Riding the Wind

Gliding along glassy smooth water, kite in hand and a board strapped securely to both feet, the ocean is a playground. Combining aspects of seemingly disparate sports like wakeboarding and paragliding, kiteboarding is a liberating way to experience raw nature. By harnessing powerful wind, riders are propelled over limitless waterscapes—it turns out Long Island is home to some world-class kiteboarding.

Tucked into a warehouse on a canal in Amityville sits NY Kite Center. Only large, faded-blue double doors mark the side entrance, though inside it’s arguably the biggest kiteboarding school and shop in the Northeast. At least according to owner and kiteboarder John Pereira it is. “From a school perspective, we have six Jet Skis and a boat and process a few hundred students a year…we’re like the hub.” Pereira is a Connecticut transplant who got into the sport after flying stunt kites on the beaches of Fairfield in the early 2000s. He started the company here around 2007 for one simple reason: “The location is prime, very close to millions of people in the city, and the Great South Bay is really ideal for learning because it’s shallow, safe and protected. [It] ranks up there as one of the top places in the world for the terrain, in terms of safety.”

Continue further east and find yet another ideal proving ground on Napeague Harbor in East Hampton. “It’s one of the safest places to teach,” said Bosco Diaz, co-owner of Skywalk Kiteboarding, which gives lessons on the harbor. “And most importantly, aside from the fact that it’s almost a lagoon, it’s very shallow and the wind is constant.”

A smooth breeze rolls from ocean to bay over a narrow, 600-yard land strip and the bay has minimal small-boat traffic cluttering its waters.

Both areas offer the same ideal characteristics: Water shallow enough to stand in, few waves, no reefs or beachgoers to worry about and they are surrounded almost entirely by land so there’s no fear of blowing offshore. This also means that wind from any direction is useable—for a sport that relies on a kite for lift, wind is a major factor.

That wind power is addicting, offering a challenge to tame the element. Pereira was seduced into kiteboarding by “the power of the kite because you’re in touch with nature, it’s just this raw thing that’s very cool.” Diaz has been a fixture on the local scene since the early 2000s. The admitted adrenaline junky got hooked when a kiteboarder buzzed him back then. “A guy flew right by me and I was like ‘Let’s go!’”

“I would say a good 80 percent is kite flying,” said Pereira. “Once you have the kite skills really down, then riding on the board is easier.” The first lessons take place on land where students use a smaller trainer kite with just the bar (no harness), maneuvering the kite by pulling the bar like a bike handle. Students get comfortable by feeling the strain and ease of the kite lines as it passes through different “wind windows” (marked off like the positions of a clock, 3 and 9 at the horizon, 12 at the top).

It can be tricky and takes some practice. “The kite is the hardest since it is finicky,” said fashion designer and newbie kiteboarder Nicole Miller, who learned the ropes on Napeague Harbor. “The board seems to be the easier part of the equation.” Miller picked the sport up three years ago through local rider Linda Argila and her Dream Extreme kiteboarding clinic—a fundraiser benefitting domestic violence victims (details on p. 176). Miller, too, was pulled in by the power of the wind and the challenges of controlling the unruly. “You are always looking towards your next milestone,” she said.

The next step after the trainer kite is body dragging, which means getting in the water with a regular kite and harness and letting them pull you through the water. “It was a lot of baby steps for me,” said Argila about learning. “I was afraid to get up on the board!”

On average, it takes about 10 hours of lessons before someone is riding. Once the body drag is mastered, it’s time to get up and go. It may be shaky—it probably won’t be pretty—but once kite and board harmonize, it’s pure exhilaration. “Once I got up I never looked back,” said Argila. “I kept moving forward, I was screaming and laughing out loud, it was such an empowering moment.” The Babylon native makes the trip to Amityville from her Manhattan home practically every weekend. “I’m seriously addicted, I found freedom and happiness in this sport, and it’s something I want to do every day.”

As with any sport patience is important—there’s a clear learning curve for something so calculating. It’s a gear intensive sport that can be expensive to master, in both time and money. Buying enough lessons and gear to become proficient can cost $3,500. But despite this high initial cost, kiteboarding offers something other sports (like wakeboarding) don’t: Independence. “Once I was able to go on my own, I was like ‘This is great!’” said Diaz when he untethered from the restrictions of needing a boat to pull him.

“There’s nothing like looking over your front shoulder and seeing you can go wherever the hell you want.” Kiteboarding offers freedom and the challenge to ride anywhere—upwind, downwind, carving back and forth (“mowing the lawn” in the lingo) or reaching 20 feet up and pulling a double back roll. For kiteboarding, wind is the only necessity.

And the Island’s best wind happens in the fall. Diaz explained the weather mechanics…somewhat. After a few minutes talking about the jet stream, low pressure meeting Atlantic high pressure systems and changing seasons, he paused to gather his thoughts and quickly said, “It creates more wind is all you need to know, you can go on a diatribe for like an hour on the weather.” In the summer, when those interested in warmer water and weather try the sport, there are thermals, or sea breezes. “When Long Island heats up during the day the air rises and it draws air from the ocean onshore… It’s kinda almost like a machine,” said Pereira. As long as there’s smooth, consistent, ocean wind that’s between 12-35mph, riding should be a breeze.

For those starting out, there’s no better place than Long Island’s protected waters for catching a safe ride on rushing ocean air. Beyond our shores, there’s plenty of space to enjoy the burgeoning sport at any pace—whether flying high and catching air on the Great South Bay, riding the surf, or just taking it easy “mowing the lawn.” Kiteboarding is ready to take off.

Navigate the Winds
The calm, protected waters of the Great South Bay and Napeague aren’t the only options around. Town beaches usually are kite-able, especially after the crowds and lifeguards head home. But kiting at state parks, like Jones Beach and Robert Moses, is prohibited.

Long Beach: Kiteboarding after six during the summer for intermediate and advanced riders.

Mecox Bay: A protected bay with some rougher conditions for beginners.

North Shore: The Sound offers riding with some challenging chop when winds blow from the north. Expect beginner to intermediate terrain off of Bayville’s Ransom beach, East Setauket’s West Meadow and Crab Meadow in Northport.

South Shore: Montauk’s beaches and Babylon’s Gilgo beach are surfing meccas with more difficult waves and few restrictions, except to stay downwind of surfers.

Gear up for a Windy Day
NY Kite Center owner Jon Pereira gives his recommendations for essential beginner’s equipment.

2015 Cabrinha Switchblade
To tackle the Island’s wind conditions, pack a 12m kite. The Switchblade is a great utility kite that can be used in a wide range of wind, from 15-25mph depending on skill and weight. $1550; cabrinhakites.com

2014 Best Redline Bar V4
Stay in control with a light, ergonomic bar that reduces friction and depowers the kite quickly. This one is simple, durable and customizable—perfect for beginners. $360; bestkiteboarding.com

NP Bomb Hybrid Waist Harness
Comfort is key when choosing harnesses: They provide lower body support and help distribute the pull of the kite. The foam inner lining on the Bomb keeps things comfortably snug without restricting movement. $150; npsurf.com

2014 Cabrinha Spectrum
Don’t let looks fool you, kiteboards differ from wakeboards. They are generally lighter and more flexible with a flatter bottom and different fin positions. The Spectrum is a progression model, meaning it will keep up as riding skills develop. $500; cabrinhakites.com