Adapted kitesurfing – a possible breakthrough?

German version: Kitesurfen im Rollstuhl – der Durchbruch naht

It’s hard to believe that more than 15 years have passed since the first wheelchair users hit the oceans with kites. Bold as I am, I add myself to this group of pioneers who initiated that movement. This means that I had the pleasure to experience the evolution of the sport first hand. Call it as you like – handikite, sitkite, parakite or adapted kitesurfing – the incubation period of seated kitesurfing seems to be somewhere around 15 years because only today kitesurfing as adapted sport starts to gain recognition.

Until recently one could count the amount of seated kitesurfers with one hand. And even though there were attempts to push it, it wouldn’t really click at the end of the day. From my point of view there are various reasons for this, so let’s take a closer look …

Extreme sport kitesurfing

Until today kitesurfing is still seen as an extreme sport. About a decade ago this was still true to a certain degree. Especially concerning safety, the kite gear back then was not well developed. One could not avoid hearing horror stories about cut off appendages and deadly accidents.

To be completely honest, I used to see it that way as well. Something that Markus Pfisterer, pioneer of the sport and  friend of mine, made me painfully aware of. Long time ago, when he asked me about adapted kitesurfing, I had nothing else to do than to turn him down. He should better let it be for the time being – way to dangerous. In my defence: Without the backup of qualified and motivated people (as I had them by my side), uncoordinated kitesurf-attempts entail potentially high risks – especially when seated. Luckily Markus did not let me stop him. Hindsight is a gift.

Truth being told, when handled responsibly, kitesurfing is not a particularly dangerous sport. In the case of kitesurfing being responsible starts with taking lessons with well trained kitesurf instructors and respecting the basic rules of the sport.

Anyhow, with its fame as extreme sport, it’s not really surprising that there hasn’t been a run on adapted kitesurfing yet. Even though there will always be the human factor, the risks as well as the difficulty of kitesurfing have decreased dramatically – thanks to constant development of the gear. Hence the door to kitesurfing for us seated ones has opened yet a little more.

Huge effort – little opportunities 

When other wheelchair users learn about my hobby, there is a wide range of possible reactions –  as usual those vary from exaggerated admiration to a certain kind of ignorance. One reaction I get a lot, can be best summarized like this:

Wow, sounds great! Can I try your ‚Skyte‘ one day? Sunday afternoon would work well for me.

„No, you can’t“ … I usually stop myself from saying and explain why kitesurfing is no sportive one night stand. Many sports can be tried on the go without any further preparation. You won’t master it all the way but you’d definitely get a basic idea of what it’s all about and if you like it. In kitesurfing you have to invest way more time and energy until you can try riding on the board in the first place, not to mention until you can ride autonomously.

Before the very first attempts with the board, it is necessary to train the handling of the kite for a couple of hours. This is very important as the kite basically is both motor and steering wheel.
Afterwards it’s time for bodydragging. To get a feeling of the real power of a kite, you – together with an instructor – let yourself be pulled through the water by a kite without a board. Pretty much like in a western flick – just exchange the carriage with a kite and the dirt road with the sea.
As soon as you have accomplished that, it’s time to get on board: the first starts; the first couple of meters of riding; more starts; some more meters; and in between some mouthfuls of water.
Finally to be able to ride autonomously it is essential to learn to ride upwind – you basically want to end your session where you’ve started it before.

It took me nearly 3 years of practice until I could finally go upwind and ride autonomously. The difficulty as wheelchair user: Until your able to ride independently, you need the company of a boat. The famous walk of shame unfortunately is just an option for the walking folk, when they have been spit out somewhere downwind. This is why we need a boat to get back up to the starting point without any further hassle. Also the knowledge to have someone by your side in case of emergency, definitely makes the experience less stressing and therefore more enjoyable.

This makes schools for adapted kitesurfing with special trained instructors vital for our sport. Until recently those schools sadly were a scarce commodity. Fortunately this started to change the last couple of years. Like precious little flowers, one after the other kiteboarding school starts to blossom with adapted kitesurfing offers.

Gear

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Even today the gear-question is still a  deal breaker. Not too many years ago kite gear for us seated ones literally did not exist, which is why most of the riders still use their own customized gear.  Also the opinions about that issue haven’t stopped to differ quite a bit. You can’t imagine the heated discussions there are amongst active riders. As if it were religion … well, maybe it is. 

But something did happen. Currently it is possible to buy adapted kite gear of the rack … more or less. It still is a major investment and modifications will probably be necessary. Also the search for second hand gear usually does not prove very productive, as this sport is still too young and uncommon. As wheelchair user one would have to invest at least 5000€ in gear to get going. Definitely a huge barrier.

Lack of information

The knowledge of kitesurfing as adapted sport is yet not widely spread. In general not many kiteboarders know that it’s possible practise kitesurfing in a seated position. I usually notice that, due to the surprised looks other kiteboarders give me whenever I go for a ride. Also there is rarely a session, in wich I’m not approached by curious people. Even though I am happy about that (at least mostly), it still shows how unknown adapted kitesurfing really is.

Generally speaking the information about adapted kitesurfing spreads via social media or word of mouth. In classical media such television or print media, sadly enough it is on rare occasions that one can find a mention or article on this subject. Let’s hope that future will change that.

Knowledge starts to grow

So these are the reasons which, from my point of view, have slowed down the evolution of kiteboarding as an adapted sport. Furthermore I’m pleased to see the activity and the knowledge of this sport is significantly growing on a global scale.

This is something we mainly owe to some adapted riders themselves, who tirelessly work on making this sport better known and more accessible. At this point I would like to specifically emphasize Christophe Martin (France), Markus Pfisterer (Switzerland) as well as Thierry Schmitter (Netherlands), who – each one in his own way – contributed a great amount to the evolution of adapted kiteboarding. New the group of pioneers but not less active is the young Dutch Willem Hooft.

But let’s not forget about the second pillar of the movement – the kiteboarding schools who have the guts to offer adapted kitesurfing. It is these schools that – thanks to infrastructure (boat, accessibility, adapted kiteboarding gear etc.) and commitment – manage to reduce the difficulty and time of the learning process for us wheelchair users. Here I would like to highlight the following schools and initiatives:

    • Nieblumer Wassersport Schule  – the mother of adapted kiteboarding schools on the German island of Föhr
    • Surf Club Keros – accessible Caribbean feeling on the Greek island of Limnos
    • Handikite DFC – is currently seeking to develop adapted kiteboarding in France
    • Altogarda – KITE ASD – the perfect destination on Lake Garda (Italy)
    • Sail United e.V. – yet another kiteboarding school in the north of Germany offering adaptive water sports

If I’m not mistaken, I should have mentioned the most important players of this movement. It still might have happened that I forgot about someone – in this case, I’d like to apologize in advance. Also I’d ask you, dear readers, to comment a potential flaw so that I can look into it and correct my error if necessary.

I am a 100% convinced that the time for the breakthrough of adapted kiteboarding has come. This year (2018) got a ball rolling that won’t be easy to stop. I hope, future will prove me right.

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Further information:

Riders (with online presence):
Thierry Schmitter: www.sitkite.com
Willem Hooft – Facebook: Willem Hooft – para Kitesurfing

Schools & Asociations:
Nieblumer Wassersport Schule: nws-foehr.de
Surf Club Keros (Keros for all): surfclubkeros.com
Handikite DFC – Facebook (Französisch): Handikite DFC
Altogarda KITE ASD – Facebook: Altogarda – KITE ASD
Sail United e.V. – http://sail-united.eu/

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