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Vol. 18, No. 2: The 40-Hour Work Week

Let’s face it, addiction is a very real thing, and as the late Robin Williams put it, “Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs.” The drug I’m referring to is kiteboarding, and as wind-addicted subjects, we all know very well the constant pull of our kites. It happens in our minds when we are not at the beach”” the countless hours we spend checking forecasts and dreaming of the next moment we can reconnect to the balancing force of four lines and a big piece of ripstop. Think of the otherwise productive time spent gazing out the window, trying to guess wind strength based on the infinite movements of individual leaves or losing yourself in the visual replay of a massive big air.

Your mind is stuck in a loop, like a bio-based machine-learning algorithm on repeat, solving the big mystery of how to stick the landing on that boogey loop. There’s no cure, and good luck finding an anonymous meeting or rehab center that will help you kick the habit. Addicted kitesurfers with otherwise stable and productive lives, even those with big jobs, powerful titles and mounds of responsibility, fantasize about leaving it all behind, selling the four-bedroom Tudor and moving the kids into a shack just down the street from a windy beach. Kiters routinely shatter the status quo and reprioritize their lives around the wind and waves. This is not an anomaly, it’s an addiction””can you handle it?

If addiction tends to disassemble the lives we have built before kiting, it all happened in reverse for me. I started young with the wind, and I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life surviving as a professional kiter, jumping from one lifeline to the next. There’s nature, and then there’s nurture, and it’s fair to say that my mom taught me to shake things up at the early age of five. With three kids and no partner to help out, life as a working mother in the UK looked pretty bleak. On a visit to see my aunt and uncle in Cape Town, my mom was blown away with the opportunities that South Africa seemed to offer, not to mention the appealing climate and its proximity to the sea. She met my stepdad while she was here and uprooted the entire family. We went from pretty low on the financial totem pole in the UK to somewhere square in the middle of it in South Africa. My mom made this voyage with three bull-headed children in tow, and I can’t thank her enough.

With whitecaps stretching all the way to Cape Town’s empty horizon, Luke
prepares for a hot landing on a powered strapless kiteloop. // Photo Miriam Joanna

My introduction to kiting was unlikely, and perhaps against the odds. When I wasn’t in school and my mom wasn’t at work, we’d often visit friends and family around the Blouberg area. I was the youngest and always needed the most supervision, so my mom would usually take me with her wherever she’d go. A friend of hers owned a guest house that was marketed towards kitesurfers, so I’d wander around and entertain myself while they caught up. One day, a kite instructor staying in the house sensed my boredom and helped me find an outlet by giving me my first introduction to kiting.

Framed by the shimmers of glittering water, Luke McGillewie bones out a strapless nose grab over the impact zone. // Photo Miriam Joanna

My parents didn’t have the means to purchase kite gear, so I had to earn my own way if I wanted to get out on the water. Having tasted the power of kites, I became a dog fixated on a bone””I would do whatever it took to get another session. I began hanging out at the old Cabrinha shop on Blaauwberg Road in Tableview and it became my home away from home. I would set up boards, unbox freight and spend hours sitting on the floor untangling customers’ lines. Grant and Donovan became my mentors, and they taught me all the stuff that I couldn’t learn at home or in school. Of course, you have to attend school to make good use of it, but kiting coincided with a sharp decline in my school attendance. My mom would drop me at the front gate, and I’d walk out the back. The guys at the shop tried their best to discourage me from skipping school when it was windy, but they also pushed me to find my way into the kite community and helped me get my first sponsorship with Cabrinha. Maybe it’s payback for all those days of school I missed, but after all these years, my family has never gotten into kiting, and I’m still the black sheep that skips family dinner when the waves are firing. When I was 15, I got my first international sponsorship, switched to online school and headed out on the Kite Surf Pro World Tour.

Luke throttles into the lip on a giant section at Scarborough. Cape Town’s status as a destination is cemented by its diverse range of riding conditions. // Photo Crystal Veness

Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have the funds to help me join the KSP. Instead, my participation was funded by RRD, my sponsor at the time, and it was 100% performance-based. If I wasn’t landing in the top 10, I would lose my travel budget and it would be all done. In classic fashion, I totally screwed up my first stop on the tour in Portugal. After training every day for a month in Guincho, I rode for 15 minutes in my first heat and came in dead last. Destroyed by the certainty that my dream was over before it had begun, Mitu came up to me and delivered some comforting words of advice. He could see the pressure I was under and told me that I should ignore the other guy in a heat and focus on having my best, most fun session ever. I was able to sweet-talk RRD into letting me continue to the next stop of the tour in Mauritius. Under the tall rock in Le Morne, I drew an early heat against Mitu. I already knew I had lost, but with the glass half full, I was surfing One Eye on a red flag day with only one other rider on the water, and that in itself felt like the best 15 minutes of my life. Back on the beach, I discovered that two high-scoring waves at the beginning of the heat bumped me into the next round. Testing myself against a legend like Mitu gave me the confidence and momentum I needed to perform well on the rest of the tour. This was one of the highlights of my career as a young pro rider. Mitu has, and always will be, the GOAT (greatest of all time) of wave kiting, and going to battle against him is a feeling that I will remember for the rest of time.

“If addiction tends to disassemble the lives we have built before kiting, it all happened in reverse for me.”

Along the way, I’ve met friends and teammates that have become my extended family. I would have been lost if it weren’t for Jalou. She was like my big sister, taking it upon herself to make sure I had a crew, helping me with accommodations, even making sure I had my groceries sorted and I was able to get to and from the kite spots. From Mitu and Airton to Paulino Pereira, Inês Correia and rooming with characters like Jon Modica, the people I met during that period of my life taught me a lot. I spent most of my time away from home, traveling to tour spots or finding windy surf locations to train. Experiencing spots in Ireland, Maui and Morocco, I saw places I would have never otherwise seen. I was a poor South African teenager on my own in foreign countries. Since most of the other riders were older than me and headed out on the town, I’d often find myself alone in an apartment eating butter pasta (which, if you’ve never tried it, is actually delicious) and doing homework, mindful to keep my grades up to be allowed to stay out on tour.

With a history that runs deeper than his surf chops might lead you to believe, Luke can pass the handle as well as any freestyle athlete. // Photo Miriam Joanna

But it wasn’t always about wave riding; I did the freestyle thing until I realized that I wasn’t willing to sign up for the long-term effects of buggered knees. I even competed in the King of the Air and the Megaloop Challenge a few times. While I didn’t get too far, I always felt it was important to keep up a respectable riding level across all disciplines. Having transitioned to Liquid Force in 2015, I enjoyed five more years of athlete life filled with competitions, promoting myself in magazines and on social media as well as testing products. All in all, life as a professional kiteboarder was pretty fantastic. My to-do list was hard to beat. It looked something like: Wake up, kite, lunch, social media, kite, after-kite beer, maybe one more kite, and, more often than not, a braai with the kite crew and, you guessed it, talk about kiting. There were lots of laughs, lots of beers and nothing but stoke! But when stoke is always in steady supply, you stop appreciating the sunset sessions, the days when the wind and waves line up perfectly and the awesome people you share them with. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that my pro kite career ended before I had the chance to take it for granted or lose my love for it forever. In June of 2020, the LF train went off the tracks. I’d had the mentorship and support of some of the best guys in the industry: Gary Siskar, Rich Sabo, Julien Fillion, Jason Slezak and Brandon Scheid, but the news came out of nowhere, and it was as if my world had been turned upside down.

Luke lines up a small inside nugget with short lines on a 6m Stoke. // Photo Crystal Veness

As everyone was getting ”˜adopted’ into new homes inside and out of the kite industry, I had a bit of an internal, and sometimes external crisis. It felt as if I had lost my family, not just my sponsorship. I was on the street looking for a new kite family, but I was afraid of what that meant. I hadn’t become the best in the world at anything at this point, other than kitesurfing’s best braai master, so figuring out what to do next was terrifying. I wrote out two columns in my notebook. What do I want from a brand and what unique value can I offer a kite company? Being realistic about how average you are can be depressing, but I was also able to find a range of unique personal skills like living half a block away from one of the best kite beaches in South Africa, maybe even the world. I listed my dual passport status that allowed me to travel pretty freely and my full media arsenal of cameras, drones and gimbals that I use to produce content of myself and other riders. I jotted down my deep ties to the local kite community that raised me and I noted my sixth sense about kite gear and tuning. I was excited when a few brands approached me, but I wanted to find a company that would value my skills and make space for me in their testing and development process. I had the list narrowed down to three brands when my close friend, Marie-Eve Mayrand, came to Cape Town for a visit. She’d been contemplating making a move over to Flysurfer and was impressed with their high level of organization, highlighting their respect for women within the company and their commitment to the quality of their products. I did a lot of research on the brand and tested their products, finding in my conversations with managers that the underlying values of the brand matched my own pure love of kitesurfing. As I boarded a flight to Germany to meet the team, I was a bundle of nerves; I had no idea what I was signing up for. Was this a job interview? I’d never done one before, or better yet, a contract signing? But for what? It had all been so informal and mysterious up until that point. Yet at the same time, it really didn’t matter. I’d already made the decision, and I was ready to dive off the deep end with Flysurfer. I only hoped I’d get through the interview process without them realizing that I’m a bit of a weird guy.

Armed with a new quiver of Stokes, Luke wraps up a long day on the water. // Photos Crystal Veness

Six months down the line, Flysurfer has finally realized I’m a weirdo, but they’re still keeping me around. Working as a tester and apprentice product developer on the inflatable kite line has been the most epic and stressful adventure of my life. Plugging away behind a computer, it’s been more intense than the times I competed in the KOTA or raced down the line of a closeout section at One Eye. Being based in South Africa while the rest of the design team is in Germany has been pretty interesting, but with technology the way it is, it oftentimes feels like we’re in the same office. Last week, I spent 28 hours on video calls with my supervisor, Maxi, who has been teaching me the basics of design software and introducing me to Flysurfer’s unique development process. It’s not all serious; there’s the usual office chit-chat and inside jokes over coffee, but I’m absorbing a lot of information and taking on a lot more responsibility than I’d ever had as an athlete.

With more pressure and responsibilities than ever before, Luke’s new job is the prototypical swan song of kiteboarding careers. // Photo Miriam Joanna

My new 40-hour workweek is scary in a lot of ways. There are new pressures that I haven’t experienced before, but most of them are self-inflicted. I want to do a good job and prove my worth through discipline and hard work, yet I also know enough to trust my own instincts””they’ve gotten me here this far. Shifting to a structured work environment requires balance, but I’m excited to play a part for a brand that thinks big and puts performance and precision at the top of its list. Having gotten an early start in kiteboarding with a life shaped by the lure of the wind, this transition validates my handling of the chronic addiction of windsports while carefully building a career around the pulling forces of kiteboarding. The life of a professional athlete can’t go on forever, but hey, I landed my dream job five years earlier than expected and I love it. I’m excited to step back from the pro rider role and surround myself with talented people that are having an impact on the kiteboarding experience. While kitesurfing is often a disruptive force in most kiter’s lives, in the end, its irresistible forces are what have helped me compose a rewarding balance in mine.

This article was featured in our summer 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 2. To read more, click here.