Ian Livingston and I put together a photo post on Tuesday that featured an assortment of photographs of snowkiting on the National Mall near the Washington Monument on March 3, 2014. During the photo shoot, I also recorded video of the snowkiters maneuvering their kites and snowboards across the Mall and “catching air.” Compared to still photos, video does a much better job of capturing the the essence of snowkiting and the complexities involved in maneuvering a large kite while on a snowboard. In the video above, Lon Phan snowkites near the Washington Monument. (Kevin Ambrose)
After taking photos and video of snowkiting on Monday’s freshly fallen snow on the National Mall, I interviewed one of the Mall snowkiters, David Markle, about this relatively new sport…
Kevin Ambrose (KA): Can you describe snowkiting or kiteboarding?
David Markle (DM): Controlling the kite is the key discipline you need to master in order to have any fun and be safe. It’s easier said than done. It took me no less than a full season to be able to kite in the water, going upwind. Some learn faster, but most people need about 9 hours of instruction across 2-3 days to be able to start to ride. It definitely is something that requires dedication and commitment to be able to do safely.
KA: We don’t have a lot of snow in this area. How do you practice?
DM: There is a contingent of us who kite in the water year-round – in this weather you, of course, need a drysuit and warm layers. I won’t kite when the water temperature is less than 40 degrees, or when the air temperature is close to freezing, since numb fingers and freezing safety lines don’t feel safe or fun to me. Better to get a plane ticket to the Carribbean!
KA: Where do you do most of your kiteboarding?
DM: Most of our riding is done near Annapolis, launching at the local parks. If you are ever looking for shots, just look at the wind forecast. If it’s blowing 20+ S/SE with temps over 50, we’ll be on the western shore near Annapolis. If it’s blowing out of the West, we’ll be on the Eastern shore across the bridge, often at Terrapin Park by the Eastern end of the Bay Bridge. If it’s the weekend, we might even be in Cape Hatteras or one of the local beaches on the barrier islands.
KA: Is snowkiting or kiteboarding new?
DM: Kiteboarding is relatively new. 2003-5-ish is considered the “early years” of the sport, though it originated crudely in Hawaii and France in the late 90’s with surfers and windsurfers.
KA: How long have you been snowkiting and kiteboarding?
DM: Everyone you saw on the Mall has no less than three years’ experience with kiteboarding, and some, like Lon, have been doing it for closer to 10.
DA: Do you consider snowkiting a dangerous sport? Have you or any of your friends been injured while snowkiting?
DM: No, I don’t think the sport is inherently more dangerous than, say, wakeboarding or snowboarding if you have adequate experience.
That being said, in the hands of someone who has had no instruction or experience and shows up in a crowded place, it sure can be. These kites we use are powerful, and we’d hate to see people buying an old kite and getting dragged and badly hurt. There are a couple of ways this can happen. First, old gear is not as safe, not just because it is worn, but also because there have been innovations in the kite safety systems over the years. Also, new riders don’t know how to judge wind speeds and respond to gusts. For example, it’s instinctive for people, when they feel they are out of control, to grab onto the control bar and hold on for dear life. However, this powers up the kite (like sheeting in on a sail), and can send a rider flying. It’s best to get this out of your system with a knowledgeable instructor in safe water, rather than in a crowded spot like where we were riding Monday. On the water, we are a small community and really are conscious of not only safety, but the fact that our access to launches is conditional on how we conduct ourselves. We try to guide new riders to safe places to get instruction as much as we can.
The National Mall, most of the time, has poor conditions. We rarely get powder and smooth wind at the same time, and the obstructions from the hills and buildings make for gusty wind that drops out frequently. Monday was a rare exception to what we normally see.
As far as injuries go, I don’t personally know of any who have been injured snowkiting. We just don’t do it that much around here, for one. On the water, you tend to see people who are at the high end of the sport blow out ACLs, just as you’d see with higher-end skiiers or snowboarders. Among the inexperienced, ego-bruises are common.
Below are two more still photographs from Monday’s snowkiting that did not make our earlier photo post.