Go fly a kite

Kiting is something like 2,000 years old. Since its invention by the Chinese, the humble kite has assumed many forms and taken on many roles: spiritual, celebratory, competitive; for war or to mark peace; for catching food, signalling distress, for aerial photography, to advertise a brand of mobile phones and sometimes even, just for plain old fun.

Over the past few years, the kite has taken a radical new turn and entered the arena of extreme sports. This journey began at the end of the 20th-century with the invention of a supersized, water re-launchable kite by two French speed sailing nuts, the Legaignoux brothers. Kiting (also variously called kitesurfing or kiteboarding) has ‘ballooned’ since then, evolved quickly and becoming the fastest growing watersport globally.

For riders, it brings an amazing sense of freedom, with a readily attainable skill-set and adrenalin fix that can be reached without the years of training associated with some other watersports. The flashy colours and hi-tech appearance of the kites catches the eye of bystanders too (with luck, soon to be kiters themselves), especially when the rider can up the wow factor when they pop a jump and throw in some acrobatics or simply soar skywards for 10m or more.

Kitesurfing is a lifestyle sport. When it grabs you it comes to inform nearly everything you do: your clothes, your tunes, where you hang out, where you travel. When it gets to obsession-level, a weekly fix at the local beach (assuming you have both a beach and favourable conditions to hand) and a twice-annual pilgrimage to a kiting hotspot just doesn’t cut it anymore. For those people the sport becomes that life-changing escape route that leads them to give up the day job and find a more soul-satisfying way to make a living. I know because I did it.

As the sport has grown, it has produced its heroes and world champions who have done their bit to attract new participants in the tens of thousands on just about any beach that will have them. Still, for all its accessibility, kitesurfing is not the sort of sport to just throw yourself into without careful consideration. The risks are real. Treat them lightly you are in for plenty of pain without too much gain.

Equipment has developed dramatically from the first powerful, but somewhat control-limited, marine kites to today’s high performance, highly controllable equipment with infinitely more effective safety systems. The aim of manufacturers is to give the beginner and expert rider alike the opportunity to experience both the ultimate buzz and skill progression while still staying safely in one piece.

Along with improved gear has come the training systems and teaching methods to give everyone the safe, structured start that they need with the knowledge to advance further, allowing ‘newbies’ to progress into competent riders while avoiding self-learning nightmares and the possibility of becoming every beach user’s pet hate – the local kitesurfing muppet seemingly on a mission to hurt themselves or someone around them.

The International Kiteboarding Organisation (IKO) has led the kite world in this respect, providing training in kite sports from the entry level of powerkite flying, through to kitesurfing, snowkiting and kite landboarding. Founded in 2001 the IKO now operates in around 50 countries, providing either direct training to beginners through its network of instructors and schools or by providing their training packages to national kiting bodies. From this, IKO training has become the industry standard, pretty much universally followed by smaller kite organisations – throughout Asia the IKO is the leading training provider.

Unlike the early ‘barnstorming’ days of being taught by a friend only one day ahead of you in experience, a beginner can now feel assured of being instructed safely to a unified and quality controlled set of standards when training at any officially approved IKO school. So don’t just rely on the glossy marketing output from the schools and locations – check out the IKO website for an independent list of approved schools and instructors, along with the details of the course content you should expect to be taught during your course.

First steps

Once you have chosen your kitesurfing school (and we are assuming now you are learning to kite on water as the usual situation in Asia), what is it you can expect to be doing as you progress towards that first ‘eureka moment’ of riding your board? To start with, a good school will never place you in a group of more than four people. It will provide you with all the personal safety equipment: helmet, float vest and harness. The course will run for between eight and twelve hours depending on group size to get you to the basic boardriding level. In IKO terms this would be a kiteboarder level 2 course (level 1 happens all on the land as you learn to handle the kite alone).

Whoever you train with, there should be at least the following eight key sections in your training package.

1) Spot check
The location in which you learn with your instructor is commonly different from those in which you will practice. Conditions are different in each location and may even change each time you kite. Therefore, make sure you have the necessary knowledge to be able to practise safely in the location you are most likely to use for the purpose and ideally do not kitesurf on your own. The location should be evaluated in order to know that it is safe and for this the IKO uses what is known as a S.E.A. safety check.

Site –
What obstacles are around you?
How much space do you have to fly in?
Is the surface free of hazards such as rocks or sharp shells, trees and buildings?

Environment –
What is the wind strength?
Is it stable or fluctuating?
What is the forecast?
If you are at a beach, what is the tide state? How long can you safely fly for?

Activity –
What else is going on around you?
Check for people, other watersports and animals – are they static or moving?
Will they affect your safety?

2) Nail the wind
Check around you. Can you see any flags and if so which way are they flying? In what direction is the grass or the trees moving? Are there white caps on the water and if so, which way are they running? All these are good indicators as to the direction and potential quality of the wind. If none of these are available, then to find the precise direction of the wind, close your eyes and turn until you hear the noise of the wind. This means you are now feeling equal air pressure from the wind in each ear – the wind is now blowing from directly behind you.

Be careful if the wind is gusting in the area you want to train in. Make sure you have plenty of downwind safety space and if in any doubt at all, wait until another day. It is also a good idea to know the wind strength in which you are about to fly. A weather and wind forecast will give you some idea, but this could be different from the wind speed at your spot. So check with other kitesurfers first and if possible take a windspeed reading at the spot itself with a hand-held meter. It is not so hard to tell the direction of the wind with practice, but it can be hard to accurately judge the speed.

3) Be safe from the start
Before you launch your kite for the first time, make sure you fully understand how your kite safety systems work. If there is no safety system then do not fly the kite. Remember safety systems are there to protect others as well as you and even a small kite that is released by the flyer can cause harm to an innocent bystander if they are whacked by the bar as it flies through the air.

Safety systems vary from kite to kite and between manufacturers, so always read the guidelines supplied with the kite carefully and make sure that your kite leash is always connected before you launch your kite and stays connected until you land again. Do not hesitate to release your bar if you feel threatened or unsure at anytime.

Whichever kite you are flying and whatever the safety system it uses, make sure you practice safety releases. Your instructor will make this part of the drills on your course, as you need to find out the limitations of your safety system and to start to build your muscle memory for this skill should you ever need it for real. Less excitingly, you do, of course, also need to know how to put the release system back together after it has been used . . . 

4) Flying skills
Everything starts with being able to set your kite up correctly, which is not always as obvious as it might sound.
Next comes the absolutely critical skills of launching and landing correctly. Kitesurfing wings can be up to 16m tip-to-tip, so they are most definitely not the type of gear to simply throw into the air directly downwind without a thought as you would with toy kites.

Your instructor will then progress to teaching you the flying skills you need to stay safe and to get you going on your board.
You will start your basic flying by moving the kite from left to right above you at the 12 o’clock position in what is known as the wind window. 12 o’clock is a low power zone above your head, while the power zone is lower and in front of you.

As you progress you learn to pilot the kite in infinitys and sine wave patterns, as well as working with only one hand (important when you are putting a board on your feet). Once your instructor is happy with your skill level you will work on using the power zone and water re-starting your kite for when it inevitably ends up in the sea.

5) Body dragging
Kitesurfing has a clear advantage over its land- and snow-based cousins in that you are first able to experience and learn to control the power and direction of the kite, in a stage known as body dragging. This allows you to move through the water without the board, so that you can consolidate those basic flying skills into real kite traction. You will also be learning other key skills for the future, like how to body drag back upwind, (very useful when you need to get back to your board having lost it showing off your latest move), or how to get away from the beach to a safe distance to make your board start.

Its also the time to fully enjoy that power for the first time and truly start to understand what all the hype is about as your instructor goes on to show you how to body-drag downwind, crosswind and upwind to give you full mobility. Last of all, you move onto body-dragging with a board and learning the power stroke you need to stand up.

6) Self-rescue
Not something all riders enjoy having to cover, but there could come a time when this skill saves your life. All good kitesurf schools will of course have a rescue boat on hand for anything unforeseen (mandatory for any IKO-approved school along with insurance and qualified instructors), but what about those times when you are not riding at a school location and things don’t go as planned. Say the wind drops, or you break a line or can’t re-launch your kite from the water. That’s when being able to self-rescue is very handy indeed.

Check before you take on your training course: if the school does not teach this or allows you to practice it in shallow water, then train with another school that does it properly. The self-rescue will teach you how to recover your bar and lines in deep water and how to reach the kite without getting tangled up in everything. This is not something to skirt around. If you can’t do it in truly testing conditions, then it isn’t a true test.

Once you are safely at your kite it is then possible in many situations to make your way back to the shore under your own steam, with a technique know as wing-tip sailing, which while not as quick as being on your board with the kite in the air, does get you there in the end. Failing all that you will be taught what to do if you have to sit tight and wait for a rescue boat, and how to finally fully pack your kite down so you and it can be transported back to terra firma.

7) Board start
The first board start and wobbly ride is the high point of everyone’s first course and the whole point of being there in the first place. Although this can be learnt in deep water locations, it is a good deal easier if you can stand up, re-organise yourself and recover your board easily for the next go. Whatever the venue though, your instructor will take you first through a simulation on the sand before finally demonstrating and letting you put the whole thing together in the water. Then you are there: your first full step on the kiteboarding ladder!

Be sure there is a reasonable percentage of your course time allocated to the board launch and basic riding skills – around a quarter to a third of the course time is good. Clearly individual rates of progression will determine this to some extent, but beware of a short course that drives you to being up on your board within only a few hours and allows no time thereafter for you to consolidate the skill, let alone arm yourself with some of the others described here.

8 ) Background knowledge
The key to your training is learning how to become a good, safe kitesurfer, not just about having a go on a board, which often amounts to little more than a fairground ride, fun at the time but easily forgotten. Given the time and quality instruction, you can develop the all-important muscle memory skills that you need to acquire to crack this sport. 

It is also important though to gain some specific background knowledge to not only help you to more fully enjoy the sport, but also ensure you pick the right location and time to kite safely. It’s one thing knowing that there is a big red toggle to pull if something goes wrong; quite another recognising that something is about to go wrong and to have the time to actually do it.

On any IKO course, you should get a basic introduction to the weather and forecasts, tides and currents, wind effects around obstacles and the rights-of-way rules for kiting with other kitesurfers and water users. Again, check that this will be part of your course and if not, think again.

Progression
Once you are up and running, the sky is the limit, as it were. Hone your skills, learn new moves, ride your first waves and boost ever higher. If that is not enough, the beauty of putting the time and effort into gaining your hard-won kite skills on water means that you can progress to riding on the land on what seems at first glance to be an oversized skateboard with even more oversized wheels, or even consider digging out your snowboard or skis and trying out the equally exhilarating sport of snowkiting.

So whether you want to just enjoy flying a power kite; float a long, high jump off a wave; blast across stretches of sand at high speed or snowkite to the South Pole, kiting could be just the challenge you have been looking for – welcome to a learning curve full of possibilities and a world full of places to get airborne.

 

Practicalities

When to go
The best time to kiteboard in Asia – whether you are learning or not – is during the Northeastern Monsoon months of the year. The winds during this period, which in general runs from November through to around April, are more stable than those of the summer monsoon and of course there is, for most places, less rain.

Granted in Korea and Japan, those being the winter months, it will be bitterly cold at times and you will need to pack or hire a wetsuit, but for most of the key Asian kiteboarding countries, conditions are ideal at this time.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia currently offer the most opportunities for learning in terms of numbers of schools. Some of the locations stay up and running through the summer monsoon months, but expect far less friendly conditions.

Where to go
It is always advisable to learn with a qualified and insured instructor. The following are places where you will get IKO training and certified kiteboarding courses:
 
China: www.kiteboardingchina.com
Hong Kong: www.kiteboarding.org.hk
Japan: www.universalkite.com
Korea: www.daum.net/pkite
Philippines: www.freestyle-boracay.com,
www.kiteboardingboracay.com, www.boracaykiteboarding.com
Thailand: www.kitesurfthailand.com,
www.kiteboardingasia.com
Vietnam: www.c2skykitecenter.com

What to take
All kite schools should provide you with the basic equipment needed for learning to kite. Apart from the obvious kite and board; a kitesurf harness, helmet and life vest are the minimum safety items.

Depending on the location, water temperature, underfoot surfaces and so on, the school should also provide you with a wetsuit and wetboots.

All you need to bring are board shorts and a rash vest or t-shirt, sunscreen and sunglasses (with a band or retainer so you don’t lose them on your first plunge into the water).