learning to kitesurf

What should I know before starting my first lesson?

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As a kitesurf instructor for over 15 years and school manager I have watched thousands of people going through the learning process. It’s allowed me to spend considerable time learning how to tweak, fine-tune, and adapt the learning curve to each unique individual’s needs. Based on the responses from my best-performing students I would suggest thinking about the following before starting your kite lessons:

-Prepare yourself and have the right attitude. Expect to put in the time to get past the inevitable hurdles you will need to overcome, and that there will be many things you never realised you would need to learn. Read up, watch youtube videos and kiters and students in action, not only before starting but as you are learning. Be in good shape and very comfortable in deep water. Don’t show up for your lesson late or hung over (!) If you can, go along to watch and listen to other lessons in progress. This will help to round out and reinforce the things you have learned, and give you an idea what to expect in the next stages. At Jibe’s we call this “Lesson Auditing” and it’s free for anyone interested.

-It’s helpful (but not necessary) to learn wakeboarding first.

-Search out the best school/instructor rather than the cheapest one. This will not only end up saving you time, money, and aggravation in the long run but be safer for you and the people around you. Remember that you are attaching yourself to a potentially hazardous power source, and that cutting corners usually comes back later to bite you.

-Don’t waste your time flying a 2-line trainer kite. Those kites fly completely differently than the kites you use on the water, and can encourage bad bar-pulling habits. Instead, find a school that gives you a proper kite on very short lines right from the beginning, and keeps you on it until you are ready for longer lines.

-Fly that kite for hours and hours until you have an intuitive feel for it, can relaunch it in any wind condition, know how to do a self-rescue from start to finish, and can bodydrag circles around your board effortlessly before going to longer lines or attempting to ride. Good kite control takes more time than most people realise, but trying to ride without the necessary control will only cost you time, frustration, and put everyone around you at risk.

-Always practice 360 degree awareness, and follow good kite handling practices during your lessons and afterwards.

-Learn in a deep-water location. Otherwise you will be helpless in most kiting areas.

-Have fun and keep smiling!

Launching Procedures and Problems

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Here’s a post I put up on kiteforum.com: Launch failures

We get no shortage of chances to see people stuffing their launches near our spot.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen two failed launch situations where a kiter lost control of their kite. In one of them, the kiter flew through the air and landed on the beach within a metre of smashing her face on a parked jetski. In the other, the kiter got dragged down the beach and crashed his kite just beside some bystanders.  This kiter (former policeman) then got angry and yelled at both his helper and the people in the launch zone who came to check on things.  It was a tense moment.  

Launching your kite is one of the most vulnerable times for you as a kiter, because there are a lot of unknown variables that need to be addressed before the kite goes in the air. Is your kite the right size for the conditions? Is the tuning adjusted correctly? Is the wind quality sufficient for you to be kiting in?  Have you positioned yourself in the right place for a smooth, uneventful launch?

The vast majority of launch accidents are caused by either:

  1) The kiter moving too far upwind before pulling the lines tight, or

  2) Failure to do the “back line tension check” before launching.

In the case of the yelling man, he was in a rush to get his kite up in the air and go out. He’d come all the way from Europe, and had to wait a couple of days to kite because the wind wasn’t suitable when he first arrived.  He was already tense and impatient. He set his kite up, hooked in, and the helper started to move the kite into position.  But then he walked upwind without checking his “across the wind line” first, and stepped back to tension his lines.  The kite was already deep in the wind window,  so it overpowered and ripped out of the helper’s hands. This “hot-launch” dragged him down the beach a few metres, before his kite crashed just beside some bystanders.

In the case of the flying girl, she was a fairly confident kiter, able to jump, ride a surfboard and do tricks. But when she went to launch her kite, one of the back lines (the top one) was wrapped around the tip of the kite. The back line, being effectively shorter, turned the kite back and sent it up through the wind window. This yanked her up through the air, and she narrowly missed injury as she was pulled back down to the ground beside the jetski.

Neither of these accidents needed to happen, and both could have been prevented with a good launch procedure, complete with all the checks. And both of happened because of a problem that went unnoticed until far too late.

A good launch procedure (you can see ours on the lesson syllabus) addresses all these issues before the kite leaves the helper’s hand.

It’s very common for people be too far upwind of the kite when they pull their lines tight. It’s a result of not taking the time to be aware of the wind direction; that’s what happened to the angry policeman.  He also made the mistake of hooking in too early in the procedure. This compounded his mistake, so he was already connected to the kite when it powered up.

The girl who flew through the air skipped a very important but often-missed part of a good launch procedure: the back line tension check.   It’s one of the last checks we do, after moving into position and hooking in (which should be as late in the process as feasible).  Just before the 360 degree check, and the thumbs up, we:

  1. SHEET OUT all the way to check for depowerability.
  2. SHEET IN to check (feel) for sufficient & equal tension in the back lines.

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.  It will also tell you if your kite is tuned properly, if you’re standing in the right place, and if the wind conditions are suitable and matched to your kite size.

As we say when this kind of thing happens… the root cause was NOT that the back line was wrapped around the tip of the kite. This happened because the kiter did not do their pre-launch checks properly. 

So do your checks carefully, every time. Take those 4-5 seconds to make sure that the kite feels like it’s flying already, and your helper can hold the kite lightly.  And if something doesn’t feel right, don’t just launch and hope you can sort it out when the kite is in the air– stop and look for the source of the trouble.

I see kiters all the time casually getting into place and giving the thumbs up without doing all the careful checks first.  In fact, when things go wrong, that’s usually what I’ve seen just beforehand.  Then, right after the incident they often say something like, “This NEVER happens!”

It was interesting to note the reactions of these two people to the situations they caused.

The ex-cop powered up his kite by going too far upwind, too soon. It knocked his helper down and endangered the people nearby when it crashed. And yet, he was angry. Not at himself, but at everyone else. He blamed his helper and yelled at the people who tried to contain the situation. It was a rare case where I had to invite someone not to use this launch spot again. I didn’t ban him because he caused a dangerous incident. I did it because he wasn’t willing to sit down and talk through what happened, and learn from it for next time.

The girl crashed her kite into the neighbor’s trees, and we had to shut down the launch site while we sorted everything out for her. The people waiting to go out after her had to wait some more until the area was cleared. Instead of apologising for the trouble she caused, she was so focused on getting kiting that she launched again and went out without even a thank you. Later I debriefed her on the situation, and suggested that this was a great chance for her to help others with what she’d learned from her experience. Her response: “Yes I can advise them. For $20 per hour.” And the next times i watched her launch her kite, she still gave the thumbs up signal without doing her checks.

Your mindset when you kite will have a huge impact on yourself, and on the other people who share the area with you. Impatience and a cavalier attitude are your two greatest enemies. Let’s use our experience to help each other.

Waterstarts and First Riding

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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.