Windy autumn days draw kitesurfers to the water
Scott Webb walks up the beach at Sunset Bay in Angola with his wife and 10-year-old son on a recent Sunday.
The wind is blowing, the clouds are looming. Only a handful of people are visible on the beach, let alone in the water. Webb’s wife gave him a kitesurfing lesson as a birthday present and conditions like these are perfect for learning.
Kitesurfers, also called kiteboarders, ride the waves using a large kite to catch the wind and propel the board.
Dark days don’t scare kiters away, they attract them. Wind and waves are the necessary supplies, and the geography around Lake Erie brings consistent, predictable waves to Buffalo. The lake starts out narrow in Toledo, Ohio, stretches out to 57 miles, then narrows again, pushing the wind into the Niagara River and creating strong, long waves.
“The kitesurfing is absolutely world class here in the fall,” said Kevin Cullen, Webb’s instructor, as he waited on the beach.
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Lake Erie’s proximity to and around Buffalo is another draw, said avid kitesurfer Scott Pearson, 72, who also enjoys the “ability to be one with nature.”
“On the biggest days, a stormy day, high winds and big waves, it’s just phenomenal to be out there,” Pearson said, adding that another appeal of kiteboarding is that it’s suitable for a variety of ages.
“It includes all kinds of people, you have men and women. You have older people like me and you have young children,” Pearson said.
Kitesurfing takes place almost year-round at several local locations, including Sunset Bay, Hamburg City Beach, Woodlawn Beach State Park, Beaver Island State Park, and even parts of the river Niagara and Lake Ontario.
Kitesurfers also find waves across the border at Crystal Beach, Sherkston, Thunder Bay and Port Colborne in Ontario, and the Finger Lakes region in New York.
“We just go different places depending on what the wind is doing,” said Dr. Thomas J. Guttuso, a neurologist at UBMD and a surfer for more than two decades.
Webb’s family watches as he gears up in a wetsuit, helmet, and harness to hang on to the kite. The lesson begins.
Surf instructors like Cullen, co-owner SUP Erie Adventures with his wife, Christian Edie, offer classes in late summer, fall and winter.
“We have a lot of nice, warm, calm, balmy days in September and October,” Cullen said. Their building, a yellow shipping container located at the entrance to Sunset Bay, is stocked with surfboards, wetsuits, ropes, and gear for a variety of water activities. They serve students who come from as far away as Syracuse, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
A group of advanced kiters increase their speed, jump waves and soar dozens of feet into the air during Webb’s lesson.
“There’s a meditative aspect to it all,” said Dan Ryan, a kitesurfer for over seven years and owner of a home performance business.
Ryan started out as a self-taught kiter, but advises newcomers to learn proper technique, etiquette and safety procedures from a professional. “What I tried to figure out in two or three years would have taken me less than a lesson,” he said.
Kitesurfing can be a lifelong activity and the demographics are wider than you might think, with physical mobility being more important than strength.
“Kitesurfing has really benefited my health,” said Pearson, who has been in the sport for more than 20 years. “If you’re into any type of fitness, go for it because it’s only beneficial in the long run.”
Ryan agrees. “It can be as safe or as dangerous as you want it to be,” Ryan said, adding that just riding the waves back and forth puts little stress on the body. However, trying big jumps and attempting new tricks is much more risky.
Webb’s family watches his lesson begin. Cullen begins on the beach with a presentation of the equipment, covering the general layout and orientation of the kite and the importance of ensuring lines are not tangled. The kite lines connect to the control bar and continue in a loop to hook onto your harness.
“If you ever get in trouble, let go,” Cullen said, noting the control bar. Although the kite is still attached, releasing the bar allows the kite to settle into the wind. In the worst case, like if your lines get tangled or you’re heading into dangerous terrain, there’s a quick-release pull to separate you from the kite.
With the basics covered, Webb helps Cullen launch the kite. They stay on the beach and Cullen demonstrates how to control the kite, moving it himself up and down and left and right with ease. He transfers the hook and control bar to Webb and keeps one hand on the bar. Soon Webb fully takes over and they enter the water.
Once you figure out how to fly the kite, Cullen said, getting up and onto the board becomes a lot less daunting.
The time it takes for someone to become an independent kiter varies widely, Cullen noted. For those who do, the sport becomes almost addictive. Kitesurfing veterans watch the weather forecast closely and rush to the beach, often on short notice, when the waves are good.
“All you want to do is get back on one of those waves and experience it again,” Guttuso said.
Webb’s lesson ended before he could step onto the board. The gusts of wind have died down, making it more difficult to control the kite. As Webb got out of his wetsuit and joined his family, he tasted of excitement and desire to get back on the water. “I’ll be back next spring to try,” Webb said. “I have to do it, get this board on my feet.”
Where to take kitesurfing lessons
SUP Erie Adventures: 8934 Lake Shore Road, Angola, and 1028 South Shore Drive, Irving.
Classes start at $150 (2 hours for 2-3 people); $175 private lesson
Lake Erie Watersports: 8140 Lake Shore Road, Angola
Classes start at $150 (2 hours for 2 people)