Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Calamities in Kitesurfing


The wind and rain had thwarted my plans to scuba-diving, and inspired the crew of American friends I was with to cross over from the glitzy White Beach, to granola-esque, kite-surfing Bulabog Beach. To get there, we passed through a narrow dirt road flanked on both sides by small kiosks catering to locals, cement walled houses, palm trees, and free wheeling chickens and dogs. After a little while, blue sky peeks through and we see a kite sail by.

Devoid of the same volume of resort hotels and vendors, Bulabog Beach might as well be in another country from White Beach on Boracay Island in the Philippines. Bulabog denizens either are or cater to a nomadic group of foreigners whose destinations are determined by the winds. They are leashed at their torso to giant, bat-shaped inflatable kites, and strapped to their feet are pancake-thin boards made of fiberglass. On this blustery day there are easily 75 kiteboarders in the water, careening back and forth across the bay, seemlessly amongst one another without incident.

The wind whips through our hair as the seven of us perch on a makeshift set of bamboo bleachers, sipping pineapple slings, sold for 70 cents at the bar next to the Isla kiteboarding shop. We sit there for a couple hours, virtually speechless, totally mesmerized, and completely entertained. Well, almost completely entertained.

The next morning, I arrive at the beach at 8:15am, minutes before my kiteboarding instructor is due to arrive. A well-tanned Caucasion in his early twenties arrives and I introduce myself, assuming he is my guide.

"Hello, I am Matt. but ack-shoo-lee it is Arnaud who is your teacher," he says, in a thick-French accent.

I leave him politely and resume my perch next to a palm tree, totally entranced by the sight of morning kiteboarders sailing across the bay. A few minutes later, Matt sits next to me.

"Where are you from?" he asks. I tell him New Orleans, which incites the usual comments of post-Katrina empathy and respect.
"There are a lot of French people in New Orleans," I lie, attempting to lighten the mood a bit.
"Yes, he responds. "There are many French kiteboarders. All the good seengs in zee world are French, you know."

I respond with laughter that is genuine. He is lucky that he's good-looking. I consider asking him if he's heard of Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon womanizing skunk with a French accent, but decide against it. Sensing my mild disgust, Matt continues,

"Vell, ack-shoo-lee, the first kiteboard was from zee U.K., and zee world kiteboarding champ is English. But it is much more popular in France. Windsurfing is very passe."

Matt is correct. Kites were first used for locomotive purposes in England in the 1800's, to propel cargo both on land and on water as an alternative to horse-drawn power. But it wasn't until the late 1970's that the same-type of kite was attached to a board by two French brothers. Subsequent technologies and patents developed out of France throughout the 1990's. Since then, the sport took off. Over a hundred thousand have been hold and countless numbers have been rented. The longest distance kitesurfed has been recorded at 140 miles, by a woman who ventured solo from the Canary Islands to Morocco in nine hours. Speed records have been set at over 50 knots.

The pace at the kiteboarding center picks up and at once I realize that I am surrounded by the French. Arnaud finally joins us at which point, Matt decides to voluntarily assist with my private lesson.

Setting up, I am unable to disguise my skepticism of the gear. The bat-winged shaped kite spans over 10 feet and has a surface area of 7 square meters. It is leashed to a control bar connected to four points by lines the diameter of angel hair pasta. The control bar attaches to my harness with flexible plastic straw-like tubing, without a lock or caribiner of any kind. As an afterthought, there is a bungee chord clipped to to the control bar and my harness, as a supposed safety back-up.

"Don't wo-ree," says Arnaud, smiling at me. "It's not just for you zees set up, it is for everyone like zees." I look up at Arnaud and Matt in all seriousness and respond with,

"I'm going to break something, aren't I?"

Just then a kiteboarder glides past, and any sort of rational judgment I was about to make evaporated.

Arnaud gracefully launches the kite overhead and we walk into the ocean until the three of us are waist-deep in water. Arnaud then hands over the reigns. He is in the process of explaining that I must steer with gentle angles to the left and right, when the kite suddenly dives to the right, picks up a gust of wind, and catapults me 10 feet up and forward, before jerking me back into the water. "F*&k!!!" I shout, as I land on my knees, chest deep in kelp. I am instantly reminded of National Geographic footage I once saw of a killer whale launching a dolphin into the air before spiking it like a volleyball back into the ocean.

Matt and Arnaud run towards me to check if I'm alright, trying in vain to hold back their laughter. I pride myself for having a sense of humor that can get the guys laughing, but this is not quite what I had in mind.

As Arnaud fixes the now deflated kite, Matt offers,
"See, you have to geev a lot of slack and pull very very gent-lee. You are pulling pulling zee bar, it picks up too much weend, and become too powerful. Just centimeters is all you need."

I try again and again, with progressive success and manage to keep my truckdriver mouth to a barely audible murmur. It took another hour, but slowly I begin to understand. Where iceclimbing (my former hobby) and boxing (my new favorite pasttime) require sharp, severe and powerful moves, these French hippies were trying in broken English to explain the need for the opposite here: relaxed, barely noticeable maneuvers. Quel sport for a control freak like moi!

After a few hours, I was happy enough for the first day to sustain my kite in the air for a tranquil 20 minutes at a time. How exactly I was to pull this off with a piece of fiberglass strapped to my feet, I hadn't the slightest clue.

By day 2 I am finally able to control the kite and move it in a desired direction. I complete body-dtragging exercises where I allow the kite to tow me through the water from side to side at my choosing. By day 3, I am slated to repeat the body drag exercise and strap the board on my feet, but slow winds sabotage my progress, and after a few hours marked with too many failed launches, including ones by Arnaud, we call it a day.

On day 4 I am due to leave the island by 1pm, but I cram in one last shot in the morning. Arnaud decides to set me up with the leer jets of kites; at 12 sqare meters of surface area, I am guaranteed to be able to launch with even a mere whisper of wind. His boss Francois looks at me and the kite, and in French asks Arnaud if he is sure. Without looking up for even a second while setting up, he answers in the affirmative and I smile. Unlike Arnaud, Francois did not see the giant pout on my face when my kite would not launch on day 3.

Though I appreciated Arnaud's determination to deliver, the power of the kite became immediately apparent and after 10 minutes of maneuvering it, I suspected that the lesson would finish in a Filipino hospital. The tide was low and powerful, and rocks, shells and coral were below my feet. The kite seemed to have a mind of its own, picking up little hiccips of wind and spinning wildly out of contrtol. Though my efforst to contain it were for the most part successful, it was not without a price; my body was dragged violently from point to point, often brushing against coral and shells, and the kite frequently slaps me around in the water.

After three hours of this, Arnaud decides I am ready to ride. But by this point I am exhausted. It feels as thought I had pissed off a mob boss who has held my head in a salty toilet and flushed it repeatedly, while delivering right hooks all over my body. Arnaud asks if I need a break first. It is already 11:00am, so against my better judgment, I decline.

I manage to mount the board and ride for a few hundred feet. My body is fully torqued in order to maintain control of both the board and kite. It is tiring but undeniably fun. I replicate this feat another half dozen times before I decide that I'm exhausted. "One more run and then I need to call it quits," I tell Arnaud. But I had spoken one run too late.

I mount the board one last time but immediately lose control of the kite, which launches me 20 vertical feet in the air. It dawns on me that if I land badly, I will soon be admiring the inside of that Filipino hospital I was thinking about earlier in the day. I shake my feet free from the board and manage to land on them when I am jerked back into the water. There is a dead calm and my heart is beating furiously. I am not sure for a minute but soon conclude that I have not broken any limbs. Arnaud looks both stunned and frightened, until I burst into peels of uncontrollable laughter. Only then does it finally occur to me that at age 33, I may be too old to call kitesurfing mine.

"I like to go out big," I explain between cackles. Arnaud is laughing a relieved kind of laugh, and responds in the same vein:
"Yes, I can see. You don't need me anymore, you do zee jumps like a professional, but without board...Eh maybe next time I take lessons from you..."

I hobble back to the shop only to discover that a shell has punctured my foot and my shin is also bleeding. I have a purple bruise on my left thigh, my eyes are stinging and my cheeks look like two pieces of burnt toast. My neck is tender and my belly is full of enough salt water to fill a tropical fish tank. And though I never hit the ocean floor with my butt, one cheek has a disperse bruise on it from what I can only conclude was caused by the sheer impact of being pommeled into the water, rear-end first. I looked and felt like a mangey, stray dog left outside in the rain, so Arnaud repeatedly insists on nursing my scratches.

Technically speaking, one might say that I succeeded in achieving my goal of learning how to kite surf within 12 hours of instruction. But success has never tasted so salty. I suffer from what my friend Sergei has referred to as FOMO: fear of missing out. Admittedly, my love affair with kiteboarding was a brief one. But what if I had been awesome and had never tried?? What if I had been able to stand without swallowing gallons of seawater and had never known?

At the end of the day, I'm happy to have tried. And, aside from the scratches on my shin, the bruises on butt and thigh, the stinging eyes, the whiplash, and the soarness, I feel like a million bucks.

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