Kiting, the adventure paradigm, and life expectancy

By Sam Devine

Astor Kuiper kitesurfs Alameda’s Crown Beach at sunset. (Maurice Ramirez).

The sun is setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge, painting the hills red and basking the water beneath the bridge in a warm yellow glow. Harbour porpoises breach the surface in front of the board. A strong wind is pushing against a record ebb tide that’s pushing heavily out to sea.

Helicopters circle the area as the capsized Oracle is sucked out the Gate. Coast Guard boats monitor the scene as the sailors struggle to rescue the 72-foot-long trimaran. They had been practicing, pushing it, tearing around Alcatraz when something went wrong. Their bows plunged into the water, pitch-poling the sleek, carbon fiber racing machine. When their massive wingsail hit the bay, it sounded like a bomb went off.

Large Zodiac support boats arrive, lashing the boat with cables, attempting to pull it back. Smoke billows from engine compartments as the humongous black leviathan plods steadily towards the Farallon Islands. It’s pretty risky to be kitesurfing out here, but … gorgeous kitesurfing conditions and an active shipwreck in the background? Not many could say no.

Plan A is to kite back to Crissy Field. Plan B is to get scooped out of the water by one of the many boats. Well, really plan B is swim to shore. That goes into effect when the wind dies as I’m almost directly beneath the center of the bridge. I roll up my lines, blow the deflate valve on the leading edge of the kite and pile the clump on my board. Then I start swimming towards Kirby Cove.

I’m about a hundred yards away from a cliff face when a boat pulls out of the sunset. From out of its shadow, one of the America’s Cup sailors asks: “How yah doing?”

“Well, I figure I’ll make it to shore, but I’ll take a ride if you’re offering.”

I hand my board to Jimmy Spithill and climb on board.

“Where are you heading?” he asks. Then he adds, “We’re going to Fort Baker.”

“I was hoping for Crissy Field but I will settle for land.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

A friend once said: “Adventure starts where our plans fail.” As we’re forced to fall back on alternatives, to improvise, to ride it out,  that’s when we’re really living, focused. That’s when we grow and learn. Seeking the unexpected, pushing the limits of what is possible is part of the adventure paradigm, the idea that you can live a fulfilling and sustainable life that isn’t completely money driven, but rather, is focused on accomplishing less typical goals.

Personally, I don’t feel I have time to go the old-fashioned, financial-security, plan-for-retirement kind of life. Our family has a genetic disease that gives us a predisposition to early-onset frontal-temporal dementia (FTD). We thought it was Alzheimer’s disease, but we found out it was a different, lesser-known ailment once called Pick’s disease. Basically, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that I’ll go out around age fifty, not knowing where I am, unable to care for myself, and distrusting those around me. Not exactly my ideal.

My sister is participating in a study on dementia at UCSF that may identify whether we carry the gene for FTD. Our father’s brain was frozen at Stanford and it’s been transferred to UCSF to see if they can get a good sample to identify the gene. We’re waiting right now.

This isn’t any worse a burden than those that others face but it has impacted my perspective. I make a conscious effort to spend my time doing extremely memorable and thrilling things. It’s a lucky moment when we realize that we’ve found something that makes our life feel worthwhile. Sometimes we feel it but we talk ourselves out of it.

“It’s a serious struggle balancing what your mind is telling you and then what your heart is telling you you should do,” says Brad O’Neal in the short film about his motorcycle base jump, titled Follow Your Fears. “It’s really easy to crush your own possibilities in life just by your mind. And then there’s the gut feeling: ‘Do I feel positively about it?’ And I feel like, if I just follow that inner guidance with absolute conviction, I’ll end up in the right place.”

It’s 2001 and a friend and I are walking down Wawona Street towards the beach when we stumble upon a kite shop. It’s not a candy and toys kind of kite shop. This one is drab and poorly lit. In the center of the room is a low, three-wheeled aluminum kart. The shiny metal frame is wrapped in foam padding and nylon webbing. The rake of its front fork and the sweep of its body lines say clearly: “This thing goes fast.”

Talking with the store owner, we find out that it’s a kite buggy. It’s designed to be pulled by a large kite down beaches, across parking lots, fields, and golf courses. Power kiting, has been around in strange forms for ages, but became refined and popular around the 1990s. In the early 2000s, only a few people are kiting Ocean Beach.

Looking at the buggy and the ram-airfoil kite hanging on the wall, something snapped inside me. Part of me is always standing in that shop, listening to one of those inner urges, saying to myself: “I’m gonna do this. I don’t know how. I don’t know when, but dammit, I’m gonna do this.”

Six years later, after graduating college, I scrape together enough money to buy a six meter power kite and a mountain board. Rebecca Geffert, from Boardsports insists that I buy a helmet, knee and elbow guards, an impact shirt and impact shorts. (Hillbilly Butt Pads are the particular brand she sourced me.) It’s a good thing, too, because I drag myself all over the sands of Ocean Beach, knocking my head and seeing stars even with the helmet on.

Back then, people were starting to kitesurf the waters near Golden Gate Park and Noriega Street. Other land kiters and I talked about how happy we were to be warm and dry, but secretly, I dreamt of kitesurfing out in the waves one day.

In 2011, after years of practicing and lessons, I kitesurf the wild waters of Ocean Beach for the first time. It’s brief and I crash my well-worn kite, breaking it for the third and final time. But I barely care about the kite. I’ve accomplished a goal from years earlier that my gut had told me was important. It feels great — like I took on the world and won for a change!

That winter in Tahoe the lake is covered in snow. Tyler Brown, who has since been instrumental in setting up the Sierra Snowkite Center, is giving me a lesson. On a snow-covered meadow next to a frozen lake, he puts me through the paces of piloting a kite on the snow. We move across the wind, going back and forth. He gives me goals and takes pictures. I finally work my way up wind to a small pine tree he’s made my goal, then spiral the kite downwind as he’s instructed.

In 2012, I was being groomed to be the managing editor of a drinking magazine, publishing articles on liquor, beer and wine. At the same time, I was offered the opportunity to become a certified kiteboard instructor. I hardly had to think about it. I quit the magazine and taught kiting, spending most of my free time on the beach for the coming summers.

Kiting has since opened unexpected doors. While getting certified as an IKO instructor, I met David Furchtgott from Morph Kiteboarding in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. We went to Burning Man together, bringing along kite buggies and land boards and I’ve visited Tulum and Isla Blanca, kiting in lagoons and the Caribbean Sea.

There is a persistence and skill demanded by kiting, like any outdoor discipline, any adventure. The lessons can be applied to similar areas. The past few years have seen my focus shift to motorcycling. My experience teaching kiting transferred well and I taught basic motorcycling for several years. Taking a similar path in motorbiking as in kiting, I’m pursuing as many different aspects of the sport as I can – doing track days and dirtbike camps, riding thousands of miles for weeks at a time, building custom bikes.

I still get out and kite though. My favorite spot is still Ocean Beach in San Francisco. It’s a chaotic break, constantly crashing with incongruous waves of every shape and random sizes. It keeps you on your toes, doesn’t leave much time for worrying, forcing a meditative state. It’s also rad to shoot off the lip of a wave, sail through the air and touch down on the backside of the swell, gliding down it like butter on a pan.

Friends and family worry about the risky activities, but I agree again with motocrosser, O’Neal. He says that while near death, his grandfather told him that life goes by real fast. It doesn’t really matter how long your life is, but how much you make of it. This calls to mind Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of ancient Rome, who wrote: “The longest to live and the soonest to die lose exactly the same thing, for it is only the present moment which one can be deprived of.”

If my life is cut short, I hope others can look at it  and see that we don’t just have to focus on one thing to save money to do things later. We can get out there and live it now. And while it may not be a path to riches, it does lead to other rewards.

David Furchgott Nussbaum of Morph Kiting is always going for big air (Morph Kiting).

Nussbaum (Morph Kiting).

The “Shack” at Crown Beach in Alameda (Boardsports California).

The author kite-buggying at Burning Man 2012 (Sam Devine collection).