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.