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Riding the wild side on the wind and the waves

Early edition: Kiteboarding is making a big splash along the Gulf Coast, drawing in the thrill-seekers and the adrenaline junkies.

By MIKE DONILA
Published November 16, 2006


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photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Victoria Johnson of St. Petersburg steadies her kite's lines as she and other kiteboarders prepare for the 2nd annual Tampa Bay KiteMasters race.
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  • Somewhere between Honeymoon Island and St. Pete Beach, Mother Nature inhaled. She took with her a strong wind and forced Billy Parker head-first into a cold and unforgiving sea.

    For the 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident, it was kind of “gnarly,” even “awesome.”

    “I crashed so many times; holy cow, it was tough out there,” Parker said.

    He was one of about 60 competitors Thursday morning, racing along a 25-mile stretch on Pinellas County’s coast in one of the newest extreme sports: kiteboarding.

    It’s a wind-powered event that blends surfing with waterskiing and a touch of sailing.

    Kiteboarders buckle themselves onto a small board and into a harness that connects them to a “kite,” which looks like a small, crescent-shaped parachute.

    Riders glide over the water’s surface, navigate between waves and even leap from crests. They often soar 30 to 40 feet into the air with hang times of more than eight seconds.

    The 10-year-old sport’s popularity has ballooned in recent years, particularly in Florida, where a local organization – the Tampa Bay KiteMasters – now holds qualifying races for bigger international competitions, such as the one next year in the Bahamas.

    Thursday’s race kicked off at Honeymoon Island and within 70 minutes the first kiteboarder – Parker – crossed the finish line.

    Then the rest followed.

    They came in like dragon flies, their colorful kites twisting, spinning and jumping above the choppy water while the surfers bounced over the waves, skipping up and down, up and down.

    It was obvious from the congratulatory handshakes and hugs that the sport encourages competition, but there is a sense of camaraderie that builds long-lasting friendships, the kiteboarders say.

    “It doesn’t tolerate the loner very well, and it doesn’t tolerate the wild and crazy person, although it looks wild and crazy,” said Paul Beiderwell, a 47-year-old Jacksonville resident who owns a lawn care service. “If someone drops their kite, we’ll be out there to make sure they’re OK; we’ll pull them in. We look out for each other.”

    The kiteboarders say anyone can do it, but they strongly advise taking lessons.

    It’s a diverse sport that embraces generations from 8 to 80 and caters to all walks of life, from scientists, stockbrokers, harbor pilots, high school students and professional thrill-seekers.

    The only drawback? The sport is dependent on the weather.

    “We’ve got our own subculture. We all have full-time jobs, but when the wind starts blowing, you can catch a group of us on the beach,” said Chris Sedivy, 32, a mortgage account executive with LendSource. “The first time you get out there you realize it’s a strong thing. It’s real.”

    Since kiteboarding is relatively new, the competitions are organized much like the early surfing events in the 1940s before that sport took off. It’s more of a grass roots effort in which the kiteboarders secure local sponsors and then, by word of mouth, get everyone to the race on time.

    Winners typically get gear —some which costs more than $1,500 — clothes and cash prizes. The top winners also get to compete in bigger events, which “separate the people who think they can do it from the people who know they can,” says Neil Hutchinson, a 36-year-old Fort Lauderdale kiteboarder who organizes the 50-mile Bimini Race in the Bahamas.

    “It’s a feeling like no other — you’re powered by Mother Nature — it’s the ultimate freedom and adrenaline rush,” Hutchinson said.

    It’s also addictive.

    “We’re all weather junkies,” said instructor Steve Sadler, 36. “We watch it, we check the tides, and then we’re there.”

    Case in point: A heavy thunderstorm Wednesday night that left St. Pete Beach littered with lawn chairs and debris meant strong winds and choppy waters Thursday morning for those brave enough to head out.

    “It’s incredible and really peaceful at the same time,” said Damien LeRoy, a 25-year-old professional kiteboarder from Naples. “It depends where you want to take it, how high you want to go and what limits you want to push.”

    Mike Donila can be reached at mdonila@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

    [Last modified November 16, 2006, 20:26:21]


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