Riding the wild side on the wind, waves

A race off Pinellas' coast shows how the extreme sport of kiteboarding is blowing up.

Published November 17, 2006

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 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 TampaBay KiteMasters, holds qualifying races for bigger international competitions, such as 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.

Since kiteboarding is relatively new, the competitions are organized much like the early surfing events in the 1940s. 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 of which costs more than $1,500, clothes and cash prizes.

The top winners also get to compete in bigger events.

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