Read about my first lessons learning how to kite surf!
“Do you think the wind will be good today?” We here at Donkey Den Bed and Breakfast on the remote Santa Marianita Beach outside of Manta, Ecuador live in anticipation of a constant gust of wind. Every morning, the guests, visitors, and gringo locals around the rectangular, tapestry-clad dining room table ask each other the same question. Sometimes we whistle to make the wind blow (an old sailor trick), sometimes we look out on the horizon for white caps on the water, sometimes we hope the shining sun will cause thermic winds. You can hear it before you see it, your eyes usually on a book or your phone to distract you from the disappointment of still air. The seashell wind chimes start to clang together and the palm fronds hiss as they sway. You look up and scan the horizon, and with the blessing of the wind god, you spot a kite in the air. Soon the sky is littered with kites twisting and turning and pulling their surfers along the warm Pacific waters. The other volunteers at Donkey Den and I look imploringly at our boss, Cheryl, as she sips her third cup of black coffee and says, “Go ahead, girls. The wind’s picking up.”
Sunscreen. Sports bra. Harness. Pump. Kite. And we’re off. My Dutch girls Annette and Juliet are far more experienced than I am. Their blue eyes shine vibrantly on their impossibly tanned skin, a couple of sun kissed Amazons sharing a board and an F1 kite that they bought in Peru. They learned in Brazil have been more or less making their way around Central and South America, alternating between simply traveling and staying in kite surfing meccas like Corn Islands, Nicaragua or Mancora, Peru to up their kiting game before heading back to the Netherlands. They have had about three solid weeks of experience all together, but to me and my three hours of lessons, they look like pros.
Each day, I nearly sprint the length of the beach to the kite school called Ocean Freaks for a lesson, a combination of excitement and hot sand on my bare feet adding a pep to my step. However, the past few days have gone as follows: I see my instructor outside, his afro tied into a bun. Frainin Santana is a 24 year old, Star Kite sponsored, Dominican who came to Santa Marianita to compete in Fly Fest, a kiting competition that took place here a few weeks ago, and who is sticking around for a bit to practice kiting and teach.
He sees me walking up and shakes his head at me. Instantly my spirits fall. “No wind today,” he says. Or, “Waves too big today. You could get hurt.” I look around at the few kites I see in the air and start to protest. He insists that it’s no good for learning, that the kiters on the water are pros, that he doesn’t have a big enough kite for me to practice on for me to catch the wind, or I won’t be able to make it out past the crash of the waves with a kite in my hand. Yada, yada, yada. So instead I grab a boogie board from the school and set to work riding the warm pacific waves and skimming on my stomach on the shallow surf. Or sometimes I just sulk back to Donkey Den.
Back at home base, I watch the hammock chairs sway in the wind, eager to get to my next lesson before my help exchange ends (It is now Saturday, I leave Monday) so I can finally learn to stand on the board. Frainin has promised me that I will be kiting on my own before I leave, but he doesn’t control the wind, so I don’t know what his word is worth. My first two hours weren’t as thrilling as I had hoped. I paid $108 for all three, a discounted price provided I bartend for the surf school this weekend. After harnessing up and putting on an embarrasing helmet to let others know that I’m a beginner, I set to learning the language of the wind. Frainin taught me how to feel which way the wind was blowing, which way was upwind and downwind, like a stream. He then instructed me how to blow up the kite, a 9 meter Slingshot, how to untangle the lines, and how to attach them to the kite. All the while, he barely lifted a finger. He told me that I needed to do it on my own because when I have my own kite, no one will be helping me. I like this philosophy. After we set up the kite, he held onto the bar and told me to launch it for him. I flipped the kite to an upright position, holding it tight to my body so it wouldn’t hit me in the face, and when he gave me the thumbs up, I let go and watched it soar. I had gathered from watching other kiters that the universal symbol for launch is a thumbs up, and the universal symbol for catch my kite is a few pats on your head. Frainin expertly held the kite at its zenith with one hand, then leaned in the sand and drew a half of a clock with his finger, explaining that when the kite was directly overhead, it was at 12 o’clock, and so forth. He attached the kite to my harness, and I instantly felt the pull in my core as he explained things about the line that I didn’t fully understand and wasn’t fully paying attention to at the time. I just wanted to get my hands on that bar. After he attached the safety line to me, he continued to hold onto the bar and then, to my dismay, lowered it to the ground. He made me practice pulling the quick release and safety leash about ten times until he was satisfied that I could unhinge myself from the line in case of emergency, then relaunched the kite.
Steering a kite in the wind is about subtlety. Grasp the bar too tight, and you put too much pressure on the lines, which tightens the fabric of the kite against the wind and makes it harder to control (for me). Pull too hard on either side, and the kite will move quickly and could crash. The closer the bar is to your body, the more power you give it. It is a dance of power and de-power, light pressure on the left to bring the kite to 11 and 10 o’clock, and light pressure on the right to bring it to 1 and 2 o’clock. Keep your eyes on the kite. Bring it back to 12. De-power, tug the left a little, and power to hold it at 12. All easier said than done. Frainin was constantly telling me to relax my grip and shoulders, holding onto the bar above my hands and moving it how I was meant to move it. When I felt it through his movements, the wind making the kite do a figure 8 from 2 to 12, I thought Oh, I get it. He let go, and I nearly dropped it. Two hours of looking straight up, and my neck was killing me. I tried to look down for a second’s respite and crashed the kite at 3 o’clock. My instructor talked me through launching it myself, lightly pulling on the left until the wind inflates the fabric, then yelled at me to depower so I don’t pull too hard and send it crashing at 9 o’clock, then urged me to power so the kite stays at 12. I was starting to get the hang of it. I practiced steering the kite to left and right, holding it in different positions and walking with it, and learning how to turn my body and feet with the pull of the harness, changing my stance every time the kite threatened to lift me into the air. Just when I started to get cocky and allow my neck a rest, the kite went wild. In an attempt to center it, I powered hard, despite Frainin’s shouts to let go of the bar. This action sent me flying into the air and crashing onto the wet sand a few feet away. I giggled at the rush of taking off into flight. My instructor lifted me up by the back of my harness and admonished me to learn to let go. I lost control of the kite a few more times during my lesson, and it dragged me by my heels around the sand before I realized, reluctantly, that I’m new and can’t always control the kite and need to let go and let it crash.
After two hours, the sky was overcast and the wind was dying. Frainin promised me that I would get in the water the next day. It was noon when I went back for my third hour. After setting up and launching the kite, I squinted up at it, the sun bright above my location so near the equator. A night’s rest made controlling the kite easier. After warming up a bit with the kite, Frainin had me hold the it with one hand at 2 o’clock and walk upwind for quite a while. I tried to alternate between looking at the kite and not steeping on rocks as he zigzagged me into and out of the water in an attempt to teach me how I’ll be moving in the water. A kite won’t simply take you in a straight line from Point A to Point B; you’ve got to move diagonally. When we had made it all the way back to Donkey Den, he hooked the kite to himself and we started to go into the water. I didn’t really understand what we were doing, and he didn’t really explain. I was instructed to hold onto the back of his harness with my right hand. He held the kite at 2 o’clock with his right hand. With our right hands otherwise engaged and our left arms pointed straight towards the sea, it fell to the kicking of our legs extended towards the beach to get us out past the crashing waves to calmer waters. I nearly choked to death on the water and was struggling to stay afloat without the use of both of my hands, so I let go of his harness. He instantly whipped his head around as I started to drift away from him and sternly told me that I needed to stay attached to him. Reluctantly I held back on, but I only had to struggle with the waves for a moment longer because soon Frainin was angling the kite in the ways he taught me to angle on the sand and propelling us in zigzags through the water. The kite lifted our upper bodies out of the water as we soared downwind to the right then the left. After a few joyous minutes of being a passenger, Frainin held the kite at 12, then, waiting for the right wave to take us home, quickly angled the kite to 2:30, pulling us to the shore, the waves crashing behind me. I expected nothing like this. My surprise at how nice it felt to glide through the water and at how fast we were going made me laugh hysterically as we walked the kite back down the length of the beach.
Now it was my turn to control the kite. I didn’t see how I would create the same effect. After nearly drowning on my way back in, this time with myself holding the kite with one hand while Frainin held onto my harness, and after trying to get used to the salty sting in my eyes, I finally made it out to softer waters. I put two hands on the bar and powered, holding the kite at 12. I took a deep breath and tried to remember my lessons. Once you realize how to hold your body, with your feet either to your sides or behind you, never in front of you, it’s not so different from doing it on land. With a squeal of delight I realized that powering hard at 12 will lift me out of the water. Soon, it was back to square one, proving to Frainin that I could bring the kite down to whatever time he told me. I started bringing it down to 2 and back up to 12 faster and more fluidly, making figure 8’s in the wind. Like so many other things your body learns to do, you can feel when you’re doing it right. Oddly, my mind went to the time I learned how to throw a football, and how good it felt to feel the old pigskin spiral off my fingertips. Soon Frainin was giving less instructions and only offering a few words of praise as I felt myself being uplifted and dragged happily through the turquoise water. I created figure 8’s with the kite on the either side, zigzagging through the water, looking nowhere but up at my kite, until my instructor told me to bring it down to 3 and take us to the shore. Again, I giggled the whole way, sand pouring into my shorts as the water became more shallow. We completed this exercise one more time, and then my hour was up.
Now it’s Saturday. The conditions have been abhorrent for learning the past three days. Everyone tells me to be patient, to which I animatedly reply that I can’t because I’m leaving in two days and I need to get on a board TODAY.
Unfortunately, as I sit and write down my recollections, I am in charge of watching the bed and breakfast for the next few hours. Cheryl is playing bridge, and the other two volunteers, along with any of my potential instructors, are on the water. I can only hope that the conditions remain ideal in the next few hours so I can get a lesson and some practice in.
by Rebecca Bellan