The first time I arc the kite across the sky, it pulls me so hard it sends me sliding across the sand, feet splayed like a cat hoping for a soft landing. And right there, as my sneakers slide across the hard-packed damp beach, entirely at the mercy of the kite, I get it. This thing has power. This thing can be a lot of fun.
But getting to that point takes some doing. With a kite and long lines and wind and water and bystanders, there is an awful lot to get the hang of before the kite ever goes into the air. My instructor, Paul Buelow, is working on developing a teaching script to use with his kite school, www.ooto.com. He runs me through a safety talk in the parking lot at Alameda's Robert Crown Memorial Beach long before I even see a kite.
Learning about the kite is the first step to learning how to kiteboard. It's where the power and hazard come from. To do anything in this sport, you've got know how to launch, fly, and land the kite safely. We start with a tiny four-foot trainer kite. It's light and responds quickly to any movement. I pull left and right, overcompensating like mad, eyes pinned to the kite, arms stiff as the thing careens through the air and dips wildly at the other kiteboarders setting up their equipment.
"You've got to relax, dude," Buelow says as he puts his hands on the bar and flies the kite with tiny movements. He hands it back over and it goes reasonably well until he asks me to do a 180. All I can think is that if I jump up and turn around, it'll be awful hard to fly the kite.
"How do I do that?" I ask, hoping that there was some sort of misunderstanding. Buelow gives me a barely concealed pained look and takes the bar from my hands, pulls on one side till the kite spins 180 degrees, crossing the lines, then pulls the other way, uncrossing them.
"Right," I say, feeling stupid, but not as stupid as I would have felt if I jumped up and spun around backward.
From the training kite we move to a real one. It's a seven-square-meter inflatable kite -- small for the light Alameda breeze, but a good size to learn on. Buelow explains the importance of knowing where the wind is coming from so you can launch the kite perpendicular to it. He walks me through how to lay out and attach the lines between the kite and the control bar, and shows me the key hand signals for letting your partner know you want to launch or land the kite. And he stresses the importance of being aware of people around you.
The last piece of advice seems particularly pertinent as I walk backward pulling on the kite, get it off the ground, and step right on a couple enjoying the afternoon sun. Finally, I get the kite in the air and practice steering it through the wind, developing pull, feeling how far I can bring it to the edge of the wind before it stalls out, and what it feels like when I need to bring it back the other way. Since I don't skydive, sail, windsurf, or do anything else involving the wind, I have a lot of new information to process.
Then Buelow tells me to get wet. I head out into the water, kite high above my head. I catch enough wind for it to drag me a short distance, but it keeps hitting a spot where it stalls and I never quite get moving. And then it happens: I am able to keep the kite moving in the wind, keep tension on the lines, and I'm moving through the water. Granted I'm moving face first, without a board, but I'm actually being moved by the kite. I feel like I could do this all day. The wind is dragging my ass through the water and I'm making the whole thing happen up in the sky at the end of these lines. It's a great feeling.
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