Need a socially distant sport? Hard to beat kite surfing

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A windy day in Madison finds local kiters out on the water. Photo courtesy of Victor Ruotti.

It’s tough to find a sport these days that consistently allows for six feet of social distancing.  Team sports have become solo endeavors, and people are desperately trying to find ways to continue their beloved sport in these strange new times. 

With so many sports canceled during the coronavirus pandemic, people are left wondering what they can do to move their bodies other than walk their dog, jog, bike or maybe play a little tennis.  People wonder if spikeball and basketball are OK to enjoy, and even soccer doesn’t feel quite right.  But there is one community of athletes in town that is enjoying the ride mask-free: The kiteboarders.

On any windy day, depending on the direction of the wind, you can see a small community of kitesurfers pumping up their kites and surfing the waves of Lake Mendota, Monona and Waubesa.  Kiteboarding is a solo sport that not only allows for distance -- it requires lots of space.

Those who do it profess moments of pure bliss as they surf at mad speeds across the water.  One kiter said he “giggles internally” the entire time he is out on the water. How many things make you giggle internally during a pandemic?

Kiteboarding is a growing sport that requires a giant kite attached typically with four lines to a harness that the kiter wears.  The kites range in surface area from 7 to 14 square meters, and one chooses the kite size based on the strength of the wind.  The greater the wind speed, the smaller the kite. The kiter controls the kite with a bar attached to a harness while standing on a surfboard, and is pulled across the water, riding speeds of between 15 and 25 miles per hour.  If you watch kiters, all seem to make it look easy, but kiters say it takes a lot of time to learn.

“You probably need 10-12 hours of lessons and then another 10 hours of supervised riding so if you do get in trouble, there is someone on hand to get you out of it. In about 20 hours, you are marginally able to kite on your own,” says Eric Kerlow, a local Madison rider.

A fall kiter making it look easy. Fall kiting requires a head-to-toe wetsuit. Photo courtesy of Victor Buotti

Kerlow has been kiting for seven years and loves the kiting scene in Madison. When he was first learning, he took lessons locally and was instantly hooked. This led him to spend a week in St. Croix two winters in a row, allowing him to take lessons and practice in warm, shallow water.  After these two winters and about 20 to 25 sessions on Lake Mendota, Kerlow finally felt confident enough to kite on his own. 

When you see a group of kiters on any of the local lakes, Kerlow is almost always with them.

He has also kited in Mexico, Aruba, Antigua, St. Croix, England, Panama and Canada but says the Madison community is unique and full of top-notch riders.

Kerlow getting big air with his kite. Photo courtesy of Eric Kerlow

“The riders in Madison are good and dedicated. It’s a hard place to kite and the people that ride here are very good,” he says. “There is a good density of high quality kiters here.  People always ask us if we’re a club….we’re not a club, we just all know where to go when the wind is in a certain direction and so we just show up.”

Kerlow and other Madison kite boarders are conscious of how much this sport has helped them during this period of COVID-19. And because they understand wind direction so well, they know how to enjoy each other's company safely on and off the water.

“[Kiting] has saved me during this lockdown period,” Kerlow says. “I think my mental state would be a wreck if I wasn’t able to get a few kiting days every few weeks. It’s always windy when we kite. We stay apart and perpendicular to the wind when we talk….on the beach we are conscious of where the wind is and how it is related to our position.  It helps with Covid.”

The Facebook group Madison Kiteboard is used to inform the group where everyone is meeting.  Kerlow and others find it freeing to know the group can meet safely to enjoy the sport they love. Kiters are there to ride but also to find comradery for the sport and to help one another out when needed.  Recently when a kite got stuck high in a tree, another kiter, who was also an experienced climber, ascended the tree to help set the kite free.  

Walking out beyond the ice on a chilly spring day. Photo courtesy of Victor Buotti

“What’s also amazing about kiting in Madison is the wind will be up, I can throw all the gear in my car, go over to a local spot, pump up and rig in 20 minutes, get out on the water and have an hour session, derig and get back and pick up my kids from school. To be able to do an extreme sport locally and then pick up your kids from school, it is unbelievable. It’s amazing,” Kerlow says.

Kerlow and other local kite surfers feel a deep connection to nature when they ride. It’s part of the beauty of the sport.

“When you first get the kite up and you are first riding, you can hear the water peeling off the board and it’s pretty amazing that you are harnessing these forces of nature with such a minimal amount of equipment,” he says.

While summer offers warmer water, kite boarders are not afraid to put on more gear and bear the chillier temperatures of spring and fall riding.

“Most of the windy days are in the spring and the fall and so you have to wear thermal gear, wet suits, to take advantage of it. In the summer, we have to kite on weather systems.The wind is only strong before storms...so [the wind] is oftentimes very fickle.”

  

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