The sound of the wind blowing through the palms outside my window tells me it’s another great day out there to play at my newest sport. We’re smack dab in the middle of Winder (my name for the season that falls between November and March here on the East Cape) and after approximately 20 sessions spread out over two seasons, I no longer feel like I must add the caveat “I’m just learning” when I say I kitesurf.
Kitesurfing is definitely an extreme sport. As anyone who’s tried it will tell you, it’s got a very steep learning curve and if you don’t think it deserves to be called “extreme” perhaps you need to read my post Welcome to my Kitemare.
I’ve always shied away from equipment intensive sports because of the associated expense, repairs and technical knowledge required. However, a couple of years ago when I started to spend a lot of time on the North Shore of Maui – note: there are more windy days on Maui than any other place on Earth with the exception of Antarctica – I decided it was time to reevaluate that stance. I started out with one kite, one board, a harness to connect me to the bar and the necessary safety gear. Having only one kite meant I could only go out when wind speeds were within a specific range before I could head out. This reduced the number of days I could kite, slowing down my progress. Realistically, you need several different kites of differing sizes to cover the range of potential wind speeds you may encounter. Then there is the bar used to steer the kite – there are different sizes and styles depending on the kite you’re flying. Safety gear includes a helmet, a leash and an impact vest.
I was debating recently whether I needed to keep wearing a helmet because my board had yet to hit me in the head despite some pretty impressive wipe outs, when it did just that. It hit me hard enough that it took a chunk out of my helmet. From there it ricocheted into my right thumb leaving an inch long gash that weeks later is still healing. That relieved me of any doubt regarding the need for a helmet.
Early on I also questioned how badly I needed to wear an impact vest. These are the vests that guys like Laird Hamilton wear when they surf the big waves at Pe’ahi and Mavericks. Contrary to popular belief, they offer minimal floatation, but act like a flack jacket, protecting the wearer from bruising and breaks that would otherwise result from the force of impact during a high speed crash. I laughed to myself when my kiting instructor recommended I buy one, figuring there was no way I actually needed that kind of protection. “Does he think I’m crazy? I’m not going to go that fast,” went through my mind. Turns out I have gone that fast. More than once.
The first time it happened I was still hanging out at the lower end of the learning curve. I was out with my nine meter kite on a day when I should have taken out the 7.5 meter. This was also before I figured out that conditions tend to be fairly gusty in front of my house (I now head further North where winds are steady). So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what ended up happening:
overpowered + gusty = epic wipe out
One moment I was up and running, the next I was lying in the water, dazed and in pain. I felt like I’d been run over. Like a rag doll that had just been shook by a large dog. I began a mental body scan to assess the damage. My ribs were screaming at me, my left hip bone felt like there was a knife sticking into it, my ears were ringing, my eyes stung from hitting the water so fast I didn’t have time to close them before impact, and my ankles felt like the tendons holding them together had undergone a serious stress test. My heart was racing and my lungs? Well, they were having trouble re-inflating. I managed to choke down a few painful gasps of air and lay there trying to figure out what had gone wrong while the kite pulled me steadily and quickly downwind. That’s when I noticed my impact vest – it was lying in the water above my head, attached to me only by my shoulders. With horror I realized that the force of the impact of my wipeout had exploded the heavy duty zipper and ripped the vest from my body. “That explains why my ribs hurt,” I reasoned, imagining what it might feel like to try to swim the half mile to shore with multiple fractured ribs. It was in that moment of clarity that I realized, “I guess I need this vest after all.” Ever since then when I zip the vest on, my mind flashes to that tiny but significant eureka moment.
I will say that while the learning curve may be steep and the equipment expensive and a pain in the ass to repair, the pleasure payoff is supreme when you are flying across the ocean powered only by the wind. This is the first sport that’s ever made me laugh out loud from the shear joy of it. Last time I was out I caught some air, for on purpose this time, which induced a big laugh of amazement when I landed it successfully and kept gliding. Of course I wiped out seconds later as my mind became distracted with reviewing my success. Like a Buddhist master with his bamboo switch, extreme sports have a direct way of letting you know each and every time your attention wavers and you stop being present in the Here and Now.