EDGARTOWN — The first thing you notice about a kiteboard is how ridiculously small it is. It is so small, it makes a luge seem roomy. So small that what it can do — carry a grown man at speeds approaching 60 knots — seems, at first glance, impossible.
Then there are the courses where kiteboard riders seek to achieve these speeds: shin-deep stretches of water no more than a few feet from shore, in places where winds routinely reach gale force. Places where success can mean traveling faster than any sailing vessel ever to knife through water, and where wiping out can mean broken bones, and worse.
The windswept, sandy coastal ponds on Martha’s Vineyard provide several prime spots for kiteboarding, which has made it a magnet for the sport. Here, starting Monday, competitors from around the world will converge to vie for the best speeds in an event organized by a coterie of local enthusiasts who also happen to include some of the fastest sailors on earth.
To gear up for the event, on a recent autumn day when the southwest breeze kicked up a wicked chop on Vineyard Sound, these hardies — some might say crazies — practiced their madcap sport.
“Windy is better. It can also be more dangerous, but it’s more exciting,” opined Brock Callen, 33, a professional sailboat racer from Edgartown who first stepped onto a kiteboard five years ago. “We look for the storm systems and that’s what we get excited about.”
Calling this sport “sailing” caused a squall of controversy in 2008. Kiteboarders had to fight for recognition when Rob Douglas, a lifelong sailor and windsurfer who had been racing a kiteboard for only three months, broke the world record for fastest time under sail.
At first, the International Sailing Federation balked at acknowledging the record. But in December 2008, it recognized that the times should be counted by the World Sailing Speed Record Council. In 2010, Douglas, who runs the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven and its affiliated shops, set a record — an average speed of 55.65 knots over 500 meters — that still stands.
“It’s quite simple. Kitesurfers are sailboats,” said Douglas, 41, whose burly, 220-pound physique looks incongruously weightless as he skims lightly across the surface. “Any sailing craft on water that uses the wind for propulsion qualifies for the outright world speed sailing record. . . . Different yes, but it’s still sailing.”
Different indeed. A kiteboarder balances on the board, attached by a harness and four lines to a light cloth “kite,” which fills like a spinnaker as much as 100 feet in the air.
Just as a sailor on a boat derives speed from the ability to trim sails and judge wind and tack neatly, so do kiteboarders, using a small control bar that allows them to manipulate the lines, said Callen, who still makes a living as a professional sailboat racer. But a kiteboarder also controls his board with subtle shifts in body weight. The ability to keep the board at an optimal angle to the wind is critical; so is avoiding any obstacles (which is why kiteboarders prefer shallow water, where waves are minimal.)
The design of racing sailboats has become so sophisticated that competitors in the America’s Cup, perhaps the sport’s most famous event, spend millions on developing secret techniques.
Kiteboard design has also become a rarefied craft. Stan Pleskunas, whose company designs the boards used by Callen and others, combines state-of-the-art software, and such materials as sturdy-yet-light foam core carbon fiber to reduce the size of the board and maximize its capability to reach high speeds while retaining the rider’s ability to control it. Pleskunas and other designers try to maximize the size of kites while making them lighter and stiffer, easier to control.
The difference is in the amount of resources that go into it.
“The previous sailing all-out world speed record was set by a hydrofoil trimaran that takes 10 guys to sail and costs millions to build,” Pleskaunas said.
Douglas “shattered that record on a board that cost less than two thousand bucks with kites that cost half that much.”
The speed comes with a different price. When Douglas first set his speed sailing record, he did it on a course on the desert coast of Namibia that was perfectly designed for kiteboarding. It is a trench 6 feet wide filled with a foot of sea water in a spot where winds routinely reach 50 knots, built at a perfect angle for the racers to squeeze the most speed out of their boards. But the course is as unforgiving as it is fast, and to miss a turn means wiping out on the sand. On a run after he set the record, Douglas broke his wrist. A French competitor, Charlotte Consorti, suffered a concussion. Another broke his back.
The Vineyard courses are less likely to see world-record times, because they are natural, not specifically designed. (The peak speed Douglas has reached is 59.5 knots on the Vineyard; racers have topped 60 on the African course). Still, because there are several ponds situated in different parts of the island, with perfect conditions — relatively low dunes that shelter the bay but do not slow the breeze — kiteboarders can always choose the spot with the ideal direction of the wind.
On a recent Monday, the surfers chose Cape Poge, which forms a placid saltwater bay on Chappaquiddick Island, the sandy tricorn on the eastern tip of the Vineyard.
Some kiteboarders took advantage of the 22-knot wind to soar into the air and perform acrobatics — a different variation of the sport than speed sailing. Douglas, who has designed more than 30 boards, sped up and down the course for hours, leaning into the wind so that his body nearly touched the water, using his weight as leverage against the force of the wind on the kite, arms working the control bar.
“Rob is always working and training and never stops, and when he is not on the water you can feel that he is still thinking what he is going to do or change when he will be on the water,” commented Consorti, who this summer won the women’s category of the Kitespeed World Championship, held in southern France.
It looks like strenuous work, requiring a strong core, but kiteboarders swear that it is not that hard to pick up.
Bill Lynch, a financier from Edgartown who is putting up the money for the $30,000 prize, started kiteboarding six years ago, when he was 50. He said he now owns the seventh-fastest time in the United States.
“I don’t push it as hard as Rob and these guys,” he deadpanned during a break in his practice runs.
Callen said the main hurdle for speed kiteboarders is mental.
“You need to be strong, fearless, you can’t be questioning how fast you're going to go here,” he said. “When the wind hits the kite, that power is transferred to you, and you transfer that into the board and you make it go fast,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest things.”