Knowing what size kite to ride, is the eternal question for every kiteboarder.
Kiteboarding is not like other sports, where you always use the same equipment each time. Because in kiteboarding the playing field is always different.
Kiteboarding is a wind-powered sport and although we are using kites, the wind is what we are really riding, and so the wind itself should be our first and foremost consideration before kiteboarding.
It is a mistake to underestimate the importance of the wind, and the role it plays in the kiteboarding equation. Unfortunately some people have a macho mentality when it comes to kite size and wind strength. It is arrogant and foolhardy to think that you can ride every wind with only one kite. Because we are dealing with the natural elements, and extreme forces beyond our control. There is so much available energy to tap into, and so when we are kiteboarding we are only ever using a very tiny fraction of a percentage of that power. Kiteboarders should always keep in mind that the kite is just our interface with the wind, the earth’s atmosphere itself is our real engine. And that is what makes kiteboarding so exhilarating and dynamic.
There is no way you can fight the wind, but there is some chance for cooperation and a understanding. I think of it as more like a dance, than a fight. Knowing your limits, and having the ultimate respect for nature, is what will keep you enjoying the sport and maybe even living longer. If you know how to recognize the subtle variations in the wind, it will make your kiteboarding sessions better and free from unnecessary mishap or injury.
While it may only takes a few days to learn to fly the kite, it can take years or even an entire lifetime to really learn how to read the wind and how to appreciate the many nuances of weather.
Now that you are thinking about the wind, it is important to know the relationship of windspeed and wind strength. These are not the same thing. In simple terms, kite power is proportionate to their size. A 5m is half the power of a 10m, an 8m is about 20% less powerful than a 10m. Wind strength however is an exponential curve. The winds strength is the square of the wind speed. Double the wind speed and you quadruple the wind’s power. This means that as the wind’s speed increases, kite sizes are quickly outmatched, and can easily be overpowered.
When choosing a kite size, always think about the intended wind-range of the kite. When a kite is flown inside its intended range, it should have adequate power, and also the ability to depower if needed. It should also be stable, and steer well.
When a kiter has a limited choice of kite sizes available they are often tempted to push the range of their kites.
When you push the limits of a kite especially the high wind limit, you start to experience a decrease in performance; the kite steers slower or sloppier, the kite may also start to jellyfish (destabilize), and the kite may start to surge in the gusts. And you reduce the kite’s ability to depower in the gusts. In short you are limiting your options.
Unfortunately the “one kite quiver” is still a myth, but we are starting to get a little closer. Newer kites especially Bow, SLE, & hybrids are much rangier than ever before. This reduces the number of kite sizes necessary to cover the wind spectrum. So two newer kites may even cover the wind range of three older kites.
There are three common stages of being overpowered:
1. Comfortably overpowered
2. Uncomfortably overpowered.
3. Dangerously overpowered.
Newer kites are designed and constructed to perform better when overpowered, so it is possible to be “comfortably overpowered” if you take the kite slightly above its intended ideal wind range.
If you take the kites range up a little further, say into strong and gusty wind that is too much for the kite, you can start to be “uncomfortably overpowered”. This is when kiting starts to become hard work, and you are getting bounced around a bit, and might be having doubts about your ability to handle the gusts.
Some people will try to use their one kite well beyond any sensible wind range. And get into the “Dangerously overpowered” range. This happens when the kite is so depowered that it no longer steers correctly, it starts to jellyfish, surges forward and backwards, and has reached the end of the depower trim range. And where you can barely manage the kite, in the gusts. Pushing your kite into these limits, is just crazy because the risk of having an accident increases exponentially. Kiting this way it is just a matter of time before an accident happens, to yourself or to someone else. By the numbers, the chance of an accident is so high that the risk is just not worth the reward.
People usually find themselves in this position for one of three reasons:
1. They totally underestimated the wind strength or the wind came up.
2. They overestimated their abilities, and realize that they are in over their heads.
3. Or they think that it is macho or cool to ride this way and don’t realize the risks.
The solution is simple for the first two scenarios, just come in immediately, or drop the kite and self-rescue in. But the third situation is harder. We see it too often where a rider acts like they are invincible, and keeps pushing their limits, and they start to be lead by their egos into taking big risks and bigger chances. This is a recipe for disaster, and it usually ends with an accident or injury. Nature has a way of reminding you when you are too proud or not paying attention. Nature always wins.
Meanwhile there is another rider who is standing on the beach, waiting for the right wind for his kite. And he will be the one who lives to kite another day, or he might take the opportunity to go to the local kite store and get a smaller kite. Back on the beach, he has a new kite, well suited to the wind range, and he takes a few runs to get the feel for the smaller kite, and although it is a little more twitchy, it is surprisingly fun to fly, and most of all, it is not scary to fly. It feels good because it is flying exactly in the conditions it was designed for and gives the rider a feeling of control, and confidence. It also has some depower range if needed, and is no longer such hard work to fly.
So using the correct kite in the right conditions is the smarter choice, and will help to preserve life and limb. Right sized kites fly better, have more control, and allow the rider to do more things. So you can master the conditions with the mind rather than with muscle alone. You may even live longer and stay healthier. Any orthopedic surgeon of insurance adjuster will tell you that buying a new kite is way cheaper than getting knee surgery, for a blown ACL or similar knee or shoulder injury. Just ask around at the kite beach next time when you see an injured kiter on the sidelines, and ask them what they would have done differently in hindsight.
Stay safe & ride smart,
David Dorn is the Training Master for the IKO international kiteboarding organization, and owner of the Action Sports Maui kiteboarding center in Hawaii.
(*this article also appeared in Kiteworld magazine)