I know better. I know what is most likely looking up at me from seventy feet below. All of the times that I’ve reeled in half of a fish just off this remote island, I know what happened to the other half. All of the times I’ve been spearing on these reefs, and I sure know why sometimes I’m scrambling back into the boat as fast as my limbs can perform the task. I know that downwinding to the next island is over fifteen impossible miles away. I know better than to get stuck in this situation…..
What started as an epic session (remote right-hand reef break, only Elie and I out, six to eight-foot glassy faces, seventeen knots of side-shore with a touch of offshore breeze, a thirteen and eleven meter 2019 Drifter kites), unexpectedly turned into a very unpleasant predicament. We were riding wave after wave and tacking back out beyond the takeoff zone to ride the ground swells in from nearly half a mile off shore. It was truly an ideal condition. Elie decided to head in to take some photographs, and as he tacked back towards shore I headed back out to sea for another one. This is the point where each of us had our own tragic challenge of the day in two entirely separate sections of the lineup. Just as I was getting near the drop-off and about to tack back towards shore on a swell, a line of slightly darker clouds that had been in the distance was now laying across the bay and the wind began to drop quickly. I immediately tacked back to shore but didn’t get very far before the wind totally dropped out and my kite fell into the water.
At first, I figured it was just a short lull and the wind would puff back up in a moment. It did not. Not only did the wind drop out, but the cloud line had caused what little wind was left to swing more offshore. So now I’m dragging in dark blue water, struggling to get my kite back in the air, and slowly being pulled more offshore. I struggled like this for nearly three-quarters of a mile and battled with the images of what was lurking around beneath me, while I tried to decide at which point I would let the kite go and paddle my 2019 Cabrinha 5’4” X:Breed the half mile back to shore. After about thirty minutes of this, a light puff of wind finally came that gave me just enough to get the kite back in the air and get up and riding for about thirty seconds. This got me into the reef and over the surf zone to the inside pass where the wind died again and the kite fell. I was still 400 yards offshore but I was inside the reef and I felt elated to be out of the deep water! Over the next twenty minutes, I managed to get the kite up a few more times and body dragged to shore making a crash landing on a rocky stretch and scrambling up the coral rocks amidst the shore break. I collapsed on the shore never feeling so good to have my feet on dry land! I started breaking down my gear for the long desolate rocky walk back to the Jeep when I saw Elie come down the shore towards me.
I had figured Elie made it pretty close to shore when the wind dropped out and that he was able to get ashore easily. I was wrong. Elie was just in the impact zone of the surf when the wind died, and his kite fell out of the sky. He spent the next thirty minutes fighting for breaths of air as the kite was swamped and he was getting pounded by waves. With the light air turning more offshore and the inside current rip pushing out to sea, his kite wasn’t being pushed out of the surf zone. He struggled to keep himself from getting tangled up in his lines while tumbling in the surf, and he wasn’t able to keep ahold of his board which drifted away. The same puff of wind that saved me luckily graced him as well and despite his lines being tangled, he managed to relaunch the kite and body drag across the inside reef pass to shore.
As we walked together along the shore, sharing our stories, we started discussing what we could have done differently to avoid what had happened. Also, we realized that in this particular instance neither one of us would have been able to help the other. So much for the buddy system right? We walked and talked about improvements to our safety plan, and we were thankful to be given the wake-up call in such a manner that didn’t result in a catastrophic outcome. In that respect, we were thankful for the experience and considered it a gift. The day wasn’t done with giving us gifts: as we walked along, Elie spotted something floating about 200 yards offshore and sure enough, it was his board! I paddled out on mine and recovered his new 2019 Cabrinha Ace twin tip with the new H2O pads. We were elated! All had ended well, and now we really knew better.
Based on this experience, we wanted to conceptualize a few important guidelines to follow when kiting in extremely remote locations. There is no reason why this guideline can’t apply to kiting in more populated locations, and certainly, any additional safety precautions taken will always lead to more favorable outcomes in an emergency, but these are more specific to kiting in the surf, remote and isolated places.
• Always have a kite buddy or at least someone capable on shore watching
This is pretty much a no brainer.
• Have an emergency plan in place before you even go out
Elie and I decided that in the future we will discuss the action plan for an emergency prior to launching the kites. This can include:
• Emergency phone numbers to people with boats and planes who can do remote rescues
• If no cell phone coverage has a SAT Phone handy
• Understand the particular hazards unique to a specific location and how to avoid them/deal with them
• Have a person that you check in with on a specified period of time. That way if you and your buddy get in trouble and miss the check-in time, someone will know something is wrong
In our particular case, there is a small marina on the other side of the island (about a 45-minute off-road drive. We should have both discussed and had accessible the phone numbers of someone in the marina with a boat who could come to perform a rescue if needed.
• Be aware of changing conditions in the weather and always choose the prudent action!
If Elie and I had been more closely monitoring the weather conditions, we would have seen the line of clouds approaching long before the wind dropped out. This would have allowed to choose the prudent action of heading for shore, landing our kites and sitting it out until we felt confident the wind was steady. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the euphoria when the waves are pumping, but when its just the two of you out, on a remote island with only off-road driving access to the spot, it’s way better to be safe than sorry.
• Consider how to kite the surf spot in the safest way, especially in offshore conditions
In our case, since the surf spot is already a good way offshore and the wind was side-off, we should have considered approaching the waves from the inside more. By heading way out to sea and then riding the swells back into the break zone, we put ourselves further offshore than we needed to be. This exposed us to more risk if there were to be an equipment malfunction or loss of wind, since we could be very far from shore. By approaching the break from the inside, and just going out as far as the peak, we would have mitigated the risk by keeping ourselves closer to shore.
• Always think of ways to try and increase the safety factor
Don’t get complacent. Just because something bad hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean that it is not going to happen in the future. Elie and I discussed how we would try to haul a kayak or small tin skiff to stash in the bushes at this particular spot, that way at least someone who got ashore could have some way of assisting the other who may be having troubles. We also spoke about training. Nothing will help you more in bad situation than being as trained as possible to handle it. Get as fit as you can, practice self rescues more than just the one time you did it when you learned to kite, and prepare yourself mentally for the actions you will take when the shit hits the fan.
Born in France and growing up in the Caribbean, I spent most of the past 25 years of my life on the ocean. I first sailed in the Bahamas in 2001 and discovered what I think are the most beautiful waters in the world. I built my boat and sailed around looking for what turned out to be a job on a private island next to one of the best kitesurfing spots anyone can dream of.