How Kitesurfing Works


Extreme Sports Image Gallery A kitesurfer skims his hand across the water and flashes the camera a smile. See more pictures of extreme sports.
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Kitesurfing, a hybrid of kiting, windsurfing and wakeboarding, allows you to harness the power of both the wind and the ocean to travel at record speeds and jump to astonishing heights in the air. Kitesurfers glide across the top of the waves on a board that's similar in size and shape to a wakeboard while holding onto a kitesurfing kite. The basic objective of kitesurfing is to do tricks and to see how high and long you can jump off waves.

Although kitesurfing might seem like the latest extreme sport fad, we can actually trace its roots to 13th century China. Rather than an activity for adventurous water sport enthusiasts, kitesailing, as kitesurfing was originally termed, served as a mode of transportation. The 13th century Chinese used sails to harness the wind and increase the speed and stability of their canoes as they glided across the water.

The basic design of the kite didn't change much for about five centuries. However, in the 1800s, British innovator George Pocock revolutionized the use of the kite to move vehicles on land and sea. Pocock increased the size of the kite, using it as a sail to guide carts on land and ships on water. He introduced the four-line setup that's still used today. This allowed boats and carts to turn and sail upwind. In 1903, Samuel Cody took Pocock's development to a whole new level; his man-lifting kites were able to cross the English channel.

The mechanics of kitesurfing were used mostly for these utilitarian purposes until the 1970s and 80s when kitesurfing began to take off as a popular extreme sport. Many companies began to market water-launch kites, and the sport was popularized by extreme sports enthusiasts off the coast of Maui. It's now one of the fastest growing extreme sports. As of 2006, there were 210,000 kitesurfers worldwide and 114,465 kites sold. In the United States and Canada, there were 39,600 kitesurfers and 23,608 kites sold. And industry analysts projected growth of kitesurfing participation at 35 to 50 percent [source: Bryja].

Now that you know about the background of kitesurfing, you're ready to get your surf on. On the next page, we'll take a look at what equipment you need to kitesurf.

Kitesurfing Basics: Equipment

To kitesurf, you're going to need some basic equipment, including a board, kite, control bar and harness. Let's take a look at how to choose each piece of equipment.

Board: When selecting a kitesurfing board, you'll want to take into account your skill level, the wind speed at your kitesurfing destination and your body weight. If you're a beginner kitesurfer, you'll want a long and wide board. The bigger the board, the easier it will be for you to sharpen your kitesurfing skills. A large board will allow you to use a smaller and more manageable kite. It'll also stay afloat longer if you make a mistake or lose kite power. Additionally, bigger boards can stay afloat in lower winds and will help you to learn to go upwind more easily.

If you're a more advanced kitesurfer, you can use a smaller board, which will enable you to harness more kite power to jump and perform tricks. In general, boards for advanced kitesurfers feature concave bottoms and step tips, which will help you to ride with more power and perform tricks. Although kitesurfing boards for advanced riders look similar to wakeboards, they have different rocker systems and are flatter and ride the edge more than traditional wakeboards.

Kitesurfing boards feature bindings that will help you remain stable on the board. These sandal-like straps make it easy for you to attach and detach the binding, which will come in handy when you do off-board tricks.

Control Bar: The control bar is attached to the lines that lead to your kite. You hold onto the bar, and by pulling on its ends, you can steer the kite. Because they must be very strong so that you can control the power of the wind, control bars are usually heavier than water and thus have floats attached to them so that they don't sink.

Harness: The harness attaches to the control bar. The harness allows the surfer to do tricks and jumps while staying attached to the kite. While waist harnesses are most popular among advanced kite surfers, seat and vest harnesses give beginner kitesurfers more protection from impact and can serve as flotation devices. In addition to allowing you to do tricks, the harness also helps to redistribute the stress of the kite's force. Instead of concentrating all of the force of the kite on your arms, the harness helps spread out some of the pressure of the kite's force to the rest of your body.

On the next page, we'll take a look at how to choose a kite.

The Kite

Experienced kitesurfers can soar through the air.
Experienced kitesurfers can soar through the air.
Darryl Leniuk/Getty Images

To kitesurf, you'll need a traction or power kite, a large controllable kite that can generate pull when flying. When selecting a kite, you should take into consideration the following factors:

  • Relaunchability -- How easily will the kite re-launch from the water?
  • Performance capability -- How well will you be able to jump and sail upwind?
  • Power control -- A wide wind range allows you to control the power of the kite.

Kitesurfing kites are divided into two types: leading edge inflatable kites and foil kites. Leading edge inflatable kites, also known as LEIs or C-kites, are great for beginner kitesurfers because they're stable and easy to fly. LEI kites are made from ripstop nylon and have inflatable plastic chambers that run across the front of the kite. Smaller chambers running perpendicular to the main chamber give the kite its crescent moon shape and allow it to float in the water. LEI kites can be relaunched from the water, and you can easily slow down the kite when needed. Inflatable kites use either two or four lines so that you can increase and decrease the wind power while surfing. Two-line kites are easier to use and provide more stability, while four-line kites increase your performance ability. LEI kites are the most popular type of kite for kitesurfing.

A foil kite is made of ripstop nylon and has air pockets that give it lift and provide it with its arc shape. Foil kites come in open- or closed-cell forms. Open-cell foils require constant airflow to stay inflated, and you can't relaunch them if they hit the water. Closed-cell foils are just like open-cell foils except that they have an inner valve to hold air, which keeps the kite inflated even when it's in the water. Thus, closed-cell foils are a little easier to launch in the water.

You're all geared up and ready to go. But what principles of physics allow that kite to propel you through the air? Read on to learn about the physics of kitesurfing.

Physics of Kitesurfing

A young woman kiteboards under the sun.
A young woman kiteboards under the sun.
Darryl Leniuk/Getty Images

To understand the physics of kitesurfing, you first have to understand how a kite works and some basic principles of aerodynamics. A kite flies, in accordance with Newton's laws of motion, as a result of the forces being applied to it. Since a kite is heavier than air, it needs the motion of the wind to generate the aerodynamic forces of lift and drag. The movement of the air flowing past the kite creates drag, while the lift is the movement perpendicular to the wind. The interaction of these forces determines how well the kite will fly. The ratio of lift to drag and the stability of the kite are tied to the length of the line; that is, the more line is released, the more drag is created.

To launch a kite, you need to create a lift force that is greater than the weight of the kite. The lifting force of a kite is created by the deflection of air downward; the change in the kite's momentum produces an upward force because the air traveling over the top of the kite is going faster than the air that's passing underneath. This fast-moving air produces less pressure, and because there's less pressure beneath the kite, it's forced upward.

The velocity of the air blowing at the kite is the most important factor in determining the size of the lift. If you face the kite with the wind at your back, the wind provides relative velocity to lift the kite. Standing still, a kite will usually fly without much additional motion on your part because wind velocity increases with altitude. In general, a wind speed of 10 to 18 knots is ideal for practicing kitesurfing.

Once a kite is launched, it will remain at an altitude in which all of the forces are balanced. If you pull on the kite's line, you can increase the velocity of the kite and thus increase its lift. This is how movement is achieved in kitesurfing. By using your weight to pull the kite, you increase the speed at which the kite moves.

In order to increase or decrease your speed while kitesurfing, you have to change the position of the kite. When the kite is overhead, it's in the neutral position and not providing any pulling force. When the kite is toward the water in front of the body, an area called the power zone, the wind blowing horizontally catches the kite, and pulling force is created. When the kite is in the power zone, three degrees of power can be achieved. For minimum power, lower your kite and hold it in a constant position. For medium power, steer deeper toward the horizon and turn back and upward repeatedly. For maximum power, steer even deeper.

Now that you know the physics of kitesurfing, let's take a look at how to launch your kite and some tricks and jumps you can perform on the water.

Launching, Jumps and Kitesurfing Tricks

First things first, you have to launch your kite. You shouldn't try to launch near people, and beginners should launch from the beach before heading out to the ocean. After you've got all of your gear together, you should make sure your kite's lines are flat and stretched out. If you're using an inflatable kite, you should begin inflating a few minutes before you intend to launch. Next, head to the edge of the water. Once you're about a foot into the ocean, have a spotter hold your kite handle and strap your feet onto your board.

Once you're in the water, you have to know how to control your kite. You should start on your back in the water with your board in front of you and the kite floating in the air above you. As your kite gains power, you'll be pulled forward out of the water. Pull the kite into the maximum power zone to gain some momentum and push off into the water. In order to turn your board, put the kite in the neutral position and use your control bar to turn the kite in the opposite direction.

After you've mastered these basics of kitesurfing, it's time to try some tricks and jumps. In order to jump, you first dive the kite down to make your board move quickly. Then, in a very quick motion, move the kite upward and backward to about an 85-degree vertical angle. Next, bend your knees and edge over quickly on your board's rail (the edge of your board). When the kite begins pulling you, release the rail and jump. While you're airborne, place your feet back on the board in front of you and then move the kite forward so that you'll maintain momentum when you land.

Most kitesurfing tricks are borrowed from skateboarding and wakeboarding. Here are a few of the most popular kitesurfing tricks:

  • Grab: Grabs are the basis for board-off tricks. In order to perform a grab, start your jump like normal, and when you're airborne, take your back hand off your control bar. Then, bring the board close to your body and grab it with your back hand. You then release the board and land.
  • Spin: Depending on how long you're jumping and how fast you're spinning, you can spin once, twice or even more times. To spin, begin your jump, and once you're in the air, turn your head and shoulder in the direction you want to spin. Once you've completed your spin, turn your head and shoulders in the opposite direction and extend your legs for a landing.
  • Invert: To invert, you turn yourself upside down while airborne. To execute an invert, bring your feet up in the air as soon as you're airborne. When you're finished, bring your feet down and land as usual.
  • Board-off: As its name implies, in a board-off, you'll take one or both feet off of your board. To perform a board-off, grab your board as soon as you're airborne and take one or both feet off of your board. Then, put your feet back in the straps and extend your legs for landing.

You've got the tricks down, so now you'll learn how to keep it safe while you're kitesurfing.

Kitesurfing Safety

In addition to the equipment we discussed on the previous pages, it's a good idea to invest in some safety gear, including a life vest, head, knee and elbow protection and an emergency line-cutting knife.

It's also useful to know some basics about water sports before trying kitesurfing. For instance, basic water skiing and wakeboarding skills will help you get a feel for how to be towed by your kite. Also, windsurfing skills will teach you to estimate how much wind you'll need to perform a trick or jump. If you have no previous experience with kitesurfing or water sports, take a few lessons.

Many beginning kitesurfers have accidents as a result of miscalculating distances or wind speeds. An instructor certified by the International Kiteboarding Organization can provide you with the tips necessary to avoid rookie mistakes.

Always kitesurf in areas that are designated for the sport. Avoid shallow water and locations with buildings or power lines nearby. Be sure to take a look at the weather report before you set out; you don't want to be caught in a storm out on the water.

Lastly, it's important to be a strong swimmer. If your kite flies away from you, you might have to swim to find the control bar or even swim back to shore. Although a life vest is a valuable tool, nothing beats strong swimming skills. On a related note, you shouldn't kitesurf alone. You should always have somebody to act as your spotter.

For more information on cool water sports, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Brya, John. "Kitesurfing Statistics: Worldwide Participation and Sales Figures." SBC Kiteboard. April 3, 2008.http://www.sbckiteboard.com/News?news_id=418&uniqid=1015
  • Cornish, Joseph J. "Go Fly a Kite. Natural History Magazine. April 1957.http://www.nhmag.com/master.html?http://www.nhmag.com/editors_pick/1957_04_pick.html
  • Destination Kiteboarding.http://www.destinationkiteboarding.com/index.html
  • Graham, Matthew. "Climb a Board." Richmond Magazine. August 2004.http://www.richmag.com/?articleID=fc838fdeb473f5a738ea0c7052ccecd8
  • "Great Places to Kitesurf." Kitesurfing Now.http://www.kitesurfingnow.com/kitesurfing-facts/great-places-to-kitesurf.shtml
  • "History of Kite Surfing." Kitesurfing Now.http://www.kitesurfingnow.com/kitesurfing-facts/history-of-kitesurfing.shtml
  • "How to Kitesurf." Kitesurfing Now.http://www.kitesurfingnow.com/getting-started/how-to-kitesurf.shtml
  • "How to Kitesurf" Kitesurfing School.http://kitesurfingschool.org/howto.htm#1.%20Kite%20Piloting
  • International Kiteboarding Organization.http://www.ikointl.com/
  • "Launching your kite from the beach." Kitesurfing Now.http://www.kitesurfingnow.com/basic-tricks/launching-your-kite-from-the-beach.shtml
  • "Kites." Kitesurfing Resources.http://www.kitesurfing-resource.com/surfing_kites.htm
  • Kiteboading and Kitesufing. Kite Line.http://www.kite-line.com/kiteboarding.php
  • Kite Launch and Flight. NASA: Glenn Research Center.http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/kitefly.html
  • "Kitesurfing Boards." Kitty Hawk Kites.http://www.windwizards.com/kitsurboar.html
  • "Kitesurfing, Kiteboarding Tricks. Kite Surfing School.http://kitesurfingschool.org/tricks.htm
  • "Samuel Franklin Cody and man lifting kites."http://wuff.me.uk/cody/P2.html
  • "Top Kitesurfing Destinations." Yahoo! Travel.http://travel.yahoo.com/p-travelguide-191500002-destination_guides_vacations-i-searchtype-searchregions?tags=kitesurfing
  • "What is kitesurfing?" Kitesurfing Now.http://www.kitesurfingnow.com/getting-started/what-is-kitesurfing.shtml