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Kiteboarding in Tofino

Wind and water make the West Coast of Vancouver Island a Mecca for outdoor recreation
By Peter Potterfield - June 28th, 2005

A wicked coastal squall hurls French kiteboarding champion Vincent Joly down through the shore break of Cox Bay, straight toward the rugged headland at the south end of the beach. Attached by a hundred feet of cable to the straining, billowing kite that whips around above him, Joly suddenly disappears into the foaming surf, his blonde dreadlocks vanishing beneath the waves. Just when you think he's lost control and faces a grisly death as he's carried onto the rocks of Cox Point, Joly springs from the breakers like he'd been shot out of a cannon. In defiance of gravity, he deftly rides his high performance kite up into the overcast. When he's a good 20 feet above the roiling breakers, Joly cranks a couple of backflips, and when he hits the water again he's already coming back the other way. Lost control? Dashed on the rocks? Not likely.

Joly and other European champions like Italian Andrea Cignoli, and former Canadian world skydiving champion Mark Vincent recently tuned this wild stretch of beach in Tofino, British Columbia, into a showcase for the current state of the art in kiteboarding. These riders and professional competitors gathered here recently like a gaggle of insane test pilots to try out the latest in kite designs. Kiteboarding has reached a crescendo of popularity in Europe, where extreme sports often see early adoption, so it's no surprise that on the beach today conversations in French and Russian and Spanish and Italian float on the brisk breeze. Ocean Rodeo, a Vancouver Island company that designs and sell kites and related gear worldwide, is why everyone is here. The company brings its riders and distributors each year to the tony Long Beach Lodge to try out the latest production models and perfect new designs.

"Tofino is a great place for a meeting if you work for a kiteboard company," laughs Mark Vincent, one of the designers and riders for Ocean Rodeo. "We bring our people in from all over the world, so it's important that they be comfortable. And where else can you stay in the lap of luxury on a wild Pacific beach, enjoy five star meals and a conference center, and then go outside to find a reliable 25 knot wind most afternoons? For kiteboarding, you need a place with enough wind and you need a place where the beaches are pretty empty. Tofino is perfect."

Kiteboarding, a still evolving amalgam of existing pursuits such as wind-surfing, paragliding and wakeboarding, is one of the most efficient ways to harness the wind. The rider hitches his or her body to a kite of variable dimensions--Ocean Rodeo makes kites in 10 different sizes--and follows along underneath at the end of two long lines. The cables keep the wind foil out of the water, unlike that of a windsurfer. Meanwhile, the feet are secured into something that looks like a wakeboard. According to Vincent, who has mastered everything from hang gliders to parasails to ram-air parachutes, the difference between windsurfing and kiteboarding is "the difference between riding in a car or on a motorcycle. You trade that big mast sail and boom for one little bar with way more power."

While the sport of kiteboarding is growing rapidly in popularity--you see the bumper stickers from Hood River to Tofino that claim, "Windsurfing has been cancelled"--the extreme pursuit may never overtake that venerable wind-and-water sport. For one thing, you can go windsurfing in a gale that would be unsafe for a kite. For another, you need a big, preferably empty beach to accommodate the launching and recovery of kites. The danger of the kites and the accompanying rig to other bathers has lead major cities such as Los Angeles and Vancouver to ban kiteboarding from all but a few beaches.

Still, the adrenalin rush from harnessing that much horsepower is irresistible. Most devotees of this extreme sport come from a wide range of other wind-powered activities, like windsurfing, hang-gliding and skydiving. This basic rig--at about $2,000 to start--is comparable to similar extreme activities. But kiteboarding has its own special parameters: The ideal wind speed for kiteboarding is somewhere between 20 to 30 knots At the upper end of that range is where the pros can turn tricks that defy belief.

"Below 20 knots, it's so mellow than it's just not much fun, unless you're just starting out," said Vincent. "Above 30 knots the power instantly can reach uncontrollable levels. Horsepower can kick in so quickly it's unbelievable, it can fire you 50 feet out of the water, and you can easily reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. But in between 20 and 30 knots is the sweet spot where you can really have a lot of fun. And the more wind you have, the smaller the kite you need."

"You have to remember, kiteboarding is still so new that the sport is in a constant state of evolution," Vincent said. Not only have the boards become shorter, and the kites more efficient, but the basic rig is changing as well: Ocean Rodeo has developed a quick-release harness that is meant to allow the rider to bail out and avoid injury in an emergency. And the new Ocean Rodeo kites all have a prominent inflatable tube on the wing's leading edge.

"That was a crucial development," said Vincent. "It makes the kite re-launchable from the water, and that's huge. A 'wet start' was impractical before, the early kites just sank."

The appeal is obvious. Watching Vincent and European pros strut their stuff on the beach at Tofino made for quite a show. The big, colorful kites lying around on the beach drew a crowd of tourists. Even the local surfers, a famously closed and even reclusive bunch, enjoyed the action. If there was ever a place ready to embrace something a little out of the ordinary, this is it.

The unconventional personality of Tofino, long the epicenter for Canada's unique surfing scene, suits the new sport. A quirk of geography makes for a prevailing sense of wildness on these windswept north-coast beaches of Clayoquot Sound. The west facing shores are exposed to moisture laden westerly winds blowing off the Pacific, resulting in epic winter rainfall and the potential for stormy weather anytime. Even when Victoria is sweltering in 85 degree heat, the coast is often shrouded in its marine layer. Whether the sun shines or not, most afternoons arrive with a stiff breeze just right for hitting the beach with a kite The fact that Tofino is a long five hours from Victoria by car keeps crowds to a minimum, a good thing, as the kites require a lot of unobstructed space for launch and recovery.

But things are changing in the formerly remote fishing and logging communities on the wild coast of Vancouver Island. Counter-culture travelers thumbing into town have been outnumbered by mainstream vacationers in search of a pristine coast. The advent this year of Global Corporate Charters' scheduled air service between Victoria and Tofino turns the all day drive into a 30-minute sight-seeing flight. No matter that's there's no tower and no terminal at the old World War II aerodrome, when the King Air touches down, just climb into the hotel van and off you go.

Perhaps the most emphatic evidence of Tofino's shift from funky fishing village to indulgent destination is the casual but luxurious Long Beach Lodge. Perched on its otherwise empty crescent of sandy beach, so striking in design that it's been featured in architectural magazines, the big-timbered lodge has brought a new level of civility and standard for dining to Tofino.

Eating well has never been taken lightly on this wild coast with its abundance of seafood harvested daily by the local fleet, but the style of presentation has changed. Fisherman Jesse Blake turned the Crab Bar, a venerable local hangout, into the already famous Shelter restaurant. Here, world class athletes sit next to Vancouver professionals to take in the view of snow-capped peaks in Strathcona park, and a surprisingly sophisticated cuisine focused on fish just hours from the ocean. But it's comforting to know that some things never change: this being eccentric, funky Tofino, the next best place in town is a catering truck moored in a gravel parking lot south of town. The lines are long for "killer fish tacos" at Sobo's, but the food is worth the wait even if the atmosphere remains picnic-table basic.

"The area is changing, and more quickly now than ever before," says Jay Bowers, who came here more than a decade ago to surf the empty break at a time when hippies still lived in tree houses. But Bowers grew up with Tofino, and the one-time slacker surfer now operates Pacific Surf School, one of the largest surfing schools on Canada's West Coast, with more than a dozen instructors (including those specializing in kiteboarding). "It was inevitable that Tofino would be discovered by the mainstream world," he said, "and so far it's worked out. People who come here appreciate the beauty of the place, winter or summer. Most of the visitors want to go surfing or hiking, fishing or whale watching, things like that. They come here for the natural world, so it's a good fit."

Kiteboarding has taken its place beside the litany of other activities in this Mecca for outdoor recreation. Just south of Tofino is its sister city of Ucluelet (Ukee to the locals), the jumping off place for the Broken Islands of Barkley Sound, one of the best blue-water kayaking destination on earth. On the southern edge of Barkley Sound lies Bamfield, the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail, a 50-mile world-class hiking route that follows Vancouver Island's infamous shipwreck coast through old-growth forests, wild beaches and untouched expanses of rugged coast.

Even if you can't get down to the West Coast Trail, there's always the 9-kilometer stretch of the recently opened Wild Pacific Trail, with more to come. Think of it as a West Coast Trail "lite." This route from the headlands on Barkley Sound up to the Pacific Rim highway has much the same character of its longer and wilder cousin to the south. There are old growth forests of spruce, hemlock and cedar, extensive boardwalks and ladders, wild coves, beach sections and lighthouses, even if at present the connector between the pristine northern and southern ends goes through a new subdivision. Another outstanding hiking route is in Pacific Rim National Park itself, and follows the well groomed Schooner Beach trail from the highway out to the impressive expanse of Long Beach. The route can be exited at either Greenpoint camp ground or Spruce Fringe Trail to make a memorable 12-15 mile beach hike.

But it's the wind and surf that make this place special. Back on the beach in front of the Long Beach Lodge, Mark Vincent is talking with company president, Richard Meyerscough, who started Ocean Rodeo because he couldn't find kiteboarding equipment he liked. The pair are no longer even surprised that the company now sells its products on four continents. "It's just too much fun not to be popular," said Meyerscough, "and the learning curve is surprisingly short."

Together, Meyerscough and Vincent made history last year by becoming the first kiteboarders to cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a dangerous bit of open water between Victoria, British Columbia, and Port Angeles, Washington. Since they weren't really in a position to go through U.S. customs, the unconventional voyagers couldn't actually set foot on American soil. The idea was to sail in near the beach and get picked up by a Canadian coast guard boat for the ride home.

They made the 20-mile crossing in less than an hour and half, way faster than the scheduled ferry service, and several times faster than the windsurfing record. Vincent was having so much fun, he just cranked a turn and kiteboarded back to Victoria, making the round trip in two and a half hours and beating his comrades in the boat back home by an hour.

"Now that was fun," reflected Vincent, looking up as the sun began to burn through the low clouds above the beach. He turns to watch his French team mate Joly catch big air in the shore break as the wind freshened. "Hey, it's getting good," Vincent enthused, grabbing up his board and control bar. "Better get out there before the boss calls another meeting!"


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