Kiteboarding emerges as a premier watersport
Sonia Kim has had enough. After eight years, she's selling her house and quitting Portland for Sarasota on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The main reason? So that she and her fiancŽ, Eric Jahn, can kiteboard year-round.
Kiteboarding, or kitesurfing as it is sometimes known in Europe, is the hottest thing on water since windsurfing. In the 1980s, windsurfing (and the tourist dollars it brought in) breathed life into the run-down town of Hood River and turned it into the spiritual home of one-man sail sports. But in the last four years, kiteboarding has threatened to replace it.
All over Portland and up and down the Columbia Gorge, people are ditching their booms and boards for the simpler, lighter, faster gear that's used for kiteboarding.
'It's just a lot less hassle and a lot more fun,' says Kim, 32. She came to the sport through wakeboarding, while Jahn, also 32, was more the windsurfer. 'With windsurfing, you can spend an hour getting your stuff together, then the wind changes and you have to take it all apart again,' she says.
The real fun consists of being able to go twice as fast as a windsurfer on half as much wind, and catching huge air: A jump of 15 feet is within the range of a good amateur.
In summer, pleasure boat captains in the gorge often go eyeball-to-eyeball with kiters who come alongside and aggressively show off their skills. Participants don't tire as quickly as windsurfers because a harness attaches them to the kite.
The kites are crescents of rip-stop nylon with inflatable spines that make them easy to relaunch from the water. Except for the 4-foot-long wakeboard, the whole outfit fits in a backpack. Kites, lines and board run about $2,000 new Ñ but less than half that in the flourishing used market.
Although the soft sand of Collins Beach on Sauvie Island is a popular launching spot for Portland kiters, the breeze there is only reliable in summer. This time of year, people make the 45-minute dash down the gorge to Stevenson, Wash., and launch from the grassy strip behind the Molded Fiber Glass Northwest factory.
'It's on its way to overtaking windsurfing,' says Sonja Hornstuen, who works at manufacturer Wind Wing. 'It's easier to kite in light winds.'
Kim and Jahn's friend Greg French is a classic kiter. When we first meet he is devouring his dinner at the Lucky Lab brew pub on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. His bleached blond hair is dried out and his skin pink from a day in the sun, and he has the distracted air of the athlete still high on endorphins.
French patiently explains the physics of kiting. When in the vertical position, the kite is in neutral. It has lift but no drag. 'When you pull the bar to the left or right, the kite dips into the power band and you get pulled along,' he says.
'It's like fastening yourself to a locomotive,' Kim chips in.
Although the guys stress how easy it is to learn kiting, the sport has its dangers. They soon start talking about 'teabagging,' where the kite picks beginners up and dunks them, helpless, every 30 feet.
And there is no reliable release mechanism. Everyone has a 'kitemare' story. French recently had to cut the lines of a friend whose kite blew out of control. Last year in Germany, the sport suffered its first fatality. Someone cut his lines, and the freewheeling kite got caught up in the lines of another woman's kite. Under double power, she was dragged to her death on wooden breakers or pylons.
'The last thing anyone wants to do is cut their lines Ñ it's like throwing a thousand-dollar bill away,' Kim says. 'They'll fight to hang on.'
French would much rather show than tell.
On a recent afternoon, after checking the weather at www.iwindsurf.com to see if the wind is over 10 knots, he takes off for Stevenson. A dozen young men on boards plow back and forth across the Columbia River, their kites glowing in the slanting sunshine. Most of them had arrived in ones and twos, hoping for an hour of kiting.
Although they grunt greetings to each other and happily launch each other's kites, the sport has a solitary aspect to it. Out on the water, the roar of wind and water make it hard to converse; the boarders keep to themselves, intent on their own performances.
In his excitement to get going, French has forgotten his wetsuit. After pacing up and down making repeated cell phone calls to Kim, who is bringing it in her car, he decides to brave the chilly water and do his stuff for the camera. Over and again, he leans backward and approaches the riverbank at about 20 mph, turns and arches his back as the kite lifts him high in the air. He dangles for five seconds, sometimes 10, before landing, then turns away, keen to make another pass.
Kiteboarding originated in France, the invention of the Legaignoux brothers in 1984, but the sport bubbled under for 15 years. Their company Wipika is still the top brand, but in the last two years sailmakers have flooded the market with more designs.
Americans have taken to the sport because it is one more point in the highly developed nexus of extreme sports such as skateboarding, windsurfing and snowboarding. It is, however, an international sport. Competitions are held in warm weather spots with reliable wind, such as Tarifa in Spain and Ka'a Point in Maui, Hawaii.
The current world champion kiter is Mark Shinn, a Brit who talked to the Tribune by phone from Maui, where he was winning the Red Bull King of the Air competition. He used to be a high-ranked windsurfer but never a champion. 'Shinny' discovered kiting just 3 1/2 years ago and believes it suits him because he was a gymnast as a boy.
'It's all about control of the kite,' he says. 'Theoretically, you could control it by computer because there's only one movement the kite can make at a time. But the tricks you do under the board are up to you.'
Shinn says that although 'the French and Americans dominated in the beginning, now it's wide open because all you need is somewhere with a bit of wind and some water. You don't need to live in the gorge. Anywhere's good: England, the South of France, south of Spain, the Canaries, even people in Austria and Switzerland are into it, on their lakes.' Hence, there is no home for the sport.
He also believes that kiteboarding on snow will be huge 'because you can access places on the mountain that you could never get to by lift or hiking.'
Kiteboarding made its debut at the Gorge Games in 2000. This was the same year that kiters clashed with windsurfers over the Port of Hood River's plans to keep the kiters away from the Hood River's event site, which is prime watersports real estate.
'They try and stay out of each other's way,' says Dave Leder, sports editor of the Hood River News, who has watched the sport blow up. 'When the lines are tight, they are really sharp. There's always the chance of losing a finger or decapitating someone.'
David Tyburski, 33, is a pro kiteboarder and owner-instructor of New Wind Kiteboarding in Hood River, a town so nouveau-jock that flip-flops and shell necklaces have been the fashion for years. Between contests, Tyburski can be found sitting outside his apartment-office, catching some rays, talking on the phone, booking lessons.
He drifted away from kayaking and windsurfing because they both caused too many injuries.
'People see kiteboarding on video, and it captivates them. It taps into their childhood, flying kites and all that,' Tyburski says. The sport seems to attract analytical minds, he adds. Brainiacs who know their fluid dynamics know that a gust of wind often comes down and hits the surface of the water, spreading out to cause complex eddies.
'We get a lot of engineers, people from the software industry Ñ they seem to pick it up really easily,' he says. 'It's really mechanical, and it's very natural as well.'
Windsurfing, he says, 'is essentially two-dimensional, but this is three.'
Back in Stevenson, Sonia Kim and her fiancŽ finally show up with French's wetsuit. There's no way they're going in today. Instead, they watch his performance from the riverbank, teasing him about how cold he looks when he comes in, but French is unruffled. They've already cleared their house and had their garage sale Ñ now they're dreaming of Florida, of shallow blue water, steady breezes and year-round tans.
Kiteboarding has arrived. But whether it's here to stay, or whether the Gorge will lose its status as the home of the brave, will depend on how much cold water the locals can endure.