Having learned to Kitesurf over 5 years ago and being based in the West Midlands, like many I expect my rate of progression suffered due to a combination of reasons consisting lack of wind on the occasions I actually made it to the coast, family issues since I learned to Kitesurf BC (before children), as well as work and wider family commitments. Making it to the beach at the end of the working day during the late Spring and Summer months for an epic session as and when the wind appeared was and remains not an option for me. The nearest beach being approximately 150 minutes drive in any direction.
On the occasions I made it to a UK spot for a session when the wind and tides were right, I would spend the two hours or so refreshing what I knew rather than progressing onto new things – quite frustrating…very frustrating in fact, so much so that the enthusiasm and motivation to continue kitesurfing begins to wane, especially as with each session I take a good step forward, but by the next I’m back where I started.
I know I’m not the only one that suffers from, or has suffered from the above.
So this year, enough is enough, I decided to do something about it…Most of you may expect all the BKSA executive to be very capable kitesurfers. Well most of us are, though myself, at best, is a half descent beginner still, through lack of water time. I reckon I represent a proportion of the BKSA membership past or present.
So I decided to try out a kitesurfing improver course with a BKSA recognised school outside the UK, in the Canaries in fact. Here, it is possible for me to put in what mounts to 2 years worth of UK kitesurfing trips within a week. But most importantly, to do this within an intensive week, with similar ability riders under the constant guidance of quality instructors who provide the motivation, encouragement and push needed to break through the beginner/intermediate barrier.
Being lazy and not wanting to research which BKSA school to go with, I decided to go on an Easyriders Kiteboarding trip to Lanzarote, and placed myself in the care of Mr Andy Gratwick for the week – well I thought I’d do a spot of quality control on the BKSA Head of Training, call it a peer review, secret customer, whatever you like 🙂
I thought I’d log and share the ups and downs of the week as they occurred, just so others can see what is possible should you find the need to take your kitesurfing improvement firmly into your own hands.
An early start from Birmingham International station; well I did say I was land-locked. Luckily I opted to meet up with my kit for the week at the airport, rather than lug my own, by now retro kit, down to London then across the tube system. Good move as it turned out, I still havn’t a clue how I’d have got a kite kit bag through the Underground system. A near impossibility on reflection, a taxi would have been called for. We met up at Gratwick Airport (no I spelt it right!). 12.30pm for the 15.00 flight to Lanzarote. These days Andy G knows the airport like the back of his hand, and more importantly how to ensure we all get our luggage and kiting kit through the baggage check in without getting hit with excess baggage charges, common and expensive with charter flight operators. Weighing our baggage and bags when we all met up allowed us to spread the kit, and in one case, to wear a helmet through check-in, security and onto the plane. A good start to the week so far, a group of 5, all of a similar standard…up and riding, not quite mastering our transitions fully with various personal goals and expectations for the week; weather forecasting epic wind all week and with a full set of 2012 North kites and boards of all sizes. Bring it on…
A day of consistently over 25 knots, we headed to Famara beach where we were planning to spend most of our time during the week. Tides were favourable, low tide mid day combined with neap tides meant we were good for over 6 hours of action. The North Easterlies blowing in from across the top corner of Africa meant that we had 100 metres or so of challenging shore breaks to contend with before we could get to the relatively quieter parts of the bay out back.
I hadn’t kited for over 18 months so having set up a 9m North Neo I firstly familiarised myself with how the kite handles during launch and in the air. Monday would become a day of drills and familiarisation. I was starting from a good 2 steps back from where I was 18 months earlier, but hey I’d go with it. Mr G knows best.
- From ankle depth in the surf I’d first have to slowly control the kite to both the LHS and RHS of the wind window, resting the kite tip each time on the top of the water. Familiarisation of the kite and conditions…DONE!
- Wading a bit further out into the surf to around chest depth, park the kite relatively low at the edge of the wind window and body drag out to sea through the white water in a slow and controlled way, getting used moving through white water or over waves just breaking. Having cleared the breakers, turning round and in the same way body drag back into shore. Why do this drill? It would become inevitable that I will get separated from my board, so ability and confidence in manoeuvring through the surf is essential in order to get reacquainted with my board. Controlled body drag…DONE!
- The next drill was to get used to powering the kite in the conditions and keeping it powered through its turns, but again in a controlled manner. So more body dragging, though this time flying the kite in the up and down sine manner whilst maintaining a reasonably healthy and constant speed through the water. Having spotted the downwind boundary of our beach area, to body drag into the beach, walk back up the beach and do it all again until Mr G was satisfied.
- Nearly ready to put a board back on again…not quite though. By now I could feel the waist harness bar on my abs and my legs were tired from carting around the elephant legs of my wetsuit (off to find some Velcro ankle straps Tuesday morning). The next drill I had never done before, but ended up being vital to getting up and riding again whilst minimising the frustration levels that would come…I was introduced to the equivalent of the “get down and give me 50” of kitesurfing…laying on my back at the edge of the water with the kite at the zenith, dip it slightly, leaning and rolling forward to stand up in a single controlled motion, rather than yanked to my feet by the kite. 10 times each side of the zenith simulating the initial stage of a water start in either direction.
- Now that I was totally wrecked, time to get the board wade out to about thigh depth, wait for a suitable break between the sets of breaking waves and get the board on. Mistake no.1 – using the handle in the middle of the board to try and manoeuvre the board to my feet. Use the foot strap! Much easier and less frustrating. With feet wedged into the foot straps, get composed, let the waves break over me then dip the kite whilst carrying out the rolling-and-then-leaning-forward drill practiced earlier…out and riding first time, not over powered – well for 30 metres anyway until the next breaking wave takes my board back towards the beach whilst I keep going forward attached to my kite.
- Recover board, get composed and start again…Ahh that’s why the body dragging drill was important.
- DAY 1 complete, I’d gotten back to the point I usually get to every occasional session I’d had back in the UK over the past 3 years. The difference this time? I’d be back the next day to move it all on PROGRESSION IN ACTION.
- Biggest learning point of the day? Sergeant Major Gratwick’s drill on the beach: controlled standing up using the kite, before trying to do it in the water with the board back on. Without it, I expect I’d be over powering the kite so that it would yank me out of the water onto my board for a second, before dragging me over the toe edge and back into the water, beginning that downward spiral of frustration we’ve all experienced.
Back at Famara beach it was all going off again, a bit windier than Monday saw me starting on a 7m for the first time in my life. The breakers were still as big, though we headed for an area of the beach where a natural lagoon exists, by lagoon in this instance I mean an area of water where there were bigger gaps between the breaking waves and the ferocity of the white water was less. Everything is relevant at Famara. This was a good spot to focus on getting up and riding with plenty of downwind space, but with the hazard of the breaking waves to contend with.
So the form for the start of the day was to practice putting the board on and then rolling out of the water on the downward stroke, get up on the board keep the kite moving and get composed, then get mashed by the breaking waves… part with board, regain composure and drag into shore if I was at our downwind marker on the beach (our parked cars in this instance). Then walk back to the start point, start again whilst taking on board the advice from AG.
Improvements came with every run, longer runs, steady and controlled kite power, and even traversing the breaking waves successfully.
Learning point for me was not to tense up whilst taking on a wave, waves always win. Instead, keep knees bent and use them both as shock absorbers whilst moving over it. Secondly, speeding up to cross the wave only makes everything faster, wastes energy, and generally parts you from your board as your feet pop out of the straps. I found, for the first time, that as long as I was powered enough to keep the board planing, I could go through the waves at as slow speed, popping over them in a composed and controlled way. Again everything is relative.
As the session went on, I was completing longer and longer runs, as well as getting through more sets of breaking waves getting closer to the bigger ones at the back which were guarding the entrance to the calmer seas beyond.
During this time I was inherently boarding more and more cross wind, so I was putting increased space between myself and the beach. This meant I could now start to work on putting in runs in the opposite direction, with the wave breaking behind me. Getting up on the board and running took a couple of tries, having got tuned to riding in one direction, however it soon came when you go back to basics, and set a smaller goal.
That was it; by the end of an epic day on a 7m (some were even on 5’s) I had achieved consistent runs, through more and more of the breaking waves and surf, and was able to get back up and riding in the opposite direction.
We had had two days in excess of 6 hours by this point, so the body was feeling a bit spent. However it was worth putting in one last run just to prove to myself that my technique had improved big time because I was able to do that last run whilst physically wasted.
Wednesday’s objective was to keep smiling, put more runs together, and start gaining ground back towards my starting point, meaning more board time and less walk time.
Conditions at Famara beach were the same as Tuesday and the routine for the first session of the day was the same as where I’d left off the day before. Kite rigged, 9m this time, I began with walking up the beach and then worked on riding and traversing the breaking waves. It all started to come together rather well, amazing what a good night’s rest really does. My runs we’re still getting longer, though this would mean I’d venture deeper into the breakers zone, and eventually end up parting with my board and having to do a relatively long walk back up the beach. I could feel some frustration coming on, so took a 10 minute break and reassessed.
I decided to do shorted runs, and work on doing them consistently, giving me the opportunity to remain on my board and swap direction – I needed to work on what had become my weaker riding side. This would also mean shorter runs, less walking distance up the beach, and quicker progression as I was spending more time on the board, and less time on the beach.
Mr Gratwick was casting his watchful eye over everything, and would offer constructive advice and encouragement to most of us as we passed him on our way up the beach. I was at the stage where I needed to incorporate detailed improvements to my style now, getting guidance from Mr G on the way up the beach was a useful way to try something slightly different from the previous run and instantly see the benefit.
My biggest learning point at this stage was associated with the extent of the initial down stroke in the kite when getting up and running, and being much more aggressive with flying the kite. Being more confident and effective with surfing out through the breaking waves gave me the mental space to soon sort this power issue out. Stance was also becoming really important…now I was riding consistent distances with controlled power and not getting mashed by breaking waves and white water, standing up properly with shoulders back as well as a straight back meant regulating the power efficiently through my body, board and rig producing yet further progression and more smiles.
Tuning all these small but necessary aspects of my riding was generating positive results fast.
About mid way through the session the wind dropped slightly, and a 12m came into the equation for the first time during the week, after all I’m a 90kg size of kitesurfer who usually benefits from a bit more grunt as soon as the conditions allowed safely. Same as before, up the beach, small runs. The first run was a not my finest, it worked reasonably well, but I was getting used to the power difference between the 12m and the 9m I’d gotten used to all day. The second run, all my hard work of the previous 2.5 days came to fruition. The extra grunt associated with the 12m meant I didn’t need to work the kite nearly half as much as with the 9m a few runs earlier, allowing me to concentrate more fully on just my stance, board position on the water and spotting where and when to traverse the breaking waves. A big smile, and a temptation for a couple of seconds to do bigger downwinders, though the right form of course was to respect Mr Gratwick’s stated downwind boundary markers.
My effectiveness riding back in the other direction suddenly progressed massively, once up on my board and facing the beach I could focus on my stance with the breaking waves behind me, and AG in front of me pulling strange body stances at me on the beach. I was finally putting in controlled consistent runs back towards the beach, and even better than that…adopting AG’s odd stances was actually gaining me ground upwind as I travelled in towards the beach.
Big smiles…my walk back up the beach was half as long as it had been all day as a result. Day 3 objective…more board time, less walk time…DONE!
A few more runs to consolidate my progression, though I was getting rather tired by this point, meant I had to be more efficient with my whole kiting technique which will mean Thursday’s session should start well. So I finally headed in, and was instructed in the correct way to self-land a 5 line kite, an added bonus, before packing up my new best friend.
Very big smiles all round – 3 full-on days and I had become a better kitesurfer than where I had developed to over 18 months earlier. I felt comfortable and confident kiting in breaking wave areas in both directions; in terms of kitesurfing, as well as managing myself safely whilst in the water, which is a must.
Thursday, on the face of it, was to be an epic day, having achieved the breakthroughs of the day before. I had high expectations of finally blasting through the back of the breakers to the splendours of the calmer playground beyond. Even more likely when we arrived at our spot for the day to find relatively smaller breakers and a surf zone the narrowest it had been all week.
However, the wind had also dropped.
The first few runs of the day found me struggling to keep planing, I was using the 12m from the day before. AG had me being the most aggressive I could with flying the kite, much more aggressive than I would have expected, especially after the experience of the day before. Here I hit another issue…on lighter wind days, when flying bigger kites, the turning of the kite is slower. Everything with the kite happens slower and needs much more pilot input to make it happen. Consequently, you also need to start making your control bar inputs sooner.
After a couple of runs downwind, not my best ones of the week style wise either, Mr Gratwick suggested I switch up a kite size to the 14m available on the beach, in order to give me that extra grunt that switched on my best runs of the day before. I could feel the extra power immediately as I walked up the beach to my starting point. Great!
In the water everything was as I remembered it the day before, however I was still had to be more aggressive with the flying. Up and running with as fast sine action in the kite that I could muster did get me going, though almost totally downwind, at least I was up and running…then smash! Taken out by a breaker from the side. Concentrating solely on keeping the kite powered, I forgot about the bigger breakers as I started to move out into the surf further.
By this point I was starting to get frustrated. I wanted desperately to be doing what I had achieved the day before and improving on it. This just was not happening. Consequently, I entered a mental spiral downwards, which just makes everything get worse and worse. I took more breaks during the day to reassess what I was doing wrong, what I had to do better, and to identify some bad habits that had crept into my piloting.
Not much improvement in my eyes, not where I wanted to be.
Towards the last hour or so of the day’s session the wind picked up ever so slightly. I was fighting the surf, and losing still, armed with the 14m when AG waved me in to swap back onto the 12m. Everyone else in the group had moved down a kite size. OK, finally with a bit more wind, a slightly smaller kite I must be able to replicate the best times of the previous day during the last hour.
In the calm spots between the breaking surf, I now began to struggle putting my feet into the foot straps of the board; kite parked at the zenith, and the current swinging me and the board away from the wind direction, and where the kite was parked. Why was this happening? By now, quite tired as it turned out, the red mist within was starting to rise again. I had finally hit the point where after several attempts that was it, game over for the day.
BIG LEARNING POINT &RULE – we kite for fun…during every session some aspects will be less enjoyable than others, it’s inevitable. However when the fun of every aspect of the session disappears it’s time to finish the session, no matter how much available kiting time is left.
Debriefing with AG, he offered some reassuring advice from the depths of his vast experience – the benefit of going on improver courses with highly experienced coaches.
There is a reason for everything. The improvement I had made during the past 3 days had not deserted me.
His observations were…
- Not having done any kiting for over 18 months, suddenly I had completed 3 epic days, each in excess of 6 hours, tiredness began to build from day 1.
- Long days in the hot sun, even though I’d maintained suitable hydration levels, was again something my system was not accustomed to.
- The earlier sessions in the surf taking on relatively large quantities of salt water, was again something my body was not accustomed to.
- As a consequence I had developed a mild cold and a cough and was not getting the quality of sleep rest I needed and was used to normally.
- The various small cuts, bruises and abrasions I had inevitably picked up, we’re also a contributing factor, as the body uses energy to carry out the healing process.
- Because of all these factors, my body was using energy to recover itself, and not for me to kite with.
Basically I was physically tired, and with tiredness comes the bad habits that affect efficient kitesuring technique that usually get masked on higher wind days. Your technique needs to be at its best on the lighter wind days and you need to be on it to Kitesurf well. With tiredness, frustration also looms close. The two go hand in hand very well, and you end up having a crap day.
So with 3 days left, having a less full-on day was in reality a good thing, I had the best part of 18 hours to rest up and chill, before the next session.
In hindsight, I would have taken the day off. For me though, a week away from the family and work is a once a year opportunity. I was here to Kitesurf, so Kitesurf I should be doing at every opportunity?
Not if the FUN disappears for the rest of a session.
On reflection, not taking the day off, provided the opportunity to experience and learn the valuable lessons above. You have to experience things to learn from them; become wiser, and consequently a better and more experienced kitesurfer. Improver clinics are not just about improving kitesurfing skill and practice on the water, they are also about developing the person to be a more complete kitesurfer from a total experience perspective.
What of the next day’s session?
A similar level of wind to the previous day was forecast. I could calibrate my expectations of the next day’s session appropriately now. Take the opportunity to focus on the finer details of technique, slow things down somewhat, take a step back if you like, in order to make a bigger step forward when the wind picks up again as forecast for Saturday and Sunday. Be prepared to do less kiting, but better quality kiting…
As forecast another light wind day. Arriving at Famara beach, the 12m would be the choice for the day. The breaking waves were the least aggressive they had been all week, yet still posed sufficient challenge and deserved respect. I reviewed my personal plan for the session before heading up the beach to start shorter, better quality runs, focussing initially only on flying the kite and keeping it flying with consistent power on.
The first couple of runs I was as aggressive as I could be with the kite, initially diving it from 10 o’clock through the power zone to 4 o’clock. This provided ample power to get up and running but I was still losing momentum on the subsequent upward stroke and the run would come to a halt.
Assessing with Mr G the details of what I should be doing compared with what I was doing, I unearthed a couple of significant learning points that only presented themselves now, because of the low wind day.
- Although I was putting in big aggressive steering inputs to the bar, I was not doing this with the bar at the bite point along its throw. Consequently, I was trying to fly the kite aggressively, with it over-sheeted on the downward stroke and under-sheeted on the upward stroke. So the kite would fly and turn more sluggishly, and slower than the wind conditions required. I was causing this. Like computers, kites only do what the pilot asks of them.
- I also had it in my head that as I lost speed on the board as a consequence of 1 above, I should bare downwind and follow the kite, worst case completely down wind with it. This was compounding my issue as I was removing a significant amount of controllable resistance from the kite, allowing it to make it’s own way naturally to the edge of the wind window, and away from the power zone where I needed to keep working it.
The rest of the session was spent sorting this issue out:
I would steer the kite aggressively through the power zone AT the power bite point on the bar’s throw, and I would position myself and the board just in front of where the kite was flying. Why?
According to AG, the kite will be seeking to move to the edge of the wind window of its own accord. By positioning myself just in front of it whilst it’s in the power zone, I would be preventing it from achieving what it wanted, so the kite will be constantly seeking to get to a place I would not allow, and would remain in the power zone as the wind window constantly move with me. Provided I fly the kite aggressively from the bite point of the bar throw, it would remain as powered up as the light wind conditions would physically allow, and would turn much faster allowing me to more efficiently work the kite to maintain the power needed to generate longer and longer runs. As my board speed begins to build this process becomes easier as the effects of apparent wind, generated by the speed, start to help the whole process and the amplitude of the required upward and downward strokes of the kite become less making life a little easier and more pleasurable.
You may be thinking that all the above is a bit deep and complicated, but on light wind days you will only Kitesurf if you are at your technical best. Being at your technical best means firstly understanding the detail principles of what will be going on, and secondly being able to apply them consistently. So for the improver, it’s a good chance to try things out and see for yourself the results as everything slowly comes together – an opportunity to learn something new that can only help you get even more fun out of higher wind sessions.
So that’s all I practiced for the session, shorter runs so less walking up the beach, meant more time in the water honing technique. At one point I even found myself just beyond the back of the breaking waves before I realised I had passed the downwind boundary marker and needed to come in.
The other aspect of the light wind session that became obvious was the ability to keep the kite in the sky whilst honing the technique on the water. Inevitably the kite would ease down onto the water, and into the breaker zone. Where previously, a small pull on the bar would immediately relaunch it, today it would sit there and just fill up with the surf, fold over, collapse as the white water would continuously pound it. Consequently, pulling the safety, cutting runs short and heading to the beach to collect the kite and quickly check the lines also became a regular thing.
So what of the day?
I learned a lot about the detail of kiting, and the attention to detail and understanding needed to fly consistently well. Before the session I had set smaller goals to avoid the onset of disappointment and frustration created by too high expectations. This meant I felt better about the day compared to Thursday.
I learned that my flying technique had always been fundamentally flawed…I would water start and get going with the kite too over-sheeted, something I get away with on higher wind days, but none the less, not efficient – inefficiency means expending unnecessary energy, and the premature onset of fatigue, shortening your session.
Keep teasing the kite, it wanting to naturally move towards the edge of the wind window, but you not letting it get there until you need it to be, that helps you remain suitably powered up.
Eventually as all the above starts to happen consistently and you feel good, you start experiencing the old symptoms again, such that you can no longer get it all to work anymore…chances are the wind may have dropped completely. If you are the only one at the beach with a kite in the air, as I was at this time, with everyone else on the beach sat chillin’, the session has come to its natural conclusion.
Saturday, the wind picked up slightly; enough to make the 12m the obvious choice. Back at Famara the the swell was also slightly bigger, but nothing we had not experienced earlier in the week.
The order of the day was to continue from where I’d left off the previous day, adopting the kite control techniques honed on the two previous lighter wind days.
Runs started to get longer and longer, further out to sea, and I was finding myself concentrating less on the kite and more on getting over the next breaking wave. Today would be more about board technique and stance. Standing upright and leaning back, back leg slightly bent, keeping my front foot planted firmly down on the board until encountering a wave, when I would allow the front of the board to lift slightly, bending both my knees to act as shock absorbers as I went over the wave, then immediately back to the straighter stance, arms out in front. The key to taking on the waves I found is to approach them positively as an equal, always going over them not expecting to go through them. There is not a chance on this planet that you will ride through them.
As the session went on, and by this time taking regular rest breaks, the runs we’re getting longer and more consistent. I was getting far enough from shore to be able to start putting together some good return runs back to the beach. All the time my walk time reducing as I gained some upwind ground.
By this time of the week, with 6 long sessions behind me, Famara beach is starting to take its toll on the body, the usual abrasions to the feet and hands, split lips due to the constant sun and salt water battering and the first slight muscle twinges in the lower back following a big wave wipe out ending the final run of the day.
Back at the Beach House assessing the progress of the week, we were all told that Famara is not naturally kind to kitesurfers. It’s a place where your best kiting skills are needed and having progressed there and survived, most kiting spots in the UK, where us mere mortals hang out will suddenly seem straightforward and more enjoyable places to visit with maximum time on the water and maximum fun.
Reflecting over the week I was very pleased with the progress I had made and the experience I had gained, although I there is still much improvement to be made, a lot of this will come through putting in the time on the water. The fitness levels and recovery times will improve also the more regularly you ride. Nothing can train your body to Kitesurf better than just doing it regularly. At least now, I feel I am able to visit virtually any spot around the UK and have a kiting session, safely, with confidence and more importantly with that big smile on my face as I get the most out of the location within the boundaries of my ability.
For me, I had indeed put in the equivalent of 2 to 3 years kitesurfing time within a few days and had passed through the progression breakthrough barrier that had eluded me to date.
My conclusion and recommendation for all those in a similar boat to me, or those who have not kitesurfed for an extended period of time. Decide and take action to
get back into it today, book yourself onto an improver course with an approved BKSA school offering quality instruction at quality locations – be prepared to invest in an overseas trip. Set some objectives and some stretch targets and work towards achieving them during the week. Have fun, the principle reason for kitesurfing. Back in the UK afterwards, commit to making the effort to visit a suitable location, and relish in the way you nail it and have the most satisfying Kitesurf sessions you ever had.
See you at a beach sometime soon.