Taking Flight

Kiteboarding has never been more popular. For the Pioneers of Kite Beach, that's a good thing -- at least for now.

A white board, wet suit, and red shorts just clear the canopy over the boat. Fifteen feet overhead, Loud Mouth Greg grabs the edge of his board like a skater launching off a curb on Telegraph Avenue. He lands quietly for someone typically as loud and boisterous as a rock slide, gracefully for someone descending from more than twenty feet in the air. And then he disappears into the confusion of a dozen kites circling in the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Crouching in the back of the boat, Fox Sports cameraman Peter Schofield peers through his lens at a jumble of kiteboarders launching thirty feet into the air and moving as fast as 25 miles an hour. Their ability to control the wind allows them to cheat gravity long enough to pull off one acrobatic move after another. It’s an aerialist’s dream come true. They spin two or three times, sometimes swinging their legs and boards high above the control bar in their hands. They constantly defy the predictable gravity-bound arc you’d expect to see, the one you learned as a child bouncing off your parents’ bed onto the floor. Gravity pulls, but the wind-filled kite yanks riders into the air long enough for them to sail fifty or sometimes a hundred feet across the water. If all goes well, they land with a gentle kiss instead of a violent smack.

“Are you getting what you need?” Fox Sports producer Chris Bauer asks Schofield. Suddenly, a wave slaps against the side of the boat with a loud whack, leaving the cameraman wet and the question unanswered.

Over the next several hours, the boat follows the kiteboarders as they carve turns, kick up rooster tails, launch skyward, spin, crash, retrieve their boards, and relaunch their kites. Afterward, between studied sips of a beer on the choppy boat ride back from Treasure Island, Paul Buelow talks about the sport’s appeal. “You are immediately in a totally extreme situation,” says Buelow, one of the Bay Area’s top riders, “It’s the dream everyone has of flying. You can fly a hundred feet long and forty feet high and you can pull every gymnastic move you’ve ever been able to on a snowboard. You may fall on your back. But you land on water and you’re back up in no time.”

Kiteboarding — also called kitesurfing or kiting — is still new enough that there are competing names for it. It’s only been five years since the first Americans started dragging themselves through Maui’s surf on kites. But in that short time, the sport has grown dramatically. Now, it’s moving from an obscure fringe pursuit to a growth industry attracting national attention. Fox Sports is covering it and TechTV has already done so. Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other national magazines have written about it. Red Bull, the official drink of many an obscure adrenaline-soaked sport, sponsors an annual competition in Hawaii and engineered a publicity kiteboard ride from Florida to Cuba last December. There are now two international professional tours. The sport already has its own magazine, Kiteboarding, with a circulation of 25,000.

The Bay Area, with its abundant water and near-constant summer wind, is one of the best places on the West Coast to kiteboard. Pull up on a typical afternoon to any of the more popular local kiteboarding spots — Crown Beach in Alameda, Third Avenue in San Mateo, Crissy Field, Treasure Island — and chances are there will be more than a few people out on the water. But in the Bay Area, everyone’s favorite spot is an obscure island in the Delta, just north of Antioch.

Sherman Island State Park is a flat, windblown splotch of Delta land crisscrossed by high power lines and speckled with cattle. It is a spit of nothing out in the empty brown expanse that surrounds the Delta east of the bay. But for windsurfers, this place has been a mecca for two decades. Sherman Island gets some of the most consistent wind in the Bay Area. Heat from the Central Valley sucks cool ocean air through the Golden Gate, across the bay, and eventually up the Delta. While the bay is an icy 55 degrees, the water here is fresh and warm enough that some people don’t even wear a wet suit.

Clusters of RVs appear, and cars begin to clog the shoulder as one drives down the barren entrance road and approaches the park. Wet-suit-clad windsurfers of all ages wander back and forth. The ground is littered with windsurfing boards and sails laid out to dry; the water is covered with a forest of windsurfer masts. But every so often, high above the water, the neon-colored inverted U of a kite moves across the skyline.

Amid the stagnant stink of the small outhouse-style bathroom that acts as a park bulletin board, kiteboarding has made its mark. Next to leaflets for a lobster bake in nearby Rio Vista and a modified van billed as “The Ultimate Windsurfing Camper,” several fliers lay out rules of conduct for kiteboarders. They warn that this is an experts-only area and urge riders to launch their kites on a newly created strip of sand known as “Kite Beach.” One flier even hawks fourteen-karat gold kiteboarding pendants for $130.

The parking lot at a kiteboarding spot is a bit like the parking lot at a stadium concert. Music trickles out from the open doors of SUVs and trucks, and people wander between cars and gather for aimless conversations as if killing time before the big event. But here, the beer doesn’t come out until the end of the day.

Greg Boyington, aka Loud Mouth Greg, is busy pulling the foot straps off his old board and screwing them onto a new one. A painting contractor from Alameda by day, he also builds and sells custom kiteboards. Greg’s logo, a blocky outline of his initials, LMG, is plastered to the back of his truck and on more than a few of the boards scattered around the lot.

A small cluster of people has gathered to check out Loud Mouth Greg’s newest board. Over their wet suits, some are wearing shorts and rash guards — nylon shirts designed to be worn inside a wet suit to prevent rashes. Many kiteboarders wear them on the outside, partly as a fashion statement to differentiate themselves from windsurfers, and partly as an added layer of protection from wet suits that wear thin and crack. Many of the clothes have a circular UN across them, the logo of Chip Wasson’s Alameda-based clothing company, UltraNectar. The board they’re all looking at is rectangular with flat ends that bevel to a thin edge, a new type of board that’s gaining in popularity because of its lack of resistance at the ends which makes for smoother landings.

“Overall, this is a totally fat stick; it’s got the total dominatrix bottom,” yells Loud Mouth Greg, as if he’s trying to communicate with someone on the other side of the lot. But he’s not; he just yells a lot.

Roughly a half-dozen kiteboarders roll in and out of adolescent dude-speak, ribbing each other about who flailed at the last competition and whose good finish was due to gear, as opposed to skill. But these men and women are hardly twenty-year-old dudes. Loud Mouth Greg is 36. Buelow is 33. Wasson, who’s been kiteboarding the longest of the bunch and is perhaps the best rider on the bay, is 37. Most of these guys were competitive windsurfers who began in the early years of that sport. Nearly two decades later, they’ve been given a second chance to pioneer another obscure sport, catching the beginning of kiteboarding’s ride from obscurity to the mainstream.

For many of these thirtysomething adrenaline addicts, the timing couldn’t be better. Like many in the Bay Area, they cashed in during the dot-com boom as Web developers, telecom deal makers, and real-estate professionals. While the dot-com implosion has taken its toll on many bank accounts, it left others with large severance packages. And while some of the Bay Area’s jobless chose to travel, relocate, or hunker down to look for a new job, a few decided to dedicate themselves to a new sport.

Gabe Brown, one of the founders of the regional San Francisco Kiteboarding Association, is a Web developer, a job that leaves him with a lot of free time these days. Local rider John Radkowski was just laid off from a satellite telecommunications company. Jill Cardon, another local kiteboarder, is cashing in her San Francisco condo and plans to take off for Maui to ride full time. Buelow was laid off last year from IM Networks, which develops technology for Internet radio. “I had money that I’d earned at the dot-com; I received unemployment and when 9/11 happened, my unemployment was extended,” Buelow says. “That made it possible for me to put a lot of time into kiteboarding.”

Wasson, the old man of the bunch, was the first to bring kiteboarding to the Bay Area. After windsurfing competitively for almost two decades, in 1997 he saw a picture of one of the first kiteboarders in Maui. From that image, he says, he immediately grasped the possibility of the sport. Wasson got a kite from the first batch produced by Wipika, one of the sport’s pioneering companies. “I received the thing in the mail,” Wasson recalls, “and there was no instruction manual, not anything, not even a bar or lines.” Since he had never actually seen anyone kiteboard before, he was truly making everything up as he went.

Wasson tied his own lines, made his own control bars out of old windsurfing booms, and took his new kite to the bay. He spent the better part of the first year getting dragged downwind, fighting his kite to keep it from crashing. Once, in the middle of the bay, his homemade bar snapped and collapsed inward, slicing his finger open and leaving him with a long bloody swim back to shore. “It was just the most frustrating thing, getting blown in from way upwind,” he recalls. “Something always went wrong, and you’d have to walk back, and people were endlessly asking, ‘Dude, did you invent that? How do you make the wind turn around so you can come back?’ — just the dumbest questions — and meanwhile your blood is boiling and the thing is pissing you off so much.”

Wasson convinced an old friend, Chuck Patterson, now also a top kiteboarder, to come back here from Tahoe and get batted around the bay with him. It wasn’t until two years later and the end of 1999, when equipment took a big leap forward, that Wasson was able to start riding the way he’d originally imagined. Rather than getting blown downwind and walking back, riders were finally able to tack back upwind in much the way that sailboats do. In short, they were able to control the kite rather than simply hanging on for the ride.

Not surprisingly, it took about that long for good friends such as Buelow to stop telling Wasson how lame he looked and start kiteboarding themselves.

Kiteboarding actually traces its roots back to France in the early 1980s, according to Kiteboarding‘s editor Ryan Riccitelli. The brothers Bruno and Dominique Legaignoux designed the first kites with inflatable edges, which made them easier to relaunch. Those kites originally were used to propel kayaks through the water. But when the kites came to Maui, their design was adapted for use with surfboards.

Today’s kites are made of rip-stop nylon. An inflatable edge along the front of the kite and inflatable bars running from the front to back help the kite keep its aerial inverted U shape and prop it up on end when it lands in the water. To relaunch the kite, a rider need only create some slack in the lines and pull back a bit on the skyward side of the control bar.

Since the beginning, riders have constantly tinkered with the gear, adding safety features and trying to improve the equipment. “Before, there were a handful of guys pushing the sport,” Riccitelli says. “Now, there are hundreds of guys. The technology is being pushed more and the sport itself is being pushed more.”

For all the technological fiddling, the equipment remains relatively simple. Most kiteboarders have several kites for varying wind conditions, ranging in size from seven to twenty square meters. The kite is attached to a control bar by four hundred-foot-long lines — two on each side. These allow riders to control the kite. By pulling slightly on the left side of the bar, the kite will move to the left; pull on the right and it veers back in that direction. Such motion enables the kite to catch wind, and can create a lot of pull. Two lines descend from each side of the kite. One on each side is attached to the ends of the control bar. The other two meet in the middle and attach to what’s known as the “chicken loop,” which hooks into the rider’s harness. If a rider lets go of the bar, the loop will pull on the front two lines which changes the angle of the kite to the wind causing it to lose some of the area that catches the wind, thereby slowing it down. If the rider gets in real trouble he can pull an emergency release, which frees him from the kite. The board is a bit larger than a snowboard, with tiny fins on the bottom and rubber loops for your feet. Like surfers, kiteboarders rely on their boards for personal flotation.

Kites are selling well even though a full setup starts at about $1,600. In 1998, only 250 kites were sold. Last year, Sports Illustrated estimates, more than 50,000 were sold. Lessons are on the rise too. Board Sports in Berkeley, which provides instruction at Crown Beach in Alameda, has doubled the number of lessons it gives every year for the last three years. To accommodate this rapid growth, Riccitelli notes, the number of kiteboarding events has increased to thirty, compared to just five in 1999.

Riccitelli compares the sport’s growth to the sharp spike snowboarding took shortly after its own inception. Kiteboarding has some of the same selling points. Snowboarding freed skiers from cold, painful boots and pared down the equipment needed to get down the mountain. Similarly, kiteboarding equipment is much smaller and lighter than that required for windsurfing. It’s also much more versatile. “Kitesurfing is opening up a lot of areas not popular for windsurfing, places where it only blows ten or twelve [knots],” Wasson says. “People on lakes and inland areas can do this. You can launch thirty feet [in the air] in glass-flat water.”

At Kite Beach, a group of kiteboarders hoping to preempt any conflict with the longtime hoards of area windsurfers cut a hundred-yard path through reeds and blackberry bushes to their own beach. They cleared logs and vegetation to make room to launch kites. But despite their efforts, the beach is just barely large enough to lay out the hundred-foot lines. And the narrow spit of sand leaves little room for error. Any mistake launching the kite can lead to what everyone here calls a kitemare. While kiteboarding may be easy to pick up, like any sport involving wind and water, it can easily become a quick ticket to a hospital bed — or worse. Sherman Island, with its constant strong onshore breeze and miles of rocky shoreline, already has claimed a few shattered bones. Kite Beach, with its logs piled up at the edge of ten-foot-high blackberry bushes and reeds, is better than the rocks, but hardly inviting. After all, even experienced riders find themselves getting dragged through the reeds once in a while. Rescue helicopters have visited more than once.

Most kiteboarders have been dragged down the beach or through a parking lot or two. At a 2001 event in Hawaii, one competitor, Eric Eck, caught a gust of wind when he was trying to land his kite on the beach and was lifted up two hundred feet in a thermal. But he managed to bring the kite back down and only dropped hard the last forty feet, walking away unscathed.

The kite’s lines may present a bigger hazard than the wind. Thin, taut, and fast-moving, they can cut like razors. Wasson cut his leg open in Hawaii when a line broke on his kite and he had to swim in, trailing a stream of shark-attracting blood. Everyone mentions their fear of the hundred-foot lines.

For all their popularity, Sherman Island and Kite Beach can be dangerous. It could just be a matter of time until someone here dies. Worldwide, three people died kiteboarding in June and July alone. A kiteboarder in the Netherlands was hit in the head with his board. At a competition in Germany, a kiteboarder was dragged into a wall and killed when her kite got tangled with another rider’s kite. A kiteboarder in Puerto Rico was dragged by his kite and drowned.

Today at Kite Beach, the wind is typically strong and consistent. And despite the advice on the beach and warning signs in the bathroom, one beginner decides that he needs to get out on the water. Hugo, a Frenchman in no mood to give his last name, hangs out on the beach for an hour or two. A few people do their best to convince him that this is no spot for a beginner, but Hugo, whose scantily clad girlfriend is parading around nearby, is undeterred. He finally convinces a few people to help him launch. One grips the back of his harness to hold him to the ground, while another lets Hugo’s kite go in the breeze.

The kite shoots upward and catches a strong gust. Hugo and the guy holding his harness suddenly skid across the width of the beach right to the wall of driftwood, feet planted out in front of them. Shouts ring out. One person, then another, yells, “Let go of the kite.”

Hugo, however, obeys his panic response and hangs on tight to the bar in his hands. And when the guy clinging to his harness takes a look at the tangle of blackberry bushes, he chooses self-preservation over loyalty and lets go. Like a stone unloaded from a slingshot, Hugo launches more than five feet in the air, clearing the logs, brambles, and reeds. He hits the ground somewhere behind the dense wall of vegetation with a rustle and a quiet thud. The kite, still aloft, drags him through the stickers and reeds. At some point during his ride, pain evidently beats out panic and he drops the bar. The kite soon folds and crashes to the earth.

As the kite flutters to the ground, Hugo’s girlfriend joins a growing pack of onlookers perched on the driftwood, peering into the reeds looking for movement. Hugo is frighteningly silent, and utters no yelps or screams. “Ça va?” his girlfriend calls. “Hugo, ça va?” There is no answer. Anxious observers start placing driftwood logs over the reeds to create a pathway through the wall of vegetation, all the time muttering about how beginners just shouldn’t kiteboard at Sherman Island.

Several minutes later, Hugo emerges from the reeds picking stickers out of his wet suit. He’s shaken, sweaty, and unhappy, but he’s unhurt. Remarkably, there is no blood.

The sport’s inherent perils seem to be of little concern to riders once they get up and out on the water. Today, a dozen and a half riders are crossing surprisingly close to each other, leaping and crashing and practicing moves over and over.

Wasson jumps high in the air, 25, maybe 30 feet up. He swings the board high above his head and holds it for a second before plummeting down from the sky. In another jump he spins and grabs the board with his hand like a snowboarder launching off a cliff face. “I’m always trying to do something, to fill the breaks with tricks,” he says later. “You can do so much. Sometimes I focus on doing the same move over and over; other times I’m trying to link stuff up.”

It’s displays like this that are contributing to the sport’s rapid evolution. People come to kiteboarding from a variety of sports — wakeboarding, snowboarding, water- and snow-skiing, skating, and surfing — and they all try different things. Dana Pinto, who just took third place in the Gorge Games on Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, is camping up at Sherman Island for the weekend, getting a reprieve from her fogged-in coastal home spot. At Waddell Creek, twenty miles north of Santa Cruz, she rides in surf daily, but today she is happy for the change of pace in Sherman Island’s flatter and considerably warmer water. She is launching into the air, spinning, and landing seamlessly with a quiet, gentle touch. Wasson, meanwhile, is working on a new move where he launches into the air, pulls an aerial move, brings the kite around low, and takes off fast in another direction.

The riders are out on the water all afternoon. Most put their kites in at about three o’clock and keep going until the sun drops behind the dusty brown hills and the light finally dims. Despite nearly five hours of constant exercise and concentration, everyone coming off the water looks more exhilarated than exhausted.

After finally landing on the beach and calling it a day, Pinto leans over her kite to deflate it. To no one in particular, she mutters, “That was so much fun.”

Clutching all their gear under one arm, kiteboarders gradually filter up the long path to the parking lot, where the barbecue coals are already smoldering. A cooler of Budweiser and bottled water sits off to one side. Hot dogs, burgers, corn, asparagus, and eggplant crowd the grill. Wasson stands over it, face hidden deep in the hood of his sweatshirt. He rolls the dogs over the flames with a fork and sings out loud, “Plump ’em when you cook ’em, come and get ’em.” And when the song falls apart into gibberish, the group of about fifteen riders laughs at him.

Wasson is the group’s class clown, but also its center of gravity. Many of those here, including him, Buelow, and Loud Mouth Greg, have known each other since they were teenagers. Others have come together more recently, some through windsurfing, the more recent arrivals through kiteboarding. Not every Sherman Island kiteboarder is part of this group, but these riders have been at it the longest and are among the best in the bay. They have founded a local kiteboarding association and have a strong interest in keeping the sport safe. Since other beaches across the country have been closed to kiteboarders after accidents, they believe it is best to act before there are serious accidents locally, so no one will shut them out from prime spots like Sherman Island.

They also are enjoying the hell out of being good at something so new and exotic. “When I was just starting out, I had to worry about who I was going to go out with,” Wasson recalls. “There is a certain exhilaration in doing something that no one else is doing.” Buelow compares kiteboarding to the early days of windsurfing, when if you saw someone with a windsurf board on the roof of their car, you’d pull over to talk to them. Back in the early 1980s, Buelow felt like part of a special group of athletic pioneers, pushing to be the first to windsurf in local spots. “I get that same feeling now when I kite,” he says. “People wave to you and say weird things.” It is partly that thrill, that feeling of being different, that pulls this group together.

After the dogs are scarfed down and the grill has been knocked over once, Wasson and his girlfriend, Marcella Wijsen, share a seat on the beer cooler. When he showed up this afternoon, he was already limping from a leg muscle pulled on the previous day’s ride across the bay. Now he points at his side, leg, and foot, complaining of more pulled muscles. The back of his thighs are bruised from crashing too steeply in the water over and over again. But he’s still smiling, thinking about the sport’s possibilities, and the people who are riding in the snow and taking the sport in other risky directions.

“The youngsters coming up, the twenty-year-olds, they’re doing really amazing things,” he says. Now that it’s out of its infancy, the sport is more competitive than ever and the kids are taking huge risks with new moves. While Wasson, Buelow, and others still compete and often do quite well, they can see the kids coming up fast behind them. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. For them, the opportunities are different.

Patterson, Wasson’s old kiteboarding partner, is now among the sport’s top names and is working on a film project where he will ride the five biggest waves in the Pacific on his kiteboard. But Wasson and some other friends hope to cash in on the sport in a different way. Wasson and his peers were too young to catch the financial wave with windsurfing. Now in their thirties, this is a second chance. Loud Mouth Greg sells his custom boards. Buelow is developing a teaching business called www.ooto.com. Wasson, meanwhile, sponsors kiteboarders and competitions and shows up for any publicity opportunity he can wearing his bright yellow UltraNectar rash guard. He hopes that by associating his clothing line with the new sport, it will grow alongside kiteboarding. And at least on this day, the UltraNectar logo is everywhere.

Careers will be made and thousands more will enjoy the sport, but something too will be lost. The beaches here will soon fill with kiteboarders, just like the narrow steep trails on Mount Tamalpais were filled with mountain bikers a decade after Gary Fischer began heading out into the woods with his first cobbled-together cycles. Today, Mount Tam has mountain-bike speed limits, and the vast majority of the steep winding trails that helped launch mountain biking are now off-limits to the sport.

If the boosters are right, and kiteboarding is destined to become as big as mountain biking or snowboarding, then this moment tonight is to be treasured. The kiteboarders are a small group huddled together around a fire at the edge of a parking lot. But the road into that lot is packed shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of windsurfers. They are far more numerous, far more anonymous. Part of the mainstream that kiteboarding is rushing toward.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
64.7 ° F
73 °
58 °
72 %
1 %
74 °
73 °
69 °
68 °
64 °