Taking Flight 

Kiteboarding has never been more popular. For the Pioneers of Kite Beach, that's a good thing
-- at least for now.

A white board, wet suit, and red shorts just clear the canopy over the boat. Fifteen feet overhead, Loud Mouth Greg grabs the edge of his board like a skater launching off a curb on Telegraph Avenue. He lands quietly for someone typically as loud and boisterous as a rock slide, gracefully for someone descending from more than twenty feet in the air. And then he disappears into the confusion of a dozen kites circling in the waters of San Francisco Bay.

Crouching in the back of the boat, Fox Sports cameraman Peter Schofield peers through his lens at a jumble of kiteboarders launching thirty feet into the air and moving as fast as 25 miles an hour. Their ability to control the wind allows them to cheat gravity long enough to pull off one acrobatic move after another. It's an aerialist's dream come true. They spin two or three times, sometimes swinging their legs and boards high above the control bar in their hands. They constantly defy the predictable gravity-bound arc you'd expect to see, the one you learned as a child bouncing off your parents' bed onto the floor. Gravity pulls, but the wind-filled kite yanks riders into the air long enough for them to sail fifty or sometimes a hundred feet across the water. If all goes well, they land with a gentle kiss instead of a violent smack.

"Are you getting what you need?" Fox Sports producer Chris Bauer asks Schofield. Suddenly, a wave slaps against the side of the boat with a loud whack, leaving the cameraman wet and the question unanswered.

Over the next several hours, the boat follows the kiteboarders as they carve turns, kick up rooster tails, launch skyward, spin, crash, retrieve their boards, and relaunch their kites. Afterward, between studied sips of a beer on the choppy boat ride back from Treasure Island, Paul Buelow talks about the sport's appeal. "You are immediately in a totally extreme situation," says Buelow, one of the Bay Area's top riders, "It's the dream everyone has of flying. You can fly a hundred feet long and forty feet high and you can pull every gymnastic move you've ever been able to on a snowboard. You may fall on your back. But you land on water and you're back up in no time."

Kiteboarding -- also called kitesurfing or kiting -- is still new enough that there are competing names for it. It's only been five years since the first Americans started dragging themselves through Maui's surf on kites. But in that short time, the sport has grown dramatically. Now, it's moving from an obscure fringe pursuit to a growth industry attracting national attention. Fox Sports is covering it and TechTV has already done so. Wired, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and other national magazines have written about it. Red Bull, the official drink of many an obscure adrenaline-soaked sport, sponsors an annual competition in Hawaii and engineered a publicity kiteboard ride from Florida to Cuba last December. There are now two international professional tours. The sport already has its own magazine, Kiteboarding, with a circulation of 25,000.

The Bay Area, with its abundant water and near-constant summer wind, is one of the best places on the West Coast to kiteboard. Pull up on a typical afternoon to any of the more popular local kiteboarding spots -- Crown Beach in Alameda, Third Avenue in San Mateo, Crissy Field, Treasure Island -- and chances are there will be more than a few people out on the water. But in the Bay Area, everyone's favorite spot is an obscure island in the Delta, just north of Antioch.

Sherman Island State Park is a flat, windblown splotch of Delta land crisscrossed by high power lines and speckled with cattle. It is a spit of nothing out in the empty brown expanse that surrounds the Delta east of the bay. But for windsurfers, this place has been a mecca for two decades. Sherman Island gets some of the most consistent wind in the Bay Area. Heat from the Central Valley sucks cool ocean air through the Golden Gate, across the bay, and eventually up the Delta. While the bay is an icy 55 degrees, the water here is fresh and warm enough that some people don't even wear a wet suit.

Clusters of RVs appear, and cars begin to clog the shoulder as one drives down the barren entrance road and approaches the park. Wet-suit-clad windsurfers of all ages wander back and forth. The ground is littered with windsurfing boards and sails laid out to dry; the water is covered with a forest of windsurfer masts. But every so often, high above the water, the neon-colored inverted U of a kite moves across the skyline.

Amid the stagnant stink of the small outhouse-style bathroom that acts as a park bulletin board, kiteboarding has made its mark. Next to leaflets for a lobster bake in nearby Rio Vista and a modified van billed as "The Ultimate Windsurfing Camper," several fliers lay out rules of conduct for kiteboarders. They warn that this is an experts-only area and urge riders to launch their kites on a newly created strip of sand known as "Kite Beach." One flier even hawks fourteen-karat gold kiteboarding pendants for $130.

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