Nev Judd: Online and out there

Gone with the wind

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A muscular six-foot-three and weighing well over 200 pounds in his wetsuit, Stefan Benko is not easily swept off his feet. That is unless he’s afloat on a carbon-fibre board and attached at the waist by a harness and 100 feet of nylon lines to a polyester kite.

Just add wind and waves for lift-off!

“It’s just me and the elements,” says Stefan. “The beauty of being on the water is a fantastic feeling, especially here on the Sunshine Coast. I have been out in 35-40 knots, incredible winds, swells so big you get in a lower spot, you don’t see land, you’re in a bowl, and then on top you take off because the wave propels you up.”

Tacking up and down the coastline on a stormy day, kiteboarders can generate speeds in excess of 40 kilometres an hour, leaping 30 to 40 feet above the waves. Not surprisingly, there’s a learning curve to be navigated.

Attention to detail and painstaking preparation are essential for a safe and enjoyable kiteboarding experience, says Stefan Benko, pictured both in his element and prior to departure.

A south-southeast wind is gusting 15 knots on the sunny day we meet at Davis Bay. Stefan is part of a close-knit but welcoming community of kiteboarders who can often be spotted on windy days, plying the ocean waves from Langdale to West Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, northwest of Vancouver, Canada.

Many are self-employed like Stefan, connected to each other by the messaging service, WhatsApp, and highly motivated to hit the beach when conditions are right: Davis Bay in a south-southeasterly; Bonniebrook or Wakefield in a north-northwesterly; Shoal Channel between Langdale and Granthams Landing when summer thermals are blowing; or off the mouth of Roberts Creek when a southerly wind blows over the pier.

“We are all connected to weather apps and weather change usually means wind,” says Stefan. “Sometimes though unexpectedly the wind just pops up in the morning. You have two hours and then it dies. If the wind dies, the kite doesn’t fly and I have to swim back. It can be a long swim!”

A fickle wind is just one of several potential hazards of which kiteboarders must be aware. Stefan’s preparations begin in his van where he sorts through equipment based on conditions. A harness, bar and board, boots, wetsuit, impact vest, lifejacket and a helmet if it’s particularly rough are foremost on his mental checklist.

Then there’s the choice of kite. Like boards, kites vary in material and size based on your weight, level of discipline and wind speed. Strong winds mean smaller kites – about seven square metres. Lighter winds mean bigger kites with more surface area to generate better pull.

Today, Stefan is excited to use his new, 12-square-metre foil kite, which unlike inflatable kites, generates more power and operates well in lighter winds. “It’s the Rolls Royce of kites,” he tells me as we head down to the beach. “It just wants to go up, up, up. I love it!”

At the water’s edge and now in his wetsuit and harness, Stefan unpacks his gear – all of which weighs little more than a few pounds. Connected in a bridle, the nylon lines look like a bird’s nest at first. Stefan painstakingly makes sure that lines are straight and not crossed.

Rocks and barnacles are never too far from the sand of Davis Bay and a sudden gust of wind could potentially drag and damage the kite or cross the lines. That could spell calamity if equipment malfunctions half a mile offshore. Wind can also up-end a kiteboarder before they’ve even made it into the ocean.

Stefan recalls the first time he saw kiteboarding. “It was 1997 and I was in Maui, Ho’okipa Beach, and windsurfing was at its height. On the beach is this guy. He has a surfboard in one hand and two handles and a kite in the air. He is being dragged down the beach by the wind, there was so much force.”

Stefan rushed to assist. “I held him, we walked to the edge of the water and he put his feet in the suit-board straps and off he goes. Soon he’s flying, jumping, up and down. And I go, ‘what the heck is that?’”

Stefan had helped Marcus ‘Flash’ Austin, a pioneer of the sport, later to become its world champion for many years. “I used to windsurf, snowboard, wakeboard, anything to do with boards. When I saw kiteboarding, I thought ‘this is the sport, I want to get into.’ I used to paraglide. It’s the same idea of flying and hanging off the strings and controlling the wind and the kite and being able to lift. It was a perfect combination for me to get into it.”

With his lines straight and his final check over, Stefan is almost ready to launch. He’s keen to emphasize to anyone considering the sport, take lessons. Kiteboarders the world over always help each other, he says, but starting off with proper instruction is essential. (Several schools run out of Squamish.)  

“There are so many things that can go wrong in a split second,” he says. “A sudden gust can shatter your confidence; it can rip the kite out of your hands or you’re being dragged by the kite, out of control, face first, hurting yourself, or someone else. Learn how to fly a kite and get the sense of balance, counter-balance, the pull and learn what not to do with a kite. If it flies out of control, there’s no way back.”

Mastering the art though can reap rich rewards and not just speed and big air. “A few years ago, here I was kiteboarding feet away from a pod of orcas. Last Fall, I was in the mouth of Wilson Creek and a salmon jumps and hits me in the thigh. Really!”

“Are there any conditions you’d refuse to go out in?” I ask. After a brief pause, Stefan answers: “No wind.” We laugh and with that, he edges into the waves, the slack in the nylon lines soon stiffening as the kite extends overhead.

Seconds later, he’s skimming the whitecaps heading west, before tacking into the wind and returning towards the mouth of Chapman Creek. Reclining at a 45-degree angle, edging into the waves and gaining speed, Stefan finally takes flight, and is suspended in mid-air. Seven seconds later, he descends.

I’m almost certain he’s smiling.

Written by nevjudd

February 22, 2022 at 7:41 pm

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