In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 3:59 PM on Wednesday, November 2, 2011

KITe surfing: WET, WILD AND WICKED FUN

In our own backyard

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


 

Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Kite boarders ride in Mariner Park Lagoon, top, on a high tide last Wednesday. In the photos above, a kiter grabs air and lands.

Last Wednesday afternoon on an extreme high tide and with wind speeds up to 25 mph, about 10 kite surfers zipped up and down Mariner Park lagoon, doing tricks and grabbing air.

"It's rare when you get to ride that lagoon," said Homer kite board instructor Traveler Terpening. "You have the magical combination of clean wind and flat water."

Some kiters flew 30 feet high, spinning around and landing gracefully on the water — and drawing spectators.

"They'll see someone do a really high jump without any twists or anything, and they're like, 'Wow,'" Terpening said.

In the past 10 years, Homer has become a mecca for Alaska's small kite surfing and boarding community. Locally, about 10 to 15 people have learned to kite. Last May, local kiters held the fourth Kitefest at Mariner Park on the Spit.

Kiting, kite boarding and kite surfing: the terms refer to the general sport of sailing with the wind on surfboards with foot stirrups and specially designed twin-tip boards. Kiting also can be done on snowboards or skis on snow.


 

Steady winds and shallow water with sandbars along the Spit offer great conditions for learning to kite board safely, said George Overpeck, with Terpening one of two Professional Air Sports Association certified instructors in Homer. Both stress kite safety.

"It's nice to know when you have a problem you're going to stand on the bottom when you fall off the board," Overpeck said.

Mid to low tides work best. On a low tide a new kiter blown toward the Spit won't slam into the seawall and lands safely on the beach. Learned and practiced safely, kiting can be safe. Done wrong, and it can be dangerous.

"There's something very different of bringing in that element of this hugely powerful wing that has the potential to take you gracefully across the water, but also to slam you into a parked car," Terpening said.

For about $2,200 a kiter can get the basic equipment to start, including kites, boards, harnesses, lines, a wet suit, an impact vest and helmet. Terpening and Overpeck offer lessons with equipment at $50 an hour. Terpening, based in the winter out of Flagstaff, Ariz., teaches at South Padre Island, Texas.

It can take at least 10 hours to learn enough to get up on a board. Basic to the sport is an understanding of the wind window, a bubble of wind surrounding the kiter like a quarter-slice of an orange. The four-line and bar system attaching the kite to the kiter's harness allows for control of the kite. Straight above the kite has the least amount of power. Pull the bar up so the kite goes into the powerzone, and it picks up wind, pulling the kiter forward. With depowerable kites, pushing the bar out kills the wind power.

With the snow coming, kiters like Overpeck swap surfboards for snowboards and take to the hills. Learning to snow kite is a great way to start. On snow, if the kite hits the ground you just stand up and relaunch.

"The snow is going to teach you things that are hard to learn in the water," Overpeck said. "It's real easy to come back from small mistakes on the snow."

Leading-edge inflatable, or LEI, kites, make relaunching from water easier than other kite designs. If you fall off your board in water, you have to sail back to your board — called body dragging, Terpening said.

"It's a little bit of a bummer in Alaska because it's cold," he said.

Novice kiters who try to teach themselves on their own can get into trouble fast. Learning from others makes kiting safer. That's a big goal of Homer's kiters.

"We want to build the community in Alaska and build responsible kite boarders," Terpening said. "Our goal is to make sure everybody is super, super safe."

"The more people who know the protocols on landing and launching safely, the better the sport gets," Overpeck said.

The best winds come May to July. Overpeck said in a good summer he can get 100 days of kiting weather, but he's kited year round in the bay.

"When it's good, it's amazing," Overpeck said. "It's like having Alyeska in your front yard, for free."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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