The low point of my kiteboarding education came in hour four. I was floating in San Francisco Bay, struggling to summon an 18-square-yard kite into the seemingly windless sky while waves engulfed my face. My salty sinuses were already becoming cured meat. Petr Kokes, my instructor at KGB Kiteboarding, circled me on his Jet Ski, trying to keep up my morale.
"Pull on the bar," he shouted again and again over the sloshing sea. And again and again I pulled in the only way I knew how. Nothing happened. Seventy feet away, the kite I was tethered to lay on its side. There's not enough wind, I kept thinking. But then Kokes jumped in beside me and, toggling with a puppeteer's finesse, made the kite rise.
"You see, Jake, there is wind. Now try again."
Many kiteboarders say the sport can feel like flying. After four hours, I'd have expected at least a few jolts of adrenaline. But I couldn't even work the kite.
Kiteboarding, also called kitesurfing, is growing in popularity along the California coast. You strap a board to your feet and a harness around your waist from which lines extend to a giant kite that pulls you along the ocean surface. Advanced riders can lift off to do flips and spins, floating down like parachuters.
When I signed up, I figured it wouldn't be that hard. I wakeboard — riding on a board while being towed by a motorboat. I fly stunt kites — a smaller and less complicated version of a kiteboarding kite. Compared with many of the kiteboarders I've seen on California's beaches, I'm young, even athletic.
Yeah, I'd be flying soon.
I arrived for my first lesson at a souped-up trailer in Emeryville, full of wetsuits and shiny gear. The instructor walked me over to a park, where he taught me kite anatomy and a concept called the "wind window" — an imaginary clock face arcing from nine to three over the downwind end of the horizon. He had me "park" a practice kite in certain parts of the sky, then walk left and right, controlling it with one hand. That night, I spent two hours studying and watching instructional videos on YouTube. It all felt very academic.
The next day, the lesson moved into the water. I pulled a harness around my waist, then Kokes and I Jet-Skied into San Francisco Bay. You know what came next: two hours of not flying the kite.
I began to wonder if kiteboarding isn't just about athleticism. "Anyone is capable, even the most uncoordinated, out-of-shape people," but it's a tough sport for beginners to master, said Jason Reyes, another instructor at KGB Kiteboarding, who also has taught rock climbing and mountaineering. Of the three sports, he's found that kiteboarding is the hardest to learn. It can take 10 to 20 hours of lessons before a novice is ready to go out on their own.
But I learned the issue isn't strength or stamina; it's focus. All at once you're controlling a highly reactive kite with your fingers, directing a board with your hips, absorbing waves with your knees and core, and looking out for hazards. The second you think about your email inbox, everything collapses.
Many people start to command the kite in their fifth or sixth hour, Reyes said. Maybe these alien concepts — the wind window, my body positioning — would click over the next few days.
Turns out, he was right.
During the seventh and eighth hours, I practiced pulling myself across the water, keeping the kite between 10 and 11 o'clock in the wind window. This was practice for maintaining the constant momentum I would need when I finally put the board on. A few times, I launched out of the sea and belly-flopped. Besides feeling like I'd been punched in the gut, I was having fun, and controlling the kite felt easy. That night, my core ached and my arms burned. I wished I could take a few days off. But the next day would be my final chance to stand on the board. I wasn't hoping for flips or big air anymore. Maybe, though, I could do some actual Californian kiteboarding.
One hour in, maybe not.
Saltwater gullet cleanse.
Hip angle, kite position in the wind window — there was always one element that I couldn't keep track of.
And then, with 30 minutes of lessons left, I guided my kite up to 10 o'clock, pushed my hips out of the water and stood up on the board.
I was kiteboarding.
It was 5:30 p.m. Over the next half hour, I spent about 90 seconds skimming the ocean surface. I took my final few minutes to float, savoring my success and the tranquillity of San Francisco Bay. About a mile away, the Bay Bridge towered silently. Thousands of people sat gridlocked on that conveyor in the sky, and thousands more were crammed below me into train cars, traveling from San Francisco to Oakland. I was alone, floating peacefully beneath the sun in the wildest place for miles around.
Kiteboarding classes in Southern California
Want to try kiteboarding?
Visit the website of the Southern California Kiteboarding Assn. (new.scka.org/shops_instructions) for a list of schools near Los Angeles. Private lessons cost about $500 for six hours.
Group lessons can be a bit cheaper. Here are a few area outfits that offer lessons and gear:
SoCal KiteSurfing: Six hours at $350 per person for a small group lesson; six hours for $250 per person if you bring a friend and do the entire six hours on a single weekday. www.SoCalKitesurfing.com
Captain Kirk's: Progression includes three three-hour small group lessons (two to four people) for $225 per person for each lesson (or $450 for six hours), or $599 if you buy three lessons (nine hours) as a package. Add $60 to each lesson for private lessons. www.captainkirks.com
Boardsports California: Five hours for $350 for semiprivate lessons. boardsportscalifornia.com
California Kiteboarding: Four hours for $250 per person if you sign up with a friend. www.californiakiteboarding.com
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