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Flowin' in the Wind

The sky is a deep blue when I join Mary for a four-mile ride from her house on the sound to a secluded sandy beach known to locals as The Washout. After a few minutes on the water, I’m lagging behind. I crank my kite into figure eights to generate forward thrust. It’s futile. This is Mary’s turf, and she’s hauling ass. Because Pamlico Sound is so shallow—in places, only inches deep—much of it remains smooth, even in high wind.

Few places are as well suited to kiteboarding as OBX—the parochial shorthand for the Outer Banks—making the area legendary among riders worldwide. Late one afternoon I count 47 kites in the air at just one of a dozen potential launch sites. An impromptu beach poll turns up riders from Brazil, Peru, France, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Enthusiasts flock to the Outer Banks during the summer like powder buffs to Vail’s back bowls. The reason is geography: look at a map of the eastern seaboard and you can spot the unmistakable silhouette of the Outer Banks jutting into the Atlantic Ocean like the protruding nose of a curious hound. With no significant landmasses to impede incoming weather, the sand-dune-crested islands are buffeted year-round with steady, robust winds.

But you don’t need a coast to be a kiteboarder. I live in Colorado, where the kiteboarding scene has exploded on nearby Lake McConaughy—a 20-mile-long reservoir in western Nebraska, fringed with sandy beaches and pounded by angry Plains winds (there’s even a school called The Kite Ranch, run by Bob Stalker, 50, and his wife, Billie). My wife and I started kiteboarding in 2003, and we’ve hauled our gear from coast to coast, to the Caribbean, South America, Hawaii, and Mexico, meeting riders at every stop. Besides frequenting the obvious locales (California, Florida), kiters are riding in Alaska, Wyoming, Utah, Michigan, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia, and Ohio. Anywhere there is water and wind, there is kiteboarding.

When I return to The Washout in the morning, it’s blowing a steady 20 knots, gusting even higher. A nearby cold front has pumped up the wind across the Outer Banks. Wisps of sand swirl around my ankles. I glimpse Susan Righter about 50 yards offshore. She’s easy to spot—petite, deeply bronzed, strikingly muscular. This is her first year kiting, yet she has already conquered the fear factor that can hamstring beginners. Controlling a kite is like flying an F-18 fighter jet: it’s frighteningly powerful and finger-touch sensitive. Novices often overcompensate and get walloped. Despite Susan’s skill level, I’m surprised to see her on a nine-meter kite, which is whopping for someone her size. In high winds you want your smallest kite in case things get hairy, and Susan is clearly struggling. Whenever a gnarly gust barrels ashore, she quickly pushes her control bar away to flatten the kite and shed power. But the wind is too strong, and after a few minutes she zips back to the beach. She looks a bit shell-shocked. “I definitely need a smaller kite,” she confides. It’s blowing harder now, and I tell her I’m impressed with her kiting prowess.

“My grandchildren watch and say, ‘Wow, look what Granny is doing!’ and my friends think I’m crazy. But if you’re active at my age, you need a sport like this,” says Susan. “Otherwise, what else are you going to do?”

Michael Behar is a kiteboarder who writes frequently for Outside magazine.

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