In the mid-nineties, when Montague tried his first kiteboarding setup, the problem of “de-powering” was foremost in his mind. “When I got hold of it, it was, like, ‘We can’t use this in Maui,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘It’s twenty-five knots here—we’ll die.’ ” On a boat, it’s possible to let the wind out of a sail by tightening a line. Kites had no such ability; in fact, in a crash, they tended to fall directly into the power zone, with the strongest wind. “The only reason we all didn’t die in the beginning is because we were already watermen,” Montague said.
While working on their kite-powered catamaran, the Legaignoux brothers had nearly solved the de-powering problem. They could never quite perfect their approach, Montague says, in part because their prototyping process was so slow: they developed their kites by cutting full-scale models out of foam blocks. Montague had the advantage of his sail-design software. He began laying out designs on the computer and bringing them to life outside. “I was so crazed about it that I would be flying the kite in a field at night, in the dark, without looking at it, so that the kite was now an extension of my body,” he said. “Just like windsurfing, it was an immediate feeling.” Montague sewed webbings to the bottom of his kites and attached the lines in combination until he got the behavior he wanted. He brought a staple gun to the beach, so that he could change a kite’s shape with a few staccato snaps.
Montague’s kites had all the power of the old models, but only when you wanted them to. They were dynamically stable, like airplane wings, with a natural tendency to park high and soft, exerting comparatively little force until it was summoned. In a crash, they flapped harmlessly instead of gathering speed. Early kiteboarders had ended their days miles downwind from where they’d started, shuttling themselves back to their launch points by car; Montague’s new kites could go left, right, upwind, or downwind. “The day I stayed upwind in Ho’okipa,” he said, “That was the day the sport was real.”
What followed was a kind of Cambrian explosion—a cascade of small breakthroughs. “Every year was some new mind-blowing thing,” Chris Moore recalled, of the early two-thousands. As the equipment got better, students became more likely to stick around; their demand, in turn, drew more investment in equipment. “Suddenly, the sport became way safer,” Moore said.
A technical revolution can take root only if there’s a human infrastructure behind it. “I started teaching people how to teach,” Moore said. He trained thousands of kiteboarding instructors and developed and conducted instructor examinations. He learned that teachers of high-risk sports have huge liability exposure—a hang-gliding school, for example, might only obtain insurance after proving that it rigorously trained its teachers—and created the Professional Air Sports Association, which began certifying kiteboarding instructors so that the schools could get insured.
Kiteboarding began developing the social on-ramps—culture, community, distinctive rituals and vocabulary—that could turn it from a dangerous hobby into a sport. Today, more than a million and a half people participate. Kites litter beaches in Brazil, Egypt, and South Africa; in the Caribbean and in San Francisco Bay, they sometimes crowd to the point of colliding. As with horseback riding, standardization of the equipment and teaching allows newcomers to forget the improbability of what they are actually doing. A sense of inevitability descends. Of course we sit on the backs of two-thousand-pound animals and order them around; of course we strap ourselves to wakeboards and kites in fifteen-knot winds.
This summer, I rented a kite—a fourteen-metre Cabrinha model, the descendant of a descendant of a design by Don Montague—from Chris Moore’s school, which is now located in Turks and Caicos, and went to the beach. After fifty hours of practice, it was time for my first unsupervised kiteboarding session. I unzipped the oversized backpack and unfurled the fabric downwind; it flapped gently until I pumped it to life. I flicked the inflated leading edge and listened to the pitch; a high note signalled good pressure. Earlier, I’d watched a well-produced YouTube video with animated overlays that reminded me exactly how I should connect my lines. The control bar to which the lines attached was color-coded, and I used a mnemonic, “red rigs right,” to remember which side went where. I clasped my safety leash to the bar and then hooked it to my harness using the “chicken loop,” a device that would allow me to disable the kite in case I lost control.
It’s customary for a kiteboarder to launch with the help of a partner. As I walked sideways into the water, a stranger on the beach righted the kite. It waited, parked in neutral, while he held its leading edge; I gave the signal to launch, and the stranger let go. Most kiteboarders stick to the surface, where they can do everything that windsurfers can, but with far less wind and muscle; the default pose is to recline, shoulders back, hips forward to carve. But it’s easy to take flight. If the wind is good, a light pull on the control bar will start the bow-shaped kite on a turn toward its apex, into the full force of the wind. At the right moment, you turn the board hard upwind and pull the bar: a surge of power lifts you skyward. A beginner might hop a foot above the water, abs tight with effort, then lose the board and crash. But the best riders can rise dozens of feet in the air, then ride away after a soft landing.
I looked around. The waves were short and smooth, the water bath-warm and indigo; for more than a mile, it was no deeper than my waist. The bay seemed designed for kiteboarding. With a few swoops of the kite, I got myself up and moving. It felt entirely natural when I leaned back and cut upwind.