By Bowen Dwelle
A new specialty in kitesurfing is emerging. Long distance kiting is different from freestyle, wave riding, racing and free riding. While all of these disciplines continue to progress, something else is happening that isn’t about tricks, waves, or competition – it’s about exploration, adventure, and the unique feeling of making a journey by kite.
Long distance kiting is about traveling not just with your kite but traveling by kite. There are parallels in other sports: in paragliding it’s cross-country (XC) flying, in cycling it’s bike-packing. It’s the difference between sport climbing and a multi-day climbing expedition, or between a day hike and an overnight backpacking trip.
Long distance kitesurfing can be done with just about any equipment, at any pace, in many places, and with varying degrees of support. Long distance kiting is its own thing, and for many of us it is the way that we enjoy the sport the most. Especially for riders who aren’t into freestyle or racing, and for more experienced and adventurous riders, long distance is a uniquely awesome experience and more and more kitesurfers around the world are getting stoked on long distance kiting.
It’s not just “downwind”
If you’ve been kiting for more than a year you’ve probably done a “downwinder” of some sort, either at your home spot or while on a kite trip somewhere. Usually this involves riding a few miles/km from a known launch and getting a ride back to where you started from. I did my first short downwinders at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It’s a great feeling to ride with the wind and know that you don’t have to worry about getting back upwind – just jump in the car/buggy/taxi/bus, and enjoy the ride back home!
These little downwinders are super fun, but I always wanted more. I wanted to go somewhere. What’s different about long-distance kiting is that you leave from wherever you start, and you don’t go back. You kite down the coast some distance, you arrive somewhere else, sleep there, and then continue again the next day. While we often use vehicles for gear support and/or safety, it is possible to travel this way without getting into a vehicle for days, even weeks at a time. The detachment from the world of roads and vehicles and the immersion in the journey creates a totally different feeling.
Variations within long-distance kiting include supported, unsupported, solo, crossings, distance records, and exploration, just to name a few. All of these areas are seeing rapid development, and I think we will see more and more in the coming years. There is still a ton of unexplored territory and many “firsts” yet to be achieved in long-distance kiting. For inspiration check out Louis Tapper’s original 2000km solo trip, the solo longdistance trips that Andre Penna is doing on his foil in Brazil, the mega-distance records that athletes like Nick Levi are putting up, the multiple world records set by the amazing Bridge family at the Isle of Wight, or the 600km “Ironman” trip” that I did last year.
The most common type of long distance kitesurfing is done with the support of vehicles that travel along the route by land, carrying all of your regular-life stuff (most of which you quickly realize you don’t really need at all). It’s not usually necessary, but in certain conditions a boat or PWC is needed for on-the-water support. On the other hand, given the right conditions (first of all: warm air and warm water) long distance kiting can be done entirely unsupported, with just a waterproof backpack and some cash in your board shorts.
The north-east coast of Brazil is particularly well-suited for long distance kitesurfing, with hundreds of miles of sandy beaches, side-onshore trade winds, warm water, warm air, great food, great culture, and an absolutely incredible landscape – but there are many other places around the world where distance trips can be done, most of them undeveloped. Where? That’s part of what’s so cool about long-distance – most of it remains to be discovered!
Although some specialized gear is starting to emerge, long distance kiting can be done with just about any equipment. You can go long-distance on light wind race gear, wave kites and a surfboard, a twin tip – or perhaps best of all: a foil board.
When you select gear for a long-distance trip, the most important consideration is your skill and level of confidence with your gear. Choose gear that you have mastered – you want to be sure that you can make it work if the wind drops or if you need to go make landfall somewhere other than your planned destination. We’ll go over equipment in more detail in another article, but if you are doing a long distance trip in a warm place like Brazil, you really don’t need much beyond your board and your kite.
You also need to select equipment that is going to work well in the terrain and conditions that you’ll be riding in. My board preference is a strapless surfboard with relatively high volume and long rails. I use a 5’3” Firewire Vader – this board goes super fast on any point of sail, rips upwind, works well in both light wind and high wind, and is also relatively short, making it easy to travel with. I always ride strapless – you can use handles if you like, I just find that they get in the way of my feet!
When selecting kites, the most important criterion is that they are in excellent condition. I also recommend kites that have good range, especially if you are planning a solo trip. I fly the latest Boardriding Maui Cloud kites, and I love how versatile, nimble, and compact they are, but you can use just about any kite for your long distance journey.
Foil boards are opening a lot of doors for exploratory and long distance kiting. Foils require less physical effort for a skilled rider, and they allow you to cover ground in just about any direction, making it possible to plan long-distance routes that include upwind legs as well. The main issue with foils is that they require at least a meter or so of water depth. You absolutely do not want to crash your foil into anything hard – I’ve done it, it’s not fun, and it usually spells the end of your trip. Foils are also more likely to get tangled in flotsam or fishing nets, but that usually isn’t catastrophic. As long as you account for these factors, foils are an incredible tool for distance and for exploring. I love my Alpinefoil which, among other things, packs down very well for travel.
For me, the journey is what long distance kiting is all about. Whether you travel solo or as part of a supported group, down the coast or crossing from island to island like Mitu did recently in Cape Verde, there is very specific and unique feeling that you get from such a journey. Spending several days on the water, traveling entirely by kite and away from the world of cars and roads – away from the land for the most part, in fact, puts you in a unique state of mind.
You may be familiar with the idea of “Flow”. Flow is a state of mind and a state of being in your body. You find yourself in flow when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing. Your perception changes, and your intuition takes over from your conscious mind. It’s common to enter a flow state during intense physical activity, and it can happen for a few minutes or a few hours at a time.
The magic of a journey is that you extend the flow state beyond the immediate physical rush of action. You spend days immersed in the experience, in the feeling of your body working, and in the feeling of being part of the natural world. Being in Flow feels good – it’s recreational, but it’s also challenging, restorative and inspiring. Flow is also addictive – the more time you spend in Flow, the more you realize that other things – most things, really – are a distraction.
When people ask me about kitesurfing, I often describe it as a form of sailing, and as the combination of sailing and surfing. The essence of sailing is to make a journey by the power of the wind alone, to cast off from a known port and arrive on foreign shores. Long distance kitesurfing is how we as kitesurfers can experience this pure soul of the wind – a unique way to travel, to explore, and to expand your horizons in the sport. I encourage everyone to do some long distance kiting and feel how distance is different!
Bowen Dwelle is a kitesurfer from San Francisco, California who rides for Boardriding Maui, Alpinefoil, Kurtis Surf Goggles, SurfinSemFim.