From the Rainforest: Ups and Downs in Kiting
This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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By Dan Lewis
Kite sailing into Raft Cove, northern Vancouver Island. Dan Lewis photo.
In 1990 I circumnavigated Vancouver Island with the goal of mapping the remaining old-growth forests of the Island. That information was already available in satellite photos (cutting edge technology back then), but we wanted to ‘ground truth’ the data—actually visit these areas, see them for ourselves, and experience the smells, tastes and adventures that do not show up in satellite imagery.
To this end we were mapping ‘viewsheds’ from the water—trying to figure out exactly which hills and mountain ranges were visible from a kayak travelling along the coast. The tools used were a grease pencil on laminated 1:50,000 topographic maps. As we paddled, I would watch the landscape carefully and mark which features I could see.
That was the summer I also decided to try kite sailing. I’ve never done a lot of kite flying from shore, but that didn’t deter me. We all remember poor, pathetic Charlie Brown and his failed aeronautical attempts, but there aren’t any trees at sea, right? So how hard could it be?
A friend of mine was making really nice (but quite expensive) kites for kayakers. We decided to pick up a much cheaper version, made for kids. It was a parafoil kite, but one major difference between ours and the paddler’s version was the long streamers hanging off the bottom (possibly for stability, I never did figure that out). They did not perform well when wet.
Launching the kites was quite a feat. We soon learned not to bother if the winds were blowing less than 20 knots. And since doing anything that involves letting go of your paddle in winds over 20 knots is already fairly sketchy, a paddle leash was essential.
As soon as the kite was unfurled, the streamers would tumble off the kayak deck and into the saltwater. Next the kite was held overhead, letting the wind fill it, ready for take-off. It was often torn from my hands at this point, would fall in the water, tangle the lines, and become hopelessly soaked.
Eventually, on the good days, it would jump from my hands, flying up, up, up and away. I had attached the kite string to a ‘knuckle-buster’ fishing reel, which was mounted to a fishing rod handle. When the kite was high enough, I would lock the reel and toss the whole contraption inside my cockpit, sealing the spraydeck to trap it, at which point I sailed hands-free.
When the kites worked, they were amazing. I’ll never forget the day we paddled south from Cape Scott towards Raft Cove, at the north end of Vancouver Island. The kites looked beautiful, like multi-colored jewels against a clear, blue sky. The winds were from the northwest, a good 25 knots. The kite lines hummed with tension. The seas were from behind, and as each swell picked us up the kites would pull us down the face until we were up and surfing, just ripping along.
All this would have been much easier with a rudder, but of course I’m too stubborn to clutter up my nice boat with such a clunky accessory. As each wave picked me up, the kayak would begin to skid into a broach, turning broadside to the wave. Tilting the kayak towards the wave would increase my stability, and also carve a big arc, turning me straight down the wave, heading for the trough. If the boat began turning the other way, I simply reversed the tilt.
Meanwhile, I was trying to keep track of the landscape screaming past, making notes on the square of laminated map spread out on my spraydeck. We were travelling so fast that I could barely keep up with the mapping, and there were times when salt spray in my face made it hard to see.
Imagine my surprise to look up and see the beach at Raft Cove only a half mile away, with me bearing down on it. I began reeling the kite in furiously—it felt like I was reeling myself in towards shore like a character from the Keystone Cops. I barely got the kite down before hitting the beach, finally standing ashore with legs aquiver!
Alas, that was one of the better days of kiting. I became used to the sight of Pierre’s kite in the distance, his kayak a speck on the horizon, while I sat drifting among rocky reefs and crashing waves, muttering and cursing at my kite as I tried to untangle the sodden lines.
My kite sailing days came to an abrupt end off the west coast of Nootka Island. A strong westerly was howling, and we had chosen to head offshore, straight for the tip of the Hesquiat Peninsula. The winds ripped the kite from my hands, the line zinged out, I put the brake on the reel and stowed it away. The kite began doing huge loops in the sky—quite exciting really, like watching military aerobatic teams as a kid. Suddenly it dove, straight into the ocean. I paddled over and retrieved it, fumbling and cursing.
On the second launch, I realized why those reels are called knuckle busters. As the kite was torn from my hands, I could barely maintain my grip on the handle, and the spinning reel began battering my knuckles furiously, so hard that I dropped it into the sea.
Free at last, my kite did what it had always wanted to do—it died at sea, and laid itself to rest with a spectacular final bout of aerobatics.
I’ve never tried kite flying since. My conclusion is that a rudder is required, as well as a kite designed for kayak sailing. Since then I’ve stuck to surfing the wind waves, keeping John Dowd’s dictum in mind—paddles are for paddlers, and sails are for sailors!
© Dan Lewis and Bonny Glambeck operate Rainforest Kayak Adventures in Clayoquot Sound 1-877-422-WILD