Martin Kirk of the HKA just sent along this interesting article printed in
the "ALOHA PRESS" six years ago. It provides a slightly different slant on
the genesis of kitesurfing than is popularly held. It is worth a read, makes
me feel like I am in Maui breaking new ground with Manu and Laird back in
the early days ...
Exploring the ultimate freedom of defying gravity - the desire to fly like a
bird is an age-old dream of human kind. Add our obsessive fascination with
the ocean and imagine the feeling of flying a kite in the vast blue space of
sea and skies. Something so rad and yet so simple that people didn't even
start to dream about - until now.
Just another sunny afternoon in Hawaii. The trade winds whip up the blue
ocean, luring zillions of windsurfers in the waves off Maui's North shore.
Suddenly a red dot appears flying in the picture-perfect azure sky, grabbing
everybody's attention along the shore. Even the traffic on Hana Highway
slows down, as drivers pop their heads out of their car windows, trying to
identify the flying object on the horizon. Beachgoers gather at the shore
line, squint their eyes in the bright sunshine, wondering aloud if this
couid be a flying saucer or maybe a giant bird.
Approaching with fast speed, the flying phenomena turns out to be a kite,
soaring 15 meters up in the skies. Like a gigantic eagle, it pulls a surfer,
footstrapped to a small board over the white-capped surface of the sea.
Mingling with the surprised windsurfers (who can't decide whether to yell at
him or cheer him on) the kite propelled surfer gracefully rides some 3-foot
waves before carving a powerful jibe in front of the speechiess beach crowd.
Heading out in the open ocean again, he jumps over the incoming set and is -
as suddenly as he came - gone with the wind, leaving the spectators in awe
Taking wind-surfing literally to new heights, Fly-Surfer Emmanuel "Manu"
Bertin just gave another performance of fly-surfing. The 33-year old
Frenchman along with legendary Waterman Laird Hamilton developed this new
wind sport - uniting their love for the ocean with the fascination of flying
"It's a totally new sensation", describes ex-windsurf pro Bertin, "the sky
as the third dimension becomes involved and the absence of weight gives you
a whole different feeling of freedom out there."
Worldwide, kites were already used to pull beach carts, water skis and even
snow boards. But in 1995, when Laird and Manu got serious to pursue their
idea of kite-surfing - as they called it in the beginning - there were no
kites in sight that wouid work in the ocean.
"We first experimented with six original power kites that I brought back
from the French manufacturer ITV - a paraglider company that holds the speed
sailing record. We flew them in Lairds backyard and even strapped ourselves
to an old truck, so the kites wouldn't take off with us," recalls Bertin,
whose nickname Manu means 'bird' in the Hawaiian language. After two months
of learning how to handle the power kites on land, the guys hit the water
and -unintentionally- stirred up some commotion.
"The first time we went out with a couple of guys on jetskis, a boat and
Laird's tow-in surfboard", Manu remembers, chuckling,"lt was a Kona wind day
and we flew the kite about 50 meters up in the sky. Suddenly all hell broke
loose at the beach -firefighters, lifeguards and police officers gathered on
shore, jumping up and down the beach. Turned out that we were in the
approaching corridor of Kahului Airport and the incoming planes were kind of
irritated by our kite. They almost arrested us !"
The legend of Icarus already taught that flying too high can be treacherous.
However, the power kites did not work in the ocean. Sinking in the water,
not being able to water start and needing a couple of people to start flying
the kites were set-backs that put Manu & Co. back to square one. Bertin
describes: "My main concern was to have a safe and fairly indestructible
kite that couid be water started without help. I was always striving for
simple solutions, which are of course the hardest to come by."
Manu was looking for a wing rather than a kite. He explains: "The idea of
Fly Surfing is this: one flies a kite, but a wing flies you! That's a big
difference. While a wing can make you fly, a normal kite doesn't." After an
odyssey around the globe looking for the magical wing, the visionary
Frenchman found the answer to his prayers. Two inventors, Bruno and
Dominique Legaignoux, from Brittany/France held a patent for a marine wing
named WIPIKA (wind powered inflatable kite aircraft). With inflatable air
chambers to make the aircraft float on the water, it seemed to be the
perfect solution. The brothers originally designed their marine wing to
propel catamarans - Fly Surfing didn't even cross their minds. When Manu
showed up at their doorsteps, they shook their heads in disbelief as they
heard about the idea of wind-surfing with a kite, but nonetheless supported
their passionate fellow countryman. What they thought impossible, was that
Manu rode the board snowboard-style, without stance switch after turns.
With the blessings of the Legaignoux brothers and a prototype WIPIKA in his
luggage, Bertin continued his journey to Italy, where windsurf board shaper
Roberto Ricci developed a suitable board. Ricci emerged from his shaping
room with a 7 foot (205 cm) long, 15 inches (37 cm) wide, dome decked
hybrid-board called "Kite-Surfer" - a cross between a surfboard (outline), a
wake board (extreme nose kick) and a snow board (sharp rails).
Back on Maui, Bertin spent countless hours testing and optimizing the
equipment. Crashing and burning in the process. Spending all his savings on
the vision to create the ultimate Fly Surf gear. Fighting skepticism along
the way, but also finding partners like Keith Baxter from Hawailan Proline
and shaping maestro Sean Ordonez.
Baxter custom-produces the 80 cm long carbon fiber, EVA gripped boom bar
with which the Kite-Surfer directs the kite. The air-craft is connected to
the boom's ends with two tear-resistant Spectra lines, which were designed
for NASA. Also, a harness line dangles from the boom, in which the
Fly-Surfer hooks in like a reqular windsurfer. Baxter shares Manu's
fascination: "It's such a thrilling sport. Incredibly fast and free. Just
look at the crowds that Manu is drawing wherever he shows up. He's
harnessing the power of the wind and water in a fascinating way. For sure,
there is a future in kite-surting !"
Sean Ordonez employed his expertise in shaping a new board for Bertin. After
one week of intense thinking, his mastermind came up with a tow-in surfboard
resembling, 6'11" long "FIy-Surfer with a special bottom designed for
waveriding, going upwind and staying in control. Manu comments: "This board
really changed my life."
The Frenchman's marine wing quiver consists of three custom-made marine
kites (4.5 square meter, 5.5 sm, 8.5 sm), which allow him to fly over the
ocean in various conditions from virtually no wind up to blasting trades of
With air in the six air chambers, the kites weigh only one kilogram. But
doesn't the power of the wind virtually pull the surfer out of the water?
"No," explains Bertin, "see, the 'window of flight' is 180 degrees. In the
90 degree position, which is when the kite flies directly above you, you
have the maximum lift and minimum pull. So, let's say, you fall in the
water, the kite goes vertically up and it'll wait for you up there - without
This part of going up into the vertical position rather than crashing in the
ocean makes the WIPIKA marine wing such an unique design. It's the only kite
in the worid behaving this way. Congenial in the simplicity of the concept
and extremely refined in design- after all, the two French brothers spent
twelve years in R&D- there is still a lot of work to be done. In order to
control the power in the wing, the flying lines need refinements.
The real bad news, though, is that you cannot walk in a store and buy your
own wings - not yet. Although visions can be contagious, finding a
manufacturer to produce the WIPIKA turned out to be a major obstacle. "It's
a challenge to produce an aircraft', admits Bertin.
Occasionally, Bertin is willing to teach some friends. Famous names such as
windsurf legend Robby Naish and the German wave sailor Robby Seeger signed
up for a beginner lesson with the pioneer. Australian windsurf pro Luke
Hargreaves already had the chance to be under Manu's wings for a day and
says excitedly :
"It took me ten minutes to get going. It was an incredible feeling of
No mast, no sail, just a light kite up in the sky - I really want to do it
For sure, you need to understand the rules of flying a kite before venturing
out in the ocean. "You have to keep in mind, a kite is an aircraft - not a
sail", emphasizes the bird man. "It's governed by the rule that the wing is
heavier than air, so you've got to know first how to fly a kite, which is
easy. Left, right. That's it. Once you know how to do that on land, you're
ready to try it at sea. Just bodydragging first without a board, then you
can get strapped in. You don't need to know much about aircrafts to Fly
Surf. I don't. You just need a good wing."
While the rest of us might need some time to truly understand and catch up
with the outrageous idea of Fly Surfing, the ploneers keep painfully
laboring over refinements in reliability and improvements to simplify the
gear. Yet, it's safe to say that a new sport is born and a handful of
dreamers bear the financial burdens of growing pains.
At times, Bertin was so broke that he didn't own a car. But when the bird
man walked miles back home in the fading daylight, after hours in harmony
with the elements- his board under one arm and the kite stuffed in a small
backpack - the gleam in his eyes showed that he was the richest man on
earth. After all, he has a dream that just came true.
Diana Haecker, septembre 1996