Kite-Crazed Dudes
Jonathan Postal

Kite-Crazed Dudes

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.

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.

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.

"It was funny because I actually had put a patch on. I'm not that prone to getting seasick or anything. And Oliver, the night before -- we're staying in the same room -- said, 'What are you doing?' He's Austrian, kind of a macho guy, and I said, 'Oh, I'm putting on this little seasick patch.' And he said, 'Oh, what, you get seasick?' And I said, 'No, but the only thing worse than me not making it down there is me sitting on a boat for ten hours and puking the whole time. What do you think?' He said, 'Oh, no.' He sat on the boat and puked for ten hours.

"Paul Menta had just gotten back from Venezuela and was sick as a dog. Totally dehydrated. He went and got rehydrated with IVs at the hospital the day before, which he didn't really tell anybody about, and I remember we were kiting along, and everybody was kiting kind of far away from each other, you found your groove a little bit, and you couldn't even see the other guys ever because the waves were so big. You could see where their kite was, but you could never see any guys. I surfed one wave for an hour and a half! I mean one wave! It was awesome. And I looked over and saw Paul just getting huge airs. And I said, 'What's he doing?' Because the last thing you want to do is break something. And we had a long way left. Then I noticed his hands weren't even on his bar. And he was just like out, just getting launched by his kite out there. And a boat raced over, caught him, jumped in the water, got his kite, pulled him on the boat. He had passed out. I guess his kidney had some sort of a shutdown or something, knocked him out....

"The doctor went to work on him [under the deck], but Paul was still passed out. We ran into an area where the catamaran stuffed both hulls, because we were going really broad off the wind; the only guy left standing was [the catamaran captain] Dave Calbert hanging onto the tiller as the cat was on its way to pitch-pulling. Everybody went flying forward, and Paul went flying from his bed up to the front bulkhead and dislocated his shoulder. So when he woke up he was worse than he went to sleep. And he did get to take a plane ride home. It was pretty funny when he woke up, because he was all bandaged up, he's already messed up, and then he wakes up and he's like, 'What did you beat me with a baseball bat when I was out?' It was pretty interesting.

"Fabrice, myself, and Neil ended up making it. We were on the water for ten and a half hours. It ended up being longer than anybody kind of expected. It was like twelve- to fifteen-foot waves all the way across for the entire time. We got in after dark actually because it was two or three days before Christmas, which was like the shortest day of the year. And it was cold and it got dark on us and waves were crashing and the whole thing started going bad kind of right at the end. I was like, 'All right, how are we going to get the kites down?' So I got up next to a boat and it was dark and two boats had to leave because they had to run this pretty dangerous channel into Veradero, which you're not even supposed to attempt in heavy seas, because it's a narrow channel. It says 'Do Not Attempt in Heavy Seas' on all the charts. That's your first sign. It was windy, it was dark, I was cold, everybody's grumpy. I talked to the boat [crew] and I said, 'I'm going to throw my kite. You're going to come and pick me up. And then I'll get on the boat, we'll go get my kite, and then I'll go and catch everybody else's kites.' They were tired on the boat too. All my glowsticks were in my back[pack], so I couldn't get my glowsticks. I got a black and dark blue top on over my black suit. Dark. You could see kites in the air but you couldn't necessarily see riders. I throw my kite. They go cracking off downwind after my kite. I'm sitting in the water, I'm like, 'I can't believe I'm going to die right here!' I was like, 'God!' I was screaming explicatives [sic]. Fortunately I had an impact vest that gave me some flotation. I think there was a little scuffle in the boat between the captain of the Contender and one of the marketing guys about what they should do, and the right guy won. They turned back around and picked me up. I was screaming at these guys. We went down and got my kite. And then we came back and I caught the other two guys' kites and we pulled into the docks in Cuba and then we had to go through the longest customs.

"What happened was one guy, our doctor, didn't have a passport. He thought it was like going to the Caribbean or something. This is not like going to the Bahamas. We got there and they decided that either none of us could stay, and we had to go back right away, or they'd put us under marina arrest, whereby none of us could leave the marina, which kind of sucked. 'Cause I kind of wanted to check out Havana. Everybody was pretty wrecked. I mean about three beers and you were done.

"But long distance isn't what this sport's about at all," he emphasizes, returning to the present. "It's about the freedom and the freestyle and the jumping. And the lightness. You put everything in a small backpack and your board fits under your arm."

Things first began getting heavy on Hobe Beach, which stretches along the causeway on the westernmost isthmus of Virginia Key. Riders like the site because when winds are westerly, which they often are, they blow into shore, which means kiters don't have to fight the wind to return to the beach. Marinkovic credits fellow pioneer Victor Hernandez with the first major Hobe Beach accident, in 2002. "You have a beach that is very narrow, trees, and then you have the causeway, with intense traffic," Ribot explains from a plastic chair set up near his ten Hobie Cats. "And one day -- it happened often actually -- a squall comes and the guy loses control; the kite just went into the causeway. And there was one picture in a magazine. The kite is wrapped around a traffic light up there. And you see MAST Academy."

And Hernandez? He managed to unhook the leash that attached his waist to the kite and then let go of the whole contraption. "He was lucky. He had a quick-release system," Ribot notes. "He was okay. The kite was not."

That year a female kiteboarder was not as fortunate. "The same beach, same type of wind conditions, same type of weather. She got lofted against a wooden post, and then another one, and then a car. That was the second accident," Ribot recalls. She was hospitalized with internal injuries. County authorities banned kiteboarders from Hobe Beach.

Ribot's worst accident occurred the next year, far from Hobe Beach. A fine ring of scar tissue circumscribes the base of his left index finger and serves as a souvenir of the mishap, which occurred off the Venezuelan islands of Los Roques. "A beach squall came, and I saw it coming but I pushed my limit a little bit. Big mistake. It was a jump," he recounts. "It's always overconfidence that kills us. So the squall came, and I was overpowered by the kite -- the kite was just pulling me up. I let go of the kite and my finger gets stuck in the line and I almost lost the finger. We were one hour by boat from the little village of Gran Roque. I was holding my finger just by the bone. It's pretty sharp, it's a nice cut. See the line right there? No blood, just strangulation.

"I depowered the kite, actually, but even depowered, just the flapping of the kite was pulling on the line and my finger was stuck in it. The line broke, which never happens. For some reason the line broke. In just ten seconds. My finger was already cut. Took me six months to recover all of the sensation. And I only fixed it with aloe vera because there was no doctor or no hospital. No medicine, and it just came up by itself."

Ribot says the number of kiteboarding accidents began to diminish in 2003, when most kite manufacturers added emergency quick-release systems. "So that whenever something goes wrong, it activates like an eject system and then it depowers the kite completely," he explains. "You are still held by the leash on your waist, but the kite has no more power and is not running away from you. But you need a half-second or a second to hit the quick-release system. Sometimes you don't have the time to do that. That's what happened to Alex. Alex Caviglia."

Caviglia, a 47-year-old Pinecrest resident and president of Adventure Sports, suffered severe head trauma at Matheson Hammock Park on Tuesday, November 12, 2003. It was a very windy day, with gusts exceeding 30 miles per hour blowing directly toward the parking lot, whose northeastern perimeter virtually abuts the water's edge. As Caviglia was preparing to launch (without a helmet) only a few paces into the shallows, a squall filled his kite. A witness said that in seconds Caviglia was picked up and slammed down three times, first onto the narrow strip of sand at the shoreline; then onto the edge of the parking lot, where his head struck a cement parking buffer; and finally onto the asphalt alongside his parked BMW. Unconscious, he was airlifted to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He remained in a coma until his death a few weeks later. This past January his widow, Silvia Caviglia, filed a liability lawsuit against Adventure Sports and its owner Neil Pryde, Ltd.

Marinkovic remains incredulous about his former business partner's death. "The wind was almost unkiteable. Twenty-five to thirty-five knots, dead onshore. And a launch that took place within six feet of the beach? You can't do that," he says with exasperation. "I mean, geez, we have buoys there that say you have to launch on the outside of the buoys. Everybody's aware of it. The rules are clearly placed in front for everybody to see, and you walk your kite outside of the buoys. Plain and simple. You do that, there's no problem."

Marinkovic believes it was "overconfidence" that killed Caviglia. "It's a classic thing. You've been doing it for a long time and you think that you have control of something that maybe you don't. You would never, ever, ever do that," he stresses. "He also had way too large of a kite. Two guys just came in off the water with smaller kites than he had and said, 'Don't go out.'"

Ironically, Matheson Hammock remains a model for harmonious kiteboarder self-regulation. A small group of dedicated riders drafted a list of rules and posted them several years ago. The most important rule requires that launching and riding take place beyond a marker that is located about 500 feet offshore. Despite Caviglia's accident, wearing a helmet is not on the list. Nor do park authorities restrict the number of kiteboarders at Matheson.

"There are a couple of guys who are always there, local riders. Everyday they are there, so they reinforce their guidelines that they developed together and most people follow them," Ribot submits. "If it works in Matheson, that means it can work everywhere. As long as you have the right people who set the right rules and reinforce them."

The Matheson Hammock site has been free of an additional danger at Crandon: one kiteboarder's fist slamming into another's face. Tensions between Ribot and Escudero simmered for years as the two ran rival kiteboarding schools. Each claims to have opened the first one. Emotions erupted this past November during the Kite for Girls competition on Crandon Beach. Ribot says he confronted Escudero because he was "putting too many riders at the same time in the same spot." Escudero did not concur. "Eventually we meet again and we talk again, and one day he just lost his temper and got pissed off and knocked me on the face," Ribot claims.

Ribot called the police. "I wanted to scare him a little bit, more than send him to jail, to get him to calm down. But the guy is a hothead. That affects the business," the Frenchman explains. By the time the police came, Escudero had left the scene. "[The police] asked me, 'Do you want to go further?' and I just dropped the charges."

Escudero prefers to teach in what he calls a "reality-based environment." "Let's say a guy from Indianapolis, from somewhere in the Great Lakes, comes down and learns on the beautiful sandbars off Crandon Park," the voluble 32-year-old begins. "He gets driven out on a boat. He doesn't learn the basic setup of everything, he doesn't learn how to do a good site survey. He just gets tossed out on a little beautiful sandbar, like a pool, and learns the sport. Then he goes back to the Great Lakes, has a difficult launching area, onshore wind, launches his kite, ends up in a tree, loses his life or has a serious accident. I actually sometimes even like to teach at Hobe Beach because you've got a bunch of drunk people, a bunch of kids hanging around, you got Jet Skis right next to the buoys, you've got all this, like, hostile environment. So I say, 'Hey, how can we get out there and have some fun today? How can we observe these kids? How can we see these drunk people as a menace? How can we get out there, have some fun in the bay, come back in, wrap up our kite, have a wonderful day kiteboarding without obstructing anybody else?' So that really brings awareness of the reality of the sport and what to look for so you don't have a bad accident."

So far county authorities haven't bought Escudero's approach. Nor have some of the most accomplished kiteboarders. "There were too many people being taught there and it made it difficult for the performance guys to kite there. So there might have been kind of a clash," Marinkovic opines diplomatically. Regarding Escudero, he adds: "I like the guy, I get along great with him, but he's a hothead."

Ray Garcia, one of a few riders who tend to kite off the relatively uncrowded beach at 87th Street in Surfside, says that when Escudero teaches in that area, it has been difficult to convince him to do so away from the Jet Ski concession. Still he admits that accidents on an abandoned beach can jeopardize people hundreds of yards away. During his worst experience, he released himself from his kite, which ended up descending safely into the swimming pool of a Surfside condominium complex.

Emotional outbursts aside, Escudero, Marinkovic, and others hope the problems at Crandon Beach Park will blow over. "It was so perfect, and had we as riders managed it just a bit better, that would be a world-class location that could draw world cup events, lots of extra people coming, a spotlight on Miami as a water-based community," Marinkovic says.

Escudero envisions a kiteboarding destination in Crandon Beach Park tantamount to a world-famous ski resort. "I've been fighting for this dream for a long time and I feel that Miami deserves a good kiteboarding center, an area where people can do the sport safely, where I have clients from all over the world coming in bringing me their kids from twelve years old all the way to guys who are as old as my grandfather," he says. "Crandon has all the elements that can work. It's kind of like the Heaven [of kiteboarding]. It's like saying this is Vail, Colorado; this is Whistler for kiteboarding."

Ribot doesn't think so. "It's a nice park, it's a nice beach, but I don't think Miami will ever become a very high-density kitesurfing destination, because the wind is not steady enough for someone to invest in coming to Miami," he says. "In the winter you can have a good wind when a cold front comes down. But we don't have a regular flow of wind as consistent as the trade winds." He recommends the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, North Carolina, Hawaii, or France.

But some do come even in summer. During a recent afternoon on Crandon Beach, a miniature red kiteboarding kite hovers in a light breeze over a stand of trees. It is a training kite, about three feet long, too small to actually pull a rider. Sandy Heck, a 26-year-old medical student at Cornell University, is twisting a little control bar to make the kite shift directions. A fellow student, Victor Esenwa, looks on. Heck had wanted to deploy a larger kite and hit the waves, but there wasn't enough wind. Now the light breeze sustaining the training kite vanishes and it drops pathetically into the branches of one of the trees. Heck begins yanking on it, but it's stuck. Esenwa has to climb the tree to release it.

"It's intimidating at first," Heck says.

"You always hear stories -- of people's arms getting broken," Esenwa adds. "We were coming back from the D.R. a couple of months ago and saw a guy in a cast." They hadn't heard of Caviglia's death or Silva's incident. "Those are the guys who would go out in at least 50 miles per hour," Esenwa offers.

"Those guys really need to push it, I think," Heck speculates.

"Yeah, they push it," Esenwa echoes.

"We wear helmets," Heck continues.

"We wear leashes -- and life vests," adds Esenwa.

"We don't want to die doing this," Heck says. "I haven't seen anybody hurt by it though -- so far."

If they stick around and get good enough they might. "Uh, that was my boat," Marinkovic confesses when asked if he had heard about a collision involving a kiteboarder and a boat in Stiltsville this past spring. The rider was his friend and business colleague Matt Cohen. "Total operator error," declares Marinkovic. "He didn't actually run into my boat. He was with me in my boat, and we were doing a photo shoot. Any time you bring cameras -- video and stills -- into the realm of kitesurfing, there's that possibility. The wind picked up, it was perfect, we had two photographers on the boat, a video and still.

"You know, you're jumping a little closer to the boat than you should and the wind kind of switched directions, and I just came by the back of the boat to say, 'Hey this is over. We're done,' because there were other boats that came [into the area]. And right when I was going to say that, Matt came flying between these two boats a little too fast, kind of caught an edge, and hit the side of somebody else's boat. And he ended up breaking his femur and shattering his elbow. It definitely looked painful when we loaded him into the boat. You know he's my buddy, but that was a bonehead move."

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