By Tim Golden, NY Times
Published: March 7, 2004
For miles, the two-lane highway that winds down to Spain's Costa de la Luz had shown us only the mythical light of our destination, yellowing the dry fields and whitewashed towns. There was no hint of the sea itself. Then, as we rounded a bend near the ancient port of Tarifa, the horizon was suddenly filled with signs: huge, wing-shaped kites that rocked back and forth in the sky, rising up from time to time as if lifted by an unseen hand.
I had dreamed of trying the neoteric sport of kiteboarding, and this part of the Andalusian coast had seemed to promise a nice, low-key place to learn. Or so I had convinced my girlfriend, until we ventured out onto a promontory above the beach. There, beneath the riot of brilliantly colored kites, we saw a bay covered with kiteboarders -- streaking along on their boards, arcing effortlessly into the air, floating back down to race off again. Pulling and twisting on their lines, they looked like sun-bleached puppets come to life. And there seemed to be hundreds of them.
If crossbreeding is the creative fixation of extreme sports, then kiteboarding (or kitesurfing, as it is also known) may have been inevitable. It owns obvious debts to windsurfing and wakeboarding, from which some of its equipment is derived. But the high arts of kiteboarding have less to do with surfing than they do with flight. The boards are smaller and much lighter than windsurfers; on a windy day, a skilled kiteboarder can launch 30 or 40 feet into the air without so much as a wave. They can also fly into a nearby building or highway. At least 17 people have been killed in kiteboarding-related accidents since 2000, according to a safety adviser for one of the sport's governing bodies.
Such dangers notwithstanding, kiteboarding has spread with terrific speed. A fledgling international organization now accredits schools from Australia to Finland, and dozens more operate independently or under the auspices of other governing bodies. But all of that constitutes a challenge when trying to figure out the best place to learn. I was advised to look for a well-established school somewhere with wide beaches and steady winds. Some experts recommended the Outer Banks of North Carolina or Hurghada, on the Egyptian Red Sea, because the shallows extend far offshore and beginners can stand right back up after a fall. Then there are what one friend described to me as the ''Rasta places'' of the sport -- Maui and Cape Town and Cabarete, in the Dominican Republic -- meccas that attract the most ardent of kiteboarding pilgrims.
All of them sounded alluring, but one of the names tugged insistently at my imagination. Tarifa is the southernmost town on the European mainland, and reputed to be the windiest. Moorish invaders landed there in 710, and the town took its name from the Berber general, Tarif ibn Malluk, who seized the garrison that summer. The Moors held on to Tarifa for nearly six centuries, and though the town's main drag honors the Castilian king who retook it in 1292, Sancho IV (El Bravo), the Arab influence is still present from the old city battlements to the design of the trendiest nightspots.
Following the Moors, the Castilians and the French, the kiteboarders laid siege to Tarifa a few years ago, drawn, like those before them, to its unique geography. The winds that funnel through the Strait of Gibraltar are said to blow more than 300 days a year. When they blow too directly onshore in Tarifa, determined kiteboarders can usually drive around the tip of the peninsula to catch them from a more favorable angle near Algeciras. I saw other advantages as well. The coastline between Cadiz and Tarifa, with its long, pristine beaches, is perhaps Spain's most unspoiled. The Andalusian White Towns, magical whitewashed warrens that recall the Moorish past, would be fairly close by. The seafood was said to be remarkable.
Tarifa is now home to some 15,000 people, although to drive through the center of town is to wonder who among them doesn't kiteboard. The boulevard that approaches the old city has become a kind of kiteboarding bazaar, lined by signs for shops with names like Shark Kite and Art of Surfing. The kiters support a thriving secondary economy of juice bars, coffeehouses and Internet cafes, and there is a busy trade in kiteboarding instruction. But none of the 15-odd schools were affiliated with either the International Kiteboarding Organization or its American counterpart, the Professional Air Sports Association (like others in Spain and France, they were regulated by national sporting associations). I was at a loss to choose among them.
After some foraging on the Internet and a few unhelpful phone calls, I finally found a young British kiteboarding instructor who was headed to Tarifa and offered to help. He was going for what he referred to meaningfully as the Third Annual European Kitesurfing Championships; they were relocating there, he said, because of the reliability of Tarifa's winds. He eventually found me a local instructor, Nacho Yuste, who was entered in the competition but willing to juggle my lessons with his heats.
When we met up at his kiteboarding shop, however, Nacho was not a happy man. Tarifa's famous wind had been truant for most of the previous three days, and the competition was already behind schedule. Now, the weather reports on Nacho's laptop suggested that the wind might vanish altogether. Hoping for the best, the three of us drove to Valdevaqueros, the beach where the contest was taking place, and picked our way through a muddy lot that was haphazardly filled with hipster German hatchbacks, live-in delivery trucks and post-Woodstock vans.
The competitors were parked in similar disorder on the picnic tables overlooking the beach. They had come from as far away as Norway and Turkey, but the origins of the men, in particular, were obscured by the soul patches, shaved heads and dreadlocks they all wore. The kiters seemed to wear a uniform expression, too, as if the air had been let out of them.
We stood in line for free orange juice and muesli and sat down to wait for the wind. Nacho began with a little theory. We would fly our kites in a three-dimensional arc, he explained. With the wind at our backs, the kite would pull hardest when it was directly in front of us. We would be able to hold it steady at the top, or zenith, of the arc and fly it under greater control along the arc's outer edges. That afternoon, my girlfriend and I started out practicing with a two-line kite that looked only a bit larger than the sort one might buy at a toy store. But even in wind so limp that it left the competitors slumped over their picnic tables, the small kite pulled me skidding across the beach.
We awoke the next morning to a grim, gray rain. The cafes in town were unusually full, crowded with morose-looking men and women huddled over lattes and herbal teas. Out at the beach, the would-be competitors looked as depressed as I guessed kiteboarders could look. Our antidote was a trip to one of the White Towns, Zahara de los Atunes, and a great fish lunch with some friends at an old hotel overlooking the sea. Returning to Tarifa that evening, we concluded that even if the wind did pick up again, our next lesson might not be Nacho's primary concern. I went looking for another school and found a well-regarded Frenchman, JerÙme Clausse, who said he would fit us into a novice class whenever the wind returned.
The sun came up blazing the next morning, but still no wind. By early afternoon, Tarifa had the torpor of a ship becalmed; now only the bars were crowded. I was deep into a nap when the phone rang about 5 o'clock. The sky had gone gray. It was Gabriel, or Gabi, as our new Basque instructor was called. ''I'll see you at the beach in 10 minutes,'' he said.
Out on the sand, Gabi went back over some of the ground we'd covered with Nacho, but with an even greater emphasis on safety. (He happened to mention the story of a novice kiteboarder near Barcelona who had been dragged into a busy highway along the beach and killed by traffic.) He showed us how to inflate the struts and the leading edge of the kite, which would keep it afloat and allow us to relaunch it from the water when it fell. ''It's no problem if you let go and the kite crashes,'' Gabi told us in Spanish. ''Remember that.''
We were introduced to a young Latvian businessman, one of several classmates who would join us over the next few days. This time we flew larger kites, moving up in size as we grew comfortable with their power. Over the next couple of hours, I started to get the hang of it, learning how to use the wind and how to avoid it. Then, suddenly, Gabi was shouting at us to land our kites and start packing them up. We just barely got the equipment put away when a thunderstorm rolled in over us. The next day was another calamity of sun and calm. Our despair grew, and the European Kitesurfing Championships sputtered to a disastrous close.
Through an English friend, we were introduced to some of the washed-up elite, a crew of local Spaniards and expatriates who had abandoned their various careers to write, make art and (mostly) kiteboard. This led to several long, entertaining nights at assorted Tarifa hangouts. We avoided the thumping neon-lighted techno clubs around town, fortifying ourselves instead at small bars that served some of the best seafood tapas I had ever tasted. Our center of gravity was the Zen CafÈ, a sushi place where the American chef, a young veteran of Hollywood film production, liked to close up shop (or not open at all), roll an Oriental rug out onto the sidewalk and wait for friends to drop by for drinks. There, I felt, the relaxed attitude of the Andalusians meshed especially well with the laid-back culture of the kiteboarders. But maybe it was just late.
By Tuesday, our fifth day in town, the lousy weather had left Gabi a backlog of four students waiting to complete what was nominally our second four-hour period of instruction. Finally, however, the wind began to cooperate. We picked up wet suits, life jackets and harnesses, and headed back to Valdevaqueros. Gabi gave a brief description of our day's lesson, which involved a rather undignified maneuver known as the ''body drag.'' I launched my kite and shuffled toward the water's edge.
I was now attached to the thing: the ''control bar'' in which I held the lines of the kite was hooked into a harness that wrapped tightly around my waist and thighs like a sumo diaper. This was not comfortable, but it got less comfortable whenever my kite dipped into the wind and pulled me skittering down the beach. From Gabi's stern commands, I understood that we were to wade waist-deep into the ocean, lean forward and turn the kites into the offshore wind. We would then steer ourselves out to sea in a kind of guided dog paddle, before turning back in the other direction to return to shore.
I went first, my eyes fixed on the unsteady kite above me. I stubbed my toes across the rocky shore until I could feel the cool Atlantic rising up over my legs. The loud, Basque-accented barking in my ear was apparently a cue. I leaned forward, turned my kite into the wind and shot out to sea. Thrilled with my forward progress (and the inexplicable fact of my head still above water), I decided to go for it. I turned my kite more strongly into the wind, and it plunged toward the sea. Then, turning it frantically back skyward, I managed to pull it out of the dive -- and back into the full force of the wind.
Then I was flying, too -- only in a prostrate, hanging-on-for-dear-life kind of way. (I had seen a version of this technique on a late-night episode of the television series ''Jackass.'') My landing was also memorable. After a little gasping and coughing, I was able to spit out the quart or so of seawater I had swallowed and make my way back to shore. I couldn't wait to try it with a board.
The pace of our instruction picked up with the force of the wind. Gabi's initial shyness gave way to a pedagogical technique that might have frightened a Marine drill sargeant. ''Asi nooooo! Asi nooooo!'' he would yell. ''Not like thaaaaaaat!'' It was some time before I stopped hearing this admonition in my dreams. After some more successful body dragging, Gabi produced a couple of boards. One, a directional board, looked like a miniature windsurfer, with a pointed nose and fins at the tail. The other was a more standard twin-tip: light and thin, turned up at both ends and not too buoyant. It looked much like a wakeboard or snowboard, and could be ridden in either direction without switching one's feet in the foot straps.
Now came the hard part. We were to float out into the frigid ocean on our backs, holding the control bar steady with our left hand and pulling the board up to us with our right. We would slip our feet into the foot straps (preferably without looking down) and pull our knees up to our chests so that the far edge of the board was angled about 45 degrees out of the water. We would then pull the kite into a steep dive, turn sharply before it crashed and, with luck, lift ourselves out of the water.
As I floated out to sea, I heard something like an air raid siren coming from the beach. It was Gabi, shouting, ''Zeeee-niiiiith! Zeeee-niiiiith!'' as my kite swooped haphazardly from side to side. (With his Basque accent, this came out, ''Thaaaay-neeeethh!'') I steadied the kite and attached myself to the board. Then, I turned the kite down, cranked it back up and launched myself out of the water with a velocity that amazed me. The only problem was that I had somehow turned my board sideways. That meant that I flew out of the water in a kind of head-over-heels spin, and returned to the surface with a rather epic splat.
Finally, though, it happened. On my fourth or fifth try, I got into position in the water, dived the kite and shot up onto my board. I maneuvered the kite back and forth in front of me, keeping it in the wind, and it whisked me along the water. It didn't last all that long, but it was glorious.