One thing about kiteboarders is that they’re hard to miss. From the busy parking lot of Pirate’s Bar & Grill on the south side of Dauphin Island, it’s easy to spot six enormous kites dipping and diving like seagulls in the lagoon below. It’s also quickly apparent that the sheltered beach is a kiteboarder’s dream, exposed to the high winds whipping in from the Gulf but protected from its white caps by a sandy barrier. The result is a stiff wind but relatively flat water.
The sand is packed to the water’s edge with beachgoers on this Memorial Day, so the boarders have claimed a spot on the far end of the beach, where they can stretch out their lines for an easy launch and landing. The wind today, I’m later told, is just right: roughly 20 knots, hitting the beach at an angle. If you’re a kiteboarder, you call this a side-onshore wind. Such conditions are ideal because a wind current from the water is less variable, and if something goes wrong, a boarder can easily drift back to shore (an offshore wind would push you out into the ocean). Half the battle of the sport, it seems, is knowing when and where such conditions will materialize.
“You can kind of predict the day before if conditions will be right,” says Andrew Cuny, a 26-year-old kiteboarder from Daphne, “although sometimes the wind meter readings are wrong, so it can be a roll of the dice.” Oftentimes, he explains, it’s “a last-minute jolt to the beach to get a session in.”
Tanned and affable, Cuny is project manager of the family-owned ARK Builders in Daphne. When not constructing custom homes, he’s thinking about kiteboarding, a hobby he picked up about a year ago.
“Kiteboarding is always on his mind,” Cuny’s wife Lydia says, with her feet in the sand. “If he’s not kiteboarding, he’s talking about it. Always checking the wind, watching videos of himself riding — he loves it.”
Cuny smiles in agreement. “I’ve surfed, I’ve wakeboarded, I’ve snowboarded, I’ve skied, I’ve done all sorts of extreme sports, and this exceeds the adrenaline rush you get from any of them. It’s the closest feeling you can get to flying.”
Of the eight kiteboarders on the water today, Cuny says he’s the newest to the sport. His interest was piqued last year when he and his father came across a kiteboarder in Orange Beach, and that was that. He looks out at the bright lagoon, points out his friends by the colors of their kites. Some have been riding for more than 10 years, he says, almost in reverence. “I’m still learning tons.”
“Coming down!” someone shouts, and Cuny springs up to catch a descending kite, attached to 30-something female boarder sitting in the water 20 feet from the shore. All afternoon, the kiteboarders come and go in this manner as they please, always with the assistance of someone on land, catching or releasing the enormous sheets of fabric shaped like bat wings. It’s a beautiful free-for-all, a day-long ritual at the altar of wind. “You’ve gotta take advantage of it when you can,” Cuny says.
Kiteboarding as we know it has only been around for the past 30 years or so. Its local popularity is increasing, thanks in part to a growing international community in the Bay area and the high visibility of the sport; it’s not uncommon to see kiteboarders at the Fairhope Pier, Daphne’s Bayfront Park, Little Lagoon in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach or here at Dauphin Island. One kiteboarder I meet tells me he’s been up and down the East Coast, all around Florida, and “not many places have little flat-water spots like this.”
Through the GroupMe app, roughly 30 kiteboarders from the Panhandle to Biloxi stay in constant contact about weather conditions and future “sessions.” The eight boarders on the water today run the gamut of experience, skill and age. Ron Peterson, an engaging 54-year-old with a shaved head and a red goatee, says he only strapped on the kite five years ago after coming across some kiteboarders while walking his dog along the Bay in Daphne. He stopped to ask them questions and was told that if he ever wanted lessons, they were willing to teach him. Peterson bought a starter kite online, and the kiteboarders kept up their end of the bargain.
Though Peterson’s an agile 54, his story illuminates a surprising aspect of the sport. “People think it’s really, really strenuous on your body,” Cuny says, “but once you figure it out — you’re in a harness, so it really almost feels like you’re just hanging on a rope. So the main thing you’re doing is steering the kite and using the board to kind of control the direction. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that harness on your waist can be a nice core workout, but you’ll be surprised at the different fitness levels you find on the water.”
More important than physicality, says petite 24-year-old Cecilia Goett, is a mindful persistence. “It’s more about connecting your mind instructions to your body instructions,” she says with an intriguing south-of-the-border accent. “Some people just aren’t good at that, and it makes it harder to learn. But once you get it …” she says, a look of excitement brimming in her eyes.
Goett and her fiancé, Alberto Siller, are from Tampico, Mexico, a city 300 miles south of Texas on the Gulf of Mexico. Siller was working for Mobile-based Cooper T. Smith stevedoring in Mexico before being pulled to the company’s Mobile office in January. Both have been kiteboarding for more than 10 years, and they credit the sport for their smooth transition from Mexico to Alabama.
“We’re liking it here a lot,” Goett says. “We never expected to have so many friends so soon — just people being so friendly and open. Kiteboarding has made all the difference. Otherwise, my only connection with people would be through my yoga class and his job.”
As Goett talks, she uses a hand pump to inflate the frame of her multicolored kite. This kite, she explains, is nine meters, meaning it’s comprised of nine square meters of fabric. Kites can range in size from 2 to even 19 meters, and the size a boarder chooses depends on his or her weight and the wind speed on a particular day. Goett and Siller share four kites of different sizes.
Goett was just a teenager when her father introduced her to the sport, and she spends a lot of time on the water these days; while her fiancé is an American citizen, Goett is in the country on a tourist visa until they can get married. She was planning on returning to Mexico for the summer, but that was before COVID-19 became a household name. Thankfully, she says, the wind’s been good in the meantime.
As we talk, Siller cuts across the water, controlling the bar of his kite like he’s steering a bicycle and leaning backwards against his harness. Then suddenly, he’s airborne, soaring 20 feet off the water’s surface before drifting back down at what looks like (from the beach) a comfortable speed. Later, faced streaked with sunscreen, he describes the sensation of riding: “You feel really free. There’s no motor, no gasoline, no noise — so it’s just being free in the ocean. And then jumping, that’s also a really nice feeling, because the kite floats when you’re coming down. My biggest jump is around 40 feet, so floating down from that high is cool because you really have time to appreciate how high you are.”
Today’s kiteboarding group is surprisingly international. Jacopo Pedrin, from Italy, introduces himself. Robert Daniels, originally from Norway, taps the top of his head from the water’s edge, signifying that he’s ready to drop his kite and come ashore. His fiancé, Shannon Smits of Wisconsin, catches it as it sways to earth like a feather. She begins fiddling with the lines and asks, “Do you know what true love is? Untangling someone’s kite lines.”
Daniels and Smits met in Wisconsin but relocated to Mobile four years ago; Daniels, a calibration engineer, travels the region for work and says that Mobile “is the best part of the Southern states. It’s a little more untouched,” he says, “and Dauphin Island is a hidden pearl.” Daniels’s story, of camaraderie through wind sports, sounds strikingly familiar to that of his new friends from Mexico.
“We’ve made a lot of our friends here through kiteboarding,” he says. “It’s a very all-consuming sport. It doesn’t leave room for a lot of other hobbies because whenever there’s wind, this is what you do. This is where all your friends go. I haven’t had time to pick up any other hobbies yet,” he says, laughing. “The days we’re not doing this, we’re probably together on the beach or paddleboarding.” I ask if the sport is addicting.
“Extremely,” he says, almost in a whisper. “It’s hard to find any other sport that gets you excited. None of us are fitness fanatics, but this is good exercise. And it’s a fairly hard sport to learn. It takes some dedication. We all have that in common, we went through the learning stages of it, and it kind of creates a group.”
As dark clouds begin rolling in from the Gulf and the sun abandons Memorial Day, the rest of the wind junkies point their kites towards the shore and cruise in, all carried to the same destination by the same onshore wind.
Three Tips for Getting Started
1) Research the sport on your own and watch YouTube videos to get a basic understanding.
2) Make sure you’re a competent swimmer with a respect for the water and the weather.
3) Book a lesson with Alberto Siller at easternshorekite.com.