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Old 08-21-2009, 01:22 PM
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Default The Daily News Online

High-flying adventure

Photo by Associated Press

Jobe Cook leaps in the air while kiteboarding on the Columbia River in Hood River, Ore., last month.
Sunday, August 22, 2004 12:39 AM PDT

By Associated Press

HOOD RIVER, Ore. -- Suspended from billowy kites by long ropes, about a dozen sun-bronzed adrenalin junkies are launching themselves as much as 40 feet above the Columbia River, looping and spiraling in aerial dances so anarchic that you half expect these kiteboarders to smash into one another in one spectacular disaster.

Amazingly, they don't.

They slap back down into the water on their high-tech boards and then race over the Columbia's whitecaps, getting ready for the wind to yank them into the air once again.

"It's like water skiing behind a helicopter," said kiteboarding instructor Mark Worth, a wiry 46-year-old wearing a white crash helmet, shades and a wetsuit.

"The question is, how do you control the helicopter?"

Kiteboarders are propelled along the surface -- and into the air -- by catching the wind in billowy ripstop kites whose area can reach the size of a large room. The kite is attached to a control bar and to a harness worn by the kiteboarder.

Worth is standing on a long, narrow sandbar that's much like a penguin colony, populated by kiters with their boards and kites. Kiters of all levels are mingling here nearly 200 miles upriver from where the Columbia empties into the Pacific Ocean: neophytes taking lessons, kiteboarding school grads going solo, and veterans who are able to carve turns on the waves and in the sky with the greatest of ease.

Camaraderie permeates the warm July air. Worth and other veterans watch out not just for the safety of their students, but of anyone who might be heading for trouble, acknowledgment that this ranks among the world's most hazardous sports.

The wind tears the kite out of a beginner's hands and the kite goes dancing across the water. Worth shakes his head in disapproval. A loose kite, and the 90-foot lines it's dragging through the water, can be a hazard to other kiters.

Another kiteboarder, 39-year-old Rebecca Lee, is trying to decide whether to launch her board. She's worried the kite she brought might be too big for these gusty winds -- dangerous because a big kite has more power.

"I don't know whether I should," said Lee. "It's windier now than when I came."

At least there's no "tea-bagging," a supreme humiliation that can occur in unpredictable winds like these: A kiteboarder is involuntarily grabbed out of the water by a gust, thrown back down, plucked out of the water again and slammed once more. Kiters have been "tea-bagged" before over the course of a few hundred yards. It's not pretty.

Kiteboarding is fraught with potential perils. But to its practitioners, it's nearly like a religion.

"It's one of the most addicting sports there is," said another instructor on the sandbar, Rob Devine.

Kiteboarding began catching on among extreme-sport aficionados about three years ago. Today there are about 325,000 kiteboarders around the world, perhaps half of them in the United States, says Rick Iossi, a director of the Florida Kitesurfing Association and a sort of one-man clearinghouse for information about the sport.

The industry is being powered by longtime windsurfers and wakeboarders (riders doing stunts on boards as they're being pulled along by a powerboat) who want a new challenge, and by young snowboarders looking for summer thrills, Iossi said. Even John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, is a windsurfer and kiteboarder.

Hood River for years has been considered one of the premier spots in America for windsurfing because of the wind tunnel created by the towering basalt cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge. Windsurfing is still king in Hood River, if all of the shops selling windsurfing equipment, and the armada of windsurfers out on the river on windy days are any indication.

But kiteboarding is also becoming a big part of the let's-have-fun lifestyle exuded by this recreation mecca of just over 6,000 people.

The Columbia is no longer blanketed just by windsurfers on windy days, but also by kiteboarders.

Out on the sandbar, students are getting lessons from instructors who work for one of the half-dozen or so kiteboarding schools operating from sheds near the river's edge. The students watch in awe as a veteran kiteboarder who resembles Kurt Cobain slices through the Columbia's waves on his board, begins a turn just in front of them, launches himself at least 20 feet in the air, and tops it off with a couple of fancy twists on his way back down.

Advice to beginners: take lessons. They could keep you alive.

"It's all about survival," said another instructor, Jason Roberts, a tan 34-year-old with the body of a gymnast.

"You've got to stay calm, relax and have proper safety equipment."

Before kiteboarding students go out on the water, they are given lessons on land about the gear and initial instruction in how to control the kite. On the river, students learn how to launch, steer by using the control bar, how to surf behind the kite, and later on, how to get airborne.

Beginners learn on kites smaller than those used by advanced kiteboarders, decreasing the risks of accident. Students get such advice as: make sure you have a clear area for launching and landing your board into the water so you don't run into someone, and what to do if you lose control of the kite.

When something goes wrong, you are having a "kitemare."

A Web site called tells of some harrowing accidents. One kiteboarder got thrown against a parked car, another against a truck, and yet another got dragged up a curb, across a lawn and into a bush next to a house.

Iossi knows of 21 kiteboarding deaths around the world since 2000 -- most of them caused by launches that went awry.

In Hood River, the launching area is the sandbar -- far enough out in the river to lessen the dangers of getting slammed against an object on land.

But there are plenty of other dangers.

This year a woman suffered severe back injuries when a gust of wind plucked her out of the Columbia and flung her back down.

The long lines connecting the kite to the control bar can also be a hazard. Kiteboarders have lost fingers that have gotten tangled up in the ropes.

Rapidly evolving gear is lessening the hazards of the sport. For example, kiteboarders have quick-release devices that allow them to completely free themselves from their kites if they get into trouble, mitigating the risk of getting dragged. Another release system makes it possible to depower the kite without detaching yourself from it.

Some kiteboarders wear helmets, although there are plenty who are still resisting.

The risky nature of kiteboarding is part of what makes it thrilling.

"You have to go through your fear barrier, and smile the whole time," Roberts said."
FKA, Inc.

transcribed by:
Rick Iossi
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