Wrong wind holds kite surfers in suspense

 

THE FIRST kite surfers I ever clapped eyes on was via the first YouTube clip I saw. Several years ago, a colleague who is more technologically gifted than I, loaded the clip of Skerries kite surfers onto my computer and explained, with prescience, how YouTube would transform the web yet again.

I must have been listening, because I still recall that conversation clearly, but at least 95 per cent of my brain at the time was also thinking: are those people suspended in the air over the sea perhaps out of their minds?

Since then, I’ve seen many, many YouTube clips. But until Saturday, when I arrived at Duncannon’s strikingly lovely beach in south-east Wexford, where a kite surfing festival was under way, I’d never seen another kite surfer in action.

Duncannon beach is wide enough for cars to park on, its distinctive burnished-coloured sand sweeping between the fort that overhangs it, and a rocky headland at the far end.

On Saturday, the beach was spiked with what looked the most glorious butterflies at their chrysalis stage: the stranded sails of the 30-plus competitors, who hadn’t yet been able to compete.

I don’t know much about wind conditions, but it seemed to me, as I stood talking to Niall Roche, the event organiser, while the pages of my notebook flapped and my hair became vertical, that there was plenty of it.

“It’s the wrong kind of wind,” Roche explained glumly. The wind was coming in gusts, which makes conditions too dangerous for competitors: their sails would rise, but could also fall “like stones” as the wind suddenly dropped.

Kite surfing sails, seen up close when sitting on the sand, resemble rather grand, and very expensive, beach wind-breaks. They cost about €1,200 a sail, with €500 for the board.

One competitor surveyed his sail, attached the ropes to his waist, and ran along the sand in a trial run. A gust caught the sail, and he was suddenly 5ft in the air, before the wind dropped and he descended like Icarus.

Willie Kerr is originally from Lurgan, and now lives in Thailand, where he runs a kite-surfing business in both Phuket and Pranburi.

He runs the annual Asia Kiteboarding Championships and has been invited here as the international judge. “Kite surfing will be an Olympic sport for the first time in Rio, so the interest is huge,” he says.

Standing a few feet away from Kerr, on this rural Irish beach, are two women who know a lot about the Olympics. They are Cathy MacAleavey and Claudine Murphy, mother and sister of Annalise Murphy, who came a terrific fourth place in sailing at London just weeks ago.

“I’d say Annalise is probably in better shape than we are about the Olympics,” jokes Claudine, who also has the family’s impressive aquatic genes, and is waiting to compete.

“The only reason Annalise isn’t here today is that she’s sailing at the National Championships,” explains MacAleavey.

As a judge, Kerr looks for “the overall style of the rider, and their etiquette in the water”.

I assume he’s not talking about manners when he mentions etiquette, a word that brings an image of crooked little-fingers poised beside porcelain cups of tea into my head. “Ah no,” he says. “More like aerial ballerinas.

“I’ve noticed a lot more youth than adults today,” Kerr says. “That means the sport is really growing. I’ve taught six-year-olds. By the time they’re 10, they’re ripping it.”

The wind is finally getting up, so it’s decided there will be a competition: a race around the bay, past the yellow buoys bobbing in the middle of it, and back to the posts at the headland.

People start picking up their sails, and sorting out the ropes that attach to their waists, looking hopefully skywards.

The sails are huge, like open-sided tents that would sleep 20. As the sails inflate with wind, rise skywards, and then drop as the wind fails, I am reminded of the sequence at the beginning of the movie American Beauty, where a plastic bag tumbles in the air around a yard and we wait for something to happen to it.

Nothing happens. The wrong kind of wind returns and the competition is deemed too dangerous to run. In fact, all of the day’s competitions are postponed to the next day.

As the infuriating luck of the Irish has it, once any possibility of the day’s competitions have formally ended, the right wind returns.

The organisers can’t restart competitions, as some people have already left. But those who remain soon fill the sky with sails. People are jumping, twisting, and skiing above the water like beautiful human dragonflies.

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