Kiteboarding Wind Theory 101

A strong foundation for a good kiteboarder involves knowing about the wind. In my experience as an instructor, I have found that this is a very important part of a new student’s learning and, unfortunately, a part that is often overlooked.

So, if you have not taken lessons, taken lessons and not received any wind theory instruction or simply want to brush up, this is my basic wind theory that I give to students at the beginning of each lesson. This is not everything you will ever need to know about the wind, but it is meant as an introductory block of information to get you started.

“Where is the wind coming from?”

When asked this question, most of my students will stick their finger in their mouth and then hold it up to the wind. While this may be a popular response, it is far from the most accurate.

There are a few ways to determine where the wind is coming from: direction of blowing sand, direction of trees blowing in the wind, even your hair as it is blown! A very easy and reliable way to determine the direction is by sound. Turn until you hear the wind in both ears. That is where the wind is coming from and why, when people walk into the wind, they get the sensation that it is windier than it actually is.

“Wind window”

There are some key terms to understand when learning how to kite.

The direction that the wind is blowing is called downwind. The direction opposite to the wind is called upwind.

If I were to put my back to the wind and put my arms straight out to my sides, I would form a line perpendicular to the wind direction. So, now everything behind me is upwind and everything in front of me is downwind or what we call the wind window.

Straight downwind is an area that we refer to as the power zone. It is called this because it is the strongest part of the wind window. The wind wants to blow your kite into the power zone, and that is where your good piloting of the kite comes in handy!

If I took my outstretched hands and brought them above my head to create an arc, I would also be tracing out the edges of the wind window, or the neutral points.

In kiteboarding, we use a time clock reference to help explain a kite’s position in the wind window (refer to the diagram).

“What is the wind speed?”

This is a pretty important piece of information to know before you head out onto the water! There are a few ways to determine your wind speed…

Spots that are frequented by kiterboarders may have a station set up to give them live feeds of the wind speed. Unlike sailors, kiters rely on real time data rather than a forecast. Wind Alert, or (wind alert is the app and is the corresponding website), offers a good range of spots and frequent sensor updates.

If you don’t have a sensor at your spot, wind meters can be a good alternative. These tools get a bad reputation in the kiteboarding community, but don’t feel bad about using them if you don’t quite have the “feel” for the wind speed without it. If you get one, just make sure to get it calibrated according to the manufacturer specifications to ensure that it is functioning properly.

Another way to determine the wind speed is by using the Beaufort Scale for wind speed, as seen below.

Knots Bft m/s km/h Label Effect on Sea
1 0 0-.2 1 calm Sea like mirror
1-3 1 .3-1.5 1-5 light air Ripples with appearance of scales, no foam
4-6 2 1.6-3.3 6-11 light breeze small wavelets, crests do not break
7-10 3 3.4-5.4 12-19 gentle breeze large wavelets, crests begin to break
11-15 4 5.5-7.9 20-28 moderate breeze small waves, frequent white caps
16-21 5 8-10.7 29-38 fresh breeze moderate waves, more pronounced foam, more white caps
22-27 6 10.8-13.8 39-49 strong breeze large waves, white foam crests everywhere
28-33 7 13.9-171 50-61 near gale sea heaps up, white foam breaking, waves blown along wind
34-40 8 17.2-20.7 62-74 gale moderately higher waves, edges of crests break into spindrift, blowing foam
41-47 9 20.8-24.4 75-88 severe gale high waves, dense foam, crests topple, spray may affect visibility
48-55 10 24.5-28.4 89-102 storm very high waves with overhanging crests, surface has white appearance
56-63 11 28.5-32.6 103-117 violent storm exceptionally high waves, edges of crests blown to froth
64-71 12 32.7-36.9 118-123 hurricane visibility seriously affected, air filled with foam and spray

Regardless of how you determine the wind speed, it is important to know your limits. When we measure wind speed, we focus on a range. Let’s take an example and go from there. Since most of my readers are from the U.S. and I am most comfortable with using mph, my examples will be using mph.

Let’s say we have a wind speed of 12-17 average 15. What this means is that the lull (or the lowest speed the wind is blowing) is 12, the gust (the highest speed the wind is blowing) is 17 and the average is at 15.

When considering what wind speed is good for you, there are a few things to consider: your weight, kite size and experience level. Generally, the heavier you are, the higher the wind speed and bigger the kite. In a wind speed of 12-17, as an experienced rider weighing 138 pounds, I may put up an 11 meter kite. A man weighing 180 pounds may instead put up a 12 or 13 meter kite. Your experience level plays a part in your decision. In very light or very strong winds, an experienced rider will be able to handle the conditions better than someone who is new to the sport.

Let’s talk about the lulls and gusts. A lull below 10 mph is not even worth trying to put your kite up because, chances are, it will fall out of the sky during the lull (and most likely you won’t be riding, unless you have a BIG kite!). The gust is a little less concrete. Generally, I tell students that if it is gusting over 25, wait until another day. The higher the wind speed, the more disastrous your mistakes become. Those small mistakes that you make during light wind situations become bigger and bigger mistakes the stronger the wind gets.

Finally, the wind range is important to consider because gusty wind can also be problematic. Try to limit yourself to a range of 10 mph or less between the lull and the gust (e.g. 12-20 is ok, 12-28 is not). Very gusty conditions make it difficult to choose a proper kite size and line length. In conditions such as 12-28 mph, you will have to compromise on your kite and spend a lot of your session either under powered or “lit” (overpowered). As you become a more experienced kiteboarder, you can push your limits. When learning, try to stay more conservative.

“What is the wind direction?”

It is more important to understand the wind direction in relation to shore than the ordinal direction. When you begin kiting a spot regularly, then that will become important to know. When you are learning, you need to be able to step out onto the beach and evaluate what the conditions are before going out. As seen in the diagram, the wind directions are: onshore, offshore, sideshore, side onshore and side offshore. Sideshore and side onshore are beginner level wind directions. In these wind directions, the kiteboarder can easily tack out and back. Should anything occur, the rider can easily return to shore without risk of being blown offshore. Onshore is an intermediate level direction. The rider needs to be proficient in upwind riding to go out in this direction. Since beginners don’t have mastery of the kite or board, their tacks are downwind. In an onshore wind condition, downwind is obviously into obstacles, buildings and people. Side offshore is an advanced level wind condition. This wind direction can be deceptive to the inexperienced rider because it does have a side shore element to it. However, if something goes wrong, the wind will be pushing you out away from shore. When kiting in these conditions, be prepared to release your kite if necessary. Offshore conditions are an advanced/professional level direction. I personally do not recommend kiting in this wind direction.

“Wind Effects”

There are a few basic wind effects to be aware of as you get out onto the water…

Wind Shadow: Anything that can possibly block the wind (buildings, trees, mountains, even sand dunes) creates a wind shadow. A wind shadow is an average of 7 times the distance of the object downwind and 3 times the height of the object upwind. In addition to creating a shadow, the obstacle will create turbulence both downwind and upwind called whirlpools and rolls. This wind shadow is another reason that offshore winds are dangerous (in addition to getting blown away!).

Gradient of wind: The closer your kite is to the water, the slower or less powerful the wind is. This gradient is caused by the friction between the wind, water surface and waves.

The Venturi Effect: As wind passes between two obstacles (such as buildings or mountains), the speed increases. The direction can also change and become turbulent depending on the shape of the obstacles.

“Be aware of your surroundings!”

Understanding the environment you are in and possible obstacles/hazards on the beach is the first thing you should do in a new place. Some common obstacles are: people, boats, fishermen, buoys, docks, signs, jetties, underwater hazards and marine life. Talk to the local kiteboarding shop or local riders before trying out a new spot. Even if you think the spot looks safe, there may be things you don’t see.

“What does the radar say?”

Knowing the weather forecast for the day is an important step in getting yourself ready for a good session on the water. When people think about kiteboarding, their first thoughts are that we go out when the storms come. While this is sometimes true for the more daring of us, most days on the water riding are actually really pleasant. When you are learning, stay away from those stormy conditions. If you see storm clouds moving in, put down your kite. Too often, I see inexperienced kiters or riders from a different spot riding when all of the seasoned, local riders have put down their kites to wait for the storms to pass. While it is likely that the storm will just pass, it is just as likely that the storm will create a strong spike in the wind and shift in the direction.

Kiteboarding is a safe sport as long as you are making good decisions. Watch the weather and don’t take unnecessary risks-there will be other windy days.

I hope this answered any questions you may have and gave you a better understanding of wind theory. Remember, you never stop learning. Treat kiteboarding like the extreme sport that it is and you will have a long, happy career as a kiteboarder!

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