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There is no getting around the fact that right now the average kiteboarder is a middle-aged male. Kiteboarding, while not extremely difficult to learn, has a relatively high cost to get started, and that has been keeping a certain youthful element from taking hold in kiteboarding for years. However, there is a movement in this country right now that is working hard to change that and to expose kiteboarding to a new younger crowd. That movement is the Collegiate Kiteboarding Association (CKA), and the main person behind the start of it is Matt Sexton, a student at Eckerd College in Florida.
The CKA has grown to now include Collegiate Kiteboarding Clubs at 25 schools around the country and there are CKA events on both the east and west coasts. In the U.S., the CKA is the only kiteboarding tour in the country and is responsible for getting hundreds of college-aged people started in kiteboarding. CKA events have a reputation for being a good time, no matter what the weather delivers. In Florida, a cold spell caused organizers to bring in artificial snow and hold that state’s first snowkiting event, while in San Diego, a lack of wind turned the event into an impromptu surf contest followed by riding a beachfront artificial wave. We like what’s going on with the CKA, and so TKB sat down with Matt Sexton to let him talk about how it all started and where the CKA is heading.
How did you start kiteboarding? Why did you want to do it?
I grew up wakeboarding, sailing, and windsurfing. Kiting was something that I thought would take the best aspects of all these sports and combine them into one activity. Long Island Sound, where I grew up, wasn’t exactly a kiteboarders paradise. When I was sixteen, my grandmother hooked me up with a kite lesson in Delray Beach, Florida, from a local instructor who happened to be Andy Defilippis from Transcend Apparel.
I was up and riding my first day and then moved back up north for a few years. When I turned 20, I enrolled at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg and drove south in a Ford Bronco with three wakeboards and a kite. Truthfully, I was more interested in wakeboarding than kiting, but when I met locals like Billy Parker and Alex Fox and saw what was possible with a kite, that was all I did from then on.
What made you want to start a kiteboarding club at Eckerd?
I had some money after working at a sailing school up north for a couple years, so I was able to afford a kite and a board, but I didn’t want to enjoy the sport alone. I taught a few friends from Eckerd the basics and then they went and got legit lessons, but I was still the only one with gear and it was getting trashed quickly.
During freshman orientation, I heard about a student-governed clubs program that could provide funds and an infrastructure for activities that weren’t readily available at the school. I wrote a constitution, applied for some funds, and by spring we were chartered and could afford a full quiver of kites. The original crew was just myself, Oli Berlic, Alex Moore, and Chase Kosterlitz and it has grown to now include more than 50 students.
What is your local kiteboarding scene like?
It’s the sh*t. Saint Pete and the people that kite here made it possible for me to get into the sport so quickly and helped me and my friends progress. Within a fifteen minute drive you can ride any wind direction and have a choice between waves and downwinders or butter-flat waist-deep water. Saint Pete/Tampa has one of the biggest local kite scenes out of anywhere in the U.S.
There are dozens of places to ride and people do a pretty good job of self-regulating the scene. On top of all that, the skill level of the average rider here is through the roof and we have McCormick’s Cable Park right inside Tampa to cross train when the wind is off. The scene is definitely on the older side, but most of my friends here that are wakeboarders have started to pick up kiting and we are starting to see a lot more of the younger crowd pushing the freestyle/wakestye type of riding.
Was it difficult to get the school to be approving of kiteboarding?
Yes and no. Eckerd is a small liberal arts school with a developed waterfront program and the only Coast Guard-approved collegiate Search and Rescue program in the country. They’re no strangers to liability and have a very good risk management department that has helped us with red tape on more than one occasion.
However, getting the funding was much trickier. It’s hard to explain to a person sitting at a desk in an office why they should give us several thousand dollars just to have enough equipment for three to five people.
Tell us about Triton Watersports. What did it start as and what has it grown into?
It was something that just came to be out of necessity. We had a long list of people that wanted to learn to kite, but our local kite school had disbanded and there was a high demand for certified instruction. I had previously helped manage one of the largest youth sailing programs in the country, so I took the infrastructure from that and reformed it to be suitable for kiting.
I and six other friends got certified by Christophe Ribot from IKO and a few of us also got PASA certifications from Paul Menta. We taught about 75 lessons in our first season and have fluctuated up and down from that number since. Teaching kiting after a year really burns you out though and you start to see how many sessions you lost because you were trying to make a buck, so we turned the main focus of the company into event and media production and used it to help found the Collegiate Kiteboarding Association.
We still teach lessons today and we pride ourselves in having an awesome lineup of certified and insured kiters that instruct, but we prefer to continue helping to develop the sport through other channels.
What else are you involved in outside of kiteboarding?
A lot. Eckerd allowed me to develop a non- conventional major that was more relevant to what I was trying to accomplish by going to school. I’ll be graduating in May with a degree in Culture and Entrepreneurial Processes. That still sounds funny to me, but I focused a lot on social entrepreneurship and developing culture within the business realm.
At the moment I’m working on a sustainable art project that we’re hoping to develop into its own brand and I’ve got a few other socially-oriented projects that will hopefully keep paying the bills after I graduate. In addition to all that, I also wakeboard, surf, snowboard, and paddleboard as much as possible.
How did you form the Collegiate Kiteboarding Association? Did you have any idea that it would grow into what it is now?
Definitely not. The first ever CKA National Championships was held on Smathers Beach in Key West during Spring Break 2007.We had riders from two schools and alumni from another five to help fill out the brackets. Next thing I knew, emails were flooding my inbox about how to get involved with the CKA and how to form a college club.
We had no significant financial sponsorships and everything was done and paid for in house. If we needed event insurance and the school couldn’t get it, we taught a few kite lessons and paid for it. If we needed some video or graphic design work we called up Ben Sampson and Paul Sheetz who were video and graphic design students at FSU and USF.
Everyone pulled their own weight and helped make things happen. Now that things have grown nationwide, we’ve had to do a lot to beef up our legitimacy. We’ve formed the CKA as its own legal LLC and we’ve started writing some sponsorship proposals to help the tour grow into what it should be. It’s not fair to say that I formed the Collegiate Kiteboarding Association because too many people were involved in making it happen.
I just helped bring everyone together and figured out how to get the bills paid.
The CKA is currently the only kiteboarding tour in the US. Why do you think that is? Why aren’t there more kiteboarding events and competitions in this country?
It’s a sticky situation. Every event we throw has to be permitted and insured. We definitely pulled off some ghetto things back in the day, but now things have to be 100% legit. The fact that the CKA is not about money and sponsorships to the riders is what makes it possible right now. People come out for fun and for bragging rights, not for a prize purse or to be seen.
Most of the events that are going on around the country right now are usually being thrown by a shop or some local riders who want to promote their scene or some sort of cause. It’s great that they’re taking the initiative and the events are fun as hell, but the days of traveling to an event, paying an $80-$100 dollar entry fee and then getting a pat on the back or a store credit when you finish on the podium need to end.
The U.S. is so preoccupied with liability and permitting that it makes it so difficult to throw a legit event that really makes the sport look good. I think as we get out of this recession and some more out-of-industry corporate sponsors start bringing money to the table, things will change and we’ll see a huge rejuvenation in the U.S. kiteboarding scene.
How many schools now have college kiteboarding clubs?
There are roughly 25 clubs right now that are founded and actively developing, and we’re getting inquiries on a regular basis for people trying to start up more. It’s the best way possible to start to establish a national infrastructure for the sport and I love watching it grow.
Do you see the CKA as being able to grow into a US national kiteboarding tour for riders outside of college students?
Absolutely. The whole PKRA, KPWT, and IKA thing is great and internationally they are the driving forces for our sport, but it’s just not practical for 90% of kiteboarding participants to travel around the world and participate. The CKA right now is the only association in the U.S. that is trying to help riders progress to a competitive level.
If we can get the right team together and create a solid U.S. pro-am style tour, I guarantee that the CKA will be one of the primary feeder programs for it. The CKA won’t grow into it itself though; it needs to be created on its own and they can help build each other.
Do you think there should be some form of national organization focused on preserving access and developing instruction, or is maintaining access strictly a local issue that doesn’t need meddling from another group of people?
That’s a tough subject. I like the idea of PASA and IKO, but as far as their credibility goes I find very little. Granted, I’m a level two instructor for both organizations, but I no longer renew my memberships and I don’t intend to. US Sailing is a great national organization with a very developed instructional program.
When I became a sailing instructor with them I was instantly backed with $1,000,000 in liability coverage through their organization. The course was $600 and the coverage was included so long as I kept my membership up to date. I paid very similar amounts for my kiting certificates but on top of that I have to pay annual insurance premiums that are around a thousand dollars that don’t even require that I have the certificate in the first place. I think that if a national organization is to be founded then it needs to be done in a selfless and highly developed manner that includes a good teaching infrastructure and an included liability policy.
At the moment, nothing like this exists that is really effective, therefore self-policing is a must. People need to be a bit more proactive about it though. Often times the more experienced riders are the ones that freak people out and raise the red flags to people on the beach, however these are usually the hardest people to confront.
If you see somebody jeopardizing your local spot you need to do something about it or be ready to find someplace new to ride, because it will get banned. Take the recent closure of kiteboarding at Hobie Beach, Miami, as a perfect example.
How effective are college clubs in getting people into kiteboarding?
At the moment, not as effective as I’d like to see them. There’s a huge barrier to entry with the sport of kiteboarding. Generally speaking, you need to have money, you need to have an ideal location, and you need to have someone who knows what they’re doing and are willing to take the time to teach you.
The clubs do an amazing job of exposing the sport to a previously unknown audience, but we’re still working on more efficient ways to help people start participating.
Having seen so many people pick up the sport, what do think are the problems that hold people back from learning to kiteboard?
Money and accessibility. Realistically if you come to our school we could get you set up with a mid-low grade kite, board, harness, and a couple hours of lessons for around $2000. To the average person, that’s ridiculously expensive. Within the industry, that’s a great deal since some complete kites are retailing at almost the same price, but that’s keeping many people out of the sport.
When you show up to the average kiteboarding beach, it’s obvious that the average kiteboarder is a middle-aged male. What do you think needs to happen to get more young people into kiteboarding?
Companies need to offer more entry level packages that don’t go obsolete once a rider starts wanting to progress. You can get some sick SLE and hybrid kites that are great for learning, but once you want to unhook or learn some freestyle they’re garbage.
That needs to change and it’s apparent that it already somewhat has, but the image of the sport needs to change as well. There needs to be a much higher rate of mainstream exposure and the image of the sport needs to look a lot cooler.
What is keeping the sport from looking cool in your opinion? How do people in other sports perceive kiteboarders? How do you think we can get more mainstream exposure for the sport?
There are a few different things that come to mind. Moto-X wasn’t the multi-million dollar industry that it is today back when it was guys just cruising around the track trying to finish first. Once guys started throwing super high risk, massive jumps with all sorts of variations of tricks, stadiums started getting filled. Just look at the Nuclear Cowboys tour now, it’s a ridiculous spectacle that is just pumping money back into the Moto-X scene.
We need competitions and events that are more geared towards public exposure with a really crowd-appealing format, not a bunch of guys cruising around some buoys with seven-foot long boards. Secondly, the perception that we’re giving the general public and participants of other sports right now is so outdated. To think that kiting has barely been a sport for ten years is mind blowing. The advancements between 2005 and 2010 kites is huge, yet the majority of the movies and the styles of riding that people are seeing is the same thing that was prevalent in the earliest years of the sport.
More people need to start taking the initiative to broadcast the sport for the masses for the purpose of exposing the cool parts of the sport, not to promote themselves and the whole “look what I can do” mentality. I’m working with some friends right now to put together a really well-rounded full-length movie that we’re hoping to drop in the next year or two that will show exactly what I’m talking about; some gnarly, provocative sh*t that will keep people pressing play time and time again.
Lastly, general media in the U.S. for the most part has no idea what kiteboarding is. When I studied in Spain and mentioned to a local in the land-locked town of Salamanca that I was a kiteboarder, he was blown away and told me I should go to Tarifa. He had never seen the sport first hand, but it looked very cool on TV and in the newspapers. I mention that I’m a kiteboarder to someone in the same scenario here in the U.S. and they can’t even grasp the concept. I’m either labeled as a windsurfer or some sort of paraglider/sailor. I’m tired of that.
Where do you think kiteboarding is heading right now? What do you think of the course racing movement?
I have mixed feelings. Course racing is something that is cool for the people that are into it, but at the moment it’s becoming more of a tech race than a skill race. I always thought that one -design racing in sailing and windsurfing was cool, because at the end of the race you really knew who the most skilled racer was because everyone was using the same equipment. Course racing is all over the map right now in terms of gear and for that reason I find very little credibility in it. I also don’t like the fact that people are so obsessed with having kiteboarding be accepted by already-established sports.
Kiteboarding is not sailing or wakeboarding. It’s an extension of them for sure, but the fact that course racing could get into the Olympics before a well-formatted freestyle competition is bullsh*t to me. I guarantee that if you take a pro wakeboarder, sailor, or surfer and show them how we’re trying to emulate their sport they might think it’s cool and maybe even flattering, but show that same person a megaloop in 40 knots and it’ll drop their jaw.
The sport needs to become more well-rounded and then it will develop its own identity. Until then everyone’s just going to keep trying to make it look like something else.
What are your kiteboarding plans for the near future?
Pretty extensive, I want to experience everything that the sport has to offer and I want to continue to help it grow. I currently have some pretty good support from the industry and would like to use those relationships to travel and keep doing things that I haven’t experienced yet.
I tried snowkiting last year and that was some of the most fun I’ve ever had, but I really want to get some sessions in good clean big waves, and spend more time on different kinds of kickers and sliders behind the kite. The most important thing to me is to keep having fun and spreadin’ the love of the sport.
Is there anyone you would like to give shout-outs to?
There are so many people: Neil Hutchinson, Young Hobbs, Oli B, Shmoore, Young Fox, Fred Abington, BP, all the CKA homies, Slingshot, Dakine, Otherside Boardsports, McCormicks Cable Park, and The Kiteboarder. I couldn’t have done anything without those people.
For more information on the CKA, check out https://www.collegiatekiteboarding.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/CKA-Collegiate-Kiteboarding-Association/19527070125