How can I tell a good school or instructor?
As a beginning kitesurfer, a lot depends on your choice of kite school… and there is a lot of information to sort through to make this decision. Pricing policies, equipment, wind and water conditions during the lessons, and of course especially the quality of instruction all come into play. A number of competing organizations offer instructor licenses. VDWS, BPJEPS, PASA, IKO, BKSA, KA… Some are better than others, “instructor certification” is often used as a selling point, and schools are sometimes under pressure to hire only instructors holding a particular teaching certificate. Some of these organizations are actually proper governing bodies, either government-related or nonprofit national sports associations. And some are private companies with their motive being profit from generating instructor and student certifications and other sources.
Keep in mind that just because someone holds an instructor card, that does not mean that they are a good instructor. There are very skilled instructors out there who don’t have a teaching certificate, or who have chosen to let theirs expire. There are also plenty of poor and mediocre instructors in possession of a teaching cert. In fact, it’s not that hard to get a teaching license—in some cases it takes just a few days’ course. Some organizations take much more time than others to monitor their instructor’s teaching performance before issuing a license.
I’m going to offer some observations based on my experience from 18 years in the industry, which includes teaching, hiring, training, and observing many instructors in action.
When choosing a school or instructor, it’s a good idea to shop around and ask some questions either online or in person before booking. But observing a lesson in progress is really the best way to tell– if you know what to look for. Here are a few particular points you can take note of:
1) Before booking any lessons, does the school confirm that you are a good swimmer, and ask specific questions about any health or medical factors that may affect you during your lesson? These would include blood sugar issues, heart conditions, old injuries, etc. If you are booked in for a lesson without being asked this, it is a major red flag, and an indication of how much attention is paid to other important safety details as well.
2) Many schools offer packages containing a number of hours. Are you “locked in” by being required to pay for the entire package first, or can you decide as you go whether to continue with that school? It’s very tempting for a school to collect the money first, then run out the hours in marginal conditions in order to finish a package. Check policies for refunds and no-wind situations.
3) Look at the training materials and handouts available to the students. Is there a methodical lesson plan laid out with goals and skills to learn along the way, with safety standards clearly specified?
4) You should be made to feel welcome to observe any lessons in progress. Watch how the instructor interacts with their students, and listen to how well they explain technical points. You can also look for these specific things:
>Students are wearing safety gear
>Watch several times as a student’s kite is launched into the air—this is a crucial point in time and should not be rushed. Just before the kite is launched, do you see the instructor/ student make a careful back-line tension check, as well as a 360 degree scan of the area around them, every time?
>This is probably one of the best clues, as we see many instructors getting sloppy with this during lessons: Watch to make sure that care is being taken to avoid flying kites upwind or above people on the beach or in the water. One of the first and most basic safety principles of kiting is to keep the downwind area (within your kite lines’ radius) as clear as possible. This is because the kite or lines can do significant damage if they strike a person. It’s bad practice for either a student or an instructor to fly a kite with long lines any more than necessary where there are people downwind; this includes walking up the beach with the kite in the air.
5) It’s a good indication to a look at the school’s beach and launching/landing area. Does it look organized and clear, or are there kites and lines and people cluttering up the place? Are people launching and landing their kites too close to others? Are they standing around or walking through the area with their kite in the air? In a well-managed launch zone, kites are launched and caught close to the water’s edge, and are only in the air for the time it takes to move to and from the water.
In my experience and observations, the two highest level instructor certifications come from BPJEPS (France) and VDWS (Germany). But keep in mind that no one particular organisation’s methods should be considered the standard for all others to follow in every situation. Each student, instructor, and location are unique and a good instructor continuously takes all these into account during a lesson. Ultimately, each school’s management tends to have more of an influence over the instructors’ methods and practices than whatever certification they happen to hold.
Here’s a post I put up on kiteforum.com about how a good launch procedure can prevent problems from occurring:
We get no shortage of chances to see people stuffing their launches around our spot.
I’d like to point out a very important but often-missed part of a good launch procedure: After moving into position and doing all the other checks– Just after hooking in (this should be as late in the process as feasible), and just before the 360 degree check:
SHEET OUT all the way to check for depowerability.
SHEET IN to check for 1)power adjustment and 2)sufficient & equal tension in the back lines.
In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen two situations where the kite immediately zinged across the window upon launching, putting the kiter in the air. In one of them the kiter was within a half-second or so of smashing her face on a solid structure (tight launch spot, long lines). In the other, the kiter (former cop) just got angry and yelled at the people around him and blamed the staff, even though he was the one that put the people downwind of him in danger. Both happened because of a problem with the back lines that went unnoticed until after the kite left the helper’s hands.
Even for experienced kiters, one of those back lines sometimes get wrapped around the tip or there is some other problem with the lines/bridle, and the helper might not notice it. This “back line tension check” is meant to catch those issues before the launch- you’ll notice it when you sheet in.
As we say when this kind of thing happens… the cause was NOT that the back line was wrapped around the tip. The cause was that the kiter did not do their pre-launch checks properly 🙂 I see kiters all the time casually getting into place and giving the thumbs up without doing all the careful checks first. Usually, right after the incident they say something like, “This NEVER happens”!
I’ve seen it over and over again.
A kitesurf student is learning to kite, eager to get up on the board and riding, and their instructor has given them long lines with a full size kite. They make one or two waterstart attempts, then crash their kite or lose the board… and are totally lost. They may drag back to shore and then have to go out again to look for their board. Or they may end up spending loads of time with the kite on the water not knowing what to do. Then they come back to shore later with a spaghetti mess of tangled lines. Or, they’ve gotten themselves so far downwind by the time they sort themselves out that they have to come back to the beach anyway and walk back upwind again.
Anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes later, they are in position and ready to try again. One waterstart attempt, and then the same thing happens all over again. After a couple of runs like that we often see them trying to get riding with a series of weak “half-powerstrokes” to little effect. They’ve become afraid of getting pulled over their board and having to go through the whole process again.
In two hours of lessons they may have spent a total of just a few minutes actually practicing their riding. The rest of the time? Wasted. Worse, they may crash their kite onto other people in the water or on the beach because they haven’t yet gotten comfortable enough to “look past the kite” and be aware of who or what is around them.
Why does this continue to happen?
There are a couple of reasons. One, their last lesson may have happened in one of the very few “super easy” kitesurf spots in the world where they were in waist- deep water with smooth wind, no waves, and lots of beach space. So they never had to learn the basic self-sufficiency techniques that every kiter should know.
The second is about mismanaged expectations. In the fierce competition for students, many kite schools claim that they will be able to get their students “up and riding” in a few short hours. Students as well are often in a hurry to feel the experience of riding as soon as possible. Who can blame them, everybody wants to ride! But then the “getting up and riding” promise turns out to be a 2-second ride, followed by a crash, then lots of wasted, unglamorous recovery time. At that point the whole learning process grinds to a slow crawl. It’s very frustrating for the student. How do we fix this all-too-common problem?
Taking the time to learn the basics first saves huge amounts of time later.
We’ve learned over the years that there is no substitute for actually spending the time to help our students become prepared for that “golden moment” when they make their first waterstart attempts. And it requires learning some specific skills to become ready for this. But then, when they lose their board or crash their kite, it’s a matter of a few seconds before they are back in position and ready to try again, instead of half an hour. And yes, losing your board and crashing your kite happens a lot at this stage!
Before teaching the waterstart, we make sure that each kiter can:
-Relaunch their kite pretty much every time in the conditions they are in. Relaunching in lighter wind requires a bit more technique.
-Safely and efficiently perform a self rescue if necessary, and get back to the beach quickly with their board.
-Put (and keep) their board on their feet by themselves while keeping the kite stable at 12:00 o’clock.
-100% board recovery. This is a whole set of skills needed to navigate and bodydrag in any chosen direction (including a high angle upwind), so that getting the board back is quick and easy.
Keeping the kite stable with one hand, restabilizing a kite when losing control, changing directions without losing upwind ground. Controlling how much power is coming from the kite and from what direction, 360 degree awareness, search strategies… these are the necessary basics. And interestingly enough, it’s much faster to learn these skills on short lines (even down to 5m!) before moving to long lines.
We’ve found that during the process of teaching bodydrag navigation and board recovery, the student also has to learn the kite control skills they’ll need anyway for their waterstart. Someone who already has good enough kite control can usually be taught the board recovery techniques in about 10-15 minutes.
The vast majority of students who come to us asking for help with their waterstarts and first riding are actually not really prepared for it after all. And they generally are unaware that they still need to learn a few more things before they can effectively practice their riding. So we need to carefully assess the skills that they already have, identify the gaps that need to be filled, and help them become aware of how important it is to learn the fundamentals.
That’s time well spent.