Jake Wal­lis Si­mons takes to the wa­ter with one of the world’s best kitesurfers, and dis­cov­ers a sport that can be as ex­treme as you want it to be

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Lifestyle -

By any­one’s stan­dards, it’s not the great­est start. I’m all togged up and jog­ging out to the ocean when I re­alise my wet­suit is on back to front. (So that’s why my legs seem to want to bend the wrong way. That’s why I feel as though I’m be­ing throt­tled.) “Your wet­suit’s on back to front,” yells Steph Bridge, 42, one of the best kitesurfers in the world, over the noise of the wind. I blush. “Don’t worry,” she says, “it’s a learn­ing curve. Learn­ing curves are awe­some.” This is the pos­i­tive at­ti­tude that has led Bridge to be­come not only a four­time world cham­pion in her own right, but the ma­tri­arch of an ex­tra­or­di­nary kitesurf­ing dy­nasty. She has three sons, Olly, 16, Guy, 14, and 13-year-old Tom, all of whom are – if you’ll par­don the pun – high fliers. Olly is the cur­rent men’s Euro­pean race cham­pion and the world youth race cham­pion. Guy is the “world vice youth freestyle cham­pion.” And Tom is the world youth freestyle cham­pion, and has been the Euro­pean youth freestyle num­ber one for the past five years. To­gether the Bridgelets, as they are known, are tak­ing the sport by storm. Their fa­ther, Eric, 43, also a keen kitesurfer, looks af­ter things be­hind the scenes and runs the fam­ily wa­ter­sports busi­ness in Ex­mouth, Devon. There can be lit­tle doubt: the Bridges are the first fam­ily of the kite surf­ing world. And to­day I’m join­ing them for a taste of the ac­tion. Kitesurf­ing is one of Bri­tain’s fastest grow­ing wa­ter­sports, with an es­ti­mated 47,000 people par­tic­i­pat­ing in 2012. A Bri­tish Ma­rine Wa­ter­sports sur­vey re­ported equal par­tic­i­pa­tion be­tween men and women. It has been fea­tured in sev­eral high-pro­file, multi-class re­gat­tas, and there is talk of the sport be­ing in­cluded in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Ba­si­cally, it in­volves stand­ing on a small surf­board and be­ing pulled along by what looks like a minia­ture para­chute, which is con­trolled by a sys­tem of strings. Prac­ti­tion­ers tend to spe­cialise, ei­ther opt­ing for rac­ing or “freestyle”, which in­volves per­form­ing a com­pli­cated se­ries of tricks. Tech­ni­cally, kitesurf­ing is clas­si­fied as an ex­treme sport. But ac­cord­ing to Pete Shaw of the Bri­tish Kite­s­ports As­so­ci­a­tion, it can be “as ex­treme as you like”. “You can go out with a big kite in high winds and jump 40 feet in the air,” he says. “Or you can go out on a lighter wind day with a smaller kite, and es­sen­tially go sail­ing. Ei­ther way, it’s re­ally good fun.” This ac­ces­si­bil­ity has been at the heart of the sport’s bur­geon­ing pop­u­lar­ity. “The equip­ment is eas­ier to trans­port than other ex­treme sports. It can fit in the boot of a hatch­back car, and costs about £1,200,” says Shaw. “You don’t need a slip­way to launch, as you would with a sail­ing craft. And you don’t need as much wind as you do with sail­ing and wind­surf­ing.” So broad is the sport’s ap­peal that it has even gained a rep­u­ta­tion as “the new golf”, with CEOs such as Richard Bran­son and the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, counted among its fans. (As the prom­i­nent ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Bill Tai re­marked, “I’ve never seen so many who’s who of Sil­i­con Val­ley on the wa­ter.”) To­day the wind is about 19 knots, more than enough for me. To be­gin with, Bridge shows me how to con­trol the kite on land. It’s easy enough to get it into the sky and keep it there. But the trick lies in gen­er­at­ing the power. “Try and draw a fig­ure-of-eight with the kite in the air,” says Bridge. “That way it will catch the wind and pro­pel you for­wards.” I dip the kite. Al­most in­stantly it is snatched from my grasp and tum­bles off along the beach like a downed para­keet. “Awe­some,” says Bridge. “You’re a nat­u­ral.” Af­ter sev­eral more at­tempts, I be­gin to get the hang of it – lit­er­ally. So pow­er­ful is the wind that sev­eral times I find my­self drawn pre­car­i­ously into the air. It’s nerve-rack­ing, but my con­fi­dence grows. And then I’m ready for the wa­ter. While the Bridgelets show off their tricks, I wade cau­tiously into the River Exe. There fol­lows three hours of trep­i­da­tion, ex­as­per­a­tion and oc­ca­sional ex­hil­a­ra­tion. Learn­ing to keep the kite un­der con­trol while slot­ting my feet into the board feels al­most im­pos­si­ble at first. As soon as I take my eye off the kite, it nose­dives into the waves. Luck­ily, Bridge is on hand to help. We make, I think, a rather ab­surd sight: me strug­gling to con­trol the kite, her strug­gling to get my board on. But that is not the end of the chal­lenge. Once you have got board and kite co­or­di­nated, you must learn how to move the kite from one side of the “wind-win­dow” to the other. This must be done in a rain­bow-shaped arc rather than a flat curve across the face of the wind. If you get it wrong, I dis­cov­ered, the full force of the wind is sud­denly con­cen­trated in the kite. You are wrenched high into the air and dumped face-first into the river. “You’re at­tached to a pow­er­ful piece of kit,” Bridge re­marks as I won­der if I have a nose­bleed (I haven’t). “When it goes wrong, it prop­erly goes wrong. But when it goes right, it’s a crack.”

Up, up and away: ex­pe­ri­enced kitesurfer Steph Bridge, be­low right, and her sons Guy, above, Olly, be­low left, and Tom, left, show how it’s done

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