Kite-Crazed Dudes

This wet, hot extreme sport combines the thrill of flying with the threat of grievous bodily harm

Those who live by the wind can also die by it, or at least get extremely hurt, which can be bad for commerce, particularly when it involves kiteboarding. After wind and wing conspired to hurl Claudio Silva headlong into a tree this past December 31, Francisco Escudero lost his permit to teach kiteboarding at Crandon Park Beach on Key Biscayne. Escudero had nothing to do with the accident, and Silva is one of the most skilled kiteboarders in the Miami area, but officials who manage the county park concluded the situation had become too dangerous for comfort. Elsewhere in the United States, paranoid municipal authorities have managed to ban the sport entirely. Here kiters remain relatively free, although some have begun to wonder if their legal days are numbered.

That fateful New Year's Eve was a very blustery and choppy one, inspiring riders from Surfside to Key Biscayne to Matheson Hammock Park to take advantage of the 30- to 40-mile-per-hour winds. "We were going to do a downwinder from here," Ray Garcia recalled recently on the sands off Collins Avenue and 87th Street, referring to a plan he and several others had hatched to traverse the waves all the way from Surfside to Virginia Key on the cool wind. "But we turned back," he says gravely. "It was bad."

The accident occurred when Silva performed what kiteboarders call a jump very close to shore just as a powerful squall filled the huge oblong kite flying a hundred feet above him. He was cruising along, hands gripped on the trapezelike control bar, to which his waist was tethered, the bar attached to the kite via four 100-foot lines. Silva crashed onto the sand, only to be pulled up by his kite, slammed down again, and dragged helter-skelter into trees and other foliage. When the kite finally collapsed, Silva had a fractured skull, broken ribs, a broken back, and paralysis below the knees.

"Total operator error," concludes Kent Marinkovic, a former Olympic windsurfer turned kiteboarder and vice president of sales and marketing for Adventure Sports. "Any time you leave the water and you're within six to ten feet of shore, I mean you tell me. It's no different than the guy you hand the keys of a car and he runs off a bridge or something. We get out there and a lot of people are watching and you're having a good time and you're showing off or you're doing whatever and you're in your zone -- sometimes when you're feeling relaxed is when you're probably the most in harm's way."

Silva's wife Eva panicked and threatened to sue the county, after which the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department decided to begin enforcing rules at the kiteboarding launch site on the northwestern tip of Crandon Beach. Riders must present certificates of training approved by the Professional Air Sports Association or the International Kiteboarding Organization, launch from a certain area about 500 feet offshore, and wear helmets. There is also a new system to limit the number of riders, as kiteboarders refer to themselves, at Crandon Beach. "They reduced the number of kitesurfers by 70 percent," says 34-year-old Christophe Ribot, who runs a kitesurfing school from a pontoon boat anchored at a sandbar off Crandon Beach near Bear Cut. "There used to be 30 to 50 riders [there] every windy weekend. Now there is a maximum of 15 of them."

In the aftermath of Silva's crash, county officials also declined to renew Escudero's permit to operate his kiteboarding school, Skybanditz, at Crandon. "They kind of screwed me up financially," Escudero complains. The 32-year-old hopes to resume teaching at Crandon one day, but meanwhile is spending the summer teaching kiteboarding in his native Puerto Rico.

Kiteboarding in the Miami area generally sucks during the summer months because of the lack of wind. The notable exception is when approaching tropical storms and hurricanes stir things up. So far, this summer is shaping up to be windier than usual. The emergence of the eleventh tropical storm of the season -- Katrina -- on August 24 set a record for the number of storms this early in hurricane season. That means the weeks ahead could be spectacular for the masters of huge airs -- as riders call their high-wind leaps of 30, 40, or 50 feet -- and for the sport's neophytes.

But not too spectacular, one hopes. "It looks very serene. It's a nice beautiful sport to watch. But you have to have instruction," warns Marinkovic, who windsurfed for the U.S. Olympic sailing team from 1991 to 1997 before switching to kiteboarding in 1998. "People want to learn by themselves. I say, 'All right, if you're the type of guy who will take a hang glider and jump off of a 500-story building with no instruction, then yeah, this is for you with no instruction. But if you're not that type of person, then you need instruction.' Which is to say that everybody absolutely needs it."

But hurry, because The Man has already moved to shut down this sport on two of Miami-Dade's public beaches. In homage to those crazy souls who pioneered a sport that is half surfing, half flying, and to those who may be plunging into it for the first time, we present some light summer reading, half cautionary tale, half oral history of a pastime that may soon be strangled by municipal authorities spooked by the specter of liability lawsuits. Yes, it's a beautiful, sexy sport, and it can kill you in seconds.

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