Kiteboarding takes off
September 7, 2005
Dear Sirs:I am an enthusiast, but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine. I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then, if possible, add my mite to help on the future worker who will attain final success.- Wilbur Wright, in a May 30,1899, letter to the Smithsonian InstitutionEvery schoolkid knows the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright: a couple of bicycle builders from Ohio who became interested in flight and began experimenting with gliders before building an engine-powered aircraft and flying it successfully, at Kitty Hawk, N.C., for 12 seconds in 1903.
What most folks don’t know about the Wright Brothers is that they actually built a wind tunnel to test their wing designs; that they made more than a thousand glider flights before testing their engine-powered Wright Flyer; and that – best of all – they cited the death of Otto Lilienthal, a contemporary German engineer and aviator who died in 1896 while flying an experimental glider, as “the point when their serious interest in flight research began,” as one website puts it. It’s always good to start with the death wish; the medium can be decided later.The toughest question for the Wrights, though, was where to test the devices they were building in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Whatever the place, it needed to be open, certainly, and perhaps boast a constant, gentle breeze. A slope to accelerate gently down might be nice. And it should definitely be free of dive-bombing experimental German aviators.They eventually agreed to launch their wooden and cloth devices on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a location that boasts a strong and exceptionally constant southwest breeze and big, rolling sand dunes (the biggest in the eastern United States), down which they could run into the wind.What Orville and Wilbur Wright might never have guessed is that the place where they flew those three historic flights on Thursday, Dec. 17, 1903 – Kitty Hawk – has today become a magnet for airborne activities of every shape, speed and configuration. And, I can assure you, no death wish is necessary. Even folks with the coordination of a lobotomized buffalo (like the author) can get involved.In early June, I had an opportunity to visit the Outer Banks, and, throwing caution to the wind, I signed up for a hang-gliding lesson with Kitty Hawk Kites at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, an area of rolling dunes in Nags Head. A group of us was conducted to a small, air-conditioned room whereupon we watched a lengthy video of experimental European gliders – Frenchmen and Germans wearing bird costumes and mock bathtubs – who were hucking themselves, with said gliders, off rooftops, cliffs and other places where gravity could do its thing (which is, of course, pull you back to earth at a speed approximating your mass multiplied by 32 feet per second squared).
The folks at Kitty Hawk Kites had, according to the propaganda, trained more than 300,000 people to hang glide (aged 8 to 80!), and, my hang-gliding instructor, Steve, assured me and my “ground class” classmates, it was as safe as buttering toast. He gave us some simple pointers, and with that, ground school was over.A short while later, we hiked to the top of a 200-foot-tall sand dune, were given additional instruction and then were strapped into a great aluminum and nylon structure (known as a “glayyyder” in North Carolina) and generally made ready to toddle down an easy slope from which we would cruise off into the glorious blue yonder.Unfortunately, the wind had gotten a little gusty, and after much experimentation with the glider himself – which included a maneuver called “lawn darting” – Steve deemed the draught just a mite unpredictable and we retired to cool lemonade.I was frustratingly hooked and wanted sorely to put that exceptional breeze to good use. There were no wind-turbine-building projects under way locally, so, instead, I decided to try my hand at kiteboarding.Kiteboarding is one of the fastest-growing wind-related sports (besides writing long articles like this one). In it a “rider” is pulled along the surface of the water using the power generated by a flexible wing, or “kite.” The board is about 4 to 6 feet long and has a slight rocker to it, two rubberized foot-keeper straps, and a half-dozen shallow fins along the sides of the bottom in a somewhat asymmetrical pattern. Picture a snowboard crossed with a surfboard, except in this case the surfboard’s fins are along the edge of the board. The kite is similar to the paragliders’ wings often seen over Aspen, but those aerial versions are bigger and more refined.In action, kiteboarding looks like a combination of parasailing and surfing. I’d seen kiteboarders riding across the frozen surface of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City in February 2003, and it looked like an absolute hoot. So I quickly signed up for a few lessons with a local outfitter, Real Kiteboarding, in Rodanthe on Hatteras Island and was taken down to the beach.
The Outer Banks is often touted as the best kiteboarding country on earth, as the area boasts the right combination of wind and water for anyone – even a potato-shaped oldie like me – to take part in the sport. On one side is Pamlico Sound, a 20-mile-wide body of water with genteel wind and water conditions (several miles offshore, the Sound is barely waist deep, which is very conducive to learning), and, for grad-school-level kiteboarders, there’s the Atlantic itself – wilder, colder and more challenging in every respect.As I said, kiteboarding is a bit of a cross between sailing, flying a kite and surfing. The first thing you must do is learn to control the kite. On the beach, an instructor, Sam Bell, unfurled a tiny piece of fabric – a “trainer” kite – and explained various things about the “power window” (the area in which the most wind force is generated against the kite), the controls and the mechanics of getting it up, so to speak, in the air. The very light fabric and the small size of the kite (I nicknamed it Speedracer) made it respond like a sports car, and I was soon dive-bombing surf fishermen with the agility of a drunken fighter pilot.After an hour’s experimentation, I figured I had it down, and Sam pulled out a bigger kite. This one had an inflatable “leading” edge, which would become key on the water. Being inflatable, I called her Dolly.We pumped her up and launched her. Much heavier than the trainer kite, Dolly wobbled and sputtered, then finally made her way up to the “neutral” position, straight above my head. I made a few arcs, dives and turns, getting into the magical “wah” of kiting. While Speedracer had been a bit of a sprinter, Dolly was more of a long-distance walker; it was similar to the difference between a Mazda Miata and a Ford Excursion. Still, Dolly knew when to roll and how to handle big wind (the way the wife has learned). Everything was going swimmingly. Time to get in the water.Next morning, my instructor, a charming, laid-back youngster – the kind I’d always thought I’d grow up to be – named Andy Gassner, gave an innocent-seeming 20-year-old named Scott and me all the kiteboarding gear we’d ever need, including the board, kite, harness and booties. I was now prepared to kill myself. I wasted no time.The key to kiteboarding is controlling a number of phenomena all at one time. These phenomena include the wind, the buoyancy of the board (and yourself), the current and your hangover. All these phenomena are related in a difficult-to-master equation, S=wmc2/d, in which your success is equal to the wind multiplied by your mass multiplied by your coordination squared, and divided by how dumb you are (Newton never got this one, but his 1680s doodles of planetary motion reportedly showed the planets using kites to get around the sun).
Moving on. Andy had me stand waist deep in the water until he was certain I could handle the kite properly. Then he had me wedge my feet into the board’s footstraps, crouch, dip the kite into the power zone, then – whap! – I was flying across the surface of the water, surfing with no wave, yet trucking along at about 140 knots and having a ball.I heard a voice far behind me: “Watch out for that …. pelican!” I dodged the waterfowl but ran afoul in the water when I dipped the kite left as it should have gone right. I was suddenly sans board and chumming along the surface like a trawler with a busted compass.Still, I was now at some point along the learning curve – granted, near the basement – and additional heroics were all I could anticipate. Andy loaded Scott and me onto his jet ski, and we headed a few miles out into Pamlico Sound – you know, so innocent people wouldn’t get unwittingly clobbered.There we practiced disaster maneuvers. After several minutes, it was clear that I was the disaster. That’s OK, because Scott quickly learned to maneuver around me (“remember, you’re learning from him, and he’s learning from you, Cam,” Andy diplomatically encouraged). After a half-hour of watching Scott perfect several hundred professional moves (the kinds 40-year-olds take several centuries to master) I got another turn on the board. “Just don’t steer yourself into that yacht!” Andy hollered as I blasted out of the water. With such instructions, the obvious response was, “What yacht?”I’m just kidding – there wasn’t a yacht – but it was clear by the end of the day that this was an activity even I could handle. And once I stopped chumming and started standing up, it was a fantastic way to spend a day. Bouncing along the surface of the water with no whining motor, the wind in your hair and a refreshing spritzer of water every few minutes is tough to beat. Aiming one’s speeding torso at innocent sailors also brings remarkably rewarding looks of horror.
Back on shore, I had a chance to talk with Matt Nuzzo, one of Real Kiteboarding’s co-founders and a pro himself. He explained that part of kiteboarding’s appeal is that the learning curve is enjoyable at all stages. Last year alone, Matt’s company taught 6,000 new riders, and there are an estimated 500,000 kiteboarders (65 percent are men, 35 percent are women) worldwide.”Kiteboarding is gaining popularity all over the world,” he noted. “There are great spots like Cozumel, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and Hawaii. Even Aspen!”Matt told me he had done some kiteboarding on what we soon figured was probably the Droste Ranch; apparently there is a growing community of local kiteboarders. “Basically anywhere there is steady wind and water, snow, ice or hard-packed land,” he added.Part of the attraction for both sexes is that kiteboarding is (when done by people other than me) extremely graceful, and it doesn’t require endless upper body strength. It’s also a blast.When people talk about the genius of Wilbur and Orville Wright, and everything they did with flying machines, I’d have to argue that selecting the Outer Banks was their singular achievement.
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Great wind, great water, cool locals and, best of all, no dive-bombing experimental German aviators.Cameron M. “Spud” Burns is a Basalt-based writer and addicted one-time kiteboarder currently searching the Roaring Fork Valley for the right conditions.