AN ENORMOUS FLYING beast is trying to drag me out of the water and whisk me into the air high above Dublin Bay. It’s got me firmly in its grip, like a hawk swooping down on a small furry animal (in a wetsuit).
In an effort to stop myself being carried off by this creature, I do the obvious thing – I pull back as hard as I can. This, however, only gives the beast more strength, and makes it even more determined to make off with its prize. Within moments, I’ll probably be dashed against nearby rocks, bounced across the surface like a skimming stone, or slammed against the hull of a passing cargo ship. Either way, I’m fish-food.
I’m taking my first kite-surfing lesson, and it’s not exactly going swimmingly. I seem to have problems grasping the basic principles of flying a kite. In kite-surfing, when you don’t want to be lifted skywards, pulling back is the last thing you should do. It’s not like reining in a horse, or steering a car.
The kite I’m trying to corral is an 8sq m leading edge inflatable kite, not the largest one by far (they go up to about 18sq m), but it sure packs some windpower. To “depower” the kite, you have to let go of the line – but I keep instinctively pulling the line downwards. Pull hard enough on the lines, and you’ll take off – a brilliant adrenalin rush for the experienced kite-surfer, but for the rank beginner, a terrifying feeling of being sucked vertically through a tornado. And if you haven’t got the hang of it, it could all end in a “kitemare”.
Kite-surfing is a relatively young sport, but it’s finding new converts every day, as people discover the thrills of speeding across the water using kite power. It combines elements of several watersports, including surfing, windsurfing and paragliding.
Richard Branson is one of the sport’s highest-profile fans. Last week, the 61-year-old tycoon made a bid to set a new world record for kite-surfing across the English Channel – hoping to beat the record set by his son Sam the day before. “I absolutely love the sport,” he said. “It’s great that people my age can do it and even take on their children.”
Branson failed to beat the record, but did become the oldest person ever to kite-surf the English Channel. So, at the tender age of fifty-something, I should have no problem mastering the sport. But you don’t just hop on a board, launch a kite and off you go. You’ll need to learn from an experienced kite-surfer, and you’ll have to go through the various stages before you can start doing controlled flying – the ultimate kite-surfer’s thrill.
My first contact is a young kitesurfer from Lanzarote named Jorge, whose ambition is to get his instructor’s certificate and start his own kite-surfing school. Taking a large wooden staff, he draws a semicircle in the sand, then marks out the positions from nine o’clock on the far left to three o’clock on the far right, with 12 o’clock at the apex. “This is the wind window,” he tells me. Along the semi-circle, the kite has minimal power, and is completely neutral at 12 o’clock, just hanging there like a large helium balloon. But once you bring the kite down into the “power zone” below the semicircle, that’s when the fun really starts.
Grasping the bar, I try some figure-eights, moving the kite from 11 o’clock to one o’clock, then widen my loop between 10 o’clock and two o’clock. Again, I find my own instincts working against me – I keep twisting the bar like a steering wheel – and more often than not, the kite ends up in what I call the “powder zone”, ie the sand.
Eventually, I get the hang of keeping the kite up, but as for keeping a kite 10 times that size aloft while ripping across the water on a surfboard and trying desperately not to end up in the drink – well, that is a different kettle of fish altogether.
My kite-surfing instructor is 52-year-old Kiko Silva from Brazil, who teaches the sport in Blackrock, Co Dublin. But when conditions in Blackrock are less than ideal, Silva likes to head for the beach at Pigeon House in Ringsend, and this is where we meet for the lesson. He takes one look at my wetsuit – designed more for a leisurely swim than a gruelling kitesurfing session – and shakes his head. “You’ll get cold in that pretty soon,” he predicts.
So how long will it take to turn me into a proficient kite-surfer? “You’d need about four or five lessons of three hours each to really be able to kite-surf. The classes have to be three hours, because in this sport, the time really flies.”
The tide is coming in fast, and with it lots of seaweed and algae; if you leave the kite lines lying on the sand for too long, they’ll get tangled up in a messy, green goo. Before we can even launch the training kite, I’ve got 500m of seaweed to clear away. I knew I was gonna die – I never reckoned on getting slimed first.
Although I have a few worries about going home on a stretcher, Silva puts me at ease quickly enough. Kite-surfing is a dangerous sport – there are so many ways you can come a cropper – but although Silva is clearly fearless, he’s also clear-cut about safety. And there’s no way he’s sending me out on a kiteboard on my first lesson. He does, however, give me a taste of what it feels like to be pulled along the water by an 8 sq m leading edge inflatable.
First, he fits me up with a harness. This will allow me to remain hooked to the kite, so it won’t fly away (at least not without me dangling along behind). Should things get out of hand, however, there is a way to quickly release the kite and let it fly away into the ether. Great – now I have to choose between dying or losing Silva’s €1,200 kite. Death seems the less embarrassing option.
Before he hooks me up to the kite, however, we have to wade waist-deep into the (surprisingly warm) water. You don’t want to be on solid ground when the kite picks you up and drops you like a stone.
I can feel something swimming around in my mouth – it’s my heart. The last time I had an aerial view of Dublin Bay, I was sitting comfortably on a plane, and I knew the pilot would land us safely. How the hell am I going to get down this time? Silva hooks me up to the kite and I can immediately feel the pull. I manage to stay on my feet for a few seconds before I’m yanked forward like an empty shopping bag in the breeze. Luckily, Silva has a firm grip on my harness, and I remain at sea-level. And so, alas, does the kite – each time Silva relaunches it, I manage to land it in the water again. After a few more attempts, I’m saved by a technical hitch – the valve has come loose, and the kite is losing air.
As we head back to shore, Silva says, rather kindly: “You did okay for your first time.” I’m not so sure, but at least I didn’t die, break my neck or – worse – lose Silva’s kite. But it may be a while before I can even think about challenging Branson.
Kite-surfing: The essentials
Look for schools carrying the Irish Kitesurfing Association logo. There’s a list at iksa.ie.
Wexford Kite Festival, Duncannon Beach, August 25-26
Battle of the Lake, Keel, Co Mayo, September 29-30
KiteSurf Pro World Championships event,West of Ireland, multi-venue TBC, October 19-29
Learn from qualified instructors, and study the difference between on-shore, off-shore and cross-winds. Never take a kite out in off-shore winds. It means winds blowing out to sea, and you will.
Buildings affect wind currents. Check nearby buildings’ height and move up to seven times that distance away.
Use the right kite for the wind conditions and for your skill-levels.
Never fly kites near overhead wires. Even the best kite-surfers can get blown off-course so stay far away. If your kite does get tangled in wires, call the ESB. Don’t try to unhook it yourself – electricity jumps, too.
Be insured. It costs only €50 annually through the IKSA.
When on a new beach, talk to other kite-surfers. This is crucial and good for your social life.
LEARN THE LINGO
Body-dragging:Being pulled through the water without your board. It’s part of an essential learning process.
Commitment: When looping the kite in circles, keep it strong all the way or you will fall in the drink.
Edge: Leading and following. Know which is which, as kites don’t fly that well upside-down.
Kite loop: Jump in the air over the water and then loop the kite strongly downwards in a circle. Not for beginners.
Kitemare: You can maybe work this one out. Try to avoid.
Lines: Not strings or wires, people.
Tea-bagging: Popping in and out of the water thanks to weak winds or maybe lack of skill.
– Niamh Griffin, with thanks to Niall Roche of Hooked Kitesurfing