“It’s working! I’M DOING IT! Wait, what’s happening now? Oh no! The kite is dropping! What do I do? He didn’t tell me what to do when this happens! AHHHH!” [face full of sea water]
This is what learning how to kite surf sounded like for me. Cycles of momentary success, followed by unexpected changes and often ending in spectacular crashes! It was difficult, and at times painful, but this was one of the things I was looking forward to about our time in Zanzibar. Learning how to kite surf was right near the top of the things-we-must-do-before-we-leave list. I didn’t know much about it, but surfing the ocean harnessed to a kite and being able to launch yourself into the air sounded incredible.
A bit of Kite History:
Because I’m a history nerd, I had to look this up. As it turns out, using a kite to harness the power of the wind for transportation is not as novel an idea as I thought. In the early 1800s a British school teacher named George Pocock had started experimenting with kites. He first used students in experiments, then family members (at one point using a 30ft kite to lift his daughter over 250ft in the air!) and eventually applied his ideas to transportation. His invention of the “Charvolant” buggy was a carriage propelled by kite, which was not only the fastest carriage at the time, but conveniently avoided the hated “horse tax”! Unfortunately, his idea did not catch on and it took another 80 years for kite transportation resurface.
It came in the early 1900s, when famed Wild West showman Samuel Cody began experimenting with kites that were large enough to carry people. Debuted in Britain, these kites attracted the attention of the British military, which purchased four “war-kites” from Cody. They later hired him as the Chief Instructor of Kiting at the Army Balloon Factory, which ultimately evolved into the No. 1 Squadron of the Royal Air Force! Although his “war kites” were ultimately eclipsed by motor powered airplanes, Cody did become the first man to fly an aeroplane in Britain in 1908, just a few years after the Wright Brothers.
It took until the late 1990s for kites surfing to become a popular sport, after the work of a number of creative individuals led to the combined use of a large kite with inflatable ribs, a harness on a trapeze belt and a board with foot straps. And so kite surfing was born. It is now a sport with roughly 1.5 million participants and a number of crazy records such as achieving a top speed of 64 mph and jumping almost 94 feet off the ground! (Don’t worry Mum, I wont be doing either of those in the foreseeable future!)
Learning how to Kite Surf:
The process for learning how to kite surf is thankfully much easier than I expected. Working with a Zanzibari instructor named Yahaya, I started with a small “baby kite” where I learned the basic kite control skills that would eventually have me gliding across the water.
After this Yahiya took me out into the ocean, where I practiced using the kite to drag myself through the water, practicing for the times when I inevitably crashed, lost my board and had to fetch it or just bring myself back to shore. This stage produced some of the most epic crashes as I accidentally caught too much power in the kite, launching myself out of the water only to belly flop back down into it!
The second day introduced the board, which you use one hand to stick your feet into while the other holds the kite steady. My first attempts involved a good number more crashes, this time involving more speed and the board flying off my feet!
But it is all worth the feeling of gliding across the surface of the ocean pulled by a 12-meter kite that you control! Although these moments do not come frequently in the early stages of the learning process, when they do, it brings back into brilliant focus the freedom, joy and exhilaration that are the reason why I was attracted to kite surf in the first place.
Being a Student:
The process of learning how to kite surf also let me to experience what its like being a student again. As a teacher about to enter a new school year, it was a good reminder about both helping my students develop the qualities needed to learn, while also being conscious to let them practice with the “baby kite” before asking them to jump into the water. That way, when the wind blows, they are ready to catch it and glide away. And, hopefully after a few more lessons, I will be doing the same!