You may have noticed those giant kites in the sky above Clam Beach and wondered what's going on out there. It's kiteboarding, also known as kitesurfing. It's similar to wakeboarding or waterskiing, but instead of being towed by a boat, you are pulled along by a giant, steerable, wind-borne kite.
"Kiting is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time," enthuses 63-year-old veteran kiteboarder Gene Callahan. "It's not for the faint of heart. There's a certain amount of risk, and a certain amount of thrill. It's not for everybody — it's not golf."
Like most local kiters, Callahan says he went "to the dark side," transitioning from windsurfing to kiteboarding, about 10 years ago. "We thought windsurfing was the greatest sport ever invented. Kiting is even better. It's the same sensation as flying in your dreams," he says. "The kite has the power of a motorboat and it's pulling you on a wakeboard or a surfboard. And you can control it ... you can jump waves, you can surf waves. You can do anything you want out there."
According to the Clam Beach regulars, fewer than 20 people routinely kiteboard there. The typical set includes guys aged 15 through 63, and one woman, Melissa Glass. "She's the only lady kiter up here." says Callahan. "I'm very impressed with her sailing skills,"
Glass is a mom in her 40s, who also got her start with windsurfing. She says kiteboarding in Humboldt is predominately a dude thing, but figures women make up about 25 percent of the kiteboarding population in other places she's been, like Mexico. "But not in Humboldt. Not yet." She describes kiteboarding as "a finesse sport" and emphasized its accessibility to women, "Because you're hooked into the kiteline, and into the harness, it's about kite control and balance and coordination, not upper body strength."
About 10 years ago, local kiteboarding pioneer Chris Romero taught a handful of friends the basics. "The initial group were a bunch of old windsurfers," explains Callahan, "Then, a second generation of kiters came onto the scene — young kids Chris Appleton's age started doing it."
The oldest kiter in Humboldt's waters, Callahan enthusiastically dubs 27-year-old protégé Appleton "the best kiter up here."
Appleton and his friend Mark Harlan were recently at Clam Beach for a "mega sesh," about three hours in the water/air (an "everyday sesh" is usually one or two hours). The wind was up and they launched quickly. A hefty onshore breeze is crucial to kiteboard safety. Without lifeguards, kiteboarders practice self-rescue and must make their way back to shore, impossible in an offshore breeze.
Harlan, who has broken a foot and smashed his ribs a few times, says kiteboarding is a buddy sport. "It's just a safety thing," he explains, "Because we go out a couple miles sometimes. So, if something breaks ... you know. They always say 'you don't wanna go out further than you can walk back.'"
On a typical day, Humboldt kiters can reach speeds of 5 to 35 miles per hour, depending on the wind and the size of the kite. The bigger kites are faster and therefore suit lighter wind days, while smaller, slower kites work on gusty days. Local kiters jump to heights of 20 to 40 feet, while pros have gotten "crazy high" according to Appleton, flying to 75 feet or higher.
Appleton and Harlan are both keen to distinguish themselves from surfers. Kiteboarding is a more solitary pursuit than surfing, they say. "There's not 10 people looking at you cause it's your one turn on your one wave."
Clam Beach is by far the favorite of Humboldt County kiteboarders due to the often clear conditions, onshore winds and ample space to lay out lines and launch. Callahan, who has kiteboarded in Mexico, Hawaii and the Greek Islands, says a good day at Clam Beach is as good as anywhere he's been. "It's actually the friendliest, safest place to kite. It's better than going to the Hood River Gorge, better than Rio Vista, it's better than Crissy Field. There's too many obstacles and other sailors there. Clam Beach there's nobody, and every time you get in trouble, you're still going to get blown back onto shore."
Winter is the exception, with its unpredictable, offshore winds. That's when Callahan and crew go out near the Coast Guard Station on Humboldt Bay or to Big Lagoon. "Big Lagoon has flat water. It's friendlier, but not as fun," he says, grinning.
Glass agrees, saying the ideal months for kiteboarding are from April, when the north winds start up, through late September and sometimes early October.
To kiteboard, you'll need a wetsuit, a wakeboard or surfboard, a kite (multiple sizes for different wind conditions), a waist harness, bar and strings. Like other sports, there is a huge range of pricing, but you can find used equipment online and hit the waves for about $1,200. Currently, there isn't anywhere to rent kiting gear in Humboldt, and local kiters tend to go online or shop out of the area for equipment. Michael Owen of Pacific Outfitters says the shop doesn't stock kiting gear, but can special order it.
Unlike windsurfing, which can take years to master, kiteboarding is relatively easy to learn. The consensus from Humboldt's kiteboarding community is that beginners should take at least two or three days of lessons at Floras Lake (www.floraslake.com) in Oregon for a solid foundation before trying it out in local waters.
Before heading out to the beach, kiters check the marine forecast on www.noaa.gov, call the Arcata Airport for wind reports or visit www.ikitesurf.com for info on weather. The Camel Rock webcam is another great resource for checking conditions.
Thinking about taking off? Callahan sums it up for the curious: "If you don't mind tremendous thrills and potential to get a little hurt, then it's a good sport. The rewards are way greater than the risks."