Kitesurfing Catches On With Extreme-Sports Crowd

I've nearly busted a knee trying to skateboard, swallowed mouthfuls of the Atlantic attempting to surf, and, in a rare moment of clarity, decided to take up skiing rather than face the inevitable tumble on a snowboard. But in early August I found myself in New Brunswick, Canada, learning how to kitesurf, an extreme sport that combines my inability to balance on any sort of board with the added challenge of flying a parachute-size inflatable kite. Forget zipping across open water at 60 kilometers per hour or jumping off monster waves. My goal was just to leave with most of my limbs—and dignity—intact.

While it's similar to wakeboarding, windsurfing, and parasailing, kitesurfing is the new kid on the block, a sport that's just edged into the mainstream as it has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Newcomers are often drawn to the promise of launching, Bond-like, 10 meters in the air—and to the fact that it's best practiced in jet-setting locales like Maui, Brazil, and Tarifa, Spain.

Indeed, you know the sport has arrived when Richard Branson is all over it (more than as a self-made billionaire, I think of him as that guy who kitesurfed with a naked supermodel clinging to his back). In February Branson hosted the first annual Kite Jam at his private Caribbean paradise, Necker Island, headlined by dozens of pro kitesurfers. And last week he attempted to kitesurf across the 39-kilometer English Channel to celebrate turning 60 (bad weather conditions eventually forced him to abandon the effort).

The sport has gotten so big—in the past year 100,000-plus specialty kites were sold—that kitesurfing schools can be found in such far-flung places as Kenya, Vietnam, Patagonia, and even a lagoon outside Dakhla, Morocco, in the middle of the Sahara. But while you can now bump into kitesurfers in some of the world's most remote spots, it's still accessible only to a relatively limited, high-end market.

To start, there's the wetsuit, board, and kite, which when deployed can be the size of a truck; all this equipment can easily cost several thousand dollars, particularly since many kitesurfers keep several kites on hand—small ones for strong winds and large ones for light winds. Then there are lessons, which run upwards of $100 per hour, and you'll need at least 10 hours to get up on the board and begin surfing in a straight line. Don't think you can skimp on this. "The kiteboarders you see on the water make it look so easy," says 26-year-old Stephen Daimler, who recently learned the sport and strongly advised me to enroll in a school. "Controlling a kite and wakeboarding can be difficult by themselves. Putting them together is a whole other story."

So I signed up for a nine-hour class with New Brunswick's Club Wind & Kite, one of the premier kitesurfing schools in North America ($959 Canadian for a seven-day, nine-hour package; During high season, in July and August, there's no better place to learn than New Brunswick, with its steady wind, shallow bays where you can just stand up once you fall off your board (and you will), and welcoming Acadian culture, a blend of French and heartland America.

As I drove in from the nearest airport, at Moncton, I envisioned myself ripping across the water and getting some sick airtime (translation: controlled flying). So when I arrived for my first lesson with owner Eric Girard, a dashing 36-year-old who looks as if he stepped out of a surfing catalog, I didn't expect to toil away for the next two hours flying a small trainer kite on a sandbar. Only in the last hour did I get out on the water, where I practiced getting dragged on my stomach by the kite. Although I initially thought the first day was anticlimactic, I later appreciated the drills. Because your kite provides all the power—transmitted via a seat harness so you don't have to wear out your arms—it's absolutely essential that you learn how to control it with little thought, so you can focus on the surfing part.

On day two I graduated to a bigger kite and assured Girard that I didn't need to repeat the previous day's drills. Little did I know that a bigger kite would be substantially more powerful; a few minutes later I found myself somersaulting through the air and getting dragged under the water when my kite accidentally corkscrewed. Kitesurfing can be a deadly sport: you can be blown out to sea, lofted into the air, or slammed into shore, or have your fingers torn off by the rigging. (None of which, mercifully, happened to me.)

On my last day with Girard, I spent the three-hour class simultaneously trying to pilot the kite, strap myself to the board, and harness enough wind power to get myself up and out of the water. To do so I had to whip the kite around, dipping it almost to the horizon and back again, which resulted in a violent tug on my body. Each time I would lunge up and immediately fall face-flat into the water. But just as the afternoon was about to end, I found myself up on the board for a magical fraction of a second, kitesurfing.