Strong Winds Survival Guide
Ok, some people would argue that kitesurfing is a light wind sport (10-20 knots) and to some extent it definitely is, especially when you're learning and starting to get comfortable with a traction kite at sea, with traction kites you don't have to be out in really strong wind to be overpowered and even 15 knots can be a handful with a big powerful kite but there may also come a time when you want to try kiting in stronger stuff. Here are a few tips that might help you.
1. First it's important to say that kiting strong winds is definitely not for beginners even though there are people who try it soon after learning or even learn in strong wind. IMO you should be very comfortable with kiting in underpowered/powered conditions before you try kiting overpowered and definitely before you try it when it's nuking. If you get used to kiting underpowered/powered there will probably be days when the wind picks up and you end up powered/overpowered so this means you can gradually get used to it which is the best way. You should realize that some of the things you've been doing underpowered might not work so well when the wind is stronger.
2. Know your limits. If you can hardly fly a kite and haven't got a clue of what size to use when it's nuking or have never been kiting overpowered, don't try kiting strong winds because a traction kite can kill you in seconds in strong wind and one mistake could easily be your last.
3. Listen to the voice of reason, that's the voice in your head telling you you're nuts, some people call it fear, others the survival instinct. All things considered the easiest way to survive in nuclear winds is simply to learn how to say NO, not to even take the kite out of its sack until you're sure you know exactly what you're doing and feel up for it. Sit out a lot of nuclear sessions and watch people who are crazier/hotter than you to see how they launch, bodydrag out and in when launching and landing, how they keep the kite low, etc. When it's not windy make friends with these nutters and ask them for tips.
4. Hanging around kitebeach when it's nuking will probably mean a lot of assistance, launching and catching kites, holding harness handles, grabbing runaway kites and saving people's bacon in other ways. Holding harness handles is the worst job because if the kiter loses control you can get the same joy ride the kiter does or end up feeling guilty because you lost your grip. Launching someone in these conditions is a lot of responsibility so make sure you know what you're doing and getting into before offering to help. Wearing a wetsuit even if you're not kiting can be a good idea because you will probably end up getting wet. When launching someone's kite, check the lines are right before letting go, hold onto it letting it fly on the lines but so it's still held by your hand so if the lines are wrong you'll feel it isn't flying right. Only let go once you're sure the kite is setup ok and the kiter has told you twice to do so because if it's too big for the conditions, if you've still got a hand on it you can still grab it and walk towards the kiter straight away to slacken the lines. After launching hang around near the kite ready to grab it again. Make sure you know how to hold the type of kite you're going to launch or land. LEIs and foils have to be held in different ways so they won't power up. Don't offer to do something you don't know exactly how to do.
5. If you're on the shore and watching other kiters or anyone at sea in strong wind and they are in the water with the kite down for any length of time without being able to relaunch and /or save themselves, go and get them with a rescue boat, jet ski, organize for someone else to rescue them or call the coastguard before they get too far away, it starts getting dark or they are in the cold water for a long time, especially in winter.
6. Whether you use a helmet and/or impact vest is up to you but many kiters and windsurfers who don't use this equipment in less wind, will use it in stronger stuff. If you use a board leash, use a helmet too.
7. When you feel you're ready to try kiting in nuking wind yourself, don't be in a hurry to launch your kite and get in the water. Take the time to feel what the wind's doing. Check the weather forecast, watch the conditions, beware of squalls and lightning storms and talk to the other kiters on the beach about what you're going to do with what equipment in what conditions to see if they think it's a good idea.
8. You shouldn't really go out alone because you might need at least 1 or 2 people to help you out but if you are alone the least you can do is let someone know you're going out and can expect a call from you when you get back in. That way at least someone will know when you might be considered missing.
9. You can use an anemometer to check how much the wind speed is ranging but also learn to judge it from the sand blowing on the beach, the effect on the water or other visual clues you can find at the bottom of the page because many anemometers can be really inaccurate and in any case the wind will probably be a lot stronger out on the water than it is on the beach where the anemometer is. You can see what it's doing out there but won?t be able to measure that wind speed with an anemometer.
10. Strong wind can easily range more than 10-15 knots say from 20-40 knots and the first times you really don't want to be totally maxed out so use a small kite. You'd rather be stalling out in the lulls than getting tea bagged in the gusts. Or you can say NO and wait for less gusty conditions.
11. Where are you kiting? This is important even in less wind but many of us get into the (bad) habit of launching, landing and kiting on small beaches near obstacles or people downwind. While you might be able to get away with this in less wind, the only thing (after luck) that can save your life if the shit hits the fan when its nuking is a big empty beach downwind. It doesn't matter how good or fast you are or what safety systems you're using, at the wrong place you can get slammed into something much harder than you are before you have time to think. Most people react in 1 second, which means after one second you start thinking about what to do and start doing it, so you need enough space downwind to let those seconds pass without something to hit. Having said that you really don't want to be counting on the beach to save your ass if you do make a mistake, in strong wind you don't want to make a mistake near the shore or on the beach. Everyone makes mistakes but you should already have made all of your big ones and learned the lessons in less wind if possible.
12. What kite and board to use? The heavier you are the better but in any case you should already know enough about kiting to judge what size kite and board to use. In general a small, slow, low AR kite with be friendlier and a narrow board with rocker and fins will be slower and give you more control and brakes.
13. You should check all the safety systems (leash, shackle, etc.) and equipment (kite, lines, board strap bolts, etc.) first before using them when it's nuking. Never fly a new kite for the first time in a storm, get to know it first in lighter wind and test the shackle/chicken loop release under load by hanging yourself up in your harness using the same setup you'll be using at sea with all your kites, then do the same in light wind. Your bodyweight may not be enough to simulate the sort of load the system can be under in an emergency so you might want to use a heavier load.
14. Don't trust production safety systems until you've tested them yourself.
15. Dress so you'll be warm on the beach, warmer than you would in less wind because there's more wind chill factor, the weather could get lots colder and if you can't relaunch the kite you might be in the water for much longer than you expected, even for hours. So in summer if you're normally out in board shorts, when it's nuking wear a shorty, in spring if you usually wear a shorty, wear a full suit in strong wind, etc.
16. You can use shorter lines (20-25m) to reduce the window the kite can fly in and make the steering feel more direct but shorter line can also make the kite faster.
17. Check your kit thoroughly before launching the kite, especially how you've attached the lines. Anything that can break in less wind probably will in stronger stuff so don't use any worn lines or depower, etc.
18. Launch the kite pointing seawards in a place where you're far away from any obstacles downwind. A big empty beach is fine. Remember that the place you're launching from might not be the place you come back to, which might be further downwind or even upwind of where you are launching and these places should be just as friendly as where you're launching from. After you've launched the kite, don't fly it to zenith. Keep it low even with the tip almost touching the beach and let it drag you on your heels towards the sea, pick your board up as you get dragged past it and start bodydraggin out a bit with the kite still low once you're in the water, only letting the kite fly higher, putting your board on and starting out when you're a safe distance from the beach. This is because you could get lofted out of the shallows by a gust if you try flying the kite to zenith to start near the beach.
19. After launching, if the wind is really gusty and changing direction you might have to walk upwind in the lulls and sine the kite at the edge of the window (but not high to zenith) to stop it overflying. In really gusty conditions with massive wind shifts keeping the kite very low will mean it's easier for it to get left outside the window so keeping it at about 45° can be better, always avoid flying it high. If the kite does overfly the edge of the window (which in really gusty/shifty conditions can move back and forwards by several meters very quickly) watch the kite and if it flies back without collapsing and picks up again at the new edge fine, but if it folds and falls/rolls back towards the middle of the window pop your shackle/unhook to depower the kite immediately while running towards the kite to slacken the lines before the lines go taught and the kite powers up inside the window, flying across the window out of control dragging you down the beach.
20. Always know where the kite is and never lose your concentration on flying it, especially when launching, landing or when you?re anywhere near the shore.
21. You have to know how to bodydrag upwind if you want to go out in strong wind. This is the same superman technique you use to get your board back when you fall off and it's the best way to get your ass back home if you?re too maxed out for the kite and/or board you're using. If the kite is too big for the wind you're out in don't keep it overhead because you can get tea bagged, which is like getting lofted repeatedly out of the water and means the kite is flying you, not the other way around. Keep the kite low at the edge of the window and superman slow upwind, bodydragging back to shore. Doing this takes all the apparent wind out of the kite and you won't get lifted out of the water. You'll be surprised how much power you can hold like this.
22. Side-onshore wind is friendliest when it's nuking because when you launch the kite it will be pointing out to sea so dragging you there, if you end up in shit you'll get back to the beach eventually as will you gear and any fast drags will probably be in the water once you've got away from the beach. In onshore winds you'll be launching the kite over the beach and if you can't walk into the water it will drag you further onto the beach, you can't really bodydrag out very well although you can try but you might have to start off from where you can walk to in the shallows and once you're out on the water you should get as far away from the beach as possible by going upwind a lot because if you lose control of the kite in a fall or whatever the beach will get much closer very fast. An out of control kite in strong wind can drag you 500 meters in a matter of seconds. Sideshore, and side offshore are good for launching and getting away from the beach but if anything goes wrong and you can't relaunch the kite for some reason you might not get back home very quickly. Strong offshore winds are normally very gusty and can get a LOT stronger the further away from shore you get.
23. In strong winds having a chase boat or bike is a really good idea.
24. To start off don't dive the kite down through the center of the window or you?ll get pulled off your board and dragged downwind fast.
25. When it's nuking, most of the time, you should fly the kite pretty slow and to start off just fly it slow up then nudge it down a bit in the window in a shallow sine, already turning it towards the edge. If this isn't enough do a bigger sine/nudge until you get enough power to get going.
26. Relaunching can be easier in strong wind but the kite can also relaunch on its own (especially low AR kites) so always expect the kite to relaunch immediately if it hits the water.
27. If you can't relaunch the kite you should know how to self rescue. Learn how to steer the kite to one side of the window or the other when it's down using the leaders so you can steer it back towards the beach. If the lines are slack for any reason, messed up or broken, wind up one line so the kite flags flat and can't relaunch, or wind the lines so they're the same as when the kite is depowered on the leash, then wind up all of the lines keeping only this line in tension so there are no loose lines in the water that can tangle around parts of your body. When you get to the kite use it as a sail to get back to shore. Holding one tip may be enough or holding the kite in a distorted shape so the wind blows it, and you, shoreward. Don't sit or swim in the water in the midst of slack lines because they will get tangled around your feet or other parts of your body and if the kite powers up or loads up in a wave it will hurt. Carry a hook knife in your harness. You can tie the knife to the harness with a piece of line packed in the pocket so you can't lose the knife.
28. On the water you should know how to ride slow, how to slow down and stop, when to resist the pull of the lines and when to go with the kite. Riding overpowered isn't just about holding an edge and going upwind. It's about control and the more tension there is on the lines, the more power the kite will have. Riding fast gives the kite a lot of apparent wind so more power and this also means you'll be riding with the kite further back in the window. If you start to speed up too much, stomp on the tail of the board to slow down or edge hard. You can also drag your hand in the water or stick you whole arm in to stop and send the kite forwards but watch out for logs. The best brakes IMO are dropping your bum in the water and even though some say it lacks style, it definitely works fast. You can also ride towards the kite by turning the board towards it quickly then edging back upwind, this makes the lines go slack for a moment and means the kite flies further forwards in the window. Don't let the kite pull you downwind like this though because you'll build a lot of speed up. If you fly the kite fast up while edging you'll jump high.
29. Don't try jumping until you feel comfortable. If you're getting high on kiteloops or other groovy stuff in less wind don't think it'll be the same trying it when it's nuking. A lot of kiters don't even jump in this sort of wind, while they might be jumping all over the place in more forgiving conditions. Even good riders jumping when it's nuking might not do too many rotations but just a straight jump when they're maxed out and jumping. Like they say, "power is nothing without control".
30. Jibing by skidding the board out and inverting can hold too much of an edge and get you airtime you didn't want, carving a jibe faster than the kite is turning puts more tension on the lines and produces more power which might be enough to pull you off the board, jibing a long curve downwind following the kite will mean slacker lines and the kite will be further forwards in the window. If you're really maxed out the safest way of changing direction is to stop and start again in the other direction. It may not be a competition winning move but it will get your ass home.
31. When coming back in, if there's someone you trust waiting to catch the kite on the shore, as soon as they catch it pop your shackle or hook out of the depower so the kite can't power up again if they lose it. Immediately walk/run towards the kite to slacken the lines. Release the shackle of your kiteleash (if you use one) and hold it in your hand so if the kite does go anywhere it will go to the leash and if this doesn't work you can let go.
32. Don't muck about on the shore, keep the kite low pointing seawards and get out on the water, if you end up downwind when it's nuking don't walk back upwind with the kite flying to get a bigger board and don't pass the kite overhead to go out again unless you are really sure of what you're doing because the kite can loft you as soon as it gets near zenith.
33. Always expect to get lofted and do everything you can to avoid it by keeping the kite away from zenith because lofting can kill you or do you serious damage. If you do get lofted on land or on the water treat it like a jump, recalling the kite forwards towards the edge of the window so you won't have it overhead any more after landing. If you're on land, pop your shackle/unhook immediately when you land the first loft because the first is usually followed by a second one which is much nastier. This is because if you land the first loft and you still have the kite overhead, the lines go slack and the kite stalls back in the window to power up deep inside, dragging you up and horizontally fast with more power than the first. While a first loft can be controlled like a jump if you're lucky and have been jumping enough to treat it instinctively like a jump by recalling the kite, it's virtually impossible to control the second one because of the horizontal drag and the speed.
34. Leashes and grab handles. Some people use leashes on their kites and others use grab handles or other systems to depower the kite. All systems have pros and cons but in general a kite leash means you probably won't ditch your kite on someone else or lose it or let it get bust up on a fence but if the leash doesn't work properly it can make the kite go nuts so if you let the kite go to the leash it can be a good idea to grab the leash and then release the leash shackle so you can let go of the leash if you have to. Some people use a weak link in the leash, like elastic rope or a plastic clip so this might break if the leash doesn't work but in any case always use a release that will work under traction on the leash. Grab handles are not really a good idea for use in an emergency if the kite is flying because to use a grab handle you have to grab the handle without pulling it while you're hooked in. If you pop your shackle before grabbing the handle you won't have anything left to grab and if you pull the handle while the kite is flying it can make the kite go into a death spiral. The best way is to hand the kite to someone or crash it, then grab the handle and pop your shackle/hook out of the depower.
35. Don't try landing the kite on your own by landing it on it's leading edge in strong wind because the wind can get under the leading edge and launch the kite again out of control. If you're on your own the best way to land the kite is to dump it in the water as soon as you can touch the bottom and pop your shackle/hook out letting it go to the leash or using a grab handle to depower the kite. If there's a wicked shore break you might want to dump the kite on the beach letting it go to the leash but this can be just as bad for the kite.
These guidelines are based on the personal experience of various kiters around the world and are definitely no guarantee that you can use a traction kite safely in strong winds. It's your life so use your head before launching a traction kite. You can have a lot of fun in nuclear wind, but remember that you can never know how strong the wind will be from one second to the next. Mother nature can be a ton o fun to play with but respect her because she will always be a lot stronger than you ever will be.