This story was originally published in our Volume 10, Number 3 (Fall 2013) issue. Now available online for free. Written by Jake Kelsick
I’m a self-confessed kite-o-holic. At the age of 20 I think I have literally spent more time on or in the ocean than on land. I live on the island of Antigua and like most islanders my daily plans are dictated by the weather forecast. While others pray for the steady trade wind breeze just to cool the Caribbean heat, I rely on it to power my passion. Life in Antigua for me means a typical day ends by checking the conditions for the following day. I wake daily with anticipation of a solid 18-20 knots of wind. I don’t need to set an alarm clock. The distinctive rustle of palm leaves outside my window wakes me up.
This routine has become my way of life and is one I dare not take for granted. While there are plenty of so-called first-world luxuries we go without in our small twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, the abundance of wind and salt water has molded my identity.
Nestled in the Leeward Island chain, Antigua is home to just over 100,000 people sharing 108 square miles of land. Visitors flock here to get away from their day-to-day worries. With its 365 beaches you can be forgiven for feeling at times that you are the only one on this rock we call home. I live in a vacation destination which is something I’m sure a lot of people dream about. The reality though is that most locals stay busy working indoors with nine-to-five jobs and are far removed from the sun, sea, and sand. For most islanders living in a vacation destination doesn’t mean you get to live your life on vacation. Kitesurfing is more of a novelty here than a pastime with only a handful of locals who regularly kite, including our very own legend Andre “Dre” Phillip and myself.
Kiteboarding arrived in Antigua with the opening of Kitesurf Antigua in 1999. Operating as a kite school at Jabberwock Beach, Kitesurf Antigua was founded by former Olympic windsurfer Eli Fuller. Eli had returned from his travels with kite gear and introduced Dre to kitesurfing soon after opening the school. Kiting quickly took the small Antigua windsurfing community by storm. All the guys that kite now are ex-windsurfers, including Dre. When the sport first hit the island it was very appealing because you needed less wind, the gear was smaller, and it looked like a lot of fun. Most of the windsurfers ended up ditching their old windsurf gear for a set of sketchy new kite gear and stumbled through the process of learning to ride the early equipment.
I was 10 years old when I was first introduced to the sport. I was just a skinny little kid and not even heavy enough to hold down a kite yet. I used to dabble a little in football and cricket and I was also into karate and skimboarding, but kiting was a complete game changer for me. I first gave kiting a go in 2003 and by 2004 I felt like I was getting pretty serious with it. Luckily Dre and I connected pretty early on. He was already traveling and growing his career as a pro kiteboarder and I really looked up to him. He was so much better than me and appeared to be living the dream! Dre was like a rock star and I wanted to be just like him.
As his career progressed I saw firsthand what he was doing with kiteboarding. Dre was one of the main riders pushing the early boot movement, which was given a massive boost in 2005 when the Autofocus DVD came out. Autofocus was one of the first showcases of what wakestyle riding is all about – building obstacles and throwing down in boots with your kite low. A lot of the guys promoting the wakestyle movement back then were way before their time and it has taken until recently for wakestyle riding to become a strong part of kiteboarding. Watching Dre push the boundaries of what was possible with a kite as the sport developed really motivated me to stick with it and made me believe that I could go places with the sport.
By the age of 12 I decided that I was going to do my best to follow in Dre’s footsteps. Once he saw that I wasn’t going to leave him alone, Dre took me under his wing and gave me all the help I needed. He was always building new obstacles so I got to hit kickers and rails pretty early on. Not a lot of young riders have access to obstacles and even fewer have access to someone to encourage them to go for it. Dre has been a huge mentor to me both on and off the water and remains a great friend and mentor to this day. No matter what is going on I can always look to him for advice.
When I look at kiteboarding now I am amazed by how much it has changed. Just a few years ago it was rare to meet other riders with boots mounted to their boards. Today so many more riders wear them and push the wakestyle side of the sport, even the top guys on the PKRA tour. Now you can go places and find a rat pack of kids wearing boots and some have even built obstacles. The really cool part is that this is attracting a younger group of riders to the sport. Learning to ride under the watchful eye of Dre it was easy to see the direction he wanted the sport to go and it’s been amazing to see that vision come to life.
Dre has been a huge influence on me, but my dad Russell has been my biggest supporter. He has always been a waterman and was heavily into windsurfing years before I was born. Now we get to share that feeling of stoke with kiting. He has been dedicated to taking me back and forth to the beach, launching my kites, and allowing me to spend a lot of time on the water from the very beginning. He bought my first kite from Dre, an old 5.5m Naish that I used until it exploded on the beach one day. My first board was something called the Clam, which was the cool board to have in Antigua back then.
In my opinion Antigua is one of the best places in the world for people to learn and get into kiteboarding. Jabberwock Beach brings local, regional, and international kiters together to create a cool scene, but for the most part it’s relatively quiet here with lots of room for everyone to get out on the water and have a good time. The beach is shaped like a crescent moon with onshore wind, so if you run into trouble you’ll just end up back on the sandy shore. The busy season for kiting coincides with our tourism season, which is the main industry in Antigua. From November to June or July is when most tourists, both kiting and non-kiting, come to Antigua. The island is also one of the top yachting destinations in the Caribbean and yachting season kicks off every year with the Antigua Charter Yacht Show in the beginning of December. The kite scene quite often picks up at this time as a lot of the yacht crews either already kite or want to learn. From the captains all the way down through the crew, almost everyone on board the fancy yachts tries to get away from work to go kiting!
With the annual influx of visitors Kitesurf Antigua has just over six months to get in as many rentals and lessons as they can before the season is over and our beaches go back to feeling deserted. Although we get cruise ships stopping by with thousands of passengers at a time on some days, we usually only see curious tourists from the hotels passing by. We always welcome new and visiting kiters with open arms, but just like any beach in the world we get the occasional jerk on vacation who thinks he owns our spot. I could do without those guys as it’s amazing to see how one rider with a bad attitude can ruin the vibe on the whole beach.
Even though the kite scene is small in Antigua I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else. Sometimes it’s almost like we have the entire island to ourselves. We get to go out and explore different parts of the island and all we have to worry about is if it’s going to be windy enough. We can set rails up wherever we want and never have to worry about kites getting in the way or people telling us we can’t kite here. At times it feels like the whole island is our own personal playground!
On the flip side, as a pro kiteboarder living in Antigua I need to travel a lot. Without getting on a plane and getting out there no one will ever see me ride. Living on an island that feels like our own playground is great at times, but it’s hard to get very much coverage as a pro kiter when there’s barely anyone else around. Even though we have some of the best conditions imaginable, both Dre and I spend a considerable amount of time flying to other places to connect with the kite scene in the rest of the world. If you’re not in the mix with other top riders then there is nobody else to bounce ideas off of. It’s also tough to stay motivated to keep pushing to learn new tricks when you don’t see what other pro riders are doing. My first real travel experience was for the 2009 REAL Triple S competition and I have been back almost every year since then.
Over the years quite a few pro kiters have passed through Antigua. Back in 2004/2005 during the filming of the Metropolis and Autofocus DVDs a lot of top riders came down. Mauricio Abreu, Bertrand Fleury, Moehau Goold, Jason Stone, Jason Slezak, and Tuva Jansen all visited Antigua while Elliot Leboe and Tracy Kraft Leboe were shooting. Those were some really memorable moments for me as a young kid. Not only did I get to meet some of my heroes, but I also had the chance to ride with and feed off of some of the best kiteboarders in the world at the time. Susi Mai has also stopped by a few times and Sam Light came down last year to shoot the online viral sensation Island Time video (http://youtu.be/6PtIg5IbeLg).
Ever since I joined Ozone as a team rider in 2012 I’ve had a platform to penetrate the international kite scene and it’s really helped me be at the top of my game. Recently I’ve been collaborating with Tona boards which has further solidified both Antigua and my place in the sport. Everyone involved in the brand has roots in Antigua so we are like a family. I’ve been extremely lucky in that my sponsors have allowed me to stay away from the mainstream competition circuit and instead I get to embrace the lifestyle of the sport.
What else can I say about Antigua? It has been a great place to live and ride. While Antigua looks like paradise to those from the outside it’s not without its shortcomings, but if my travels have taught me anything it’s that every place in the world has its own pros and cons. Sometimes it feels like we’re cut off from the rest of the kiteboarding world down here, but every time I travel somewhere else I feel extremely lucky when I return home to find the whole beach to myself. It’s easy to convince yourself that the grass is greener elsewhere, but I really feel it’s important to learn to embrace where you are. It’s hard for me to imagine a better place to have to embrace than Antigua.
You can get a taste of the island life by connecting with Dre and Jake online. A good place to start would be by following them on Instagram at @JakeKelsick and @AndrePhillip.