Kite Surfing: It Looked So Easy . . .

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 27, 2008

The list of thoughts jiggling around my mind as I face-plow through the ocean like a log tethered to a speedboat, pulled by a prodigious force I cannot control, is short: "How the hell did this happen?" "I should try to breathe soon." And, "Kite surfing sure is harder than it looks." I am not thinking that I'm doing well, but when I surface, 50 yards from my last known location, that's what I hear.

"Good! Good! You stuck with it even though you were getting pummeled," Bobby Singleton is shouting. "Great focus!"

Flash back five minutes: I am standing next to Bobby, in waist-deep, 80-degree water in the Florida Keys, a half-mile from shore, feeling pretty confident about kite surfing.

Bobby, a tallish dude with short hair, facial scruff and almost comically oversized shades (picture Luke Wilson with an Elton John flair), is steering a large, crescent-shaped kite through the sky with such ease and grace that I surmise it must be easy.

The blue nylon kite, which resembles a cross section of a parachute, is taut in the breeze 90 feet overhead; four wire-thin lines extend from its corners to a single handlebar in Bobby's grasp; and the entire apparatus is hitched via a loop of polyurethane to a harness around his waist. The sun is blazing, turning the vast shallows off Islamorada a luminescent green.

"You want to do a series of small figure eights, like this, to get the feel of it," Bobby tells me. The kite dances obediently directly above his head. "Next, start to dip the kite further down toward the water, then bring it right back up to high noon." This is Stage 1 in the learning process, involving kite only; once I prove I can control it, Bobby will introduce a wakeboard-like board and, presumably, I will sail.

I've wanted to learn this sport since the late 1990s, when I saw sailors in Cape Hatteras, N.C., knifing across the water and catching 20, 30, 40 feet of air, then descending into fluid landings, like a vignette from one of those free-fall dreams. Give me some of that action!

Two things held me back: the entry fee, which runs around $2,000 with lessons and equipment purchase; and my windsurfing habit. I already had one wind sport, with a rack-load of affiliated stuff, so why did I need another?

The answer came on a trip when a string of light-wind days proved too calm for windsurfing, yet breezy enough for ripping kite sessions. My windsurf buddies and I sat on the beach while the kiters went off. (Basic physics: Windsurf sails range up to about nine square meters of surface; anything much larger, when paired with the requisite mast and boom, will bog down most windsurfing boards. Kites, made of thinner material and unencumbered by weighty rigging, can range up to 21 square meters and can thus capture much more wind than a windsurfing sail.) I knew then that kite-surfing lessons were in my future. It was only a matter of time, which, of course, was a matter of money.

* * *

"I'm going to hand you the kite," Bobby says. "When you have control of it, say 'My kite,' and then I'll let go."

The Keys are ideal for learning kite surfing -- warm, clear water, steady breezes in winter and spring, and miles of cushy-sand shallows that give students ample room to flail without crashing into shore or drifting into water over their heads. Bobby and I have motored out to these flats, offshore of the Whale Harbor marina, in a small pontoon boat littered with kite-surfing gear; the boat is anchored nearby.

I take the kite from Bobby and instantly feel an urgent tug, like I'm trying to walk a bison with a poodle leash. It is my first 'Oh, no!' moment, and my feet start to rise off the sand underwater.

"Sit back, sit back!" Bobby says. "Use your body weight to control it."

Ah, yes. Physics. Just as I'm getting the hang of it, I let the kite wander into what's called the "power window." Bobby shouts, "Whoa! Hang on!" but it's too late: I launch forward and my melon starts cutting a wake in the Atlantic.

Kite surfing may be the most modern thing going in the Keys. This is the land of the eternally funky, with beer-soaked conch shacks and bygone architecture still prominent along U.S. Route 1, the sole road running the 105 miles between Key Largo to the north and Key West to the south. The Keys are where Jimmy Buffett lifestyle fantasies come to die, and you can read on many faces the fatigued concession that lounging in the sun in a boozy haze for weeks on end doesn't quite jibe with the lyrics. On the plus side are countless fresh seafood restaurants and tropical-themed bars, and an environment that supports a fairly full slate of activities -- scuba, tennis, fishing, kayaking and pleasure boating -- in a tropical climate. Bobby, a Michigan boy, came down for a little adventure and ended up getting paid to spread the gospel of the kite.

"I was sailing real close to shore one day, doing all these tricks, and this guy comes out and yells at me for getting too radical near the beach," he says. "So I chilled out. When I came in, he called me over and asked if I wanted to teach at his kite-surfing school."

He's in his first year with Seven Sports, the dominant kite-surfing operation in the Keys, and has no idea how long he'll linger here. For now, he's stuck with me. By the end of our first two-hour lesson, I've grown comfortable steering the kite, have advanced to "body dragging" (a controlled version of my earlier facial enema) and am ready to try a couple of exercises with the board. But that, I'm told, will have to wait for Lesson No. 2. "I know, it's such a tease," Bobby concedes. But it's also better than it used to be.

In the early days of kite surfing, novices spent their first two to three hours on shore, enduring technical lectures on kite safety, before their toes even got wet. And the safety concerns were warranted: Early kites were a lot harder to fly than those made today, and they lacked quick-release bailout features, so if you got into trouble (jacked high off the water by a gust, for example), your primary option was to ride it out and hope the landing didn't hurt too badly. Often it did: Serious injuries and even fatalities, collectively known as "kitemares," were not uncommon in the sport's infancy.

Modern kites are easier to control and come equipped with bailout levers, which de-power and crash a kite with the flick of a thumb. But for all these improvements, actually learning to kite surf remains difficult.

A few days later, I return for another session. The wind feels almost too light for kiting, but when I pull up to the marina I can see three kites billowing on the horizon and the lesson barge anchored nearby. I hitch a ride out on a jet ski, find Bobby and start a series of exercises involving steadying the kite overhead with one hand while holding the board with my other and trying to wiggle my feet into the board's foot straps.

It's awkward and I don't sense much progress, but an hour later, just before the wind dies for good, I do something right, pop up onto my feet and ride the board for 15 feet before flopping.

This time, when I hit the water, there is only one thought in my head: "Oh, yeah!"

John Briley last wrote for Travel about skiing in New Hampshire.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company