ST. ALBANS, VT. —Kiteboarding is a sport for these times.
It’s thrilling. It combines power, speed and has an element of high risk. It’s also adrenaline-driven and could easily become an obsession. The gear is comparatively light-weight, easy to pack and mobile, and, contrary to many other adrenaline-driven sports, it doesn’t require overwhelming strength, peak fitness or superhuman endurance.
Then there’s the icing on the cake: It’s best done where the winds are steady, the sun is shining and the ocean waters are breaking on the beach…. picture the crystal clear waters off Mexico, Costa Rica, Africa, Hawaii, or the shallower waters of Cape Hatteras, N.C., or windy hot-spots like Hood River, Oregon or picture-perfect Cabarete in the Dominican Republic.
Cabarete is where my wife and I first became interested in the sport three years ago.
The sun was hot, the water just cool enough, wind steady at 20-30 mph, and kites were dotting the sky on the far end of the beach in a smattering of color. Windsurfers were more plentiful back then, and were zipping around at Mach-nine, catching air when jumping the two-to-three foot swells and skimming the ocean surface with apparent ease.
My wife, Lisa, who grew up on the Connecticut shore and has been windsurfing since she was barely a teen, was out there among the best of them having a blast.
Me? I grew up in Kansas. I’ve windsurfed, but not much. In those winds and with the ocean swell swamping me from behind, it wasn’t going that well. A few times during the 45-minutes I was struggling to haul the sail up and catch the wind, Lisa would swing by and yell, “How’s it going,” then jibe and bolt out of hear-shot.
Probably a good thing.
I managed to make it to shore, opted for a smaller sail, and went back out with slightly more success, but by then my shins were bloody from crawling on and off the board so much that, after a few more times catapulting over the mast, I headed beachside for a “hard smoothie” — the kind with the mini umbrellas.
When Lisa came in, big grin on her face, she said with a bit of zing: “Dear, maybe we should take up kiteboarding; that way we don’t have to wait for you to get good enough at windsurfing to keep up with me.”
I would have taken offense, but I knew she was right.
A couple of weeks ago in mid-June, I got the jump on her by signing up for a couple kiteboarding lessons.
I met with Jerri Benjamin of North Shore Kite-Sail-Surf in St. Albans for the introductory class in which we went over the basics: wind theory, equipment, how to rig the kite and pack it up, safety and how to use the safety features. The equipment (sail and air pump for blowing up the sail) is amazingly compact, fitting in a backpack-size pouch, allowing you to carry the board (about the size of a snowboard or wakeboard, but lighter) in the other hand.
That beats windsurfing, which requires a roof-rack on the car for the board, multiple sails, booms and mask. While both take a little set-up time, kiteboarding is a snap in comparison — all reasons why kiteboarding is soaring past windsurfing in popularity.
Because there was no wind that afternoon, I returned the next day for another three-hour lesson—“the launch into kiteboarding”—that teaches students how to fly the kite, body drag, retrieve the board and other skills. I started with a review, then a trainer kite on land, which teaches you how to sine the kite in the air to power and de-power the kite. In no time, we moved into waist-deep water with a larger kite that in those gusty 10-18 mph winds was good practice.
I got the sensation of diving the kite into the power zones at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. (on a clock) and back into the 12 o’clock neutral zone to depower and create lift to pull riders out of the water. It’s easy to spend an hour getting the hang of it, learning a few tricks, and becoming that much more adept with the kite’s movements before you try flying it with the board on your feet.
Those interested in learning should note that kiteboarding is not a particularly intuitive sport. It’s a blend of paragliding and wakeboarding, but on a board designed to cut through the water not bounce on top. Flying the kite is 80 percent of the game, they say, and requires careful attention to slight pulls on the handle, down right or left, to send the 12- or 14-meter kite soaring with enough power to drag you and an instructor across the water in a matter of seconds. Wrong moves can have serious consequences to yourself and others. That said, introductory lessons are mandatory, lest you hurt yourself or others.
That second day, I watched as Jerri, 60, and Curt, 63, who have both been avid windsurfers for the past 30 years and switched over to kiteboarding about six years ago, sine the kite to catch the wind (think of drawing a sine curve in the sky with the kite), create the lift needed to plane the board and take off with the wind powering the kite across the water.
It seemed completely doable, and both were confident that the next two-hour lesson out would get me launched on the board and, if I wasn’t careful, hooked into a new sport.
Ten hours is about the average time it takes to get students riding the board, Jerri says. After that, it’s just practice — but in really nice places.
On Lake Champlain, the Benjamins teach out of their Cove Road home on St. Albans Bay when the wind is right, or down the road a bit in St. Albans Bay Park, Kill Kare State Park, or they motor over to neighboring Woods Island. Further south, the prime beach is Sand Bar State Park in South Hero, which has long been a popular location for windsurfing.
But they also live the dream and take students, or family, on week-long trips to Cape Hatteras, N.C. during the off-season, as well as other trips to kiteboarding destinations around the world, recently spending two months at a windsurfing Mecca in Vietnam, which Jerri said was “pure heaven.”
A full week lesson in a location with steady winds and daily practice “will really get you into the sport at an accelerated pace,” Jerri said, adding that most students can also pick it up in three to four lessons on Lake Champlain and then practice on their own with good success, and an occasional refresher course to advance to the next level.
It’s a fitting life for Jerri, who has traveled the world as a windsurfer and held the women’s championship titles in New York and Vermont in the late 1980s, and for Curt, who describes himself as a fanatic about kiteboarding.
“It’s a blast,” Curt says, to which Jerri added, “when the wind blows, we go.”
After feeling the power of the wind and anticipating the thrill of riding, it’s hard not to be swept up in their enthusiasm. Time to book that next lesson.
• Kiteboarding is one of the fastest-growing new sports in the country with about 1.5 million participants worldwide, as estimated by the Outdoor Industry Association in 2013.
Nonetheless, it is still relatively new — as sports go — getting its formal start in the mid-1990s when Laird Hamilton and Manu Berti popularized kitesurfing in Hawaii. It became mainstream in 1999 when key windsurfing manufacturers, Naish and Neil Pryde, got into the kiteboarding business.
• Costs of equipment: Two kites for low and high winds, board, helmet, wetsuit and safety vest will run about $2,000 or more, but once the equipment is purchased, the activity itself is usually just the cost of getting there. The sails are also used in the winter by simply changing the board to skis or a snowboard; thus it can be a year-around sport.
• Lessons and instruction: Jerri and Curt Benjamin are certified PASA instructors, as is their son, Jordan Benjamin, who is also president of the business. Jordan has been kiting since 2006 and taught in Hood River, Oregon, Cape Hatteras, N.C., and on Lake Champlain. Jordan’s wife, Erin, is also involved in marketing and as an instructor for Stand Up Paddleboarding on Lake Dunmore (she and Jordan live in Middlebury while Jordan finishes law school.) North Shore Kite-Sail-Surf also sells equipment for windsurfing, kiteboarding and standup paddling. Go to www.kitensail.com for rates and more information.