Like almost everything that appears effortless from a distance, kitesurfing is tremendously difficult – to learn, at least. It’s also often the most amazing faff. Whenever you find yourself with an opportunity to do it, the wind is rarely right – there’s too much or too little, or it’s blowing in the wrong direction. And the expensive kit you must lug over sand or pebbles – board, kite, pump, harness – is heavy and unwieldy, particularly in a gale.
I took it up more than a decade ago, partly in the belief it would make me irresistible to beach babes. That’s not how it turned out. In my experience, women who aren’t kitesurfers themselves find the sport tedious, because watching typically involves hanging about on a windy, often damp, beach and being blasted with sand for several hours at a time.
Still, those who persevere are richly rewarded. It’s incredibly addictive when everything goes right. When first you dive your kite – aggressively swooping it down from high overhead to fill it with power – and go haring off after it across the brine, nothing matters much. Attached simultaneously to two elemental forces – wind and water – immediately you are transported far past the quotidian frustrations of modern life and into, I always feel, the sensation Gerald Manley Hopkins was trying to capture when he wrote The Windhover (“how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wind in his ecstasy!”).
After a morning or afternoon spent kitesurfing, I find I drive home tapping the steering wheel and singing loudly along to the radio. A couple of hours doing it in the surf off Hayling Island can make me feel as refreshed and happy as I imagine I would after a two-week skiing holiday in the Alps. It’s that kind of experience. And with kite surfing set to become an Olympic sport in 2024, its profile is only set to grow.
That said, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Every kitesurfer has his or her collection of ‘kitemare’ stories – tales of tangled lines, or bad landings or being hauled face down across a beach while learning. Getting the hang of controlling a large kite – they’re typically between seven and sixteen square metres – in a 30-knot hooley is not straightforward. Mismanaged, a kite will quickly come to behave like a furious pterodactyl. Learning how to handle a kite so this doesn’t happen is vital, not least because you will be strapped to it and jettisoning your kite (when death or grievous injury are the only alternatives) will at best leave you a thousand pounds or so out of pocket.
How hard is it to learn to kitesurf?
It’s hard. You hear stories of people picking it up in a single afternoon, but these can be disregarded. Reaching the nirvana that is the ability to stay upwind typically takes upwards of ten hours of one-on-one tuition spread across several days, and then several more hours on your own on the water failing miserably. “Can you stay upwind?” is normally the first question kitesurfers ask one another when trying to gauge competency. Being unable to remain upwind means a novice is blown far down the beach from where he or she entered the water, necessitating a slow, exhausting trudge back along the shore, hauling their kite with them. This practice is known as the kiting walk of shame and you will see many people doing it at any kitesurfing spot. Once you can stay upwind, however, the sport opens to you like a country in which you can speak the language. Radical air awaits.
What’s the cost?
Kitesurfers are a surprisingly middle-aged bunch, on the whole. This is because the sport is so expensive. A board is £500 – and easily lost to the current. A new kite and lines will set you back £1,500, and for different wind conditions you will need at least two. A good harness is £200. One-on-one tuition is £50 an hour. The dream is that once you have made these investments, the sport is free. But that’s not the case. When you have mastered staying upwind, suddenly more than anything you’ll want to travel to kite in places where conditions are heavenly, for example Brazil or Cape Town. And then there’s all the essential-seeming add-on kit… a Woo widget to measure the height of your jumps (£150), a GoPro waterproof camera to capture your heroics (£450), a GPS-enabled watch so you can boastfully post session data on Strava. Add to that club membership, wetsuits, waterproof headphones (I know), a hood, boots, a poncho… the list goes on. The upside is once you have fallen in love with the sport, like a smackhead you no longer care about the price of the kit. And no one need ever fret again about what to get you for Christmas.
Where’s the best place to do it in the UK?
I kite at the CBK club on Hayling Island, just over an hour from London. At low tide in the lagoon it offers buttery, flat, hip-high water – meaning if you have a disaster you can stand while sorting it out, rather than flail about clinging to your want-away board – and bigger waves beyond the lagoon if that’s your thing. The beach is staffed by friendly experts happy to help members out, and there’s also an immensely reassuring safety boat on days when conditions warrant it. I reckon it’s easily the best club in the UK. Membership costs £150 a year.
Where’s the best place to do it abroad?
The perennial challenge – for middle-aged, married kitesurfers who have children, at least – is to find a kiting location that offers a fun holiday for non-kitesurfing members of the family, too. Parking your partner and kids on a windswept beach and clearing off to frolic ecstatically in the surf for an entire morning or afternoon (or both) is not a route to sustainable familial harmony. Add to that the reality that accommodation at the best kitesurfing spots is usually rough and ready. There are stunning kitesurfing locations all over the world, but the best family holiday solution I have found is the Le Morne peninsula in Mauritius, which combines incredible luxury and sheltered beaches with, just offshore, some of the dreamiest kitesurfing conditions on the planet. The Lux Le Morne is the most wonderful hotel I have ever stayed in, for kitesurfing or otherwise. It’s a magical place.
If you weren’t worried about sounding like a pretentious idiot, how would describe what kitesurfing feels like?
Glad you asked. It might sound overblown, but the best articulation I can find of the experience of kitesurfing is Jordan Peterson’s exciting description of what it feels like to stand precisely on the boundary between chaos and order, which, at its essence, is very much what the sport is about. According to the controversial Canadian prof (who I don’t believe is a kitesurfer): “when you have one foot planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure, life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice.” He doesn’t mention the ball-ache of pumping up a kite, but otherwise that’s perfect.
All that, at the bottom of the A3! Kitesurfing makes you glad to be alive.