Kiteboarding rookie Cyrus Shahrad faces the fear and gets rigged up for the ride of his life on the Red Sea.
The 'Maverick' approach
It was somehow 'right' that our kiteboarding instructor's nickname was 'Goose'. It wasn't just the facial resemblance, though the beady eyes and broom moustache were certainly reminiscent of Maverick's dapper but ultimately doomed wingman in 'Top Gun'; no, there was something about the tongue-in-cheek way he ran his watersports centre like a military boot camp that sealed the deal.
Within moments of arriving at the wicker beach huts that constituted my tour firm's oceanside office at the Red Sea resort of Abu Soma, Egypt, Goose was barking orders into his walkie talkie and chucking waterproof bags filled with equipment to the boys and girls under his command – buff, perma-tanned youths with the lazy bravado of 'Shipwrecked' contestants, some arriving with skateboards under their arms despite the sprawling desert on all sides. They, in turn, guided us through the process of preparing kites like the ones we could see soaring above the horizon, colourful canopies effortlessly carrying their board-bound riders at scary speeds over the turquoise sea.
The grace of the display belied the exhausting effort of rigging a kite, especially for a green-gilled first timer like myself. I was paired up with an enthusiastic American auditor called David. I had the task of inflating the struts of the kite's 40-foot wingspan – with the thing flapping and snarling like a wounded pterodactyl – while David walked the 65-foot lines along the beach and checked for frays and tangles. The rig was then carefully wound and wrapped into a single bag for a fuss-free water launch – a process that takes seasoned boarders less than ten minutes, but which David and I managed to stretch out into almost an hour.
'Lock and load,' shouted Goose, and his platoon began stacking kites, boards and bags filled with sandwiches and sun cream into the outboard motor dinghy bobbing in the harbour. The rest of us lined up by the water's edge, resisting the urge to salute as Goose walked down the line handing out helmets, safety leashes and lifejackets; moments later we were sitting aboard the boat and skipping over the ocean, conversation curtailed by the roar of the engine as the hotel retreated behind us.
We sped through the windsurf area first, carefully avoiding the paths of sails zipping across the water like upright insect wings. The sea was deepening beneath us but was still bright and clear enough to make out clusters of rocks and coral, and fleeting schools of colourful fish. From here we entered kiteboarding territory, our mouths hanging open in a mix of awe and horror at how aggressively the riders seemed to be thrown around by their canopies, occasionally launching into aerial spins and flips so high that I kept thinking: They're going to get sucked into the sky like the guy on YouTube who gets caught in an air pocket.
Our driver killed the engine as we approached the pontoon, and we disembarked into water no more than waist deep and warm as a bath despite it being late November. 'We call this the Oakley Graveyard,' Goose remarked as he walked the lines of the first kite backwards from the pontoon, 'because so many pairs of sunglasses end up lost at the bottom of the sea.'
Then, with the rush of what sounded like a plane taking off, the first kite swung into the air – all 40 feet of its bright green awning rippling high overhead – as though it were the most natural thing on earth; which it was, I suppose, although looking down I couldn't help feeling there was something less than natural about the elaborate harness that was about to connect me to it, or the twin-tipped fibreglass boards that were being unpacked on the pontoon.
'Don't panic,' Goose was saying, as he walked towards me, not even looking at the kite as he unclipped it from his harness and prepared to attach it to mine. 'Just remember what Carrie taught you.'
Ah, yes, Carrie. How simple it had all seemed on that first afternoon in Abu Soma, when I'd stood on the desert's edge and been taught the basics of kite handling, with the sun setting behind the crimson Sinai mountains and lending the scene the air of a flashback long before it actually was one.
Carrie had explained the three-dimensional wind window and how the kite operates within it – sitting naturally at 12 o'clock (directly overhead) and picking up speed as it swoops back up from nine or three o'clock (ground level on the port or starboard sides respectively). She demonstrated how to manipulate the lines for launching and landing, how to swing the kite through figures of eight to maintain a constant speed, and how to bring myself from a seated to a standing position with one mighty swoop across the window – something that left me scrambling over the sand before collapsing to my knees, the kite crashing to earth with a thud. How we laughed.
Later, sitting down in a café, we'd gone through the British Kite Surfing Association (BKSA) (www.kitesurfing.org) guidelines – a long-winded legal requirement outlining the laws of both man (starboard has right of way over port) and nature (warm and cold fronts, high and low pressures, how and why the wind works). All of which seemed to imply that messing around with kites in the middle of the ocean was a dangerous pursuit, and one that shouldn't be undertaken without a real understanding of the risks involved.
Kiteboarders vs windsurfers
As a result, there's a certain amount of friction between kiteboarders and windsurfers, who keep to their own areas in Abu Soma and tend to view the likes of Goose and Carrie with the same snorting disdain that skiers once reserved for snowboarders. And while the prohibitive cost of kiteboarding may stop it from developing quite as comprehensive a following as regular surfing (new kites cost from £500 to well over £1,000; boards from £250-£550), it has many familiar traits – the saltwater dreadlocks, the soul brother lingo and the swelling litany of aerial tricks and rotations.
And this was the main bone of contention: true, most accidents involve lines rather than kites themselves, and happen on land rather than in the water, but the tendency among kiteboarders to hurl themselves recklessly into the air (occasionally crashing into buildings, landing on other people or, in the case of that poor chap on YouTube (www.tinyurl.com/kitesurf), almost disappearing entirely) has the ability to make them, and their sport, look very dangerous indeed.
All of which weighed heavily on my mind as I lowered myself into a seated position in the water, one hand on the bar to keep the kite at 12 o'clock as the other fumbled with the board. Feet finally secured in the straps, I looked back at the kite and found myself blinking away sunlight – Oakley Graveyard or not, a pair of sunglasses wouldn't have gone amiss at this point.
I listened for the wind whistling in both ears, a good sign that I was facing directly downwind, and pointed my leading foot slightly forward. I took a deep breath before bringing the kite down to around ten o'clock, and then, with a pull on the starboard side of the bar, swung it brazenly across the wind window to two. Goose's shouts of encouragement competed against the roar of the kite and the high pitched rush of water that peeled away from my board as it jolted suddenly to life, lines tightening and lifting me to my feet, my shadow rippling over the surface of the sea as I sped away from the pontoon. The rush of freedom was ten times more powerful than I'd ever imagined it would be: I was up and kiteboarding on my first attempt.
All right, so it wasn't exactly my first attempt. The time between Goose first hooking that kite to my harness and me finally standing and soaring away from the group was an entire morning spent learning the less-than-subtle art of body dragging (allowing the kite to tow a person across the surface of the sea, essential in escaping deep water or retrieving lost boards). Even after I was allowed to strap a board to my feet, there were still hours of false hopes and miserable failures, of lines becoming tangled and kites crashing into the ocean. But that moment, when it came, was one of unmitigated joy – a moment that, in a final tribute to 'Top Gun', really did take my breath away.
Music, film & literature
‘Surfer’s Choice’, by Dick Dale (1962, Deltone) Dale’s punchy surfer pop is cut with the lilting Arabic influence of his Lebanese heritage – hence his hybrid classic ‘Misirlou’ (aka the theme from ‘Pulp Fiction’), a fitting soundtrack for Red Sea surf safaris.
‘Point Break’ (1991) Gloriously trashy take on US adrenalin culture; its gung-ho one-liners (‘Little hand says it’s time to rock ’n’ roll’) can and should be repeated ad nauseam.
‘Breath’, by Tim Winton (2008, Hamish Hamilton) As slim as it is unsettling, ‘Breath’ is the story of two boys growing up in an isolated Australian logging town in the 1970s, and how an encounter with a pro surfer leads them to pursue ever more deranged and ultimately destructive tests of courage.
Cyrus Shahrad flew to Hurghada, a 40-minute minibus ride from the resort; he travelled with Mark Warner (www.markwarner.co.uk); the flights, transfers and half-board accommodation at Abu Soma cost £688 per adult per week based on two sharing; BKSA-standard kiteboarding tuition costs £240 for parts one and two, and covers everything from basic kite handling to board riding over the course of four three-hour sessions. Extra private tuition is £30 per hour.
When to go
Abu Soma is sunny and blessed with cross-shore winds necessary for kite-surfing year-round; temperatures may be uncomfortably high in July and August.
Am I up to it?
Almost everyone should be able to stand and kitesurf along, if not turn and travel in the opposite direction, after 12 hours of tuition; those with waterskiing or wakeboarding experience will reap the benefits of having been dragged along the water.
More like this...
In Tarifa, Spain, the Dragon Kite School (www.dragonkiteschool.com) runs everything from three-hour taster sessions (€70) to three day courses (€240). Sud Windsports (www.sudwindsports.com) operates a beginner’s programme at St Pierre-la-Mer in the south of France (€215 for four two-hour sessions). In the UK, Surface2Air Sports (www.s2as.com) runs courses in Folkestone, Kent, and in Poole, Dorset. For a list of schools worldwide see www.kitesurfingschool.org/schools.htm.
Air time Not, as you might expect, the hours spent blabbing around the camp fire, but simply the amount of time spent in the air while jumping. Board-off Any trick in which a rider removes the board from his feet while airborne. Ideally followed by a ‘board-on’ prior to landing. Boosting Launching oneself into the air by harnessing the power of the wind. Not to be confused with ‘lofting’. Deadman An aerial trick in which the rider dangles upside down and lets his arms hang free. Occasionally performed unintentionally. Donkey dick A phallic rubber appendage used to secure a kite to a harness and the subject of much tittering among first-timers. Dawn patrol (DP) An early morning session organised with military precision to bag the best winds and avoid the crowds. Grab To hold an edge of the board while airborne. Grab names vary with the position of the hand: from indy to tindy, from roast beef to stalefish. Grom A small kid with serious kiteboarding skills and an attitude to match. The subject of much envy among mature kiteboarders. Handlepass The act of passing the control bar behind the back while performing an aerial rotation unhooked from the kite. See also ‘mobe’. Hindenburg A crash of such magnitude as to merit comparison to the German airship tragedy of 1937. Kitemare Any unfortunate kiteboarding mishap. Lofting Being launched into the air against one’s will by an overpowered kite. The cause of most kiteboarding accidents and – especially on land – deaths. Mobe A category of inverted aerial rotation inspired by wakeboarding. Examples include mobe 540s, mobe 720s, crow mobes and moby dicks. Nuking Used to describe extremely high winds. Anything over 30 knots is considered dangerous for kiteboarding, although serious riders have been known to head out in 60-plus knots. Stomp To successfully perform any sort of trick, ideally being watched by a ‘stacked babe’ or ‘hung-ten dude’. Teabagging Being repeatedly lifted out of and dipped in the water, either due to inconsistent winds or a lack of skill. Not to be confused with the alternative sexual practice of the same name. Walk of shame An embarrassing return journey to the launch site after being dragged miles downwind. Sometimes a walk, more often a drive.
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