It might seem counter intuitive to the land-bound, but kiteboarding – also known as kite surfing – is one of the fastest growing water sports in the world. And here in the BVI, the sport is attracting an increasing number of enthusiasts.
Charlie Smith, the water sports director at Necker Island, has been windsurfing much of his adult life and kiteboarding since 2005. "It's a lot easier than you would guess," he contends. The proof, he believes, is in his wide variety of students, who impressively, range from nine at the youngest to 78 at the oldest. Some of his students are water sports naturals – having wake boarded, snow boarded, surfed or windsurfed – and make the segue into kite boarding seamlessly. Others though, come to it cold, but this, Charlie believes is no obstacle to success. Of all the water sports that he has taught including wind surfing, water skiing and sailing, the "learning curve for kite boarding is the shallowest."
A certified kiteboarding instructor, Charlie generally starts with a two-hour session on land to get a student comfortable with controlling the kite and familiar with safety protocol. Then with about four additional one hour lessons on the water, a novice can become, if not an expert, at least a competent kite boarder. From the basics, airborne tricks (including jumps, spins, grabs and kite loops) come next, and for those who want to leave the sea's surface, he says, "there is an infinite amount of things to learn.",
Charlie's most famous student is his boss, Sir Richard Branson, airline and music industry magnate, and owner of Necker Island, the VI resort of choice for Hollywood celebrities and music notables. Branson took his first lesson in 2005, and adds Charlie, he took to it with the same ease and enthusiasm he has applied to sailing, ballooning and other extreme sports. "He loved it, and now kiteboards whenever he gets a chance." In a media event in Squamish, British Colombia, Branson was reportedly "blown away by kite boarding" and vowed to come back for more. Here in the BVI, Charlie and Richard think nothing of putting on their gear, heading for the water and going on spontaneous excursions around the BVI, including a 12-mile run to Anegada. "The amount of ways you can use a kite is amazing," says Charlie, still in awe of the sport's power and appeal.
The sport has caught on elsewhere in the BVI as well, and one can often spot the distinctive colors of a large colorful kite pulling a surfer across the waves or hurling him aloft with ease in the waters off Tortola. Joe Willsher of Island Surf and Sail at Sopers Hole is another BVI pro who makes kiteboarding look easier than it should. He reels off three of the sport's basic maneuvers: the "old school" where one cruises back and forth and makes lofty jumps; wake style where a kiteboarder uses horizontal pull (the tricks aren't as high but are more technical); wave sailing where you ride a wave surfboard-like, but with the kite pulling you along.
Joe, a certified kiteboard instructor, says that to him, the sport is "the most exhilarating sport I've ever done. That you are using the wind to get the power and speed to jump and perform airborne tricks, is an amazing experience." But he also admits that it can be "a bit scary." With airborne spills and tumbles always possible, the sport is not for the faint of heart, and Joe has taken a few himself. This though, is why responsible training by certified instructors and the following of safety guidelines are essential, he emphasizes.
For Joe, nothing replaces the naturalness of kiteboarding. "With wakeboarding and water skiing, you're behind a boat, with its exhaust fumes and engine noise," he explains. "When kite boarding" says Joe, "all you hear is the flapping of the waves beneath the board and the whistling of kite lines above you."
Kiteboarding in its present form is a relatively new sport; it was not fully developed until the mid 1990s and did not become a mainstream sport until 1998. The concept of using a large kite to pull a rider along on the water, though is not new. In 13th century China, small canoe-like vessels were pulled along rivers and the sea with kites. Kite sailing, as it was called was used in the 19th century to facilitate the gliding of carts on land, ships on the sea and vehicles on snow. In 1901 aviator, Samuel Franklin Cody used a kite to sail across the English Channel, and 80 years later Cory Roeseler developed a Kiteski system using a kite with a reel bar attached to water skis. From there, the sport continued to evolve to the one we now know.
Today it is estimated that there over 200,000 kite surfers around the world, a number that is destined to keep on increasing. Here in the BVI where our moderate to brisk wind speeds are considered optimal, the sport is also on an upward trajectory. It seems that flying with the birds has just gotten a lot easier.