60 Let’s go fly a kite
Lively and liberating, the sport of kitesurfing is enjoying a surge in popularity. Anna Tyzack talks to devotees, who like nothing more than soaring across sea and sand
The sport of kitesurfing is enjoying a surge in popularity—anna Tyzack talks to devotees, who love to soar across sea and sand
ALmost every weekend, sir simon stewart, a consultant clinical oncologist at the Imperial NHS trust in London, swaps his scrubs for a wetsuit and hurtles across an estuary in Devon behind a kite. His wife, Catherine, and children Hamish, 32, and Anna, 29, are still coming to terms with his new hobby, which also takes him on coaching holidays to Kenya, Cape Verde and Egypt. ‘It’s a real buzz,’ sir simon, 60, explains. ‘You don’t have to be strong or fit to kitesurf because the wind does all the work.’
over the past decade, kitesurfing —also known as kiteboarding—has been taken up by so many professionals, entrepreneurs and celebrities that sir simon’s instructor, steph Bridge, refers to it as the ‘golf’ of watersports. sir Richard Branson was one of the first to catch the bug in the early 2000s and mrs Bridge, who is a five-times Kite Race world champion, counts model Jodie Kidd and olympic skier Graham Bell as pupils.
It’s such a magical feeling–i got hooked straight away
she’s watched the most steadfast land lovers—the type to get their kicks from hunting and off- piste skiing—become hooked on the sport, which is poised to become an olympic event in time for tokyo 2020. ‘this is great news for Britain, as our shallow estuaries and harbours are the perfect training ground,’ she notes.
one of the sport’s rising stars is 22-year-old Rose Bungener, a former eventer, who took up kitesurfing at Bristol University and is sponsored by watersports equipment brand slingshot. Horses became too expensive and time-consuming when she was studying for her economics and management degree; kitesurfing, however, required less kit and commitment, but still satisfied her need for speed. miss Bungener mastered it in just three lessons: ‘I got hooked straight away because it’s such a magical feeling. You don’t have
to rely on other people—you can set up by yourself and do whatever you want. It’s very liberating.’
That feeling of freedom is what appealed to Mrs Bridge when she took up the sport a decade ago. ‘I liked that you can fit all the equipment in to one big bag. And, unlike surfing, you’re not waiting to catch a wave, or relying on a lot of wind, as you are with windsurfing.’
Back then, there weren’t any qualified instructors, so Mrs Bridge and her husband, Eric, taught themselves and set up Edge Watersports (01395 222551; www.edgewatersports.com) on the Exe Estuary in Devon, now one of Britain’s top schools. ‘It’s amazing how it’s taken off,’ Mrs Bridge enthuses. ‘At any one time, there will now be 60– 80 kiters on different parts of the river here.’
The couple’s three sons, all professional kiters, are known locally as the ‘Bridgelets’— Olly, 18, is a European and World champion, Guy, 16, was the 2015 British Kite-foiling National Champion and European junior freestyle champion and Tom, 15, won the 2013 and 2014 PKRA Youth World Championships and was Virgin Kitesurf Junior world Champion in 2015.
Mrs Bridge describes kitesurfing as a combination of snowboarding, sailing and windsurfing. After two days’ instruction, beginners can set up a kite on their own and practise riding behind it on the water. Within a week, you can be doing jumps and tricks. ‘It’s a bit like learning to snowboard,’ points out Chris Burke, a professional kitesurfer, who runs Poseidon Kite School (07772 370007; www. poseidonkiteschool.com) in the waistdeep waters of Poole Harbour. ‘There’s no gentle way in. You’ve got to hit it hard, but it’s fun right from the outset and you can pick it up very quickly.’
The trickiest part is learning to fly the kite, hence why beginners start their lessons on dry land. ‘The boarding bit is easy, but, first, you’ve got to master flying a kite without looking at it,’ confirms Oliver Horton, 22, an investment banker who began kitesurfing at Bristol University. ‘The second it drops too low, you get pulled over, but, once you’ve got the hang of it, the feeling of power is something else.’
Clementina Thavenot, of Savills’ country-house consultancy, who had her inaugural lesson earlier this summer, describes being towed by a kite as ‘scary, but totally addictive’. Once you’ve managed to stand up, you have to learn how to turn, by manoeuvring the kite in an arc from one side of the ‘wind window’ to the other. Get it wrong and you’re pulled into the air and dunked unceremoniously into the water. ‘I was freezing cold, my legs had gone numb, but I still wanted to keep trying,’ she admits. ‘The power is immense and alarming. There’s something very invigorating about the cold water and the fact you’re being powered by nature rather than a motor.’
As an extreme sport, kitesurfing can be dangerous—deadly even. Mr Horton was once dragged down the beach by his kite in a 40-knot wind—his wetsuit was torn to shreds—and Sir Simon woke up on a beach off the north coast of Boa Vista in Cape Verde, having been pulled out of the water by his
The power is immense and alarming. There’s something invigorating about... the fact that you’re powered by nature
kite, although he has no recollection of what actually happened.
Beginners are taught how to activate the safety system, which de-powers the kite in an emergency, but, if you give yourself enough space and observe the basic right-of-way rules on the water, you shouldn’t run into serious difficulties. ‘Space is the first rule,’ counsels Mr Burke. ‘Don’t get too close to any buildings or other people. Always have enough space to eject yourself if needs be.’
Although kitesurfing doesn’t have to involve the travel and accommodation costs associated with snow sports, it’s still an expensive sport to begin with. Three or four lessons with a British Kitesurfing Association accredited instructor cost about £500 and buying all the necessary kit (a kite, board, line bar and wetsuit) will set you back at least £1,000. However, as Mr Horton reasons, there’s no need to buy new equipment: he bought his kite second hand via Facebook. Furthermore, the diminutive size of the equipment makes it easy to take abroad to kitesurfing communities in Portugal, Mauritius, Hawaii and Brazil.
Since he swapped bulky windsurf gear for a kite six years ago, Rowan Gray, who runs London-based coaching academy Made to Move (www.wearemade tomove.com), has taken it on several holidays to Tarifa in Spain. ‘Lugging my windsurfing gear around was comical, but now I just have a small backpack and a board,’ he says with a smile.
According to Miss Bungener, the greatest aspect of kitesurfing is that you don’t have to leave Britain to enjoy it—her favourite spot is Weymouth in Dorset, with Sir Simon singling out Bantham and Exmouth in Devon, as well as Hayling Island in Hampshire. It’s also possible to kite on lots of other beaches, from the Gower Peninsula in Wales to New Hunstanton in Norfolk and Troon in Scotland.
‘Kiting has got everything going for it—an extreme sport with a surfer vibe that’s easy to learn and attracts interesting people,’ Miss Bungener eulogises.
This autumn, she’s taking up a job at Amazon in London, but it won’t stop her kiting every weekend throughout the winter. ‘Don’t let the weather put you off—you can do it all year round, even in the UK,’ she urges. ‘The key is a thick wetsuit.’
Flying high: kitesurfing is the ‘golf’ of watersports
Making a splash: Rose Bungener ( top) flies over the North Atlantic, in the Dominican Republic, and Clementina Thavenot with fellow kitesurfer Johnny MildmayWhite ( above) at Sandbanks, Poole
Olly Bridge, 18, a European and World champion, soars through the air on his foiling kiteboard