The irrepressible, beautiful logic of a 5-year old: “Daddy, are you going moon-sledging today?” “What do you mean, Katie, what’s moon-sledging, sweetie?” “Well, Daddy, it’s like those people over there on the water – they are riding on sledges and they have moons over their heads”.
Cabarete is a world-famous kite-boarding venue. It boasts some of the best kite-boarding conditions in the world, and is a mecca for serious boarders. The easterly trade-winds blow a regular 15+ knots of wind across the curved beach and the offshore reef provides some serious wave-jumping action. Ideal conditions for experienced kiteboarders.
Or moon-sledgers, as they now will be forevermore known to us.
The offshore reef at Cabarete also ensures that the rolling Atlantic waves are tempered before they reach the shore, making Cabarete a great place for beginners. Beginners like me.
Yep, I decided to take the plunge and sign up for kiteboarding lessons. It’s expensive – US$250 for 3 x 2-hour lessons, so not a decision taken lightly. But many times I’d seen these amazing craft being piloted off Bournemouth beach and in Poole Harbour, and now we were in the kiteboarding capital of the world. So off I went.
Looking westwards from the beach the sky is littered with kiteboarders. Beginners on the beach, dare-devil locals surfing in the shore-break, pro’s out toward the reef. Kites and kiteboards everywhere.
Finding a kiteboarding school wasn’t hard. There are at least 20 dotted along Bozo Beach and Kite Beach, from very shiny outfits (Laurel Eastman Kitesurfing) to one-man bands. I chose somewhere in-between – not big & shiny but big enough. Big Air Kite School it was.
Day 1. My instructor is Hugh. Born in Kenya to English ex-pat parents, raised in Germany, taught himself kitesurfing whilst working on the Isle of Man, now doing his second season instructing in Cabarete. Pretty much your typical kite-surfer.
First you start with a soft kite. No board, no harness – just a smallish (3 meter square) arc-shaped kite with 4 lines and a control bar. Fly it high to 12-o’clock, fly it to each end of the ‘wind window’ – left to 9 o’clock and right to 3 o’clock. Hold it stable at 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock. Figure of eights, landing & launching. Easy.
On to the 6-metre kite. Harness and helmet on (it’s quite common apparently to get hit on the head by someone elses kite!). Learn how to safely inflate the kite (they have inflatable bars on the leading edge and 4-6 inflatable struts from the leading edge to the trailing edge). Learn how to rig the lines. Two control lines and two power lines. Make sure they are not tangled. Make sure you know how the safety line-release system works – just in case!
Hugh shows me how to hold the kite for launch (upright, leading edge to the wind), gives the launch signal (thumbs up) and up she goes. I walk over to him in nervous excitement – it’s my turn. I take the safety-line and clip-on. The chicken-loop onto the harness, the chicken-dick (yep!) goes through the loop and locks it in place. I take the control bar …. and she’s mine, I’m flying a proper kiteboarding kite. For about 10 seconds until I crash it into the sand.
Turns out that flying a proper kiteboarding kite isn’t easy, at all. In theory it’s all so simple. Control bar left & right (like moountainbike handlebars) to steer. Slide towards you for more power, away for less. In practice it feels like trying to write your name with your left hand. In a mirror.
Hugh is full of positive comments. “Easy does it” “That’s right” “Gentle on the controls” “Hold it” “Depower, depower, deeeeeeppppooooowwwwwwerrrrrrr.” “Never mind, you almost caught it then, but the wind died on you. Another try?”
I left the first lesson feeling like I had a long, long way to go.
Day 2. The wind is not great. Max 12 knots, not consistent. We wait (2 hours) for the wind to pick up – and it does, a bit, so off we go. A bigger kite today (8.5m). Another land-based day – but working on understanding the ‘power zone’. Most of the time you keep the kite at the edges of the ‘wind window’ – far to the left, or the right, or high up at 12 o’clock. Even at these extremes you can feel the power of the kite. But start with the kite at 11 o’clock, and steer sharply down and right, and wwwwhhhhoooooooaaaaaahhhhhh. With a sudden rush like I’ve been pushed in the back by a large wildebeest, we’re suddenly 5-metres from where we started. “Quite a rush, isn’t it” beams Hugh. More power-zoning, more holding at 2 o’clock & 10 o’clock. And then “Right”, says Hugh “I think you’re ready for the water – let’s go body-dragging”
On goes the life preserver. Hugh takes the kite out through the surf, with me holding his harness. HOlding the kite at 2 o’clock we get slowly taken out to sea. Then – “Ready?”. “Yep”. Kite to 11 o’clock. Sharply down to the right with full power and whhhooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. wwwwhoooooaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhwwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Now that’s a rush.
I left the second lesson buzzing. Just buzzing. Gimme more of this.
Day 3. The wind’s looking good. Today if all goes well I’ll be in the water with a board on my feet … and maybe even upright on it. I’m still buzzing from the day before. Harness on, helmet on, lifepreserver on, prepare the kite, into launch position, thumbs up and ….. crash. Again … crash. And again … crash. “What’s going on” asks Hugh, “- you’ve got the touch of a Walrus in mating season today.” I don’t know, I just don’t know – yesterday it was all so easy but today the feeling’s just not there. And then it got worse – I started thinking. Is it left for up or right, when do I depower, when, how, what, how much…..crash, crash, crash.
Day 3 ended on a low – and also saw the end of my initial 3 lessons. I never got near a board. I can upgrade from the 3-lesson package to the 5-lesson package for only US$140 more. I trudge off down the beach. Alison – as ever my rock, says “of course you have to. You can’t come this far and just stop”. I call Hugh and book for the extra lessons.
Day 4. The trade-wind picks up later in the day so with fingers crossed I set off around 3pm. THe wind is pretty ropy, but I’m determined to put yesterday’s disappointment behind me. We start well, after a bit more beach-time it’s straight into the water on my own for the first time. The swell is big and there’s a big shore break – the first time out I get swamped by a big wave and the kite hits the deck. The next time I just hold on as another wave sweeps me off my feet and then I’m through the shore-break and being towed out to sea.
I check for Hugh and he’s giving me the ‘go for it’ sign. Kite to 11 o’clock. Hard on the power and steer sharply to the right and …. I’m body-dragging. Kite back to 11 o’clock, more power this time and I’m out out he water to my knees, rushing across the water. The rush is back. This is more like it. And then the wind dies. Hugh is as disappointed as I am. “Let’s just call it 1 hour today and try to get in a real good session tomorrow”, he says as we pack up the kite.
Day 5. I’m getting to understand the wind here a bit better. If the sky is clear around 11am then the wind will blow. Today it’s a clear blue azure sky. At 2pm I head to Big Air and Hugh is there, the kite ready rigged. Today’s the day, I know it. We start well, with a few beach launches, then it’s into the water. The shore break seems even bigger today, and the first three times I get swept by the breaking waves and dump the kite. The thurd time a valve pops and we have to head back to base to re-inflate. Out we go again and all is well for a few runs – although it’s clear by now tht I won’t be getting on a board anytime soon – my kite control just isn’t good enough.
And then disaster strikes. The next body-dragging run I lose control and the kite crashes into the water – hard. Something is clearly very wrong as the kite just flaps about. Hugh runs into the surf to collect the stricken kite and then I see the massive rip in the fabric. It starts just behind the middle of the top tube and runs three sides of a square – along the top tube, down to the trailing edge and then along back toward the centre line. I’ve sees a few torn kites the past few days but nothing as bad as this. My heart sinks – and in the same second I wish I’d read the damage waiver more closely before signing up…..
Hugh deflates the mashed kite and I untangle the lines as we trudge back to base. Lesson most definitely over. Luckily (for me) there are no damages to pay – that’s why the lessons are so expensive – but I still feel crap. I help Hugh wash down the torn kite and prepare it for the repairman (he does a brisk trade on Bozo beach) – and we chew the fat over what went wrong. It’s clear that I’m still some way from being ready to take a board out – maybe next holiday but not this time round.
Deflated, I trudge back along the beach. But it’s hard to be down when you’re on a gorgeous carribean beach with the sun shining and a family building sandcastles at the water’s edge.
“Daddy, have you been moon-sledging today?” says Katie as she runs into my arms. “Almost, Katie, almost”. I never did get my feet (or any part of me) onto a board. But its under my skin and I’ll be back.