Learning to Kite Surf (or making new friends and getting rescued)

Let me preface by saying this: I am not an extreme sports kind of gal. In fact, I’m not really sporty. While I love physical activity – yoga, hiking, running, dancing – I’ve never been any good at team sports or activities involving boards. The first time I went snowboarding I broke my wrist. When I tried to learn to surf, I gave up after a week of not being able to stand up.

But I love the idea of flying. I love the wind. I love standing at heights. Watching kite surfers out on the bay, tearing across the water before pirouetting in the air; now that appeals to me. As such, I’ve decided to learn to kite surf.

A Good Start

Walking to Kite Lab, a kite-boarding school and shop just in front of the Main Beach in Langebaan, I felt as though I had a balloon lodged in my chest. It wasn’t an ordinary balloon. This balloon was home to thousands of tiny frogs that were jumping around excitedly.

When I arrived at 8:45am, there was a couple sitting out front, looking tired, with large coffees in front of them. The woman was blonde and tanned and around my age. From a snippet of conversation I heard a German accent. The man was olive-skinned with close-cropped hair, wearing a tank top and board shorts, and looking like he was still more or less asleep.

I smiled as I passed them, and headed inside, but had an inkling that the woman would be my teacher. She was a wearing peach coloured Kite Lab t-shirt, and when I signed up for classes I was told my instructor would be “a really nice woman.” After going inside and speaking briefly with the owner, it turned out my suspicion was right.

Tanja, who is Austrian, not German, is absolutely lovely. She’s been kiting for about four years, and is down here on an extended working vacation with her boyfriend – the other instructor sitting at the table. Formerly social workers, she and Michael have been taking a break and are teaching kiting, enjoying life, and avoiding making long-term plans.

She asked me about myself – we had fifteen minutes to kill before my 9am lesson, and she had a piping hot coffee to drink – and I told her about my writing. It turns out that she also loves sewing and DIY, is very much into sustainable living. We talked about Montreal and Berlin and Hamburg and buying food from farms and…well, it looks like I have a new friend.

When it came time to get to the business of kiting, we headed down to the beach with a foil kite – a small land kite – so that I could get the hang of flying it before moving down into the water.

I hadn’t flown a kite since… I can’t actually remember having ever flown I kite. I’m sure I must have as a child, but as with many other things I wasn’t good at, if I did, I likely gave up pretty quickly.

Tanja is an excellent teacher. After spending some time flying the kite and learning how to control it we headed back to the shop to gear up. Ten minutes later, fully decked out in wetsuit, harness, helmet and vest, we headed back down to the beach to go through the safety features and blow up the kite.

After launching, we entered the freezing cold water where we practiced body dragging upwind, without the board. What that means is that I was practicing using the kite to move me in a zigzag pattern against the wind. I sort of got the hang of it, and although I had to relaunch the kite a dozen or more times, Tanja said that I had a good feel for flying the kite. I felt pretty good.

Unfortunately, one of my unsuccessful attempts smashed the kite hard against the water. It deflated. Out in the deep water, with no way to swim back, we had to be rescued. And as there were only about fifteen minutes left of the lesson, we went back up to the shop. I was tired, but in a good way. And I hadn’t totally sucked! I was feeling excited for my next lesson: I would get to try out the board.

Delays and Windless Days

I had my next lesson booked for the following afternoon. Unfortunately, the wind picked up too late, and I couldn’t make it to pick up the kids in time if I did my lesson. I booked for the next day, but cancelled after the kids kept me up all night. The following day I got a phone call saying that my instructor was sick. Then there was no wind.

On the weekend I stopped by the shop and chatted with Tanja, I was keen to have my second lesson before I forgot everything, so I booked in for the Wednesday. The report looked good. We would hope it stayed that way. As I left, she ran after me and asked if I could teach her yoga. Thrilled to have someone to practice with me, we decided that she would come over in the morning before my lesson.

After a wonderful practice, a cup of tea, and a chat, we started getting ready to head to the beach. Then Tanja’s phone rang. It was the shop. They had changed the plan for the afternoon – she would be teaching a more advanced student and I would get Lian, another teacher.

My heart sank. I didn’t want to be petulant, but I had been looking forward to going out with her again. Not one to dwell on things I can’t change, I hoped for the best. Maybe my teacher would be even better!

When I arrived at the shop I met Lian, a young surfer-looking guy with tanned skin and curly blonde hair. We grabbed our gear and headed down to the beach, where about twenty other kites were already setting up. There had been no wind for a few days, so everyone who wanted to learn was out.

Unfortunately, the lesson didn’t get off to a great start. Lian had forgotten his harness at the shop, so had to run back to get it. Then, rather than explaining things to me, Lian just did them. We didn’t go through the safety features of the kite again, and I felt uncertain about what I was doing. After body-dragging once, he brought the board into the water and showed me how to put it on. With brief explanations about how to stand up, he handed me the bar and told me to give it a try.

I was determined, but also felt out of my depth. I attempted to keep the kite in the air and get up on the board, but kept on dropping the kite or losing the board. I bailed dozens of times, almost lost the kite, got dragged out to sea by the current and had to be rescued…again. The water was freezing – even colder than the first time – so I spent the whole time shivering and was tiring quickly from the strong current.

After almost standing a few times, and crashing my kite again, I got out of the water to relaunch. When I asked Lian what time it was, I was shocked to hear that I still had another hour left of my lesson. I felt defeated and wanted to stop: but I had paid for my lesson, so would see it through regardless.

Finally, about ten minutes before the end, I managed to stand. I only got up for about three metres, but I did stand! I crashed spectacularly after that, but didn’t care. I was done and once the kite fell, didn’t even attempt to get it up again. I was spent. I just wanted to go home.

Back at the shop, Tanja asked how the lesson had gone. She had seen me stand, and assured me that most people only manage to stand for about 3-5 metres on their first day. That made me feel a little better, but I still would have preferred having her teach me. I knew that I wanted to keep trying, but I didn’t want just any teacher. I wanted someone who understood that some people need a bit of extra time. I wanted someone who would show me the same thing over and over. During my lesson with Lian, I had felt the same way I did during swimming lessons at primary school. I was weaker than everyone else but expected to keep up. I was struggling, and needed to figure this out in my own time. And I knew from talking with Tanja that learning kiting had been a long process for her too.

I was doubly bummed because I knew that Tanja and Michael had quit teaching for Kite Lab. They would finish that week. As there wouldn’t be any wind for the next few days, it didn’t look like I would have another chance to go out with Tanja.

But as they say, good things come to those who wait. I kept on running into Tanja and Michael over the next days. Walking along the beach to Pearly’s, a beachside restaurant and my usual work spot, I saw someone waving to me. It was Tanja, who invited me to sit with her and her friends. Heading home later that afternoon, I bumped into her again on the beach. She was getting ready to go out, and we watched Michael out on the water, talking about the Red Bull Big Air kite surfing contest they would drive to Cape Town to watch on the weekend.

When she asked if I had signed up for more kiting lessons, and admitted that I wasn’t happy with my lesson with Lian. I told her how he just did things for me, and she agreed that if I am serious about learning, then I need to do things for myself.

“But I can you out,” she offered.

“Are you sure?”

“I love teaching. No problem.”

I grinned, and then remembered the rules. “But I thought you couldn’t do private lessons on the beach?”

She shrugged her shoulders and made a face.

“Then we’ll go to Shark Bay.”

So yeah: I have a new friend and a kite boarding teacher. I’ll teach her yoga, and she’ll teach me to kite surf. I can’t think of a better deal or way to spend my time.

I invited Tanja and Michael over for a braai (barbecue) on Thursday night – when Josh happened to be home a few days early from his sailing trip. After lots of wine, cider, hide-and-seek, great food and enjoyable chat, we definitely have some new friends. Michael even offered to teach Josh, but warned him that I’ll be better than him. So fingers crossed we’ll have a windy day soon. Because despite all of the bailing and shivering and being dragged out to sea, I actually can’t wait to have another try.

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