Wet, Wild And With More Thrills Than A Rollercoaster

Germany is hosting the world kite surfing championships this week.

August 3, 2009, 9:40 AM

August 3, 2009 — -- Rick Jensen straightened up inside his wetsuit, pushed his broad shoulders back, and looked at the sky. "It's blowing about five. Just," he said. "It'd be better if it was more." A northwesterly wind is pushing clouds southeast and their shadows race across the beach on Sylt, Germany's northernmost island.

Jensen caps his air pump. Only a few strokes and the colorful canvas in the sand has changed into a kite, in the shape of a giant C. At each corner, the 21-year-old tied his flying lines, with which he would steer the kite. Then he attached the "control bar," a sort of handlebar, to a harness which hung low around his waist, skimming his hips. A helper raised the kite, Jensen pulled quickly on his lines and 10 square meters of canvas wafted silently skywards. Bent over a little against the wind, he dragged his monster kite toward the water.

There, where the waves were breaking, Jensen dropped his board onto the sand and climbed boots mounted on the board. Then he leaned backwards -- his entire 90 kilos, all muscle. The kite began to nose dive, then stopped, then caught the wind and started to scud powerfully out to sea. Jensen pushed the edge of his board into the surf and raced away, following his kite out to sea.

This is kite surfing. A spectacular sport that's a mixture of kite flying and wind surfing. Ten years after it was invented, kite surfing is almost more popular than wind surfing. An estimated 30,000 kite surfers now shred the waves around Germany's coasts and on German lakes. And of those, a mere 20 can call themselves professionals.

Jensen is one of them. Over the past six years his kite has barely hit the ground. Sun and salt water have bleached his golden hair even blonder. In surfing circles he's known as one of the best -- he has been German junior champion twice already. And he plans to prove it again at the end of this month, when the best kite surfers on earth meet at the world championships in St. Peter-Ording off the north coast of Germany.

Jensen's kite flew relatively flat over the sea; this way he gets the most pulling power. It swept Jensen along as though it were a jet boat and he a water skier. And Jensen maneuvered the wakeboard through the waves as though it were some kind of converted mono-water-ski. Jumps are a specialty of his. He whipped the board out of the water, twisted into a back flip and did a complete 360 degree turn without stopping, while passing the handle from one hand to the other behind his back, before hitting the water again in a spray of foam.

High Winds And Acrobatic Skills Required

With kite surfing there are two classic kinds of competition. One involves running a straightforward race on a set course. The other is a race with a thrilling difference, known as "freestyle." The winner is the surfer who can put together the fastest, most acrobatic and most artistic run. This is why Jensen is currently trying to learn the "Mobe 7." Wakeboarding Web sites describe this complicated move as a Backmobe (which involves several aerial backward rolls) "followed by a 360 degree frontside handle pass." It is, they say, "one of the most advanced handle pass tricks, where the rider has to pass the bar two times before landing." Such a move will score big points in competition.

"Kite surfing isn't that hard to learn," Jensen said. "You start jumping your board a lot faster than you do, if you're learning to windsurf." But obviously there's a world of practice between those first little jumps and what is known as a "kite loop."

"You need a lot more wind for that," Jensen explained. "Seven on the Beaufort would be good," he said, referring to the Beaufort wind force scale; seven on this scale is a high wind, between 50 and 60 kilometers per hour. During such a trick, the kite loops while the rider is spinning out of the water. "You can easily get 15 meters high, then you dive down again -- it's better than a rollercoaster," Jensen enthused. There are only a few people in the world that can do this trick with confidence.

And because Jensen is one of those people, his sponsor doesn't only provide him with the latest equipment, they also give him a travel budget. "I actually still live with my parents in Pinneburg," a city near Hamburg, he said. "But last year I was only home for about two weeks." Basically his rusty old VW bus is his main place of residence. "If the wind is blowing then I'll either be on the water or somewhere between St. Peter-Ording and Fehmarn," he said. "And in winter I'll be driving to Cape Town to train." One relationship has already been sacrificed to this way of life. "Among other things," Jensen noted.

His sponsor is the company that belongs to American windsurfing legend Robby Naish. Naish won his first world windsurfing title at the age of 13 but then took up kite surfing and went on to win the kite boarding slalom world title at the age of 35. Naish is Jensen's hero: "Nobody is as radical as he is."

Unlike windsurfing, where the fan base has grown older, kite surfing is a young sport. On the German coast the numbers of windsurfer's sails have decreased -- and they have been replaced by swarms of kites, whipping back and forth across the summer skies.

Now Jensen hunted for a wave to take him back to shore, he held the kite with one hand and got hooked on a watery snag. The foam flies. But this time he had guessed wrong and he crashed while his kite landed between spectators on the beach.

German Women's Kite Surfing Champion Killed

And therein lies the catch with this wind borne pastime. "Kite surfing is still pretty dangerous," Jensen admitted. Seven years ago the sport made headlines when two entangled kites dragged Silke Gorldt, the German women's champion at the time, to her death -- she was pulled onto safety fences on the beach and died of internal injuries on the way to hospital. Since then manufacturers have tried to make kite surfing less dangerous, with the introduction of kite leashes, safety harnesses and various quick release features. Even so, a kite surfer died in South Africa this month when he was thrown against boulders and in June, two kite surfers in Italy were lifted out of the water by high winds and thrown against a car and a building. One was killed as a result. In the Internet you'll also see some hair raising videos of kite surfing accidents: wind gusts lift kite surfers so high they seem to disappear over the horizon, until they finally make a hard landing.

Which is why the professional surfers suggest that manufacturers come up with some sort of universal safety-release mechanism. At the moment, every brand has their own system for allowing riders to separate themselves from their kite in an emergency. "But it should be the same sort of handgrip for everyone, so that you can do this (release yourself) by reflex," Jensen argued. "After all, the brakes are always in the same place in a car."

Jensen himself has experienced the bloody dangers of kite surfing. You can actually find pictures of the hole he tore in his derriere online. He's laughing about it in the YouTube video but it looks nasty. It happened last autumn. Jensen was trying to do a "grind" -- a trick from skateboarding that involves sliding ones' board across a railing or some other solid obstacle -- over an old metal railing, part of an old swimming platform off the beach at Fehmarn. "What you do is jump your board onto a railing and let it slide along. But suddenly there was a screw there that I hadn't seen beforehand," Jensen explained. A visit to the doctor and 16 stitches later, his rear end was whole again.

This autumn, Jensen is going to need that rear end -- to sit on. He will be starting an engineering course at university. And obviously he'll be studying in Kiel, the capital of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, which also happens to be the capital of German kite surfing. So, afternoons will be spent on the Baltic Sea beaches, then? Jensen shook his head. "I need to take my studies seriously. I've been going so hard with kite surfing up until now that it's no contest as to which comes first."

But no matter what he says, it seems he cannot stay away from wind and water. His dream job: to work for German company Enercon, where he's just applied to do an internship. And what do they do? Among other things, the company, a world leader in wind energy, build off-shore wind farms. Of course.