The sound of Josh Miller hitting the water belly and face first about 100 yards off Kite Point in Lakes Bay was so loud it could be heard above the rushing wind and lapping waves. Miller had fallen almost 15 feet after losing control of the massive kite that was carrying him on the wind across the water.
“Oh, that one had to hurt,” said Jim Karabasz, owner of Extreme Wind Surfing. But Miller popped his head out of the water and began untangling the wet kite strings; within a minute or two, he was back on the board, zipping around the shallow water on the breeze.
Kite boarding, an extreme sport, has little margin for error. Boarders must have a strong grasp of wind and general geometric principles to understand how to control the kite.
And Lakes Bay, an oft-forgotten, 300,000-acre expanse of water nestled along the Black Horse Pike in Pleasantville, West Atlantic City and the barrier island to the east, is one of the best places in the country for the sport. The bay’s consistent winds, expansive shallows, light motorboat traffic and a dedicated place for launching draws boarders from throughout the region and the country. The bay also is one of the most popular windsurfing spots in the region.
Karabasz brought his business to the bay’s shores 19 years ago so that area windsurfers could access the water. Then, 10 years ago, kite boarding’s popularity began to grow. Now, on a day when the trademark sea breeze is whipping the waves into white caps, more than a dozen brightly colored kites carry boarders along the water and as high as 30 feet into the air.
These kites almost become an extension of the body, reacting to every tiny wiggle, lean, pull and push. The kite boarder almost becomes part of the wind, literally flying across the water. For Miller, 29, of Ocean City, the math principles are almost innate — he teaches math at Oakcrest High School in Mays Landing.
“It’s, like, 90 percent flying a kite,” said Miller, talking of the difficulties of the sport. “Toward the end, you’re not even looking at the kite. You just feel where it is.”
Instructor Petra Kanz first teaches her students to fly the kite near the ocean in Brigantine. The students won’t get to Lakes Bay until the second lesson, and only if the weather conditions are favorable.
On a gray mid-June day, she taught Chris Calderbank, 50, of Wildwood Crest and Mount Laurel, how to fly. He stood on a vacant stretch of beach on the south end of Brigantine, leaning and pulling on the strings attached to a kite 85 feet above his head and delicately drawing a figure-8 in the sky.
Suddenly, a lull in the wind surprised Calderbank, whose novice handling of the strings sent the kite crashing loudly to the ground.
The air, Kanz says, is “like Swiss cheese,” meaning there are plenty of gusts and lulls mixed in with the mostly constant 18-mph breeze.
During the first lesson, Calderbank learned the wind must be steady from the northeast for the lesson to occur on that stretch of Brigantine beach. If Calderbank wants to take the second lesson, which requires time in the water, the wind must be a steady southwesterly sea breeze of between 14 mph and 18 mph across Lakes Bay.
Kanz, who also teaches wind surfing, is a wind connoisseur. She carefully monitors weather forecasts and changing conditions because each of the sports she teaches has different wind requirements, depending on location and expertise level. Even the design on her business card shows a cartoon cloud blowing air through its puffy cheeks.
“You really develop a sixth sense of (the wind),” Kanz said. “You can detect every little wind shift, every little gust, every little oddity.”
Catching the wind
The sail of a windsurfing board is not heavy. Stand it upright in the sand, there’s little weight in hand. But hold on to the handle and let the sail naturally pivot into position to catch the wind, suddenly the force makes the nearly 6-foot-tall sheet of mylar feel like solid wood.
The wind dies, so does the push. The lull then turns into a gust, and the force makes the sail feel heavy again.
That is what windsurfing feels like by land.
By water, it’s not that simple. Before you can catch the wind, you must learn to balance. Beginner windsurfers stand awkwardly and move slowly and hesitantly. Experienced windsurfers get on the board with barely a ripple and take off flying, as if the board is an extension of their body.
Kanz has taught windsurfing for 19 years and kite boarding for nine. She begins every lesson with a dry-erase marker board. She illustrates the various mathematical principles that each windsurfer or kiteboarder must ultimately understand.
For a windsurfer, there’s a roughly 90-degree dead zone behind the mast, or directly upwind, where you cannot capture the wind. For a kite boarder, the area needed for launching and flying the kite is always a 180-degree hemisphere equal to the length of the cords.
But the No. 1 lesson is unexpected.
“You don’t pull a kite straight over your head, or else you’ll get hurt,” Karabasz said. “It’s like Popeye the Sailor Man. Up, and you’re gone.”
Lakes Bay is considered to be one of the Top 10 consistently windy places in the country, with unobstructed thermal wind, or sea breeze, Karabasz said. There are places with stronger winds, but few places with winds as consistently present as Lakes Bay, he said.
Stevens Institute of Technology professor Jon Miller describes a sea breeze as the difference between the hot air over land and the cool air over the ocean. As the ocean warms up during the season, the difference lessens to the point where there’s not enough of a difference for a strong breeze to form.
When the sea breeze cranks in through the southwest, as it does in this part of South Jersey, the barrier islands act as a virtual speed bump, disrupting the speed and flow with heat. But Lakes Bay has a nearly 6-mile stretch of water that acts as a funnel for the sea breeze. “It comes, blasting in here, funneled over the bay,” Karabasz said.
Last year, the winds at Lakes Bay were not as strong as they had been in years past. This year, the conditions have been similar, a trend that Kanz blames on the warm ocean conditions.
Why this is occurring or whether it’s indicative of a longer trend is still unknown because the time period is still too short for scientists to have statistically significant data. Kanz blames climate change, while Karabasz blames La Nina.
Some kiteboarders head offshore to practice, but they need a boat to get there, Karabasz said. Other kite boarders head to deserted ocean beaches, but worry of being kicked off out of fear and the irresponsible few. One of the only other kite-boarding havens in the region is Kite Island, on the back side of Long Beach Island.
The fear of access is what led several area residents to help form the Lakes Bay Recreation Association, which leases a spit of land from The New Jersey Conservation Foundation to provide access to the water for kite boarders and windsurfers. No motorized vehicles can launch from the site, which is located just behind the Bayport development off the Black Horse Pike.
Strong and steady
This gray and gusty day seemed almost forbidding for beachgoers at the south end of Brigantine, but that’s just what Kanz was looking for. For Calderbank to learn how to fly the kite, he needed as much space as possible just in case the kite went down, possibly scaring those on the sand.
Kanz told Calderbank to hold on to the harness around her waist as she prepared to lift the kite into the air using the method she told her students not to use. The second she lifted the kite into the air, the power of the 18 mph northeasterly wind yanked her about a foot off the ground. Then the kite rose into position and, as long as she had control, there was seemingly no movement on the ground.
For Calderbank, flying a kite took more strength and delicate skill than he expected.
When aloft in a strong, steady wind, keeping the kite in place seemed almost effortless.
But when a gust or lull in the wind came, changing the intensity, that’s when the difficulty increased.
Calderbank leaned and pulled on the strings, at first a little too hard, causing the kite to dive near the sand. After a good 45 minutes of practice, including a couple of crashes, Calderbank felt like he had a good hand on the first elements. He learned how to navigate the kite into small yet powerful figure-8s, how to bring the kite up in the air from a crouching position that simulates being in the water and how to safely land the kite.
“Congratulations. You just survived your first kite-boarding lesson,” Kanz told him after he successfully bought the kite down slowly and in control.
“The thing I really took away from it was the power the wind has,” Calderbank said. “It just makes you realize what’s blowing against the side of Revel right now.”
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