This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Volume 11, No. 2 Issue, now available online.
Tunnel vision, the green room, the pit, the tube, the barrel – whatever you call it, finding yourself pitted in a swirling vortex of oceanic energy is the most sacred of all experiences in surfing. The visionary surfers who first embraced early kiteboarding technology naturally, if not instinctively, began searching for waves that would let them pull inside the elusive green room they had been chasing their entire surf-driven lives, but this time with kites.
The perfect image of a kite surfer slotted in the pit makes it look deceptively easy, but for each photo that lands a cover or graces the spreads of glossy magazines, there are a dozen brutal beatings leading up to that moment. Placing oneself in a barrel with a kite is a learning experience, a trial by error in finding just the right spot in a very fluid formula. Without risk there is certainly no reward, but victories in hunting down heaving slabs are hard fought and losses are calculated in damage to material and person. Torn kites, snapped lines, broken bars, surfboards blasted into pieces, skin ripped, torn, punctured, battered and bruised – this is often the price, the pound of flesh, frequently demanded as admission to the green room. There is nothing more terrifying than getting lipped in the head, spun in all directions and pounded to the bottom by the power of the ocean, except taking this very same beating while casting a wide net of razor-thin kite lines with the potential of entangling appendages and shredding them to the bone. Yet for some, it’s more than worth the risk.
For those kite surfers undeterred by danger, there’s the challenge of lining up a multitude of variables that need to coincide before the shacking begins. Each tube starts with distant storm energy colliding with the perfect bathymetry of just the right reef, point, or sandbar. Add the right wind direction at sufficient strength with a complying tide and finally pray for uncrowded water, free of prone surfers. The lure of the barrel is intoxicating, yet no matter how strong the desire, the elusive cover up is based on these factors lining up like a well-rehearsed symphony. As on any frontier, you will find pioneers, people with exceptional skill and ability who also possess the curiosity and audacity to push beyond that which is thought to be possible. In my 10 years of writing and shooting kite surfing, I have seen the evolution of tube riding first hand. In my early days on the West Coast of California I watched as Santa Barbara’s finest did their best to find their way into the barrel. Wes Matweyew and Chris Gutzeit were the first surfers I witnessed working out the mechanics of the cover up, placing themselves in positions that until then, kiters would avoid at all costs. At the same time somewhere on the other side of the planet, Ben Wilson and Jeff Tobias were on the same mission to stuff themselves into the liquid pocket. These were the kite surfers I knew of, but around the globe there was undoubtedly others in search of the right set up for the fleeting kite surfing barrel, some documented, but most not.
In my experience the dangers of kite barrels is equally treacherous for those who choose to photograph it. The initial tube rides that found their way to print were captured by hardy veterans of the surf photography game. Names like John Bilderback, Stephen Whitesell, and myself were all pushing to get closer and deeper, trying to perfect the art of shooting wide angle photography from within the confines of the barrel. It’s a precarious game of proximity, easily compared to the likes of bull fighting or medieval jousting; dodging lines, bars, fins, and bodies all the while trying not to be defeated by the ocean. The complexity of capturing the kite in the tube far exceeds the same image of the simple surfer and as a result I have had more than a few close calls and a broken rib to show for my efforts.
In the photos that follow, each one represents not only the daring athleticism and skill of a rare breed of kite surfers, but also the precarious balance of danger and serendipity that I experienced as the photographer in order to capture these fleeting moments.
Step into my green room. ~ Jason Wolcott
“Tube rides on the kite are different compared to surfing. They’re typically shorter and more intense as you have lots going on. My first time was actually on a twin tip and I wasn’t even thinking about getting tubed at the time. The search instinct automatically kicked in. In 2005, I went to Indo with Jeff Tobias; it was our first legitimate trip riding surfboards. Tobias is a mad man so he was just charging everything. I was more calculated, but we were both getting eaten and maybe getting a little head dip. It was fun.”
“The ocean at anytime can show you how small you really are. Tube riding is as critical as you can get — it can be the greatest moment of your life or the biggest scariest beating, but it’s always a fine line. When we were shooting the “Dirty South” I pulled into a set wave and the thing just closed on me; it was one of the most violent beatings I’ve had. I hurt my ribs on impact, lost my kite and needed to be rescued.”
I had not shot much with Ben when we jumped in the RV for the Dirty South trip but I knew he was a pioneer of kite surfing as well as a damn good surfer. On this day Ben not only proved you could get big barrels kite surfing, he also demonstrated you could pay for them with your life. Ben was clipped in the head by a massive wave and knocked unconscious. I am certain that if it was not for Ian Alldredge being in the water and getting to Ben in time to flip him over and help him regain consciousness, I would have watched Ben drown from the land with his father standing next to me.
“The first time I saw guys really going for barrels was in the Tronolone movie Space Monkeys 2. Back then the guys were unhooking and pulling in without the greatest hopes of coming out. A lot of times they would throw the kite and have to get it back with a boat. Nowadays, there are more guys going for tubes, and lots of guys making some pretty remarkable barrels. I failed my first couple of tries, and then it all came together for me. The first successful barrel for me happened on a solid six-foot Mauritius wave and when I came out of the barrel I had the biggest smile across my face. I wish I could’ve stayed in there forever.”
“My worst tube riding wipeout with a kite was also on Mauritius. I pulled into a pretty solid tube and my kite crashed out the back of the wave. The kite acted like an anchor and instead of going over the falls backwards onto the shallow reef, the kite pulled me up into the lip of the wave and ripped me out through the back. It was like a scorpion around my harness and tweaked my back. It was probably better than going over the falls onto the reef, but I was hurting for a few weeks after that.”
Patri won a KSP contest in heavy left barrels. I watched it on the webcast and was blown away by his approach to the tube. He surfs just as well as he kites which probably helps him judge sections and pull into kegs no matter where his travels take him. On this surf trip he destroyed a few kites and got slammed super hard off the bottom but whenever he got slotted, it was always with a smile and no ego.
“The adrenalin rush you experience while flying down the line, engulfed in a wave, while still breathing as you watch water move all around you is the best feeling you will ever have. The fist person I saw pull in was Peter Trow riding upwind at a beach break. After that I went on a trip to Indo when I was 18 and saw Ben Wilson, Reo Stevens and Ian Alldredge going off, pulling into huge barrels. Each year I see new riders pulling in deeper and deeper, yet we’re still at a stage where the level of tube riding will continue to progress.”
“My worst wipeout was pulling in going right at a small beach break. As soon as my lines hit the lip it threw me upside down and both of my legs went in between my bars’ outside lines. Hitting the bottom under water, I was stuck being pulled upside down, and I couldn’t release. It was claustrophobic, but after five seconds of feeling helpless I managed to reverse my situation. I got out of my lines and back to the surface. I don’t think that was my worst wipeout but it was the most scary for sure.” Tube riding is all about exiting your comfort zone.
Growing up in Southern California Bear Karry had never traveled for kite surfing, and why would he want to? Riding backside and pig dogging was something Bear had done a lot as a surfer, but the first time he dropped in on Bali’s lefts he had to wrap his head around more than just exotic menus because successfully pulling in on your backhand takes commitment, courage, and practice.
“Anyone coming from a surfing background knows scoring a tube is the ultimate. It is like a drug. Especially when you get a good, long and deep one. Nothing beats being inside the wave looking out of the morphing liquid exit, while at the same time making eye contact with a friend or fellow surfer/kiter on the shoulder as they make it back through the line-up. It took me a long time to get what I would call a real tube, not just a cover-up. I still remember my first kite tube like it was yesterday because it has been burnt into my brain.”
“If the wind is good the risks are not too bad as long as you keep the kite flying. I have been pretty lucky, but my worst experience was being in the barrel when the wave closed out. I got pushed down deep and had no idea where the kite was. The kite fell in the wave I was riding and I was pulled underwater for what seemed like an eternity, but maybe only 10 seconds. Then I got dragged by two more waves. I was so scared I was going to be hauled across the reef – the pull was so great I had no way of getting to the release. Scary experience!”
Rob Kidnie is one of the best kite surfers you’ve never heard about. A few years back Reo, Keahi, and myself were checking the wind at our favorite Indo break. There was this long-haired blond guy pulling in back-handed and getting obliterated. We watched the unknown charger as we geared up and it was clear this guy meant business. That was four years ago and today he could be considered one of the best backhand tube riders in the sport.
KEAHI DE ABOITIZ
“Getting barreled while surfing is one thing but with a kite it can be a lot more difficult because everything needs to come together and just finding a wave that still barrels properly in the wind can be a real challenge. My first few attempts were definitely a little scary but nothing beats the feeling so I kept trying. I remember my first one, not knowing exactly what would happen. Watching the lines cut though the lip for the first time then coming out unscathed was a pretty amazing feeling! It definitely kept me coming back for more.”
“Like anything there are definitely a few risks. When pulling in, especially in more onshore conditions, the lines tend to go slack and start to do all sorts of weird things. I’ve seen some crazy pictures of myself and others where the lines start doing laps in the lip, sometimes around the person. I guess my worst experience would be falling on a wave in Indo where I initially thought my kite was going to land in the channel but unfortunately right when the wave’s beating started to subside, my kite which had landed in the same wave, had me skull dragged through the water. Luckily after a little bit my kite leash broke and I as well as my gear survived.”
Keahi is an animal. I remember one day last season, this two-time World Wave Champion spent 10 hours in the water getting barreled out of his mind. He started on his SUP, downshifted to his 5’10” short board and then pumped up his kite. Keahi is fearless, and has the skill set to lock into the deepest, heaviest barrels around. When he has had enough on his regular stance, Keahi will pull in switch, try to do laybacks in the barrel, or even lay down coffin style. His years surfing the heavy sandbanks near his home in Noosa Heads, Australia have trained him to be one of the best tube riders in our sport.
“I have watched surf movies pretty much my whole life and although tube riding was a huge part of those movies, Holland doesn’t have spots with perfect barrels. Competing on the freestyle tour only brings you to flat water spots so not much in the way of barrels there either. It wasn’t until my trip to Indo last year where I got barrels back to back. The feeling that it gave me was so addicting!”
“I was in Cape Town, South Africa at a beach break with hidden barrels here and there, but you had to be in the right place at the right time. Everything was perfect and as the lip was throwing and just about to cover me, I hit a nasty piece of chop and lost my balance. I went over the falls, somersaulted into my lines and got drilled against the bottom. Not the best feeling in the world, I can tell you that, but it’s these moments that make me feel alive.”
I had never met Kevin Langeree, but as a magazine reader I knew him as a PKRA world champ. What I didn’t know, as well as most people, is that somewhere between tour stops, Kevin became addicted to wave kiting. I was surprised at just how hard he charged in heavy barrels. It just goes to show that if you really want to figure out getting pitted on your kite, you can make it happen.
“In the early days it was a bit of the ‘holy grail’ of kitesurfing. We weren’t sure if it was possible with the bar and lines, but we were all trying it. There were tons of head dips happening but the first real barrels didn’t start to happen until guys starting venturing to Indonesia. My first barrel on a kite was in Indo on a shoulder high day. It wasn’t the biggest or best barrel I’ve ever got, but it was hollow and clean enough that I was able to tuck up and get a proper vision and come out clean.”
“My worst experience was at Teahupo’o. Everything was lined up and after a few successful barrels, my confidence level started to rise and I began to push myself deeper on the bigger waves. I dropped in on a set that swung west, causing the wave to bend in on itself at about a 45 degree angle. The wave’s abnormally thick lip and new angle caught my lines and the drag pulled me up and into the top of the wave. The lip knocked the bar out of my hands and I went over the falls. It was a brutal beating, but luckily I was able to release my kite before the force of the wave ripped me in half. That day I learned a heavy lesson about the sneaky west bowl at Teahupo’o.”
Reo Stevens has always been at the forefront of surf kiting. He is by far one of the top tube riders in the sport. Whether it is a shallow ledge in Indo, a long scary wall at Backyards on the North Shore, or committing to giant Teahupoʻ’o caverns, Reo will charge and usually make it out of any barrel he can find. I have been shooting with Reo for years and I am looking forward to more of his fearless charging in front of my lens.
Words and Photos by Jason Wolcott/LEWHS.com
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