I had been wanting to learn how to kitesurf for quite a while. So as soon as the last lockdown was over and it was possible to book training sessions again, I booked one of the first sessions available near London, a two-hour personal training session.
The Kitesurf Centre
There are quite a few options of learning how to kitesurf within a doable distance from the Big Smoke. I picked The Kitesurf Centre in Camber Sands near Rye, about 95km to the southeast of London (135km by car or train), roughly two thirds of the way from Brighton to Dover on a beautiful beach.
A Family Business
The kitesurfing school has been founded by two brothers, Thomas and Tristan, in 2007. Both of them had run a number of watersports companies around the world until then. They were joined by brother #3, Rupert, a few years later. All three men are involved in the running of the school to this day.
Photos showing me (c) John Giblin, Kitesurfing pics (c) Pexels free stock photography, else (c) BSqB
BKSA National Training Centre
The Centre is the UK’s largest kitesurfing school, and one of only three UK National Training Centres of the British Kitesports Association, BKSA, the official so-called National Governing Body for kitesurfing in the UK since 2012.
The premises have been completely revamped and upgraded last year using up- and recycled material where possible. The Centre is now getting all its electricity from its solar panels and covers a high percentage of its water needs from rain water.
The school offers training lessons on a second beach 20 minutes away by car in Greatstone. That second beach is pointing more towards the opposite way on the other side of the peninsula on which they are both located. This means that if the wind conditions are bad (offshore winds) on the main beach in Cumber Sands, then you simply do your lessons in Greatstone.
I like that the Centre is recruiting many of its instructors from students who at the time of their first lessons had no intention to become instructors. They just liked it so much, they stayed on to learn how to teach others.
Not least of all, what convinced me was that they received hundreds of excellent reviews on virtually any website you check such as Google Reviews or the Centre’s own website. They are also a Tripadvisor 2020 Travellers’ Choice.
Quite a hike from London
Students are asked to arrive 30 to 45mins early, so I left London 3.5h early (1h12m, 1 interchange, St Pancras Intl to Rye via Ashford Intl, 1h30m walk). When I arrived at the Centre, I was greeted by Karen, the Centre Manager, who is currently training to become an instructor. Steve, who looks like a dreadlocked pro-wrestling champion, hollered a friendly hello from the far end near the repair shop, while Loki, the Centre dog, sniffed me out intensively until Steve pulled him away from me. I like dogs and I completely understand the attraction of Lynx 48h Ice Chill, so no hard feelings from my side.
Welcome at the Centre
A short while later I was introduced to my instructor, Adam (Adam Bradford; there is another Adam), and a bit of banter ensued while he was getting the gear ready. It turned out that I was Adam’s first student this year. No surprise, considering the latest lockdown (#3) had started last year and only been eased a few days ago.
Jen, who I had been speaking with over the phone before booking my session, briefly stopped by to say hi. The dreadlocked athlete has been teaching kitesurfing for twelve years, and, like nearly all instructors at the Centre, she has done several stints running kitesurfing schools abroad.
Soon after we were joined by John, who had taken a few lessons with Adam two years ago, and who was now doing the 8-week fast-track instructor course. He was going to observe Adam and me during the lesson as part of his training.
Training on land
As I did not have any prior experience and as the one-to-one session was only going to last for two hours, it had been clear from the moment I booked the session that I would not go on a board or into the water just yet. The training was going to take place on the beach, which was perfectly fine by me. This meant no changing of clothes necessary. I just grabbed a helmet and my harness. Usually everyone is fitted out with a wet suit and rubber shoes/gloves. Due to the pandemic only a wet suit is provided and it’s BYO rubber shoes and gloves for those going onto the water.
Better safe than sorry
A friend of mine had done a kitesurfing course three years ago at another school on England’s South coast, not that far away. He had been let loose on the water after just one hour of training and to this day insists that he counted 4 near-death instances during the few minutes that followed, including being dragged over a busy road after crashing into rocks, narrowly avoiding being spiked by a sailing mast, and bouncing off a wooden pier. He has not been on a board since. Better safe than sorry.
Flying a foil kite from a pebble beach
We walked the short distance down to the pebble beach, put our backpacks and some of the gear we carried for later on the ground, while getting the tiny foil kite (also called ram air kite) ready. A foil kite is one of two major types of kite: the one that does not have any properly inflatable parts, but that falls into shape only when wind blows into it. The other main type of kite is the LEI kite: the leading edge inflated kite.
Shoes and S-H-O-E’s
I left my regular shoes on for now, because of the pebbles which would be uncomfortable to walk on with the neoprene shoes I brought. The session started with some basic safety training, including S-H-O-E for surface (pebbles), hazards (rocks, road, wooden groin), others (plenty of beach walkers), and environment (off-shore wind that would prevent us from going on the water). I learned how to take the power out of the kite, when needed, and how to drop the kite and employ the safety mechanisms up to and including separating the kite from the harness. Then Adam started teaching me how to fly the kite.
At first I was watching him flying the small kite, then I put the harness on and clicked the kite in. I’ll be frank, it took quite a few tries before I was able to keep the thingy up in the air for more than a few seconds. After a little while I felt more comfortable and Adam made me do exercises. The basic principle is easy. Pull the left end of the handlebar towards your body, then the kite makes a move to the left. Pull the right end of the bar towards your body, then the kite makes a move to the right. Left-left, right-right. Easy enough.
It is also important to remember that your left hand should go onto the red-coloured part of the handlebar. Depending on a number of factors, the kite will react with a one- to two-second delay which you have to anticipate. You make the steering move one or two seconds before the time when you want the kite to move. So the kite will quite often hardly have completed the last mission, say, a left-turn, before you already need to move the handlebar again for the next move. It takes some getting used to, I’ll say that.
The sweet spot
The distance at which you keep the handlebar from your body determines the angle of attack of the kite and hence the drag. If you drop the bar, it will move towards the far end of that section of the line on which it moves up and down on, away from you. This will take at least 30% of the pressure off you. Quite often it will already lead to the kite falling from the sky. The kite will develop maximum power if you pull the bar right towards your body. The sweet spot is about two fist-widths away from your body.
Edge of the window
In order to keep the lift to a minimum, we aimed to stay close to the edge of the so-called window. Imagine standing with your back to the wind. Think of the window as a quarter sphere of space that includes the area between the following three lines: A straight line that passes through your shoulder to the far left and to the far right. Two semi-circular lines: One semi-circular line that stands vertically on the straight line, and one semi-circular line that lies on the ground (or water) in front of you, horizontally. The outer parts of the window end 25 metres away from you, i.e. one kite line length.
The edge of the window refers to the vertical semi-circular line above the straight line. You let the kite fly to your left, straight above you, or to your right. At this stage you do not want to fly the kite in front of you, because the pressure gets too strong. You also want to avoid sudden and fast kite movements at the beginning, especially those where the kite’s direction gets reversed quickly (left/right, up/down, etc.) because again, that increases the lift/pressure.
Kisses and crashes
About twenty minutes after I took over the kite from Adam I was able to follow Adam’s instructions to some extent and even managed to fly figures close to the ground and let the kite softly ‘kiss’ the ground on command, then go back up into the sky. Truth be told, I still crashed the thing a lot.
Over time and with Adam’s instructions I learned how to crash the kite less and less often, how to get it off the ground again after it crashed, and even how to untangle the lines mid-air when they got entangled. It’s unexpected and quite amazing, but the kite still flies and is still navigable, even if the lines are entangled.
Riding a bike
One main take-away for me from this early part of the session was that flying a kite is a lot like riding a bike. The bar you hold is a bit like the handlebar of your bike. You don’t use it like a car’s steering wheel. Your handlebar moves in a layer that is parallel to the ground. If the ground is inclined, or here: if the kite is flying at a significant angle upwards from the ground as opposed to very close to the ground, then the handlebar moves in the layer parallel to that inclined ground respectively parallel to the ground that you’d be riding on if you rode a bicycle up the line to your kite.
It took me a long time to understand that this principle still applies 100% when you fly the kite near the ground on the far left or far right of your window. Your handlebar should move in a layer that is parallel to the ground, just like a bike’s handlebar would.
Flying a LEI kite from a sand beach
After an hour on the pebble beach, we packed the ram air kite. I switched into my neoprene shoes and we took all our gear to the sand beach 200 metres further away from the Centre. There we put our gear on the ground and took out the LEI kite, which was much larger than the foil kite. Inflating the leading edge took just a few seconds with the powerful manual air pump we used.
Adam walked me through the differences between the two kites. I learned that LEI kites are by far the most popular kites, partially, because they will not sink into the water but stay afloat. You could start the small ram air kite from anywhere, including the far end of the window, directly downwind from where you stand, where there is maximum drag. The LEI kite is so powerful that you want to start it from the very far left or far right of your window and keep it on the edge of the window.
Adam went through all the safety procedures and how to use the safety mechanisms one more time before he clicked the kite into his harness and started flying the kite. He talked me through everything for about five minutes until I took over from him while the kite was flying right above us in a more or less stationary position.
Let the fun begin
I was a bit clumsy and immediately let the kite sink down towards the far downwind end of the window closer to the ground and boy did I get a kick. I was slightly lifted off the ground and – as taught – immediately let go of the handlebar. The kite did not stop pulling me immediately, so I was dragged behind it, running over the beach, for another ten, fifteen metres, before the kite fell onto the beach.
20 Minutes of Madness
The last 20 minutes of my session were by far the best. Thanks to the instructor it felt 100% safe at all times. It is so much fun flying the big kite. Next time around it will be proper kitesurfing. On a board. In the water.
Throughout the session, I was happy with the Covid safety measures I witnessed. I felt like I got very good value out of my two hours 1-2-1 with Adam for £110. Post lockdown group sessions (max 4 students) will resume again from Monday 12 April. I am planning to join a three-day weekend course soon, skipping Day 1 (£349 minus discount for skipping Day 1).
Would I recommend the Centre? Absolutely, yes. 5 out of 5 in my book.