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Kiteboarding blows into Hood River

Posted on 14 August 2004 | 2:33 pm by SURGE Kiteboarding

Fun? You bet. Dangerous? You'd better believe it.

By TERRENCE PETTYThe Associated Press

HOOD RIVER - Suspended from billowy kites by long ropes, about a dozensun-bronzed adrenalin junkies are launching themselves as much as 40feet above the Columbia River, looping and spiraling in aerial dancesso anarchic that you half expect these kiteboarders to smash into oneanother in one spectacular disaster.

Amazingly, they don't.

They slap back down into the water on their high-tech boards and thenrace over the Columbia's whitecaps, getting ready for the wind to yankthem into the air once again.
"It's like water skiing behind a helicopter," said kiteboardinginstructor Mark Worth, a wiry 46-year-old wearing a white crashhelmet, shades and a wetsuit.

"The question is, how do you control the helicopter?"

Kiteboarders are propelled along the surface - and into the air - bycatching the wind in billowy ripstop kites whose area can reach thesize of a large room. The kite is attached to a control bar and to aharness worn by the kiteboarder.

Worth is standing on a long, narrow sandbar that's much like a penguincolony, populated by kiters with their boards and kites. Kiters of alllevels are mingling here nearly 200 miles upriver from where theColumbia empties into the Pacific Ocean: neophytes taking lessons,kiteboarding school grads going solo, and veterans who are able tocarve turns on the waves and in the sky with the greatest of ease.

Camaraderie permeates the warm July air. Worth and other veteranswatch out not just for the safety of their students, but of anyone whomight be heading for trouble, acknowledgment that this ranks among theworld's most hazardous sports.

The wind tears the kite out of a beginner's hands and the kite goesdancing across the water. Worth shakes his head in disapproval. Aloose kite, and the 90-foot lines it's dragging through the water, canbe a hazard to other kiters.

Another kiteboarder, 39-year-old Rebecca Lee, is trying to decidewhether to launch her board. She's worried the kite she brought mightbe too big for these gusty winds - dangerous because a big kite hasmore power.

"I don't know whether I should," said Lee. "It's windier now than when I came."
At least there's no "tea-bagging," a supreme humiliation that canoccur in unpredictable winds like these: A kiteboarder isinvoluntarily grabbed out of the water by a gust, thrown back down,plucked out of the water again and slammed once more. Kiters have been"tea-bagged" before over the course of a few hundred yards. It's notpretty.

Kiteboarding is fraught with potential perils. But to itspractitioners, it's nearly like a religion.
"It's one of the most addicting sports there is," said anotherinstructor on the sandbar, Rob Devine.

Kiteboarding began catching on among extreme-sport aficionados aboutthree years ago. Today there are about 325,000 kiteboarders around theworld, perhaps half of them in the United States, says Rick Iossi, adirector of the Florida Kitesurfing Association and a sort of one-manclearinghouse for information about the sport.

The industry is being powered by longtime windsurfers and wakeboarders(riders doing stunts on boards as they're being pulled along by apowerboat) who want a new challenge, and by young snowboarders lookingfor summer thrills, Iossi said. Even John Kerry, the Democraticpresidential nominee, is a windsurfer and kiteboarder.

Hood River for years has been considered one of the premier spots inAmerica for windsurfing because of the wind tunnel created by thetowering basalt cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge. Windsurfing isstill king in Hood River, if all of the shops selling windsurfingequipment, and the armada of windsurfers out on the river on windydays are any indication.

But kiteboarding is also becoming a big part of the let's-have-funlifestyle exuded by this recreation mecca of just over 6,000 people.

The Columbia is no longer blanketed just by windsurfers on windy days,but also by kiteboarders.

Out on the sandbar, students are getting lessons from instructors whowork for one of the half-dozen or so kiteboarding schools operatingfrom sheds near the river's edge. The students watch in awe as aveteran kiteboarder who resembles Kurt Cobain slices through theColumbia's waves on his board, begins a turn just in front of them,launches himself at least 20 feet in the air, and tops it off with acouple of fancy twists on his way back down.

Advice to beginners: take lessons. They could keep you alive.

"It's all about survival," said another instructor, Jason Roberts, atan 34-year-old with the body of a gymnast.

"You've got to stay calm, relax and have proper safety equipment."

Before kiteboarding students go out on the water, they are givenlessons on land about the gear and initial instruction in how tocontrol the kite. On the river, students learn how to launch, steer byusing the control bar, how to surf behind the kite, and later on, howto get airborne.
Beginners learn on kites smaller than those used by advancedkiteboarders, decreasing the risks of accident. Students get suchadvice as: make sure you have a clear area for launching and landingyour board into the water so you don't run into someone, and what todo if you lose control of the kite.

When something goes wrong, you are having a "kitemare."

A Web site called kitemares.com tells of some harrowing accidents. Onekiteboarder got thrown against a parked car, another against a truck,and yet another got dragged up a curb, across a lawn and into a bushnext to a house.

Iossi knows of 21 kiteboarding deaths around the world since 2000 -most of them caused by launches that went awry.

In Hood River, the launching area is the sandbar - far enough out inthe river to lessen the dangers of getting slammed against an objecton land.
But there are plenty of other dangers.

This year a woman suffered severe back injuries when a gust of windplucked her out of the Columbia and flung her back down.

The long lines connecting the kite to the control bar can also be ahazard. Kiteboarders have lost fingers that have gotten tangled up inthe ropes.

Rapidly evolving gear is lessening the hazards of the sport. Forexample, kiteboarders have quick-release devices that allow them tocompletely free themselves from their kites if they get into trouble,mitigating the risk of getting dragged. Another release system makesit possible to depower the kite without detaching yourself from it.

Some kiteboarders wear helmets, although there are plenty who arestill resisting.
The risky nature of kiteboarding is part of what makes it thrilling.
"You have to go through your fear barrier, and smile the whole time,"Roberts said.



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