itself, and include being either swept or dragged out to sea; colliding with swimmers, boats, buildings or power lines (on lakes); and making an ‘unplanned landing' at speed, on your choice of either sand or water.
Alternatively, you can bungle your safety procedures, become tangled in your own lines, and be dragged along beneath the water for as long as it takes you to whip out your safety knife and cut yourself free. Or, and this one comes from the kite surfers ‘rule book' and is expressly forbidden, you can ‘become airborne in inappropriate places'. Sounds like fun huh?
Finally, if all of the above offer the hazard profile of a wet T-shirt contest, you can flirt skittishly with such ‘marine hazards' as sharks, jellyfish, dolphins or crocodiles. No matter what the hazard rating, however, you will correctly refer to all such near-death experiences as ‘kitemares'.
Non-kiters will not be surprised to learn that in its early days, the undeniable hazards of kite surfing caused it to be banned on many of the world's beaches. After all, not since the days of JAWS has the hapless swimmer had to face the possibility of an unplanned encounter with a blunt snout, thrashing through the water at 90 mph, and powered by 170 pounds of rippling rubberized muscle: only to find that this time the muscle is lashed to 16 square meters of ‘ripstop' nylon.
All those who wonder if it really is ‘safe to go back in the water' however, will be reassured by the news that kite surfing is now controlled by a complex set of rules. These assume that a ‘kiter' is, technically at least, a sailing vessel: thus basic ‘sailing rules' apply. Consequently, ‘upwind kiters' must keep their lines higher than ‘downwind kiters'; all kiters must accord each other a 50 metre ‘safety clearance zone'; and both kiters and non-kiters must ‘give way to starboard'. Slightly less reassuring is the rule that makes casual mention of the fact that a kiter may ‘insist' upon his right to priority from the right (starboard) by shouting ‘STARBOARD!' (loudly).
So, should you hear such a (loud) shout whilst desultorily doggie-paddling in the shallows, best beware. Not only are you contravening sailing rule number 12, but you are also in danger of being scuttled.
The history of kite-surfing
It's an odd fact of life that when you look more closely into the history of almost anything - the Chinese got there first. The same goes for kite surfing: the wily Chinese were using kites for propulsion as early as the 13th century.
It was not until the 1800s however, that Englishman George Pocock came up with the brilliant idea of attaching a kite to a cart so as to make it go faster on land. Flushed with success, he then attached a kite to a boat for the same purpose. Not until 1903, however, was another Englishman, Samuel Cody, rash enough to attach a kite to a man, at which point his famous ‘man-lifting kite' succeeded in propelling a man (attached to a small canvas boat) all the way across the English Channel.
Throughout the 1980s various people tried to attach kites to canoes, snow skis, ice-skates, water skis and even roller skates. None of the attempts proved particularly successful until, that is, a German called Dieter Strasilla figured out how to attach a ball socket to a kite. This allowed the pilot to steer it into the wind and take off.
Lift-off sorted, in 1997 two French brothers, Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux, came up with the breakthrough ‘Wipika' design of kite, which had inflatable tubes and a simple ‘bridle' steering system and, by 1998, kite surfing had become a mainstream sport. Finally, in 2008 during the Luderitz Speed Challenge in Namibia, kite surfing broke the World Sailing Speed Record when American Robert Douglas flew across the water at 92.30 mph.
Need to know: kite surfing
Exhilarating, exhibitionist, exciting and undeniably extreme, kite surfing is not for pussycats. It requires a formidable array of equipment, a reasonable level of fitness, a sound training and a healthy appreciation of the power of wind and wave.
How do you learn?
Kite surfing schools not only hire all the necessary equipment, but they also offer the kind of courses that turn you from a quivering ‘beginner' into a wave-dancing flyer. How long this takes depends on you, but according to the experts the minimum course lasts 3 days and costs around Kshs 32,000.
What do you need?
A kite (they come in ALL shapes and sizes), a set of ‘flying lines' to attach the control bar to the kite, a control bar allowing the rider to steer by rotating the kite clockwise or anti-clockwise, a kite harness (seat-type, waist or vest), a kite board, a board leash (to stop your board floating away), a safety-hook knife to cut entangled lines if the in-built safety release system fails, an impact vest, a crash helmet, a GPS and a personal floatation device. You may also like to add protective boots and water sports sunglasses to the list.
How much does the kit cost?
How long is a piece of string? This depends on the quality of equipment, the type of kite and board and whether or not you want a wetsuit. But reckon on a start-up cost of around $1,500.
Kites come in different ‘aspect ratios' (AR). The AR refers to how much of the kite is exposed to the wind and what angle the wind takes as it passes through the kite. Choose from: Bow Kites, Leading-Edge Inflatable Kites (LEIs also known as C kites), Supported-Leading-Edge (SLE) Kites, Delta Kites and Foil Kites.
Where can you kite sail?
Anywhere with a consistent, steady side-onshore wind of 10 to 35+ knots and a large body of open water such as a beach or a lake. The favourite kite surfing venues in Kenya are: Nyali Beach (Mombasa) and Diani Beach (south of Mombasa), Watamu (north of Mombasa) and Che-Shale (Malindi).
How does Kenya rank amongst global kite surfing destinations?
Extremely well: professionals who travel from Hawaii, Australia, Brazil and Egypt to kite surf in Kenya claim that Nyali Beach in particular ranks in the top three favourite world destinations. Apparently it offers the ideal mix of cross shore winds, no cliffs or headlands, warm water, trade winds blowing all year-round, a protective reef 1 km off the beach, and water in the lagoon even at low tide.
How far can you go?
Under ideal conditions (known as a ‘downwinder'), a very long way. Kirsty Jones, for instance, set a record in 2006 for travelling 225 km between Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Morocco on the African mainland: it took her nine hours.
For further details contact Prosurf Kite Sailing School at the Nyali Beach Hotel, Mombasa. Tel +254 41 471551. Cell 0733 622882 email: email@example.com
As with most sports, it helps to know the lingo: so here are some insider terms:
Air time: time in the air while jumping
Big air: a very high jump
Freestyle: doing something clever
Freeride: not doing anything clever
Shit hot: move stylishly
Tea-bagging: popping in and out of the water on the end of your line
Wind-dummy: someone who tests the wind strength for all the other kiters