Why I No Longer Cringe at Being Called a "Kitesurfer"
...and how I've gotten to be OK with playing outdoors
I have a younger friend who used to introduce me at parties as a “kitesurfer.” We’d be standing there with some strangers, cans of hazy IPA or sparkling water in hand, and then there’d be that pause. I could feel it coming—and although I knew he was just doing his best to talk me up as a grey-haired cool cat—I always cringed when I heard the word come out. Really, a kitesurfer—like that’s what I am. No matter how free and fun and adventurous it might sound to whoever else, to me it always felt like a pretty small box to be put in right off the bat. It’s hard to get to know someone when the conversation starts with their indistinct wow at my involvement with this sport that remains unfamiliar to most—and the fact is that, let’s say, kitesurfing as a conversational subject usually bores me to tears after about forty-five seconds. I like to do these things a lot than I want to talk about them.
Another version of this scene played out again just the other morning. I dialed into a well-attended Zoom meeting and the host, someone I hadn’t seen in at least several months, recognized me and said, “Hey, Bowen, great to see you,” and, as if surprised that I was sitting at my desk at 9am Pacific Standard Time, “you’re not out kitesurfing!” I know he was just recognizing something that we have in common with a bit of friendly humor, but I was quick to assure him rather pointedly that there are many things that I do, by which I also meant that there are many other ways that I am—and also that I wish that he knew me better, and had something more to say to me.
I know, I know, my problem, not theirs—and so, as much I have loved kitesurfing, why do I squinch up my face at being identified with this particular sport?
I’ve been a sailor all my life. My parents were raised on Long Island around boats of all sorts, and they made sailing part of our family life as I was growing up here in San Francisco. I took lessons at the little yacht club in Sausalito as a boy, and I’d often steer when we went sailing on the bay in our small sailboat. My dad saw an ad for an original Windsurfer not long after they came out in the late seventies, and we began to sail those too. Being around boats and sailing from an early age, and then starting to work in boat yards in my teens, scraping green growth from overgrown bottoms and pasting together basic repairs with epoxy and fiberglass, I learned firsthand how expensive it is to own a boat—and how rarely most of them get leave the dock. I also saw how sailing on anything that might be fairly called a yacht usually involves cajoling various acquaintances into coming along as crew and company—and confronting the inflated and sensitive ego of the Captain.
All of these experiences led me to take up various less conventional forms of sailing on my own, along with many other outdoor sports. I started to windsurf again in my twenties and learned to kitesurf in my mid thirties, so I’ve been a kitesurfer now for at least fifteen years. Along the way I’ve practiced everything from skateboarding and rock climbing to paragliding and trail running, and most recently this new thing called wing-foiling, which evolved from and combines elements of windsurfing and kitesurfing with a hydrofoil.
All of these sports have given me innumerable moments, hours, and days of joy, exercise and exhilaration in the outdoors, memories for a lifetime, and skills that have made me much of who I am today—and yet, I still sometimes struggle to own this part of myself, especially when someone seems to sum me up as a “kitesurfer.”
Part of it has to have something specific to do with this…kite thing. I wouldn’t be unhappy at all if someone referred to me a “sailor,” a climber, or, for sure, any kind of pilot. It’s hard to avoid the association of kitesurfing with brightly-colored bro toys—neon daredevil giant-kite-flying with fun! and lots of jumping and splashing—and lots of beer. Playtime for big boys, but not for grown men, whereas sailing, climbing and flying, or, for that matter, surfing, running and any number of other sports all fall within the realm of activities that, at least these days, are considered meaningful adult pursuits.
Are there any other sports that trigger the same sort of internal conflict? I searched up a fairly extensive list of sports on Wikipedia, and amongst a few thousand or so various entries, only a few stuck out to me as even possibly dubious. There’s ping pong of course, although in reality it’s an intricate, highly competitive sport with televised matches and legions of fans. I had the opportunity to attend an Olympic table tennis match at the 2016 games in Rio, and in person it seemed far less ridiculous than the incredibly contrived Keirin race which I also got to see while I was there—a form of stadium cycling where the riders are paced by a special-purpose electric moped which zips around the track in front of the bicycles like a giant white rodent pursued by a pack of carnivorous hummingbirds. Very bizarre, and at least for me, very hard to take seriously—but again, many others certainly do.
We could get into edge cases like, let’s say, unicycling and frisbee golf, and I’m glad that I don’t have the task of explaining why those should be considered real sports, although of course, they are. Kitesurfing is certainly more demanding, more complicated, more intense, and more engaged with the elements—so why does this non-specific shame persist in me when admitting that it’s been such an important part of my life?
In case you still have the image in mind of bodily contorted sportsbros throwing 720’s and competing for ”big air,” I don’t even practice the version of the sport in which you see people jumping and spinning around and high-fiving afterwards. The sub-specialities of kitesurfing that have always interested me have more in common with the big, fast turns of giant-slalom skiing, the chase-and-drop-in of medium-wave surfing, and the endurance challenge of hiking or cycling long distances over multiple days. I feel the need to point this out because beginning long before I started kitesurfing, I avoided doing things—team sports in particular—that seemed to be too obviously performing masculine gender and gravitated instead to individual outdoor sports which often have a more neutral tone—but can easily slide into a performative display of my “starring role” in “risky, tough adventures,” as Grayson Perry puts it.
Certainly, one reason for my unease is the deep-seated association with the word ”kite” as a child’s toy, whereas a sail is something of ships and men and oceans. This was reinforced for me a few years back when I was set up on a date with a friend of a friend down in San Diego. The morning of our get-together, I washed the car and drove over to her house, a two-story family affair in a neighborhood near the beach, upscale but with the oversized houses crowded close together, the streets lined with large, shiny SUV’s. She let me in, offered me a cup of tea and we sat down in the back yard for a chat. A large fern dangled over me like a long green arm, occasionally poking me in the ear.
We had had a couple of conversations that felt promising, and we had both been excited to meet each other, but the energy drained away quickly once we were sitting there together. I certainly didn’t go out of my way to mention kitesurfing, but perhaps something else came up, like how I had recently taken my nephew for a tandem paragliding flight, or how I was looking forward to getting back to the good running trails up north. As the mutual interest meter slid quickly towards the low end of the scale, we nixed our tentative plans for the afternoon, and, with some disappointment—and also relief—began my drive back to Northern California. There was radio silence for a few days, and then I got a text from her saying something to the effect that I wanted to “play outdoors” rather too much for her taste.
So here’s the thing—nobody’s going to say that there’s anything wrong with getting outside on a regular basis, or even perhaps with adventure sports, but we still aren’t used to seeing men playing—unless they’re getting paid for it. I wasn’t wearing my “CHOOSE FREEDOM” t-shirt that day, but I should have. She certainly wasn’t into it—and I was reminded again of what I imagine as the archetypal image of a kite—a boy of six or so, holding a string, looking hopefully skywards at a diamond-shaped paper sail with a long ribbon for a tail.
Aside from the association with childhood that stems from the word “kite” itself, part of the prejudice against kitesurfing—at least as I imagine it—has more to do with how we think about sports in general. The place of sports in our cultural subconscious is still mostly that of diversion, entertainment, fun, a “pastime,” recreation, pleasure, and play—along with physical exertion and skill. The fact that we continue to both disparage and exalt sports gets directly to the conflict that we’ve created by insisting for so long that the mind and body are separate and disconnected. The body bows in recognition to the challenge of sport, while the mind waves a dismissive hand. The mind-body split has sunk in so deep that even while we admire the physical artistry of athletes, we condemn them as escape artists and thrill seekers spending their time on things that are unnecessarily difficult, scary and dangerous.
Any definition of “sport” usually includes “contest,” and while at one time this made sense in the literal sense of competition, in the realm of modern individual, outdoor sports the contest, of course, isn’t necessarily against another person—or even against the high mountain summit or the raging sea—but in the sense of being defined by, with, and indivisible from the environment in which the sport is pursued. Within contest is a test, and also the latin testis, or “witness.” Climbing is a contest with the mountains, and kitesurfing is a contest with wind and water—and both sports are ways of witnessing and experiencing those environments more deeply. It’s not danger that I seek—in fact, much of our enjoyment of sports like this “derives not from the danger itself, but from their ability to minimize it,” and the result is often a powerfully satisfying state of flow that can only be accessed by the challenge of managing risk. Outdoor sports are one of the best ways we have of practicing awareness, courage, preparedness, and growth, and the experiences that I have while doing these things enhance my everyday life, every day of my life.
Most sports involve just one element—earth, water, snow, rock—but sailing puts you right in the middle of two, simultaneously. All forms of sailing place you in the interface between air and water—and with kitesurfing, your body itself, rather than a rigid set of spars, is what connects those two elements. Your feet are in the water, your hands are in the sky, and your body becomes a conductor vibrating with celestial and oceanic energy. It’s one thing to sit in the cockpit of a boat with your cold beverage in one hand, fingertips on the wheel, and it’s quite another to be holding the power of the wind directly in your hands, steering with subtle shifts of your feet and hips and skimming along above the water at twenty miles an hour, tasting the salt of the ocean with every passing wave.
Kitesurfing is sailing without the six-figure boat, without the captain or the crew, and without the heavy truth that sailing, which can be so beautiful, elemental, and free, is just as often a big, slow, expensive, and rather complicated social experiment. A kite is a sail, and from an aerodynamic point of view they are both wings, and they all work the same way—by generating lift. The unique advantage of a kite is that it’s self-supporting—the weight of the kite—or sail, same thing—is held up entirely by the lift generated by the kite itself. When you add it all up, you get a magic sailboat that fits in the back of your car, doesn’t require any maintenance, crew, or slip fees, and goes four times as fast, to boot! Makes for a pretty nice package.
Here's a video that I made just a couple of years ago showing what it’s like kite-foiling out in San Francisco Bay. We have some of the best sailing in the world here.
The fact is, along with a few other things—and some very important people—kitesurfing saved my life. Kitesurfing was the first physical activity that I loved enough as an adult to get me out of the house, across town and outside in the elements on a regular basis for a long enough time to have a positive impact on my long-standing depression—and also, eventually, on my drinking habit. Kitesurfing was also the first sport where I really found my tribe and felt like one of them without question. Skateboarding as a kid, I had some of the skills but I wasn’t sure if I was one of the crowd. When I started going to kite at Crissy Field here in San Francisco, most of us didn’t even know each other’s last names, let alone what we did for work, and I fit in because I appreciated the feeling and the freedom as much as anyone else, and that was what brought us together. Becoming a kitesurfer here, I finally felt what it was like to be part of something without having to think about it—just because of how it felt—and it felt damn good to be out on the Bay, out under the bridge, out in the wind and the fog, out in the sun and the salt, and to come back to the beach and find myself in a sandy scrum of comrades enjoying the afterglow of a such an intrinsically beautiful experience. Not something we read about, watched, or heard of. Something we did. Something real.
It feels good to get good at something, y’know? And I got good quickly, becoming a Crissy regular in my first season, and then beginning that same year to travel the world using this new sport as a tool—and a purpose—to explore many places that I would have never otherwise had any reason to visit. For a few years I even turned pro, leading adventure kitesurfing trips on the coast of Brazil and appearing in a documentary and a TV series produced for Brazilian TV. Kitesurfing has taken me all over the coasts of California, Oregon, Hawaii, and Baja, and to Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Patagonia, Zanzibar, Cape Town—and even to a lake inside a volcano in the Philippines.
Athleticism is an escape—an escape to a wider, deeper, broader way of seeing and being seen in the world, and while this way of being can seem like a threat to the disembodied mind, the truth is that a physical connection to, and with, and in the world is hugely mind-expanding. Kitesurfing has taken me a lot of places, but it’s not about where I’ve been—it’s about who I’ve gotten to be. This sport opened the door for me to the experience of expert athleticism, and reaching the level of expertise in a physical test, and in an intimate witnessing of nature that grants a feeling of mastery—not over, but in union with the elements—translates into something that to me, feels fair to name as embodied spirituality.
To draw upon what Robert Bly writes about “display”, when an athlete transmutes physical power into a display of skillful movement, the need “to win fades and is replaced by the infinitive to be seen.” By now, I’ve come to know that feeling of my body singing the beauty of the world in many other ways, but it was kitesurfing that took me back to the place of feeling directly connected to the physical world that I first experienced as a young person, skateboarding and climbing and sailing.
And there it is—the key to my lingering shame—being seen, as an adult, enjoying the freedom, connection and joy of a child, ’playing outside.’ I know now from my own conscious experience that the performance of a sport is a creative artifact just as much as any other form of art, and that self expression, in whatever form, is one of the primary ways in which I continue to become my more complete self—and yet, also—some part of me fears that I’m seen a less than whole as a man, and that my passion for being active outdoors—especially if a kite is involved—somehow reinforces the idea that I’m shirking my manly duties.
Just as we split the body off from the mind, we split the child from the man—as if either could be separated. This is a shame, and we should undo this tearing apart.
I still remember the exact moment when I first learned how to throw a Ty slide on my skateboard, rolling down on the gentle slope of 22nd street between Castro and Noe in San Francisco, and how that felt like a solidification and an expansion of the little guy that I knew myself to be then, at the age of eleven. Kitesurfing brought me right back to that same expansive feeling, and then took me much further as an adult than I ever got as a pre-teen with my purple Powell Peralta.
It’s ironic that while at this point I’m proud to say that kitesurfing is part of who I am, I don’t really kite much these days, having mostly switched to the even-harder-to-explain and quite awkwardly-named sport that we’re calling “winging” for short. More importantly, I’m happy to take that same kid who is still part of me out to play—and—feel free to call me a kitesurfer, or a man who likes to play outside, or whatever you like, because that is part of me, and it’s also just part of the whole me.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow.
Robert Bly, Iron John.
Grayson Perry, The Descent of Man
Surfer Today, The Most Influential Skateboarders of All Time (on Ty Page, for whom the Ty slide is named).
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