Kiteboarding takes off

There are some days when the surfing conditions are less than ideal, such as when a nor’easter hits Delmarva’s shores and the waves are too rough to ride.

But a sport called kiteboarding has evolved from windsurfing, wakeboarding and snowboarding and taken hold of water-sports fans the area. It only requires wind — and any direction will do.

“Kiteboarding makes little, sloppy waves fun,” said Bethany Beach native John O’Leary.

Kiteboarders can guide their vessels upwind or downwind by “edging.”

The technique requires the rider to keep a stable body position. He uses his arms to steer the kite and edges against the kite’s pull with the board, using the heel-side edge. With enough power, it enables the rider to come back to the place they started. With enough practice, they can even tack upwind of where they started.

Local kiteboarders Warner Fuller of Rehoboth Beach, Bruce Sheppard of Bethany Beach and O’Leary started in the sport five years ago, after windsurfing together.

“It all started by windsurfing, and then we were trying to find alternative ways to sail in lighter winds,” said Sheppard. “You need 20- to 25-mile-per-hour winds for windsurfing, as opposed to 10- to 20-mile-per-hour winds for kiteboarding.”

All three men braved the northeast winds on Monday, June 20, to head for the beach so they could fill their kites and ride the sea. In the end, Warner and O’Leary trudged out into the surf, but Sheppard decided to stay on the sand and serve as an aid because, in his opinion, the winds just weren’t strong enough.

“We like it better when the winds are 20 mile-per-hour and above,” said Sheppard.

Bigger kites are used for lighter winds and smaller kites are used in stronger winds — but both of them cost a pretty penny. New kites can cost anywhere from $800 to $2,000, which doesn’t include a board and the rest of the needed gear. Used gear can cost considerably less, though.

Kiteboarding may look easy, but it isn’t. And there is a real element of danger.

“This is not a sport that everyone can do,” warned Sheppard. “You have to be an athlete, have great body strength and be a great swimmer.”

Beginners are strongly encouraged to take lessons first, because without them accidents are almost guaranteed.

“Almost 100 percent of accidents are due to people running into something,” said Dave Loop, owner of H2AIR Kiteboarding in Dewey Beach. “As long as people remember to watch their surroundings, use common sense and listen to instructors, kiteboarding isn’t dangerous,” he added.

H2AIR’s kiteboarding lessons are taught by professional air-sports certified instructors who teach students in a safe environment with all the latest gear and technology. A three-hour lesson costs $350, but $75 of the lesson fee goes toward a gear package after completion of the course.

Kiteboarding has seen a steep increase in popularity over the last five years. But in 1999, when H2AIR moved to Dewey Beach, very few people embraced the sport, according to Loop.

“It wasn’t ’til about 2002 that kiteboarding started to kick in,” said Loop. “This year is the first year that surfers started trying the sport,” he noted, emphasizing the flexibility of the sport when surfing weather isn’t cooperating. “They aren’t caught in a paddle prison and they are able to take advantage of relatively weak surf,” Loop said.

In addition to traditional kiteboard-surfing, there are many other variations that watermen have added to the sport. Kiteboarders are constantly incorporating elements of other activities, such as snowboarding, groundboarding and even canoeing, all to maximize the thrill.

Not only are there different crafts one can ride while kiting, but there are also different types of riders, according to Sheppard.

“Some people like to jump and some can’t jump at all. Some people like riding flat water and some like riding waves,” he said.

Beginners are first taught the ropes in the still waters of the bay and, after the basics skills are learned, the ocean is the next step.

“The bay is a good place to learn because it is shallow. The ocean is a whole new ballgame. It’s three-dimensional and it’s moving,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard noted that kiteboarders often can’t hear anything when they’re ripping along the waves — until they catch air, and then it all becomes clear.

“One time I was out by the Inlet and I saw a group of fishermen standing in a huddle. And one of them yelled to me when I was in the air: ‘No hands.’ So I did. And I could hear him say, ‘He heard me!’” recalled Sheppard.

Sheppard said there is nothing like popping up 30 feet in the air and sailing 40 to 50 yards.

“It’s such a rush and so addictive,” he added.

Despite the sport’s short history, many kiteboarders are so enthusiastic about it that traveling to sail new spots has become routine, just as with surfers.

“All the locals kite around here ’til about the middle of December,” said Sheppard. Travel season lasts from then until the end of February. “We travel to other places during this time. So we kite pretty much year ’round,” he added.

Last year, Fuller and his wife traveled to Tampa, Fla., to kick off a kiteboarding excursion that led them around the coast of Florida, across the panhandle, with stops in Alabama, Mississippi and eventually down to San Padre, Texas.

“We stayed in each spot while there were good waves and wind. But when the wind died, we left,” said Fuller. “San Padre was so nice that we’re going to have to go back next year.”

New ideas have fostered substantial growth in water sports over the past 10 years. And it appears that hybrid sports such as kiteboarding will continue to expand in the future. In the meantime, water fanatics of Delmarva already have a bevy of choices that let the wind take them where it will and enjoy the ride, however they choose to ride.