Kitesurfers have learned how to fly in a new and spectacular way.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 1, 2001
Imagine standing on a 4 1/2-foot-long carbon/Kevlar board not much wider than your body, being pulled across the water at 25 mph by a kite 130 feet in the air. Or, even better, soaring 60 feet above the water on that board and under that kite.
In the world of constantly evolving extreme watersports, kitesurfing is about as extreme it gets.
Kitesurfing, sailboarding, windsurfing, wakeboarding, water skiing, watercross -- Doug Sherwood, kitesurfing and windsurfing manager at the Tackle Shack in Pinellas Park, has done them all.
"The sensation of speed is overwhelming, very different from windsurfing or skiing behind a boat," Sherwood said. "You can be going that fast behind a boat, but the speed just doesn't feel the same. It's definitely a different rush being pulled by the wind instead of an engine. . . . It's actually taking pro wakeboarders out from behind their boats. They're getting pulled by kites now, a lot of them."
And none of those other watersports is as potentially dangerous and difficult to master as kiteboarding, Sherwood said. "Think of it as being about as dangerous as jumping out of a plane. Before you even come in to purchase stuff you should take a three-hour lesson (at $30-$50 an hour), after which you'll know whether you want to invest the money in kiteboarding."
If you want to, take another three-hour lesson, to learn the basics of kitesurfing the right way "and to keep our beaches from getting closed," Sherwood said. Kitesurfers are persona non grata at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs, he said, because some of them were a but too enthusiastic and other people using or working at the park felt uncomfortable -- or endangered -- around them.
Those three-hour lessons under your belt don't mean you're ready then to latch onto the nearest wind. And certainly don't assume you can do it on your own. You'll need a partner. Self-launching the kite takes a lot of experience. You might want to try it when you've kitesurfed for six months or more.
Before you head for the water, spend 10-20 hours or more on the beach learning to fly the kite without having to keep looking at it. Start with a smaller kite, and when you work your way up to a bigger one, don't be surprised if you find yourself being dragged across the sand.
"Once you get comfortable with the maneuverability of the kite, keeping it up there, keeping it from crashing, you can move to the water and do some body dragging," Sherwood said. "It's just like being pulled by a boat, pulled along on your thighs.
"After you've done that for a while you'll be ready to learn how to get on a board and go."
"Straight downwind, with a boat to bring you back," Sherwood said. "Do it over and over again."
The best condition is a side-shore wind, parallel to the beach. An offshore wind, blowing away from land, can be dangerous, particularly if you're a novice who doesn't know how to tack upwind (work the kite to sail a zigzag course into the wind). It can take 25-30 hours to learn that. An onshore wind isn't as dangerous but, as Sherwood said, "it can pull you up onto the beach, into people, into condos ... "This isn't a solitary sport. It's nice to have someone paying attention to what's going on in case you get pulled offshore and need a boat to come and get you. Hang around with people already (kitesurfing into the wind). If you do, you're going to be doing it a lot sooner. Playing on the beach all by yourself, you're not going to learn much.
"Around here, in a group of people, the best (kitesurfer) is the last one to go. That's the one who kind of has control of the beach and gets the other people off before self-launching or grabbing a windsurfer or someone else around to get launched."
When you move up to intermediate or advanced kitesurfing, you can learn to angle the kite into the right position to pull you 10, 20, 50 feet or more into the air. It doesn't take much. A 10-mph wind is more than enough.
Locally, Treasure Island is a big kitesurfing spot because of the size of the beach. That's where you're likely to find Adam Delvecchio and Randy Radcliffe of Team Tackle Shack. North Beach at Fort De Soto and the Tierra Verde and Skyway areas also attract kitesurfers. "There are particular spots to go for particular wind directions," Sherwood said. "The kitesurfers around here tend to hang out together. If one of them's out there, all of them know about it."
Kiteboard $400 -- $1,000
Kite 900 -- 1,400
Harness 80 -- 160
Lifejacket 55 -- 140