Kite-Crazed Dudes

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

Up North and out West, early kiteboarders blew into the sport via kite-buggying. But why ride a three-wheel kite-propelled buggy that you steer with your feet, when you can glide over one of the biggest open spaces on Earth, the Atlantic Ocean? That's what a bunch of local windsurfers said.

Accounts of who invented kiteboarding differ. Pioneer riders tend to agree that a Frenchman named Bruno Legaignoux played a major role. Legaignoux, who worked for a time with legendary sailor and sail manufacturer Neil Pryde, holds a patent for the inflatable kite. When inflated one edge of the kite resembles a long tube, which allows the kite to float on the water, thus helping the rider to redeploy it as necessary. In the preinflatable era, kites tended to sink. "You could relaunch [a noninflatable kite] from the water, but you had about a minute and a half to do it, and if you didn't do it in the minute and a half it wasn't going to come back out again," Marinkovic explains. Having an inflated tube running the length of the kite also provided additional stability. "So it was a lot softer, nicer ride," he adds.

Jonathan Postal
Jonathan Postal

Marinkovic, one of the first in Florida to master the sport, credits Raul Argilagos for making the switch before kiteboarding was cool. "Raul started when we were all windsurfing, and I remember he had every kind of kite, from inflatables to ram-airs. And Raul was always walking upwind and hitch-hiking across the bridge to get back to where he started from, and we all thought that was pretty funny. And I said, 'You know that's not a real sport until you can go upwind. Until you can come back to where you started, it's not a real sport. Because it doesn't come with a lift ticket.'" Argilagos once rented a tank of helium, believing the gas might allow him to float the kite when winds alone were too light to keep it aloft. It didn't work. "There wasn't enough volume there to have that gas take over the weight of the kite. We always thought he was going to crash out there and blow everybody up with this helium bomb," Marinkovic says.

But by 2000 Marinkovic and a host of other windsurfers had joined Argilagos. The preferred launch sites were at Crandon Beach, Virginia Key, Matheson Hammock Park, and 87th Street in Surfside. All offered shallow waters from which to launch a safe distance offshore, propitious winds, and relatively few beachgoers to become victims of an errant kite-cum-onshore-missile should a rider have to release it.

"Windsurfing is almost obsolete," Christophe Ribot declares in a French accent that harkens to St. Malo, his hometown in Normandy. He moved to Miami in 1999 after a long stint in Guadeloupe, where he taught and competed in windsurfing and catamaran sailing. He planned to stay for three weeks before drifting to California and hitchhiking a boat ride to New Zealand or Australia, whichever came first. But he lingered and then decided to open a catamaran concession on Hobe Beach just east of the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge on Virginia Key. "When we started, it took us three months to learn the sport by ourself," Ribot recalls. "The equipment was not very sharp at that time, and there was nobody to give you any lessons. There was no regulation because nobody knew the sport at that time."

While Marinkovic and others spent their time performing the sport, Ribot concentrated on adding a kiteboarding school to his catamaran rental business. "We knew kiteboarding was going to be developing like crazy, so we decided to start a school to teach the sport properly so that people wouldn't have to go through the hassle that we went through," Ribot submits. "We went through all the hassles of that fucking sport -- getting dragged on the beach for like 50 yards, losing the kite in the middle of the bay and swimming for two kilometers and back or one kilometer and back, getting dragged under the water, kites landing on the trees. Every hassle that could happen to someone, we went through it."

But hassles of epic proportions are what some kiteboarders seem to seek. In December 2001, a small group of Florida-based kiteboarders gathered in Key West for a kitesurfing voyage across the Florida Straits to Cuba. Oliver Butsch, Fabrice Collard, Neil Hutchinson, Kent Marinkovic, and Paul Menta were accompanied by three boats -- a 52-foot Bertram, a 36-foot Contender, and one of Ribot's 42-foot catamarans. On a recent morning in his small office in Adventure Sports' Doral warehouse, Marinkovic recalled the trip with amazing lucidity.

"Red Bull paid for the whole thing. You had a camel pack, you had your power bars, you had a hydration pack on your back, and then you had light sticks if it got dark and what have you. It was a media frenzy when we took off. We're taking photos right before the start and everybody's jumping, going higher and higher because it was a great day, and wouldn't you know it, two minutes before we're taking off, before 'go,' Oliver, a notorious camera monkey, crashes his kite into the outriggers of the Bertram, breaks one of the outriggers, rips his kite in half. And we were too far offshore for him to swim, and he had to get in that boat and take a ride.

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