As often is the case, race boats and their colorful spinnakers were mere specks on the horizon from the vantage point from those watching from ashore the new Yacht Club at Puerto Rico's Palmas del Mar. But this year, one racing class was up close and personal.
Shoreside spectators stood transfixed while watching sailors in the first-ever kite-boarding class at the Puerto Rico Heineken International Regatta. Even if you didn't have a clue about the course, competition or closeness of point scores, watching kiters jump 60 feet in the air while spinning was definitely a winning sight.
Kite boarding is a sport that combines wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing, paragliding and even skateboarding into an amazing board riding experience. It's one of the fast growing wind sports and was officially recognized in 2008 by the International Sailing Federation – the first step to ultimately becoming an Olympic sport.
The Caribbean has become a hotbed for kite boarding, said Chris Boyle, who operates Cosmic Kites in Cabarete, Dominican Republic. "I would estimate that the number of kiters has increased at least 10 times in the last 10 years."
Boyle, who accompanied professional freestyle riders Alex Soto and Robinson Hilario from the Dominican Republic to the Puerto Rico regatta, added, "We're seeing more pro riders coming from the Caribbean. Examples are Andre Phillip from Antigua and current wave riding champion Jan Marcos Rivers from the Dominican Republic. We're also seeing more girls join the sport. And we're seeing more sailors come to our school to take kiting lessons. When I am in places like the British Virgin Islands, I see kite gear stowed on many a cruiser."
New kite boarding events have launched in the last few years. For example, the Aruba Hi-Winds, the largest amateur windsurfing competition in the Caribbean, has added racing and freestyle courses for kite boarders. The Dominican Republic hosted the first annual Cabarete Summer Festival last year, which included a five-day international kite boarding championship attended by over 30 riders.
In February, the first-ever BVI Kite Jam launched out of Necker Island with 32 amateur and 12 pro riders. The gathering was the brainchild of Sir Richard Branson and Kite Jam partner, Charlie Smith, who kite boarded together in South Africa and thought the BVI would be the perfect location to host an event.
This year marked the first time that kite boarding became a class at major Caribbean regattas such as the St. Croix Yacht Club Hospice Regatta and the Puerto Rico Heineken International Regatta.
Julie San Martin, St. Croix regatta director, said, "We were approached by Isabelle Picard, the wife of Bill Kraft, who teaches kite boarding here on St. Croix. Isabelle is an avid kite boarder and would like to try qualifying for the Olympics. We had 13 sign ups." Unfortunately, winds didn't meet the minimum 10 to 12 knots to launch the new class.
"We had a meeting both days at 9 a.m. for a go/no go decision – it was no go on both days," said San Martin. "If we had been able to race, it was going to be on a sausage and a triangle course, with the standard five minute start with flags. The point was to practice ISAF racing around the buoys." The regatta committee plans to offer a kite boarding class again at its 2011 event.
In Puerto Rico, 35 riders signed up. David Kerr, who ran the race committee for the dinghy and kite boarding classes, said, "The intentions were to do course racing Friday and Saturday and a free-style competition in front of the beach on Sunday." Winds proved fluky, but the committee was able to get off a couple of races.
"It opened up a whole new view to me as to the possibilities of kite boarding events here in the Caribbean," Kerr said. "Every boat has a sailor with a different outlook to sailing. For example, monohull sailors think differently from catamaran sailors, laser sailors versus Hobie cat sailors. Well, kite boarders have a different approach also. I'm going to try to learn from them a little more before next year so we can do a better job with them."
Cosmic Kites' Boyle hopes more regattas will consider adding a kite boarding class. "The return on investment is good. It doesn't cost nearly as much to run the kiting classes as the sailing classes. The entry fees may be lower too, but that just brings more participants to the events and opens the events up to a whole new category of corporate sponsorships. Kite boarding is also a really fun spectator sport."