THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Wind riders

They believe man is meant to fasten his feet to a board, tether himself to a kite, then hope to be swept up in the next gust to blow over the sea

Get Adobe Flash player
By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / July 20, 2008

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

EDGARTOWN - This would be my inaugural jumping lesson in the extreme water sport of kiteboarding, where it is not uncommon for the wind to launch speeding riders three stories high. At the moment I was having a teensy weensy commitment issue.

I am 60 years old. I was tethered to a giant kite and skimming pell-mell over the ocean on something resembling a serving tray. Was this age-appropriate?

Focus. Suck it in.

My kite lines tightened, my board sent salt-stinging water into my eyes. And then I snapped skyward. Suddenly I was Peter Pan, soaring over Cape Poge and the entire eastern flank of Martha's Vineyard warmed orange by the setting sun.

Or so it seemed.

In fact, I got 2 feet off the water. A kid on a beach ball could have bounced higher. But the mind can play lovely tricks when plying the remote, delicate edges of this island. It is high adventure over a low carbon footprint - fairy tale chic, and very Vineyard.

"Anyone can fly a kite," says Mark Begle 36, the founder, owner, and sole instructor of Skyhigh Kiteboarding, the island's only kiteboarding school. "The idea is to learn to do it safely."

Begle hung out one of the island's unique shingles four years ago after discovering the sport in the Pacific Northwest.

"I was out windsurfing one day and suddenly this kiter flew overhead," Begle explained recently between bites on a fish sandwich in Vineyard Haven. "From then on, I was hooked." He eventually would equip himself with morsels of kiting paraphernalia salvaged from a session of dumpster diving behind a kite manufacturer. Slowly he worked his way east to the Vineyard where he now - on far safer equipment - teaches some 150 students a season.

"I have kited in places around the world. Factor in the wind and beach terrain, and I am not sure there is a better place," said Begle, a tanned man with a trim physique suggesting he has spent much time hanging upside down from a kite bar.

Kiteboarders stand on a variant of a snowboard while steering a kite 90 feet overhead. Lines lead from the kite to a control bar hooked to the rider's harness. Kiters can turn, control velocity, and jump by simply maneuvering the bar. The sport has the speed of waterskiing with a vertical component but without the internal combustion.

And it is catching on, apparently in a big way. Where there might have been 5,000 kiteboarders in North America five years ago, there are now probably 50,000, according to Rick Iossi, a South Florida resident who has kept one of the longest records of kiting safety statistics. Five North Americans died kiting last year, none of them using the newer, safer kite designs.

Begle said he has never had an injury at his school. There was one fellow who lost control and was dragged across a mussel bed, but he basically accepted the scrapes as a cost for the ride.

Who makes a good student?

"People who can listen attentively, and people who don't try to muscle through a maneuver and yank back every time a kite line tugs," Begle said. In short, he added: "women."

We were four men headed for a day of kite school a few weekends back. Our ranks included Matt Nerney, Alex Hazelton, and Colin Mahony, all residents of suburban Boston. With some kiting experience under my life jacket, I was also along for an introduction to jumping.

Begle met us at a public boat ramp in Edgartown where we helped him slide a 16-foot Zodiac inflatable boat off a trailer. Ten minutes later, we were about as close to Paradise as you can get in the corporal world.

Imagine a 4-mile-long, ring-shaped island of white sand that has been relocated from somewhere in the Exumas to the northeast corner of Chappaquiddick Island. Garnish this terrain - almost entirely devoid of dwellings - with a polka-dot quilt of wild yellow and blue rose blossoms. Into those roses tuck a smattering of seagull nests, each nest sporting fluffy brown chicks and a feisty mother whose chatter dictated fair terms of engagement: You keep clear, she'll shut up. Finally, add a cloudless, Montana-blue sky and water so clear the bottom sparkles well offshore.

This was the Cape Poge that greeted us.

Sometimes spelled "Pogue" (perhaps a derivation from the Algonquin "kobog," a cove or haven), the cape and its interior bay encompass a 2-square-mile corner of Martha's Vineyard that is mostly owned and protected by the Trustees of Reservations. Its sentry is a 100-year-old, white-shingled lighthouse. The Cape Poge light and its predecessors, which date to 1801, have been moved three times as the barrier beaches shifted.

On this day a 15-knot southwesterly breeze swept off the beach and into the bay - perfect conditions for an introductory kite lesson. If something went wrong, the worst you got was swept into the water for a ride back in the Zodiac.

Begle started his students on trainer kites, little 2-square-meter airfoils that offered hints of the power and challenges to come. Kites are basically temperamental genies with an attitude. They growl or purr depending on where in the sky they are flown.

"The changing power of this thing amazes me," said Nerney, 37, a computer director for a private equity firm. Wrestling the kite, he added: "But I think I am getting the hang of it."

As Begle moved his students through phases of kite control, the island regulars started showing up, led by Rob Douglas, 36, a member of the Black Dog Tavern Co. (think the ubiquitous doggy T-shirt). One by one they would arrive on private pleasure boats, step ashore to discuss conditions and kite choices, then rig for what kiters do best.

Show off.

Kiters prefer to call it public service. The good ones - Douglas among them - can offer hair-raising entertainment for hours as they run through a repertoire of tricks. A good kiter can also smell a camera, and on this day as picnickers and boaters reached for photographic gear, kiters responded with an array of midair contortions as if a catapult, not the wind, was launching them.

I timidly joined the flock, without any acrobatics.

"Hey mistah," a youngster yelled from a boat anchored nearby, "do a trick!"

I contemplated responding: Kid, I am old enough to be your grandfather. I am going 30 miles per hour on something the size of a doormat. THAT'S my trick!

But decorum got the better of me. I waved, smiled, and pretended I had not heard him. It was age-appropriate.

And so as the better part of the afternoon passed, the experienced kiteboarders shuttled back and forth, and occasionally up and down, to wrack up more than 40 miles of travel, according to one GPS watch. Meanwhile, Begle's students had progressed to the point that they could control their kites and tummy drag under their kites far downwind as the instructor shepherded his flock from the Zodiac. About one hour later they were back on the beach and vowing to return tomorrow for the next lesson, which would graduate them to boards.

Then Begle worked his magic on me with a few jumping tips that almost had me wishing the picnic boats and cameras were still around. Eventually we dropped the kites, loaded the gear back in the Zodiac, and nosed into the smoky southwesterly wind and a setting sun for the trip back to Edgartown.

This is the way fairy tales end. Very Vineyard.

David Arnold can be reached at northwester@comcast.net.