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wo-time Red Bull King of the Air champion Ruben Lenten says it straight: “The world’s best kiteboarders come to Cape Town every year because the wind and waves are just pumping all the time, and that’s what we need to ride hard and go big.” Off the shores of South Africa’s southern city, swells roll in and calm glassy days are as rare as snow days in Florida. At Big Bay — the Vail of the kiteboarding world — kites paint the sky while spectators on the beach watch the sport’s rising and top talents. Launching off waves, kiteboarders glide a hundred feet in the air, performing mesmerizing acrobatics.

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Sailors rely on wind. Surfers need waves. The best kiteboarders require both. The original concoction of Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux, two young French sailing champions, the first inflatable kite was used to pull a water-skier in the mid-1980s. Their inflatable kites didn’t sink, allowing riders to get back up quickly if they wiped out. Initially the sport didn’t grow roots because no windsurfing company was willing to back the brothers’ idea. Over the next few years, the Legaignouxs improved their design and tested their kites with everything — skateboards, roller skates, kayaks, small boats and windsurfing boards. Today’s patented inflatable kite design is the product of their trials and tribulations.

Parallel to the Legaignoux brothers, in the Pacific Northwest a father and son tandem designed their own prototype during the 1990s. Bill Roeseler, a Boeing aerodynamicist, and his son, Cory, created the “KiteSki”, a kite-towed waterski. Their innovative single ski pushed the sport away from windsurfing, which uses a sail and mast physically attached to the board rather than a separate high-flying kite. But the Americans’ design didn’t propel the sport right away. Not until the late ’90s, when Manu Bertin and professional surfer Laird Hamilton brought kiteboarding to Maui, did the sport gain popularity. Shortly thereafter, the first professional kiteboarding event was held in 1998.

The Kiteboarding Fields

Kiteboarding requires no manmade arena, stadium or colosseum. Nature has everything prebuilt. Here are four of the best spots to fly a kite and ride a board.

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Maui, Hawaii
Jesse Richman, Red Bull King of the Air 2013 champion, grew up riding these winds. With warm clear water and pristine beaches, this Hawaiian shoreline has become a renowned kiteboarding destination.

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Cabarete, Dominican Republic
Paradise with constant winds and turquoise seas. For ideal learning conditions, go to Cabarete.

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Big Bay, Cape Town
Most of the sport’s elite list Big Bay as their favorite kiteboarding destination. And it’s the venue for the biggest big-air freestyle event in the world.

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Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks
Fourteen straight miles of strong winds along the North Carolina shores have made this an American kiteboarding mecca.

Today, the sport has a main governing body, the PKRA (Professional Kiteboard Riders Association) that organizes and produces around 80 events a year, including the World Kiteboarding Tour. In the past decade the PKRA has awarded over $2.2 million in prize money in a wide range of competitions. Just like skiing, which has branched off into innumerable subcategories — alpine, freestyle, mogul, and even kite skiing — kiteboarding has branched into three kinds of competitions: course racing, the wave, and freestyle. Course Racing is the sport’s equivalent to a sailing regatta — sailing around buoys. In a Wave competition, riders are judged on speed, fluidity and their ability to just make riding a wave look as gnarly as humanly possible. In freestyle, kiteboarding’s most popular discipline, the only rule is to go as big and as crazy as possible. Freestyle riders are judged on trick quality, speed, difficulty, height and amplitude. The biggest and baddest tricks score best. Of late, freestyle has gained a burgeoning subculture of more niche events that incorporate rails, kickers or focus on big air.

The sport’s been led into the mainstream by Red Bull, which makes sense; the company endorses athletes cut from the same cloth as kiteboarders — snowboarders, extreme skiers, and base jumpers. They sponsor the largest big-air freestyle kite event in the world, the Red Bull King of the Air competition, which invites 24 of the world’s best kiteboarders to battle it out for one of the sport’s pinnacle achievements. It’s very much a spectator’s event — in 2014 over 12,000 people watched Dutchman Kevin Langeree get catapulted into kiteboarding legend. Beach viewers also witnessed a hero’s fall. Reigning champion Jesse Richman wrecked hard in the semi-finals. Dropping six or seven stories, even into water, hurts; and Jesse, who ended up breaking his leg, was forced to bow out.

Kiteboarding, known as “kiting” by riders, is ruled by weather. Out in the water a lot can go wrong. For big-air seekers, a lull in the wind can lead to kiteboarding’s equivalent of the speed wobble, the death spin. Falling from such great heights is a serious cause for concern. While watching, it’s easy to forget the obvious: kiteboarding’s an extreme sport with very real danger. If you’re out on the water and the wind dies, good luck. But after you get the hang of it, little else compares to the rush.

The sport requires three vital pieces of equipment: kite, board and harness. The kites are a far cry from the ones you spool out with the kids. They come in three popular designs — Bow/SLE (Super Leading Edge), “C” kites, and hybrids. All are inflatable power kites, meaning riders pump them up to help them stay in the air. SLE/bow kites are generally faster and easier to water-relaunch (once you fall out in the water, you need to get back up by yourself). “C” kites give riders a better feel for the kite and more control. However, most modern kiteboarders use hybrid kites, which combine elements of both. Regardless of its type, each kiting set-up needs to be decked out with bar, lines and a harness, which prevent the kite from sailing to Nevada after a rider wipes out.

The choice of kite depends on a rider’s skill level, body type and the conditions. Generally, kites’ wingspans range from 20 to more than 45 feet. Novice kiteboarders should stick with smaller kites, which won’t pull as fast in strong winds. The boards used aren’t too dissimilar from wakeboards. For beginners, longer and wider boards provide more buoyancy, are easier to stay upright on and are less prone to cause crashes due to rider error. Most boards have boots, similar to snowboards, which lock riders to the board. These are preferred for wakestyle/freestyle kiteboarding, where tricks are involved; for the more casual kiteboarder, a board with simple foot straps allows the feet to slip in and out more freely. At the end of the day, the type of board comes down to personal preference.

Yet even with the best gear, learning to kiteboard is hard. Beginners will need help setting up and taking flight. Even pros get assistance and have hard times in intense conditions. The truth is, there’s a lot that can go wrong when kiteboarding. The kite has to be straightened out to catch wind, the harness set up correctly, the lines kept clean, the board secured. If one of these things is out of whack, the kiteboarder isn’t going to get up, and it’s a struggle to get things fixed out on the water.

In general, kiteboarding isn’t as zen as surfing; there’s no meditation beyond the breakers as you wait for a new set to come in. But there’s nevertheless the same sort of brotherhood among lovers of the sport, who share an understanding of what it’s like to be dragged wildly among the waves before taking flight with the wind. Those who haven’t tried need only watch kites and their riders to see why the sport exists. Find wind and water — from Holland’s North Sea to Australia’s Gold Coast to Maui’s clear waters and everywhere between — and you’ll see what we mean.

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