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Kiteboarding Safety

May 10, 2007

Author: Rick Iossi

Recent advances in kite depowering and quick releases have made modern equipment safer than ever. Despite the availability of safer gear, accidents still happen. SBC Kiteboard asked Rick Iossi to look into the accident data so that we can all ride safer.

Who is most at risk of severe injury in kiteboarding? About 70% of the serious kiteboarding injuries since 2000 have happened to “experienced” kiters with at least two years of riding time. About half that percentage had been riding for four or more years. So much for the myth that it’s inexperience riders getting hurt. Fortunately today, most beginners are learning the proper safety skills from certified schools and practicing them. Clearly having experience is great but maintenance of consistent good practices is essential.

What are some of the more common causes of severe kiteboarding injuries? Not surprisingly most accidents are caused by a combination of things going wrong: Excessively gusty winds, failure in depowering the kite, and insufficient downwind buffer zone are the three major contributing factors.

Extreme weather
Excessively gusty wind be it from squalls, turbulent wind first passing over land or other meteorological origins is the leading cause of severe accidents. Last year ten riders were killed as a result of excessively gusty wind conditions. Almost all kiters injured in these severe accidents failed to successfully depower or otherwise detach from their excessively powered kites before impact. ALL riders have a responsibility to KNOW what dangerous unstable weather looks like WHEREVER they are riding, even if on vacation. “I didn’t know” carries very little weight in an emergency. There was a particularly violent lofting in Europe last fall. A kiteboarder was reported caught be a squall while offshore on a 16 m kite and was reportedly lofted about 500 m (about 1650 ft.) horizontally and 100 m (about 330 ft.) high before striking the land. The man did not survive the lofting. This may be the highest and longest lofting to date worldwide. The nature of the weather phenomena that caused such a dramatic lofting is still being researched but may be rooted in some form of squall.

Earlier this year a kiteboarder was caught in a powerful wind shift offshore with the arrival of a cold front. Cold fronts often are preceded by strong gusty winds with a squall line and a 90-degree wind direction shift. The squall line was visible as it moved in and had been spiking wind station readings for hours prior to the accident for hundreds of miles up weather to the west. It was also notable on weather radar and sat. imagery available on the Internet. The rider was carried offshore into winter hypothermic conditions. He was not found by rescue services until after it was too late.

Before you head to the beach,
1. Check the weather and hazard forecast. ikitesurf.com, windguru.com
2. Check the color radar and satellite imagery for evidence of storm cells inbound to your area.
3. Check the weather maps for evidence of inbound cold fronts or other strong weather systems.

At the beach

1. Check the wind
2. What other sized kites other guys are riding,
3. Look for evidence of unstable weather, e.g. storm clouds, white water lines, etc. before selecting your kite size and rigging up.

On the water,
1. Continuously be aware of the weather and any significant changes.
2. If unstable weather is inbound, come in and derig before it hits.

Insufficient buffer zone
Distance, it really is your friend in kiteboarding. Five kiters were lost last year due in part to poor downwind buffers. A very experienced rider was killed in a failed transition nearshore by a head impact against the rocky shore a short distance away in about 12 knots of wind. Also last year, a rider was pulled into a nearby rock face by a gust as he was walking along a narrow beach.

Maintain a 100 m downwind buffer between yourself and hard objects and people downwind.
Avoid walking upwind of nearby people with a kite up. If this isn’t feasible, wait until people pass well by or ask them politely to stand well away upwind.

Launch and get offshore rapidly and stay beyond a 100 m until time to come in.

Depowering the kite
Some riders appeared to have failed to rehearse what they might do if caught in such an emergency and/or took pains to try to avoid such circumstances. As a result some may have frozen and not reacted, failed to find their quick release or it may have failed to work. Frequently test your quick release and kite depowering mechanism. One rider was seen to be furiously trying to open his several year old quick release without success before he was lofted into a wall 50 m (165 ft.) away by a powerful squall gust. Riders need to ask, “what will I do if ...” and rehearse their response regularly.

In an emergency having a sufficient buffer zone is essential if we are to have adequate time to activate our safety system. The newer hybrid kites with the larger wind ranges will help reduce the risks of becoming overpowered. Simply sheeting these new hybrid kites out will depower them in most instances. Most are still supplied with quick releases as unforeseen events like kite tangles with other kites and auto relaunch’s during inversions can make ditching the kite necessary. Maintaining a safe buffer zone and practicing the use of safety systems will keep these very rare instances from becoming life threatening emergencies.

Frequently rehearse mentally and physically how you would totally depower your kite in an emergency situation.
KNOW the kite system you are using well, there are so many variations out there now.
If you are flying a C kite consider launching and landing unhooked with proper trim strap adjustment. If you are flying the new hybrid kites, be ready to fully depower your kite if the need arises.

We have control over where we chose to rig up and ride. Choose well and go the extra distance to the best launch riding area available and keep a safe downwind buffer. Safety gear including a good helmet may make an important difference. Kiteboarding can be an incredibly safe sport, when you know the risks and take the proper precautions. By understanding the weather, maintaining a safe buffer zone and rehearsing our safety systems, we will collectively enjoy millions of trouble free sessions.

Rick Iossi founded the Florida Kitesurfing Association and several other kiteboarding groups for safe kiteboarding access. Iossi is an engineer and a PASA instructor.



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