If you've been at a Seattle beach on a breezy day, you've probably seen kiteboarders out skimming the waves with their enormous, bright kites, jumping 20, 30, 40 feet in the air...
If you’ve been at a Seattle beach on a breezy day, you’ve probably seen kiteboarders out skimming the waves with their enormous, bright kites, jumping 20, 30, 40 feet in the air and just … hanging there.
Robin Ogaard, owner of Urban Surf and a 5-year kiteboarder (which makes him a “pioneer” in this new extreme sport), launched his kite off Richmond Beach on a recent weekend and immediately jumped into the sky.
“I could hear the beach just explode,” he said. “Some people are thrilled, some are scared. Some say they can’t believe what we’re doing and others say, ‘Oh, I just have to do that.’ ”
It’s never been easier to get started in kiteboarding (also known as kitesurfing): There’s now a Seattle Kiteboarding Center offering lessons, the Seattle Kitesurfing Association offers monthly beginner nights during the summer, new equipment is safer and user-friendly, and the sport’s been around long enough for used gear to be available.
Puget Sound also offers year-round wind and plenty of beaches.
“Seattle is a wonderful place to kiteboard, with all the water around,” said instructor Jason Clack. The sport’s growing popularity means popular beaches Magnuson, Richmond Beach, Golden Gardens, Carkeek Park and Everett’s Jetty Island might see 30 kites in the air on a windy weekend.
But it’s still not that easy, experienced kiters stress. Novices shouldn’t underestimate the wind’s power. Kiters ride specially designed boards (they resemble the wakeboards used behind water-ski boats) while being pulled by four-line kites with inflatable air tubes and wing spans measuring 25 to 40 feet wide.
“The kites do look benign; they’re colorful and pretty,” said John Penxa, president of the nonprofit Seattle Kitesurfing Association, which claims about 100 members. “Everybody’s flown kites growing up.”
However, a trainer kite with a surface area of three square meters can drag an adult across the ground; in the summertime, most kiters use kites more than five times larger, at 16 square meters.
“If you launch a kite that can lift you 20 feet in the air from land or water and you don’t know what you’re doing, your next stop will be the ER,” Penxa told a group of about 30 people who came to check out the sport at the association’s Kite Nite in June at Golden Gardens Park. “It’s about the same as going skydiving without a lesson.”
With two others, he started the association in 2001 after a beginner with no training tried to kite at Magnuson Park and broke both feet. He’s also seen three people crack their thigh bones. Though he hasn’t heard of any U.S. deaths, there have been fatalities elsewhere. “The people who do know try to keep those who don’t know from hurting themselves or getting beaches closed,” Penxa said.
Safety first for all ages
The Kiteboarding Center, which has taught about 250 beginners since its 2002 inception, stresses safety and offers in-water classes with instructors on Jet Skis, said owner Clack, also a professional kiteboarder. They teach spring and summer classes at Jetty Island as well as winter programs in Baja California. (Experienced kiters surf here year-round with wetsuits, booties and gloves, but newbies prefer fair weather.)
While many kiters are in their 20s and 30s (it can be an expensive sport for teens to get into), Clack has taught folks in their 60s. More women are also picking up kites.
“The younger crowd likes to go for big air while the older guys just like to get out and cruise,” Clack said. “You can make it as challenging and as extreme as you want to.”
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No other sport allows such high, graceful jumps and tricks with gentle landings, Ogaard said. “The kite is holding you up so if you control the kite, you can get huge jumps and land like you just jumped off a two-foot step,” he noted. “Of course, you can also crash pretty hard, too.”
When the sport attracted its first Seattle initiates about five years ago, most were windsurfing crossovers who wanted an activity to do in lighter winds.
Now that kiteboarding is more exposed, with pro tours, extreme-sports coverage and sponsorships, it’s gathering fans from snowboarding, wakeboarding, skateboarding, sailing and, no surprise, beach observers.
“I saw somebody at the beach and thought, ‘That looks like fun,’ ” said Alicia Silva of Green Lake, who took a try flying Penxa’s trainer kite at Kite Nite. Despite being pulled across the sand a few times, “it feels nice,” she laughed.
A steady wind of 10 or 15 miles per hour is ideal for a large kite (16 to 25 square meters). Penxa, who owns three sizes of kites, uses his medium 12-meter kite for winds in the 20- to 30-mph range and his small 9-meter kite for winds from 30 to 36 mph. “Beyond that, it’s just not much fun,” he said.
Windsurfers like more powerful winds, which aren’t as gusty down at the water’s surface, Penxa said. The kite, flying 100 feet in the air, offers a bumpier ride, so lighter breezes are preferable. That opens up most of Seattle for kiting, whereas advanced windsurfers have to head to the Columbia Gorge for the best conditions.
A learning experience
At Kite Nite, an offshore wind discouraged most. “If something goes wrong, you’re going to Bainbridge,” Penxa said. He’s known kiters on Lake Washington who started in Seattle, ended up in Kirkland and had to take a taxi home. “It’s one issue to have to take a cab and another issue to have to take a ferry.”
The premier local spot is Jetty Island, which offers a reliable night thermal that Penxa dubs a “working-man wind. You can have a professional life and still come out and get a nice evening workout.” The island’s steady blowing removes some of the unpredictability of kiting’s invisible power source, making it ideal for beginners, he said.
Learning to fly the kite is the first skill to master. Though it’s simple in principle pull the handle bar right, the kite goes right; pull it left, it moves left the wind direction and strength must be anticipated. “If you’re not controlling the kite, it will pull you whatever direction it wants to go,” Ogaard said.
Ideally, the kite will fly overhead in a “neutral” position if a kiter falls off a board and needs to recoup. If the kite crashes, inflatable tubes allow for relaunching from the water. Kiters are attached to the kite with a harness but can be quickly released.
Safety gear includes a life jacket for “padding” in case of crashes as well as flotation and a helmet, which protects the head from the board flying back on a leash. The 100-foot lines can also be dangerous, with the potential for cutting skin.
But for the freedom of wakeboarding without a boat, for the “ooh ahh” factor, few sports can trump kiteboarding.
“When you’re 15, 20 feet out of the water, that’s pretty impressive looking,” Ogaard said. “You’re staying up in the air and traveling a long ways. A lot of people who see it can’t believe the hang time.”
Stephanie Dunnewind: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2091.