Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, July 27, 1999

Photo courtesy Robbie Naish
Robbie Naish kite surfing in Kailua Bay.

High as a kite

Kite surfing gives new meaning
to 'getting air' as pioneers leap
40 feet above the waves

By Tim Ryan


IMAGINE flying 40 feet in the air above large waves while traveling at blistering speed, suspended from a wing, occasionally doing 360-degree loops.

Welcome to kite surfing, Hawaii's newest water sport.

Info Box Champion windsurfer Robbie Naish, owner of Naish Hawaii in Kailua, describes the new sport as a combination of surfing, wake boarding, windsurfing "and a touch of para-gliding."

Unlike windsurfing, which requires strong winds, kite surfing can be done in flat water under light winds while still allowing huge jumps, Naish said.

Kite surfing can be done in wind as low as 5 knots or as much as 40 knots, Naish said. (At the kite surfing competition this year in Leucate, France, a number of kite surfers could maintain control in 50 knot gusts, according to news reports.)

"To me, kite surfing is a jumping sport, not something to ride waves or race," he said. "Who knows how high you can go? The sport is still in its infancy."

With all the other water sports available why add another one?

"The attraction is human controlled flight," said John Holzhall, of Action Sports Maui, which teaches the sport. "You can make yourself soar at pretty much any moment you want to, and combine it with various tricks."


Kite surfing training is essential for a safe entry into this sport.

Naish Hawaii
Kailua, Oahu
Bullet Still formulating its class schedule.
Bullet Call 262-6068

Action Sports Maui
Kahului, Maui
Bullet Offers a full service kite surfing school. A 5-Day course costs $1,000 for group classes or $1,200 for private lessons. All equipment is supplied.
Bullet Call (808) 283-7913

The soaring is not confined to the vertical. While Naish figures he's gone at least 40 feet high while kite surfing, he's also covered as much 150 feet -- half a football field -- horizontally.

"The length of air time you get kite surfing is almost ridiculous," Naish said.

Kite surfers use an elliptically-shaped wing -- from 3 square meters to 9 square meters -- of lightweight fabric, which pulls them across the water or above it. The boards either look like regular surfboards in the 6-foot to 7-foot-6-inch range, or are like the much smaller wake boards popular on Maui, Holzhall said.

The concept is pretty basic. A kite surfer stands on a board with foot straps and uses the power of the kite to propel him and the board across the water. The body is the only connection between the kite and the board and both must be controlled at the same time, Holzhall said.

The introduction of the multiple line controllable kite allowed the flyer to actually pilot the kite in the sky, Holzhall said.

A kite generates lift like an airplane wing. Since lift is proportional to the size of a kite, some kite flyers realized if you make a kite big enough it would generate enough power to propel a vehicle on land, snow, ice or water. This is called a traction kite.

As soon as the traction kite was introduced, a number of kite flyers started thinking of using kites to replace conventional sails in water sports like windsurfing. But this required a kite that could be launched directly from the water.

Following years of research, several water launchable kites were introduced, including Wipika (introduced by the Legaignoux brothers of France), and the Kite Ski (introduced by Bill and Cory Roeseler) both made in the 1980s.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Dieter Runge, left, and Robbie Naish with
a Naish Hawaii surfing kite.

These allow kite surfers to launch from the water after a fall, leading to the sport's burgeoning popularity, especially the last two years, Naish and Holzhall agreed.

Kite systems cost about the same as a good slalom windsurfing sail, about $1,800 for everything you need: a control bar, lines, harness, board, and a back pack to carry it all, Naish said.

The boards, with as many as five fins, cost $650 to $1,200 depending on construction; kites are $500 to $1,200 including the control device.

Different size kites have different wind ranges: larger kites are used in light winds; smaller kites in high winds, Naish said. The length of the kite line also depends on the size of the kite and wind conditions. Generally, longer lines are used in light winds; shorter lines in more winds, Holzhall said.

Line lengths usually are in the 60-foot to 90-foot range. Beginners usually use longer lines because they create a larger wind window, Holzhall said.

Though kite surfing requires a high degree of water confidence and fitness, Naish says learning how to kite surf is actually easier and takes less time than learning how to windsurf.

Knowing how to windsurf, wake surf or board surf is an advantage because "you have a larger perception of what to expect on the water," Naish said.

"But kite surfing is really just learning how to fly a stunt kite while standing on a board," he said. "You just put the two elements together."

Naish and some friends tried kite surfing about six years ago using stunt kites. The breakthrough in the sport came, Naish said, when someone got good enough to sail in one place without just being blown downwind and having to hike back up the beach.

"Kite surfing had been a one-way trip," he said.

Beginners need to stay close to shore when starting out because it's easy to blown pretty far out "real fast," he said. "Beginners should never go out where there are offshore winds."

What about conflicts between water sports enthusiasts? Kite surfing hot spots in Hawaii -- as with windsurfing -- are along Windward coastlines, including Kailua Beach on Oahu, and Lower Kanaha and Kihei on Maui. "Crowds can be a definite problem with kite surfing because the space you take up is much larger depending on how long your line is," Naish said. "Where you could fit 100 windsurfers, the same area will only hold 20 kite surfers."

Kite surfing schools and associations like Naish Hawaii and Action Sports Maui have established some "unofficial" regulations: only kite surf downwind in popular windsurfing and swimming areas or avoid some windsurfing areas -- like Maui's Hookipa -- altogether.

But as kite surfers become more proficient, line lengths are expected to drop so less space will be necessary.

"If I could always use a 5-meter line I would," Naish said. "That's the direction I'm heading in. We want to take up as small a space as possible."

The bottom line?

"Kite surfing is just one more excuse to get in the water," Naish said.

Kite surfing rules

1. Don't kite surf in winds stronger than 10 knots.
2. Don't kite surf in thunderstorms and lightning conditions.
3. Only kite surf when you can remain in a standing condition.
4. Know your ability level; stay within it.
5. Avoid white cap conditions.
6. Only kite surf where you have 100 meters of clear space downwind, and on both sides of your launching
7. Do not kite surf without a dead-man safety release system that allows you
to disable the kite at any moment.
8. Never kite surf near power lines or airports.
9. Flying lines can cut. Never let yourself or others have a chance of getting tangled up in flying lines.
10. Don't fly your kite over other people.
11. Make sure there is a "friendly" beach downwind from where you start.
12. Never kite surf in off-shore wind.
13. Wear a life jacket.
14. Wear a helmet in strong wind (25+ knots) and choppy water.
15. Wear gloves.
16. Maintain a 200-foot clear zone around all divers.
17. Observe any and all mapped kite surfing boundaries.
18. Don't launch or land in crowded areas.
19. Announce that you are launching a kite.
20. Give way to all other water users.
21. Incoming kite surfer gives way to the outgoing kiter.
22. Disable unattended kites.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin