Todd Snyder's grace on a board makes this budding sport look easy as he glides across the waters off Belmont Shore. He cuts and slices along like a water-skier at about 30 mph, with a glittery spray of ocean in his wake.
Only the wind and a kite power him. Of course, this is one monster kite.
Fwooop! A steady onshore breeze lofts the nylon kite. Thirty feet in the air, it is tethered by four lines to Snyder's waist harness. Its vivid 20-foot breadth fills with wind that drags Snyder out of the baby surf. Forward he tumbles in a somersault, still attached to his board, still moving horizontally before he smacks down again.
"Whoooa, that was some big air, man!" Marianne Kodimer shouts from the beach, where she is practicing with her new kite.
"Yeah," a grinning Snyder says afterward. "I was nukin', wasn't I?"
With Snyder that Sunday in Long Beach were about 20 other kiteboarders, die-hards enraptured by a sport still so young here that few people know of it, though they may have seen it at a few beaches. Soaring kites dance across the air like giant cartoon commas, swooping and rising as the wind pushes them up and out. Kiteboarders dangle at the end of taught lines.
Cheaper than water-skiing behind a boat, its gear collapsible down to the size of a golf bag, kiteboarding requires less upper body strength than windsurfing. Although the sport is still mostly a male thing, women are trying it.
Kiteboarding is believed to have originated in France about a decade ago. It thrives in western Europe. In the U.K., the British Kitesurfing Assn.'s Web site urges patience "whilst . . . having a go of it." The group, which had 12 members in 1999, has grown to several hundred. The sport has spread to Canada, Hawaii and Bali.
Only in the last few years has the sport taken off in the U.S. A first cousin, kite skiing--which employs skis instead of a single board--made a brief appearance at the first Extreme Sports Games in Atlanta in 1995. But ESPN, which created the games, scratched the event, in part because too few people practiced the sport to produce a consistent level of competition.
Perhaps five or six years ago, kiteboarding began to appear in Maui, where the trade winds and alluring balmy water created a kiteboarding mecca.
The last three years have seen more kites dotting the West Coast. San Pedro, Long Beach and San Diego are attracting kiteboarders by the dozens, lifeguards say.
The fiberglass boards and kites are as portable as a standard golf bag. The footholds on a kiteboard resemble those on a windsurfing board. The kite typically has five inflatable ribs and one edge that floats. Four lines run from the belly of the kite to a steering bar that attaches to a harness belt or seat.
Instructors who work out of kite shops teach beginners on the sand, where the students first learn how to control the kite before adding the challenge of water and waves. "You can be like a human cannonball if you don't control the kite," Snyder said.
Even on land, wind in a kite can haul a person a long way down a beach. If a kiteboarder does nothing more than "fly" from the sand, it can be an exhilarating ride. Most kiteboarders get their excitement on the water, though. A kiteboarder may be content to glide along the water but hot dogs like their jumps, spins and hops.
Kiteboarding has its own lingo, including terms like "big air"--popping high off the water; "nukin' "--moving fast; "wind window"--the most powerful point inside an area of wind; and "dead zone"--doldrums.
Belmont Shore, at the southeast end of Long Beach, is a choice spot for kiteboarders--especially beginners because it offers steady, moderate winds. Its lack of crowds means kiteboarders don't have to worry about tangling bystanders in lines or thumping them with a runaway kite.
"It's actually ideal here, one of the best places I know up and down the coast," said Jonathan Smith, 39.
Smith, an airline pilot, is leading the drive for safety and self-policing through the formation of the California Kiteboarders Assn.
Because of skirmishes over beach access and safety concerns in Hawaii and San Diego, kiteboarders have begun trying to organize and police themselves to avoid being barred from favored beaches.
With summer and beach crowds approaching, Smith said, it will become increasingly important for kiteboarders to avoid creating dangerous situations. His and other kiteboarding associations insist that beginners take a few lessons before they charge into the water.
Garth Gregoire is proficient now but remembers the first time he took out his kite.
He was a surfer who had spent time with far smaller stunt kites and chatted with a San Pedro kite store owner from whom he bought $2,000 worth of gear. Then he trudged down to the Long Beach bluffs and unfurled his kite. Before he had learned how to maneuver and control it, the kite took flight.
"It was dragging me down the beach, lifting me up, dropping me on my hip," he recalled. "I was heading toward these people on the boardwalk and screaming, 'Get out of the way! This thing's out of control!' Yes, I was very cool. I finally stopped and just fell on the kite," he said. "I took a lesson after that."