It’s a perfectly clear day at Crissy Field and the San Francisco bay glows a Mediterranean teal. Suddenly, dozens of huge kites — more like mini-parachutes — lift up in the sky. Just as many wetsuit-clad athletes run down the beach, surfboards in hand. Harnesses attach athlete to kite, and some smaller folks sprint with the kite to prevent lift-off. Once in the surf, everyone jumps on their boards and across the waves they sail.
It’s kiteboarding, a once edgy and dangerous sport that’s gaining traction and credibility, largely due to the efforts of San Francisco locals. Tuesday kicked off the first ever Kiteboard Course Racing World Championship, a five-day competition drawing enthusiasts from all over the world. With newly won recognition from the International Sailing Federation, San Franciscans are thrilled to be hosting the first time event at the St. Francis Yacht Club, on the course where they’ve been racing since 2005.
The races consist of two laps on what sailors refer to as the City Front, or the waters between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Participants sail themselves out to the start and jockey for position, and then ride straight into the wind for the first leg of the loop. Buoys mark out the course, and the most skilled kiteboarders make tight turns and minimize tacking to cut distance from each lap.
Conditions for Tuesday’s 70-plus competitors were warm but choppy. Winds ranged amiably between 18 and 22 knots, but the current ran in the opposite direction. As my boat escort from the St Francis Yacht Club, Rusty, explains, this made the downwind section of the course especially rough. If you’re a snowboarder, imagine being pulled across a huge field of moguls by a barely controlled force of nature.
All of this wouldn’t be possible without efforts of local kiteboarders like John Gomes, who since 2004 has worked to get racing recognized by everyone from the local yacht club to the national and international governing bodies of sailboat racing. It wasn’t easy. “There was definitely a yacht club mentality,” says Gomes while making adjustments on his board after his first race of the event. “We had to convince people that it wasn’t just this new, radical kind of x-game.”
This makes sense — kiteboarders are, like, super amped up surfers, right? Wrong (well, mostly). Its participants aren’t just a gang of surfers who threw some fins on their boards and used giant kites to careen right through your yacht party. As awesome as that would be.
In actuality, the gear is always changing in this roughly 15 year old sport, and now that competitive racing is on the rise, things are getting intense. “It’s like an arms race,” a kiteboarder named Jimmy tells me. Speed and maneuverability — as well as safety — are the goals.
While I’m out on the boat, Rusty explains to me that a fifth string added to kites this year has a double safety effect. First, it depowers the kite when the boarder goes down. Then, it makes the kite easier to relaunch from the water. This prevents falling and having a still-active kite drag you under the Golden Gate before you can get back up again.
Kiteboard racing uses the same structure as sailboat racing, and many first-generation kiteboarders have sailing or windsurfing backgrounds. Gomes grew up in San Diego racing sailboats, and he had his kiteboard racing epiphany while windsurfing under the Golden Gate Bridge with a friend. So in 2004, the first race was organized, but according to Gomes, “it didn’t work.”
“We ran out of wind,” says Gomes, but “in 2005 we actually finished the race, and the St. Francis Yacht Club had a vested interest in working with us.” In 2006, Gomes and company got recognized as a fleet by US Sailing, the national governing body of sailboat racing. The Yacht Club had to take them seriously now. This local support was key, since the yacht club has all the experience and infrastructure necessary to host competitions.
So, the race is on. As with other highbrow sports like golf and nordic skiing, the lowest score wins in a kiteboard race. Scores are assigned by place number, so the first place winner gets one point, the tenth place gets ten, and so on. After several heats, scores are added up and the lowest scoring sailors will go on to the gold group in the finals. The final races are on Saturday, where the winner will take home international acclaim.
The winner might not be traveling too far to bring home the glory — a few locals have a decent shot. Chip Wasson, described to me as the “godfather of kiteboarding” by local boarder and gear-shiller Chris Brown, is the local favored to win. If they sound cocky, give them some credit. They’ve been actively developing the sport and its equipment in The City for years.
With recent recognition from the International Sailing Federation, the fleet seems on a clear course to legitimacy. What does that mean? “Everyone will be watching,” says Gomes. “Having a world championship gives everyone something to train and prepare for.”