The island of Maui is a drawing board where many ocean sports have been created. For years, people have migrated to the Valley Isle to chalk out new and exciting ways to test the boundaries between man, wind and water. This is the eve of kite surfing, and there’s a new wind blowing.
In the mid 1980s, an engineer from Oregon named Cory Roeseler designed a kite big enough to pull him on his waterskis. The idea grew out of using the regular two-string kite and is still evolving. Over the past decade, people have been experimenting with his idea, using various types of watercraft. Foot straps hold the rider to the board and kite strings are connected to a padded bar. Flyers use the boom to steer the kite in all directions.
The newest development is the Wipika, an inflatable waterproof kite. This makes it possible to test the sport in some of Maui’s intense conditions. It’s captured the attention of boardriders from around the world who are enticed by the limitless potential. A few years ago, a picture of Laird Hamilton kite surfing graced the pages of an international watersports magazine and provoked interest around the globe.
“I saw that picture of Laird and knew right away that I was interested in kite surfing” says Lou Waiman, a wakeboarder from Florida who has come to Maui to be part of the evolution. Kite surfing allows him the freedom to wakeboard without the boat; remaining totally self contained.
Another athlete in the ring is Marcus “Flash” Austin, who started out on a skimboard carving the shore breaks of Florida. “I moved to Maui with the impression that kite surfing was more evolved than it actually is,” he says. Master sail designer and father of kite surfing Joe Koehl had to break the news to Flash that he was already ahead of everybody else and would have to be the teacher for a while.
For a long time, it was only possible to travel downwind, making it very difficult to get back to your car. Now, new techniques coupled with innovative board and kite design have made going upwind a reality. This has added to the sport’s credibility and legitimacy.
Windsurfing skills and judgment are beneficial in the learning process. Familiarity with board riding is also a useful prerequisite, whether it be wakeboard, surfboard waterskis or Hawaiian outrigger canoe. According to Chris Gilbert of Hi-Tech surf sports, “An older gentleman came into the store after passing Ho`okipa and seeing Flash kite surfing. He was an expert kite flyer from California and wanted to try the sport but knew nothing about surfing. After one lesson, I knew he would not be able to ride a board, so we designed a longboard fitted with a kayak seat.”
For the most part, kite surfing is considered an extreme sport. In places with light wind and safe conditions, it will eventually be brought to a mainstream recreational level. Professional windsurfer Elliot LeBoe believes there is more potential than windsurfing ever had. “It’s something you have to practice and have patience for if you really want to take it to an advanced level,” he says. “It’s exciting to watch people get involved and witness the sport really start to grow; much like windsurfing in the early days.”
Like all extreme sports, the element of danger is ever present. The majority of flyers are skilled athletes and waterman. They all stress the importance of safety and do the utmost to stay self regulated by keeping the public informed through the research and development stages.
People are just starting to see the kites intermingling with the windsurfers at Ho`okipa, and handfuls of onlookers still aren’t sure of what they are seeing. A bizarre incident happened to professional windsurfer Sierra Emory while kite surfing at Baldwin reef. “I went down and my strings became tangled,” he says. “It took me a half and hour to roll in my kite. As I was paddling in, I noticed police cars and fire trucks pulling in and heading in my direction. As I got out of the water they came running down to me. Apparently someone driving by thought that a parachutist had crashed in the ocean.”
The world kite surfing championship will be held on Maui in September. This will be a chance for flyers from around the world to showcase the new sport and crown a world champion. The event will be broken up into three categories: wave riding, downwind and slalom racing.
There has always been controversy when sports crossover; new ones are usually met with some opposition. Surfers were pessimistic about the beginning of windsurfing, skiers were skeptical of snowboarders and the list goes on.
For the experienced flyer, kite surfing becomes an extension of oneself. We are soon to see a new wind blowing into the wide world of sports.
This story originally ran in MauiTime’s July 21, 1998 issue.
Photos: Peter Sterling