Last summer featured a pretty decent run of south swells on the Santa Cruz coast and like most kite seasons, as spring started, the sand filled in at the reef towards the north end of the Waddell Creek parking lot. During the first half of the summer a working right off the top of the reef went off, but as it typically does, this eventually turned to closeouts outside of a perfect tide. This is the time of year when the true jewel of Waddell surfaces; the late summer left. Much like last year and the 32 summers I can recount before that, the parking lot’s underwater bathymetry of granitic rock and deposited sand bore a charging left that flops over heavy at the top of the reef and charges towards the San Mateo county line with little want or waste for the perfect shape.
This year, a core group of friends fixated on the north end of the parking lot. Most days we’d surf the peeling parking lot lefts until the wind came up; then in the afternoons we’d transition to our kites, focusing on this same upwind kitesurfable left that we’d surfed sans kite earlier that morning. I suppose it’s this transition from surf to kitesurf that led the parking lot think tank to ponder the restrictions of the kite. Led by retired State Park Ranger, Gary Strachan, the concept of setting the kite, letting go of the bar and surfing the wave hands free began to catch on. Bets were made, records for unhanded cutbacks and back-to-back bottom to top turn sequences were set—all working towards the common goal of narrowing the divide between surf and kitesurf.
We learned early on that you want to start each wave with the kite at the very edge of the wind window and at around 11 to minimize the pull. When you let go of the bar you experience maximum depower in the kite, but you also have the challenge of keeping the kite from sinking to the bottom of the window and plunging into the water. To combat this, you can flick the kite up a little higher into the sky, then immediately let go. With this technique, you can surf hands free for the time it takes for the kite to travel up to the top until gravity brings it back down to the edge of the wind window. When the kite gets near the water and in good timing with your turns, you can reach out with one hand, give the kite a quick flick back up into the sky, let go again and continue your ride. Bottom turns, top turns, cutbacks, or skating for speed, it’s all possible, really.
Through the late summer evolution of this process, we experimented with some equipment modifications: longer throw to increase the amount of depower and asymmetrical pigtail attachments to increase the amount on the upward steering line. Truth be told, even with these tweaks and tons of practice, it didn’t always go so smoothly for me. I remember one day quite vividly, primarily because I ditched a friend’s wedding to go kitesurfing, secondly because of the barreling overhead waves and finally because I dumped my kite three times in a row. Master kite designer and local repairman Peter Schiebel was up on the cliff shaking his head at the new move in progress knowing this would translate into more after hours kite repair work. Although frustrated, I felt like I was capturing that same feeling as when I surfed, because, well, it was surfing, at least for those few seconds where I wasn’t bound by the constraints of the kite.
Frankly, in the past, I rarely had that much fun going left because the kite was always uncomfortably pulling me right. But, when nature serves up the perfect peeling lefts, what are you going to do, go right? Seems wrong. Like the evolutionary sketch of primordial apes’ ‘march into progress’—if we’ve long accepted that one-handed kitesurfing frees up the body, then letting go with two hands must be the natural progression towards a more surf-like feel. While hands-free kitesurfing may be just a pipe dream, or worse yet a fad, this summer we might have chipped away at the technology and technique barrier towards an end goal of narrowing the surf divide.
Words by Mike Attolico
Photos Gary Strachan // Field plates from the Waddell Creek Laboratory; the author depicted mid bottom turn in modes of both kitesurf and surf. The juxtaposition of the two specimens makes the case for hands-free kitesurfing quite obvious, even if it’s only a pipe dream.