Pushing the boundaries of kite surfing with Erika Heineken
By Michelle Slade

African Championships, Soma Bay in Egypt, 2013. Photo: Michael Petrikov

African Championships, Soma Bay in Egypt, 2013. Photo: Michael Petrikov

Kiteboarder Erika Heineken, from Larkspur, Calif., now has two consecutive world championships under her belt, and in 2013 was also nominated one of four finalists in the ISAF (International Sailing Federation) Rolex Sailor of the Year Awards.

The 27-year old won her second world champion title in October after winning the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) course racing world championships at Boao in Hainan, China, putting her on an even footing with younger brother Johnny Heineken who also holds two world kiteboarding course racing titles.

World Champion

A few kiters out at Crissy Field before racing at the North American Championships. Photo: Erika Heineken

A few kiters out at Crissy Field before racing at the North American Championships. Photo: Erika Heineken

Heineken had no idea what to expect going into the 2013 event. She’d had a fairly mellow training year, racing mostly at home on the San Francisco Bay with just a few international events in Canada and Egypt thrown in. In fact, her nemesis, 4-time world champion Steph Bridges (UK), had beaten her the last time the two faced each other in Egypt.

More than anything, Heineken’s challenge was going to be the conditions–she didn’t know the location nor what the wind would be. There’d been a lot of talk it’d be really light which typically bodes well for European competitors but not for hardy Bay sailors like the Heinekens who excel in huge breeze.

The women’s competition was a five-day format–four days of regular fleet racing with all points carried over into the medal series for the top ten with no drops. Lucky for Heineken the wind held at 20 knots for the first three days of competition, resulting in perfect ten-meter kite conditions which she just loves.

By the end of day three she was far ahead of the other competitors, and went on to sail an almost flawless event winning 13 of 14 races as the breeze lightened on day 4, with no racing on day 5 due to no wind.

“I was finishing about 15 seconds to a minute and 40 seconds in front of second place and that was over an 11 minute race,” Heineken recalled. “When it came down to it, it just ended up being perfect Erika Heineken conditions and I was just on.”

She continued, “I feel best in windy conditions. During the summer in San Francisco I can pretty much just have one kite in my car—a 7 meter—and I’ll get through most days at Crissy Field.”

Sibling Rivals

Erika and Johnny sailing a lap after winning the men's and women's 2012 World Championships. Photo: Roberto Foresti

Erika and Johnny sailing a lap after winning the men’s and women’s 2012 World Championships. Photo: Roberto Foresti

Heineken has been ripping it up on kites on San Francisco Bay for the past four or five years with her brother Johnny and the siblings have been key players in the exciting kite racing scene on the Bay. While opportunities to travel to exotic warm kiting destinations are always just a phone call away for the pair, more than anything else they prefer to kite right in their backyard, whether it be on the Bay or in the Delta.

Heineken attributes her relatively quick trip up the ladder to the tricks she’s learned from her brother. She and Johnny grew up sailing with their Dad and were both windsurfers before switching to kiting. Neither of them use a coach, just each other.

“We push each other plenty,” Johnny laughed as the pair shared a conspiring smile.

With the fleet racing scene on the Bay the hottest in the country, there’s always someone for her to improve against, explained Johnny.

There’s nothing like kiting plenty to stay in shape which is Heineken’s key to conditioning.

“In the summer I’m at the top of my game when I’m competing—I’m getting all the exercise I need. In the winter I try to squeak by with just sailing on weekends and going to the gym but that’s more for my mental health…”

Passion and Hard Work

Afternoon kiting in San Francisco. Photo: Erika Heineken

Afternoon kiting in San Francisco. Photo: Erika Heineken

Unlike many of her international kite competitors, Heineken does hold down a full-time job as an engineer for the San Francisco Public Works where she works on anything from planning and design of city infrastructure projects to construction support and communication between contractors and engineers.

“I’m really lucky with my job, as they’re flexible with my schedule. All these trips are contingent upon work. I wouldn’t get to go if work was in the way, but so far I’ve been lucky to travel to these events and make it happen.”

Heineken is also fortunate to have sponsors who help with expenses. Ozone Kites pay for much of her travel and kites, and the St. Francis Sailing Foundation offers financial support plus anything else that the Yacht Club can help with. She is also sponsored by the Silicon Valley Bank.

The Future

Flying downwind during the Ronstan Bridge to Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Chris Ray

Flying downwind during the Ronstan Bridge to Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Chris Ray

Looking forward, Heineken remains plenty excited about the endless options for kiteboarders. Right now she’s turned on by a new progression in the sport called foilboarding. She explains, “There’s a lot of development with foils and I’m enjoying that transition from going out on my raceboard—not necessarily learning anything different each time—to going out on a foil and learning something new.”

And, for those windy winter days, Heineken takes her kites to the slopes and will soon be snow kiting at a kite-specific location in Utah called Skyline. She kites there on her regular snowboard with the bindings simply turned more duckfoot. Snow kiting is also doable on skis.

“It’s easier than kiting because you don’t sink and so you learn a lot of kite flying skills. I learned how to fly my huge 17-meter kite in the snow first, then I transitioned that to the water. There’s no way I’d be able to do as well as I do in 6-12 knots of breeze on the water without having gone snow kiting and learning how to fly the thing: stalling it, back flying it, etc.”

According to Heineken, the idea is to find a slope where the wind is blowing uphill so that you “sail” downwind and uphill.

“It turns kiting 3-D because you have gravity pulling you down while you find this balance of power in your kite and slope angle together with how steep the snow is. You can make power turns going up the hill; it’s totally wild.”



Pumping up at Crissy Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Petrikov

Pumping up at Crissy Bridge in San Francisco. Photo: Michael Petrikov

Erika Heineken offers this advice if you’re interested in taking up kiteboarding: “If you’re thinking about learning how to kiteboard, the important thing is being comfortable in the water, that’s number one. Being comfortable in the water and having board skills like snowboarding, wakeboarding or skateboarding—although not required, these really accelerate the learning process. It also pays to learn how to fly a small trainer kite for a few hours, then take a lesson.”

Time on the water and patience are key ingredients to gaining confidence with kiting equipment, which has come far in terms of safety and ease of use over the past five years. It’s a sport that truly is appealing to people of all ages. Megan O’Leary, kite instructor and co-owner of Exotikite (www.exotikite.com) in Los Barriles, Baja Sur—which is perhaps the best winter destination for kiteboarding—regularly teaches students between 10 and 70 years in age.

Once on your own, equipment to buy will include a harness, board, one or two kites (depending on the wind range where you’ll be kiting) and probably a wetsuit. Depending on whether new or used equipment is purchased, look to spend between $1000 and $3,000.



101 Surf Sports, San Rafael, 415.524.8492, www.101surfsports.com

Bay Area Kitesurf, South San Francisco, 415.573.2619, www.bayareakitesurf.com

Benicia Kite and Paddle, Benecia, 209.304.2200, www.kitenaked.com

Boardsports School & Shop, Alameda & San Mateo, 415.385.1224, www.boardsportsschool.com

Cali Kites, San Diego & San Francisco, 415.922.5483, www.calikites.com

Captain Kirk’s, San Pedro, 310.833.3397, www.captainkirks.com

Kite 415, Foster City, SSF & Brisbane, 415.244.8007, www.kite415.com

Kite Zombies, Weed, 530.938.2900, www.kitezombies.com

KGB Kiteboarding, Emeryville, 888.441.0732, www.kgbswag.com

Live2Kite, Larkspur, Marin County, 415.924.9463, www.live2kite.com

Manta Wind and Water Sports, San Diego, 858.810.6000, www.mantawatersports.com

Murray’s Sport Center, Carpinteria, 805.684.8393, www.murrays.com

Xtreme Big Air, Pismo Beach, 805.574.9200, www.xtremebigair.com