Kitesurfing is a relatively new sport, becoming a mainstream sport in 1999. It is a surface water sport which combines elements from wakeboarding, windsurfing, surfing and paragliding. A kitesurfer uses the power of the wind with the kite to propel him/herself across the water, while also using the waves to be able to jump higher. It is not a sport for the faint-hearted, and it is certainly not a sport to try on your own, as there could be some serious injuries. Water-sports have always been a part of island living, and having so many beaches to choose from in such short distances, makes Malta an ideal location for practicing water-sports.
We spoke to Ralph Vella, company director of Shortlets Malta Ltd., and avid kitesurfer, about this fairly new water-sport.
What drew you to kitesurfing?
R.V.: Back in 2002, when I started kitesurfing, this sport was very new, and the only things we knew about it were what had seen from the internet. I was very interested and wanted to try it out, since I had already been keen on windsurfing. A small demonstration was set up in Malta by a kitesurfer from the UK, and he showed us what to do and we had some equipment which we could try out.
Do you need to have a background in some other type of sport to be able to kitesurf?
R.V.: It is not particularly necessary; however, if you have a background in wakeboarding or in surfing, this will help you greatly with your board skills. If you have even flown a stunt kite or a traction kite, you will have a better idea of how to handle the kite as well. I did not have either of the two, which made it a bit harder for me, and since the sport was just beginning and the equipment was still quite primitive, it took me about 2 years to learn how to properly practice this sport.
Do you need to take specific lessons to practice kitesurfing, or can you learn on your own?
R.V.: Yes, you need to take lessons, even though I learned on my own. Today there are IKO (International Kitesurfing Organisation) Instructors in Malta, who are certified instructors specifying in this sport. These instructor make the sport safer, and they teach you all you need to know to feel safe while kitesurfing. One of the drawbacks of kitesurfing in Malta is that the wind is always onshore, so if something goes wrong while practicing the sport, you can be dragged on to the beach. It is important to always know exactly what you are doing while kitesurfing.
Does this sport require only a kite and a surfboard?
R.V.: No, these are the two main pieces of equipment you need, however there are different types for different situations. For example while kitesurfing you will need more than one kite for different winds; the stronger the wind, the smaller the kite has to be. In my case I have three kites, a 14sqm for light wind, an 11sqm for medium winds and a 7sqm for strong wind, Force 7 and rough conditions. There are also different kinds of boards – usually the most basic board is a twin-tip, meaning it can be steered in both directions, having no front-end or back-end. Then there are more specialised surf boards for riding waves, however these are usually used by more advanced riders who want to have a further challenge while kitesurfing to ride the waves with the kite, which is a more difficult thing to do.
What safety precautions do you need to take prior attempting to kitesurf?
R.V.: The most important thing is knowing the direction of the wind, and making sure that the wind is a good condition for kitesurfing. Then you need to choose the right equipment. For example, if you are going kitesurfing on a day when the wind is onshore Force 5, you need to choose the right location, the right size of kite and board, and you need to pay attention to other people in the water. When jumping you need to make sure that there is nothing and no one downwind of you, so that you do not get hurt, otherwise it is very easy to injure yourself or those around you.
Is kitesurfing suitable for anyone to try?
R.V.: Kitesurfing is not ideal for children, as you have to be attentive and know what you’re doing at all times. The youngest kitesurfer I met in Malta was 15 years old. However this does not mean that you cannot kitesurf if you are young, you just need to be very careful and stay alert, as it can be very dangerous is you do not know what you are doing. The oldest kitesurfer I know is a friend of mine, who is about 45 years old, so not too old either. In Malta we were only 5 people in the beginning, when the sport was just starting; but now in the last 5 years or so, we have gone up to about 50 people. Obviously we are never all together on the beach! The most we have been is about 20 kites.
Can you kitesurf alone? Or should there always be someone with you to help you if needed?
R.V.: You can kitesurf alone theoretically, however I never did, as to launch a kite on your own you have to use a kind of anchor, or at least a rope tied to something heavy, and since the beaches in Malta are quite small this can be a bit dangerous, especially if you are alone. Usually, I do not make specific plans to meet up with other kitesurfers but I always seem to find someone practicing the sport whenever I go. Unfortunately there is no Kitesurfing Club yet in Malta; however you can always find the same group of people kitesurfing here and there. There are quite a few people in Malta who have tried it out, however it is only a few who are still practicing it regularly.
What makes kitesurfing more challenging than windsurfing?
R.V.: I do not personally think it is more challenging than windsurfing; however they are different from each other. For windsurfing you need to have windier conditions than for kitesurfing. What makes kitesurfing more challenging in Malta is the lack of space, as for kitesurfing you need at least 30m of beach to open your lines, whereas for windsurfing you can go off the rocks. In Malta, especially in summer when the beaches are packed, we have to find our own solutions as to how to launch the kite and where to land it, as there are the swimmers only zones in use as well. I would say kitesurfing is more of a winter sport, at least in Malta.
Is Malta an ideal location for kitesurfing?
R.V.: Malta is ideal yes, as it is an island and you can get all the wind directions in different locations. There is no ‘best’ beach, as it mostly depends on the wind direction, but the most ideal beach for learning especially, is (Ghadira) Mellieha Bay, simply because it is the largest beach on the island. My favourite beach has to be Riviera Bay, which is one of the hardest places to kitesurf in Malta, as when the wind is strong very big waves form there. You can use these waves as a makeshift ramp to push you up, and you can time the jump with the kite together with the wave so you get really high jumps. However, this is best to attempt if you are skilled in the sport and you are an experienced rider.