A question a lot of people ask me when they’re thinking about taking up the sport Is “How Dangerous is Kitesurfing”.
It’s a fair question because let’s face it we’re out on the sea seemingly getting dragged around behind a large kite and doing crazy-looking aerial moves!
In 2016 Christiaan van Bergen a Dutch orthopaedic surgeon, and keen kitesurfer carried out a survey on the rate of injuries per 1000 hours of participation for various sports. His findings were that for kitesurfing it was about 7 injuries per 1000 hrs of participation. This compares with 36 for American football and even 19 for Soccer.
So on that basis it would seem not to be dangerous.
However, I believe this hides a lot of potentials for kitesurfing to be a lot more dangerous. And one of the main reasons it is less so is that a huge amount of work has been done by kiting organisations like the IKO and BKSA as well as the general kitesurfing community, to educate would-be newcomers to the sport that they MUST GET LESSONS from a suitably accredited kite school.
And nowadays you shouldn’t be able to hire kitesurfing gear from a kite school without a basic certificate from the IKO or equivalent body that you’ve reached an intermediate level. This means that it should be pretty difficult for a complete newcomer to hire kit and then go out completely unprepared and probably badly damage themselves or others.
So, if you’ve already had kitesurfing lessons and been certified to go out alone, you should be safe right?
Well yes maybe. But there are still a lot of things that can go wrong and it’s easy to forget the basic safety rules once we get out to the beach armed and ready to go.
I think that people who’ve been doing it for years can get blasé and think they’re invincible. I personally had a nasty accident a couple of months ago – completely my own fault – launching the wrong kite for the wind speed in my eagerness to get on the water. I got hoisted in the air and came down front first on hard sand – lesson learned the hard way and some nasty bruising, but extremely lucky to have not been more badly damaged.
And things can easily go wrong even when they’re not our own fault – but it’s knowing what to do when it happens that can make the difference between a drama and a catastrophe.
So let’s look at how to kitesurf safely and at least minimise the risks.
A big proportion of kitesurfing “incidents” are down to either failure of our kit or using the wrong kites for the conditions.
- By far the most common mistake is to launch the wrong sized kite for the wind conditions (guilty as charged), particularly in strong gusty winds. I often see people standing in the car park with a wind meter and setting up a kite-size based on this. But the fact is that the wind 25 metres above sea-level or a few hundred metres out will often be up to 10kts stronger than in the shelter of a car park.
- Far better to check what other people are using and take a view on it based on their size and level of ability. And if you don’t know any of the people already out there, ask a local. In fact, ask a local anyway.
- My mistake was thinking I could hold down an 8 metre kite when all my buddies were on 7’s or 6’s. Bad mistake!
- Another issue is using old kites that don’t have the same amount of de-power or wind-range of more modern kites.
- So the moral here is if you haven’t got the right kite for the wind – “better to walk away and live to kite another day”!
- Another thing is to make sure the kite is pumped up hard and not leaking. A floppy kite can cause all sorts of problems with control. It’s good to regularly pump it up and leave it for a while to make sure it’s holding air.
Know Your Safety System!!
- This is absolutely vital! although there’s been a lot of work in recent years to standardise Quick Release (QR) systems there are some differences in how different QR’s work. Most have a push-away collar just above the chicken-loop, but not all. One or two have a twist system. So if you borrow or rent someone else’s kite make sure you know how the QR works. And better still, fire it off in a safe place so that you remember when you really need it.
- What probably saved me from serious injury in my recent incident was that I was mustard at firing the QR and have practiced with that particular one numerous times. If I had been fumbling to release it I don’t like to think how bad it could’ve been!
- And know how to re-assemble it, and practice. Because if you have to release in deep water it could make the difference between a long swim and being up and riding again within seconds.
Releasing the safety leash is obviously a last resort as it separates you completely from the kite. But in the last resort it probably means you’re in potentially a lot of trouble – so check you know how the secondary release works too.
- A snapped line can send the kite into a continuous “death-loop” spinning out of control and powered-up. But it is almost completely avoidable if you check your lines each time you set-up. It’s dead basic – run your fingers along the lines as you straighten them out – all 4 (or 5) of them. And if there are any frays or weak looking sections, don’t go out with them.
- And check the power and safety line that runs down from the “V” too, including the bit that runs through the trim-cleat, as this is a section that does get worn more quickly. It’s not just a snap that can be a problem here – a worn trim line can slip and instantly power-up the kite.
- It’s really important when you’re setting up to make sure the bridle lines aren’t worn or tangled up. And also that any pulleys are free-moving and not damaged. A snapped bridle can have the same effect as a snapped line.
- It’s easy to overlook the board, but a snapped foot strap can be nasty, particularly mid-jump.
- It’s also important to check the straps are a snug fit but not too tight that you can’t release, especially if you alternate between wearing wetsuit boots and barefoot.
Carry Out a Safety Assessment
This is particularly important if you’re planning on going out at a beach you’re not familiar with. The main things you’re looking at here are:
- General lay-out of the beach – if it’s a curving bay, there may be a point where the wind is offshore for example. And is there a specific kiting zone?
- Any obstructions like rocks (hidden or exposed), breakwaters, groynes, trees, boats, mooring buoys.
- Other beach-users, jet-skis, power-boats, sunbathers, children. It’s bad enough if we hurt ourselves, but taking out a non-kiter is a big no-no!
- Launching/landing area. Check there’s enough clear beach, including downwind, to launch safely and without putting other beach users at risk.
- Wind direction – Offshore is generally considered bad, although there are places you’ll see kiters out in offshore winds. Quite often in these places there is a rescue service, but check whether you need to get a permit (such as in Tarifa).
- What’s downwind? This is where you’ll end up if you have to self-rescue or the wind drops, so check it out.
Weather and Water Conditions
- A good knowledge of the local weather is essential. There are some great apps such as XCWeather, Wind Guru, Windy that give really good hour by hour forecasts. But they aren’t all accurate for every location.
- For example, at my local beach I find that XCWeather gives a reasonably good idea of the long term wind forecast, say 3 days ahead. But when it gets down to the hour by hour it is often under-predicting the wind speed by up to 10 kts. Windy is better for the hour by hour prediction.
- So it’s really important to get a feel for the visible indicators – things like sand being blown across the beach (usually means it’s at least 20 kts). Don’t treat the forecast as gospel true.
- Have a Working Knowledge of local weather systems.
- Where I currently live, in the British Isles, and all down the North Western coast of Europe, our weather is dominated by Atlantic weather systems. This often means that the weather can change massively in a very short space of time. So we need to know the signs.
- Things like a sudden change in the clouds, tall dark cumulonimbus with rain under it usually means a squall. So if you’re out on the water and spot this you need to be prepared to get off the water and get your kite on the ground. And if you’re still on the beach, maybe wait till it passes.
- And in a lot of hotter places I’ve kited there’s a big change in the wind around late morning/ early afternoon, due to thermal conditions. So if you’re a beginner you need to not get caught out when it picks up.
- If you’re in a new place ASK THE LOCALS.
- Don’t underestimate the difficulty waves can cause you if you’re new to this or used to kiting on flat water. Be aware that often the wave height will increase as the tide comes in, due to a gradient in the beach at high water.
- And a big shore-break combined with directly onshore wind can be challenging even for experienced kiters
Etiquette and Right of Way (ROW)
There are basic rules of the water that everyone is supposed to adhere to (although don’t assume anything).
A lot of this is just down to common courtesy, and if you have a basic rule that you give everyone else plenty of space, this should cover most things. But you still need to be aware of the general rules, particularly when it’s crowded.
General ROW Rules:
- Power gives way to sail – this relates to small powered craft such as jet-skis and speed-boats, but is often over-ridden by the next rule.
- More maneuverable gives way to less maneuverable. So as a kite-boarder you should generally give way to most other craft on the water, including windsurfers, surfboards and dinghies, and definitely large boats.
- Starboard tack has right of way over port tack on a collision course. For us starboard tack means right hand and foot forward (unless we’re riding toe-side). This means that if you have your left foot forward i.e. on port tack and you’re heading towards another kiter or sailor on starboard tack you should bear away, slow down or take any other evasive action. But don’t ever assume that if you have ROW that the other person knows or will comply with this.
Special ROW Rules for Kiters:
- Kiter on the way out has right of way over kiter on the way in. This applies on the sea as well as on the beach. The main reason for this is that the kiter heading out is probably less maneuverable than the one heading in as they are heading into chop or waves. And the guy or girl heading into the water is less able to maneuver than the one already out on the water.
- If you’re overtaking a kiter travelling in the same direction, the guy or girl you’re overtaking generally has right of way. This is more in relation to kite position. So if you overtake upwind then you should put your kite high and give them plenty of space. If you decide to pass downwind you should again give them space but put your kite low.
- Downwind rider has right of way (unless you’re overtaking downwind).
- Downwind rider should put kite low (below 45 degrees). Upwind rider should put kite high (above 45 degrees)
- Port tack rider should put kite low and starboard tack rider puts kite high if heading towards each other.
- On waves, the rider nearest the lip of the wave has right of way.
Other Riding Precautions
- Always look all around you before you turn or jump. Bear in mind that when you turn you’ll need space downwind of you to move your kite and then bear back upwind.
- Before jumping assess where you’ll end up – usually way downwind – and check the coast is clear, and that you won’t end up on the beach or in too shallow water.
- Leave at least 3 line lengths between you and other kiters heading towards you.
- Same goes for other obstacles or water-users.
- Whilst they don’t necessarily have ROW, give extra space downwind to anyone riding toe-side. They can’t maneuver as easily.
- Keep away from learners, kite lessons or anyone entering the water.
- If the rider in front of you is near the beach or heading towards an obstacle – THINK AHEAD – give them space to turn and expect them to do it without warning.
- Know your limits – By all means push them but why go a mile out when you can stay within a few hundred metres of the shore and still have as much fun. Always consider how long it will take you to get to shore if you have to swim.
Personal Safety Equipment
- Helmet – you don’t see many kiters wearing helmets unfortunately. I guess we don’t think it’s cool. But as a learner it’s pretty important, and any kite school should supply them. If you’re more advanced then at least consider it before trying out any new tricks.
- Impact vest – same thing applies here.
- Eye-protection – Even in relatively cloudy conditions UV light isn’t filtered out. And as kitesurfers we tend to be looking up a lot, especially when we’re learning. Add to that the effect of reflected sunlight from the water and sunlight can cause real long-term damage to the eyes. So, particularly in Summer or in sunny climates I’d recommend getting high quality water-sports sunglasses.
- Sun-screen – Even in cloudy conditions the UV light, which isn’t filtered by clouds will have a damaging effect on exposed skin. This risk is increased by reflected light off water. And skin cancer is on the increase all over the globe. So a suitable waterproof sun-screen is wise all year round and is vital in sunny climates.
- Wetsuit/dry suit – It’s obvious whether you’ll need a wetsuit or dry-suit, but make sure it’s adequate for the water temperature. If something goes wrong in even slightly cold water the effects of hypothermia can take hold really quickly.
- Line-cutter. A lot of harnesses come equipped with a line cutter. if not, make sure you have one attached to your harness. If you end up in the water with a line wrapped around you, or someone else, it could save a life.
If It All Goes Wrong
- Breathe! – the worst thing you can do is panic. Try to relax and assess your options.
- Learn self-rescue – and practice it. If your kit fails out on the water you need to be able to safely pack down your lines and know how to use the kite as a flotation device.
- Your safety is more important than your kit – Be prepared to ditch your kit and swim to safety.
- Don’t be a hero! – trying to rescue someone else usually ends up with two of you in trouble, unless you have training and experience in it. Instead, assess what the problem is and let them know you’re getting help. Then head ashore and get help.
- Be insured – It’s really important to have at least basic third party insurance in case you hurt someone or damage their equipment. It’s cheap and available automatically with membership of kiting organisations such as the IKO or BKSA. And if you’re going on a kiting holiday, bear in mind that standard travel insurance doesn’t cover sports such as kitesurfing.
Okay, that was a pretty serious article! But most of it is common sense. This sport is all about freedom and pushing your skill levels on, but there’s a time and place for everything.
Nothing here is designed to put anyone off enjoying kitesurfing.
And the answer to the original question “How dangerous is kitesurfing?” is that it is as safe as many other sports – most of the time – but being sensible and reducing the controllable risks makes it safer for all of us.
Ride hard – and be safe!
I’d love to hear your views on this and whether I’ve missed anything obvious – please leave your comments below here.