When Alicia La Rue discovered this small industrial logging town nestled in the heart of Vancouver Island, she hastily moved her family and design business to the quaint harbor town of Port Alberni.
Like clockwork, everyday around 3pm, the thermals heat up over the Alberni Inlet, providing the harbor with consistent 25-30 knot southerly winds. Having spent many of her summers camping at Nitinat Lake, Canada’s rustic kite mecca, Alicia happily traded her camping equipment for consistent winds, a tightknit community, and an affordable Victorian home in downtown Port Alberni. With no more than five kiteboarders on any given day, Alicia and her new friends launched their kites amidst parked cars and tourists on Centennial Pier and walked to the open edge with kites overhead and boards in hand before leaping 25 feet to the water below. Alicia and the rest of the Port Alberni kiters spent most of their evenings cruising the buttery smooth inlet and boosting big airs, leaving locals and tourists watching from the town’s waterfront businesses, gawking in awe. Kiteboarding is new to Port Alberni. With ample forests surrounding the inlet, logging was once the dominant economic force. Environmental awareness and commitments to sustainability have turned this once booming mill town into a sleepy little hamlet where tourism now takes precedence. Providing a new opportunity, the spectacle of kiting has given Port Alberni a brighter future, increasing tourism and contributing to the rising appeal of action sports in this area. Each evening, the locals, many born and raised in Port Alberni, join the growing throng of tourists who visit the area for its historic relevance, and flock to Centennial Pier to watch the small community of kiters perform bewildering stunts. Port Alberni’s pint-sized kite community had it all; glassy flat water and consistent winds, but their launch was anything but normal. The only way to publicly access the water was from Centennial Pier, a large cement parking lot that extends out into the Port’s waterfront.
Due to the complicated nature of their launch area, local kiters were mindful of the hazards that surrounded their kite spot and worked their hardest to mitigate any potential dangers. However, issues frequently arose when onlookers, not knowing any better, began taking it upon themselves to grab kite lines, snap pictures directly downwind, or even walk into lines while kiters were launching. The town’s Port Authority eventually caught wind of the potential hazards and liability issues associated with this new and “dangerous” sport. If launching large kites in between lamp posts and cars on a public pier wasn’t enough to concern the Port Authority, the 25-foot jump that kiters performed from the pier to the water certainly was.
In January of 2015, Port Alberni’s local radio station, The Peak, reported that the Port Authority had placed a ban on kiteboarders launching from Centennial Pier. Concerned with safety and liability issues, the Chair of the Port Authority, Gillian Trumper, explained, “We have to make sure for everybody’s sake that it’s safe. There’s a mix of users on the waterfront . . . and we want to make sure from our own aspects of running a business that we aren’t liable.” News of the ban quickly traveled to Baja where Alicia was on vacation, and much like the other Port Alberni kiters, she was furious. Without a place to launch, there would be no more kiting in the otherwise ideal inlet of Port Alberni. Recognizing the importance of acting quickly, the local kiters banded together and established South Port Kiteboarding (SPKB) to unite the group and voice their opinions as one. As it turns out, the kiters weren’t the only community members disgruntled by the kite restriction. Alicia and her small crew were surprised by the public outcry and social media backlash that resulted from the news of the ban. Together, SPKB, along with the local residents, established a grassroots effort to raise awareness and lift the kiting ban. Local community members penned letters to media sources and government officials. Town resident, Crystal-Anne Smith, explained, “Kiteboarders attract spectators which in turn brings economic growth to Harbor Quay’s numerous shops and restaurants, as well as Port Alberni itself. Port Alberni is a gem in the middle of Vancouver Island with amazing outdoor activities that attract many young and active individuals who are willing to invest time, money and energy towards Port Alberni’s welfare.” The issue exploded in the local media with interviews and coverage eventually making it to statewide channels including Shaw and Global TV.
Recognizing the huge amount of publicity that the ban had created, the Port Authority chose to respond. Approaching the Port Authority to question the ban and explore possible solutions, local kiter Dale Moffat established himself as a primary advocate in resolving the issue. Dale recalls, “It was the launching and landing from the pier itself that concerned the Port Authority.” As the issue arose in the press and became increasingly controversial, the Port Authority agreed to work with Dale and SPKB to come up with an alternative to an outright ban. Dale attributed the Port Authority’s willingness to work with SPKB to the large amount of press that was generated. “We highlighted the fact that more than just a few kiteboarders had been affected by the decision and forced the city’s government and the Port Authority to recognize the future potential that kiteboarding could contribute financially and promotionally for this small industrial town.”
Despite pressure from the public, the Port Authority remained steadfast in their decision to ban launching from Centennial Pier, but agreed to build a new, safer launch. Once the Port Authority decided they would explore an alternative launch site, Dale dove headfirst into the research necessary to propose a new launch. He explained, “We can mitigate or eliminate 95 if not 100 percent of the Port Authority’s concerns with just a little bit of redesign and rework.” After hours of web-based research and discussions with the correct people, Dale designed three different proposals for the new kite launch. Collaborating with the Port Authority and Alberni Engineering, Dale finalized a design that would provide the most user-friendly and efficient launch possible.
Upon selection of a new location, just 500 feet upwind of Centennial Pier, the Port Authority utilized the two piers already existing at the newly chosen site. Facing a few design challenges, Dale recalled, “Keeping the piers secured was the primary challenge in building the new launch.” In order to make the piers into a viable launch, they had to be repositioned directly into the wind which, “on heavy wind days, placed crazy amounts of stress on the anchor block and pierto- pier chains.” Dale insisted that the Port Authority use an arched bridge to connect the two piers and emphasized the specific need for a low profile ramp that would connect the piers while minimizing the chance of snagging lines. The leading design took into account the appropriate angles and distances necessary to allow the launch to move properly in all wind directions as well as accommodate a variety of kite line lengths. Alicia put her graphic design skills to work, crafting detailed SPKB signs explaining how to use the new launch as well as explicitly informing kiters launching from the site that they would assume all liability for their actions. With an anchor barge and two tug boats, Alberni Engineering hooked things up within a matter of hours and the Alberni kiteboarders got their new legal launch in April 2015, just three months after the initial ban.
Issues with site access and public safety have always plagued the sport of kiteboarding. Even as safety systems evolve and improve, accidents are bound to happen. Kiteboarding is not a crime; it does however involve an ever-present amount of risk that can’t be completely eliminated. As with most action sports, ignorance and the lack of understanding and awareness for safety are often the key factors leading to increased regulation and all out bans.
It’s almost absurd to think that a historically rigid organization such as the Port Authority would cater to the needs of five kiteboarders, but this affair also demonstrates the power of public pressure and media, including the strategic benefits of aligning the interests of the minority with the majority’s welfare. Our sport has plenty of site access battles ahead of us, but as the conflict in Port Alberni indicates, sometimes a grassroots community effort, along with positive and open communication channels, is all it takes to increase public awareness and make a change. Thrilled with the new launch and incredibly proud of her community’s accomplishments, Alicia La Rue confidently believes, “Harnessing the power from the wind, there is no obstacle we can’t maneuver around.”
Check it out as Alicia shares her story and talks about her Tkb magazine feature.