Sailing the skies

Strong west winds in the Strait of Juan de Fuca lure kiteboarders to Whidbey Island. Boaters may curse small craft advisories the winds create, but kiteboarders live for such conditions. Some people love the speed. But others say the sport is all about jumping.

Kiteboarding combines wakeboarding with windsurfing, and is gaining popularity wherever wind meets water. The premise of kiteboarding, also called kitesurfing, is simple. Kiteboarders zoom across water attached to a flexible kite with lines and a harness. By using the kite and the wind, kiteboarders can launch themselves into the air.

Penn Cove, Double Bluff and Useless Bay are listed on several Web sites as prime kiteboarding locations. But many kiteboarders are devoted to Joseph Whidbey State Park.

Eric Schlemmer and Bill Day study weather forecasts; when conditions are right, they drive from Bellingham and spend hours sailing — and occasionally crashing.

“Any time we hear of west winds, we know there will be decent waves out here,” Day said late one Friday evening as he guided his kite down near picnic tables.

“There’s a delicious swell when the winds funnel through the Strait,” Schlemmer agreed as he lifted his gear over driftwood.

Day and Schlemmer ‘kite’ all year round but appreciate the Northwest’s long summer evenings when they can stay out while the light lingers.

Tom Dawson of Seattle spent a week on Whidbey Island at a consulting job. At lunch and after work he hurried to a beach to launch.

“It’s the closest I can ever get to flying,” he laughed.

Dawson converted from windsurfing to kiteboarding. He has different sizes of kites to use for different winds. Large kites are more stable in hard winds; smaller kites let Dawson kiteboard at slack tides when winds are not as robust. He had used a smaller kite at Joseph Whidbey while he took a lunch break during ebb tide.

“Where there’s water I can kite,” he said. While Dawson said wind conditions near shore at Joseph Whidbey could get “weird,” he loved zipping farther off shore where big waves rolled.

“I was getting up about 30 feet off the big ones,” he said as he rolled up his deflated kite.

Kiteboarding takes daring and some skill along with a good bit of gear. Lessons are necessary to manage timing, setting up the kites and connecting boarder to kite, harness and board correctly. It’s not an inexpensive hobby: A boarder can invets several thousand dollars in gear. But once kiteboarders are hooked on the sport, they can’t get enough, according to Day and Schlemmer.

“This is more fun than sky-diving,” Schlemmer said. “Even when I crash, I get up and get going again.”

“It’s fun watching Eric slap down,” Day laughed. “And it’s great being out on the water.”

The kiteboarders discussed gear, techniques and other kiteboarding locations around the coast as they stowed their gear. Dawson has kiteboarded all over the country and internationally but hopes to tackle Whidbey’s water soon.

“It was gusty there, but great fun,” he said looking out to sea as the sun set and water turned from cinnamon to slate.

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