Although there are different ways of using a kite on water (for example, kite kayaking and kite waterskiing), kitesurfing (or kiteboarding) is the most popular and well-known of all the traction kite sports, and perhaps the one to thank for the speedy development of all the others. It was the interest from the windsurf community in kitesurfing that helped push the sport from the obscure into the mainstream and encouraged the financing of research into equipment. It is also one of the trickiest sports to get the hang of, as the water adds another complication to the flyer-kite-wind equation.
Whatever you choose to play with on the water, make sure you really understand your kite and its emergency release system before you go out on the water. You will need a bigger kite on water than you would on land in the same wind so this is an added reason to make sure you are confident of your skills.
Kitesurfing is just like windsurfing, with a kite instead of a sail, or like wakeboarding with a kite instead of a boat/cable. It is surfing with a kite and can be done both in waves or on the flat, as long as there is wind! Standing on a wakeboard/surfboard hybrid, you let the kite pull you back and forth across the wind.
It is imperative that you use a four-line kite for safety, and it is a much better idea than using a two-line as you have more chance of keeping the kite exactly where you want it in the wind window. As a rough guide, a beginner of 65kg (145lb) should be happy with a 10m (33ft) kite in force 3 winds.
You will want to use a bar rather than handles to control the kite, so that you can use one hand to put on your board, swim back to a board you have left behind, or to style out some air with a grab. You will also want to use a harness (when you are proficient enough to do so) as you will be dealing with strong winds and big kites and your arms will get tired.
It is a good idea to start with a big board in light wind as it will be more stable and buoyant, meaning the kite won’t need to generate as much power to keep you afloat.
A good set-up for a beginner or improver kitesurfer would be a twin-directional, thick and wide board which, when placed on its end, reaches around roughly to your shoulders. The length is important, but width and thickness are more so. If a board is wide and thick, it will pop up easily and feel stable and keep going if the kite de-powers. Do not be tempted to start out on a board with a thin profile as the lack of buoyancy will not do you any favours, as you progress, you may want to change to a thinner board – with a narrow waist for going fast, or a wide waist for freestyle.
Your board will have fins attached to the base of it to help you direct the board. Bigger fins with a thicker profile will help you stay in a straight line which will save much frustration when trying to get upwind. Make sure that the foot straps on the top of your board fit you well so that your feet don’t ‘swim’ about, causing you to lose some control. Beginners should choose foot-straps that allow you to release your feet quickly because wakeboard-type boots will cause you trouble if a large kite is demanding your attention whilst you spend ten minutes trying to get your board off.
Opinion is divided on the subject of leashes. Although it is a miserable experience trying to swim upwind to pick up your escaped board, it is less miserable than being knocked out by your board as the leash snaps it back towards you when you crash. If you wear a leash, do it with the knowledge that it is dangerous, and always wear a helmet!
NB If the wind is strong, use a smaller kite and board. if the wind is weak, use a bigger kite and board. You can make small adjustments by changing the angle of attack of your kite.
In all kite sports the wind is the first thing to consider. For beginner kitesurfers this is even more important, for both the wind speed and the wind direction dictate whether you can take to the water or not. This is because, in most instances, the shore line will be running from top to bottom in a standard direction. Beginner kitesurfers need the wind direction to be ideally cross-on or cross shore, or, at worst, cross-off. If the wind is off-shore it is inadvisable to surf unless you have a back-up boat. There is an extra step when learning to kitesurf that other kite sports do not have. Between learning to fly the kite and kitesurfing you must fly and relaunch the kite in the water without the board. Flying in the water is called ‘body dragging’ and is much the same idea as scudding on land.
Before you learn to kitesurf, or indeed on days when the wind is too weak or gusty to kitesurf, you can have a go at the macabre-sounding body dragging. Body dragging happens whenever you take to the water with your kite but without your board, letting the power generated by the kite drag your body through the water. The fun of body dragging is trying to get your whole body out of the water as you pass the kite through the power zone. The not-so-much-fun bit is walking your kite back up to where you started! A further advantage of learning how to body drag upwind is that you will be able to retrieve your board when kitesurfing, if it is left upwind of you after a crash.
Launch your inflatable water kite as usual, at the edge of the window. Hover the kite at the zenith, or lower at the edge of the window if there is a chance of lofting. Walk your kite to the water until you are submerged just below chest-height. From this position, start dipping the kite into the power zone using figures of eight. On each occasion, dip the kite a bit further into the zone, and allow it to pull you, In a Superman pose, forwards and up out of the water.
How to set yourself up
Once you can fly the kite with one hand, are a confident body-dragger, can relaunch the kite in water, and can use the kite’s power to lift you up from a sitting position on land (a dry water start), it is time to pick up your board and walk into the water.
Just as for walking when body dragging, keep your kite either at the zenith, or lower down at the edge of the window. In the water, hover the kite above you, sit down so that you are bobbing in the water and place your board in front of you, heelside nearest to you. Whilst keeping an eye on your kite, put your feet in the straps so that your knees are bent up near your chest and the board is sitting on its edge in the water.
How to get moving
When you are balanced, fly the kite firmly into the power zone on the side of the direction you wish to travel. The power generated should lift you up and out of the water. You will need to keep your weight on your back foot to keep the nose of the board out of the water, and lean back onto your heel edge. Keeping yourself from sinking is your immediate concern, so pay attention to your kite and keep it moving through the power zone in figures of eights until you have enough speed and poise to lock the kite into position at around a 45 degree angle from the water.
How to stop
Turn your kite upwards slowly towards the zenith. At the zenith your kite will stop generating power and you will slow down – and sink.
Getting upwind is tricky, both on your board and off. The first time you will probably need to do this is when you have crashed and your board is bobbing about upwind of you (if you are not wearing a leash). You will need to fly your kite high near the zenith in figures of eight, whilst putting an arm outstretched in the water, in the direction you are being dragged, but pointing slightly behind you. Eventually you will be dragged upwind.
Surfing upwind is more difficult than windsurfing, and, of course, a problem that wakeboarders would not have encountered. Whereas a windsurfer only has to trim the sail and steer the board, a kitesurfer often has to really work the kite and the board. At least it is not necessary to turn the board’s nose 180 degrees to go back across the wind if a bi-directional board is used. With twin-tipped boards, just as for landboarding and snowboarding, you simply raise the kite to the zenith and reposition it on the other side of the window, allowing you to ride in the opposite direction with the opposite foot leading.
To gain ground upwind, make sure you keep the kite powered up, high and close to the edge of the window, and cut as far upwind as you can with your board, using your head – if you turn your head to look upwind, you invariably will travel upwind.
How to turn
To turn the nose of the board 180 degrees you will apply the same principles as you would on a snowboard or landboard as above, taking extra care to keep the kite sufficiently powered up – sinking in the middle of a turn is irritating to say the least. If you are not using full foot bindings you can change your footing mid-turn so that you are always riding on your heel edge with the same foot leading, or, if your feet are fastened down, you will ride on your toe edge.
How to get air
The same principles apply for getting air with a kite on a board as without a board. If you are travelling to the right, send the kite left and upwards towards the zenith whilst at the same time doing a sharp turn right on your board, away from the kite. This should lift you. Instantly send the kite back right again so that you can land and won’t get dragged backwards. You can use waves to give you more air, executing your sharp backside turn on their crest. This will mean you do not need so much backward movement of your kite to get as much air.