This is something that’s been on my mind a little bit lately. Maybe it’s because of the god awful run of no wind, no waves and lots of rain that we’ve had, but it seems like kitesurfing activity in the UK has been very depressed this year. Of course, I can’t go kitesurfing if there’s no wind at my local spots, but I can log on to Facebook or Kiteboarder.co.uk and see posts and updates from people having amazing sessions up and down the UK. I’ve got about 1300 ‘friends’ on Facebook, I reckon the majority of them are kitesurfers in this country, but nowadays when I check the news feed I see updates on cross-fit, cycling, swimming and running, a.k.a. endurance sports.
I speak to a lot of shops and schools in my job. One school I spoke to has fifty lessons backed up on their books from this year. At £200 a lesson, that’s £10,000 they should have had in their bank by now, not to mention the margin on all the equipment sales they should have made. Another school at the other end of the country has twenty lessons outstanding, and they are plenty more schools with similar problems. The knock on effects of people not learning are people not buying equipment. In the last three months, two of the UK’s longer running kite shops went bust, and a more recent store which I felt had great potential has also stepped out of the game. No new kiters means no referrals to the governing body; the BKSA membership is believed to have contracted by 5-10% as I type, when usually you would expect a growth in numbers after a buoyant start to the season. I could keep supplying you with anecdotes from manufacturers, shops, schools, instructors and other industry insiders saying a similar thing but I’ll crack on with the point I’m trying to make.
A shift in trends
Is this all to do with a bad spell in the weather though? It seems to me that kitesurfing struggles a bit with its positioning in the greater world of outdoor sports. When it started, it was definitely in the late 90s ‘yo duuude’ Xtreme sports camp of experimental stoners and dare devils and that bought a huge amount of media attention and curiosity. Quantum leaps in safety and design have moved the sport out of that niche and we’ve sought to position ourselves alongside wakeboarding and surfing, and also sought to define the broader freeride and freestyle twin tip categories as being at the core of the sport, but the interest in kitesurfing from the rest of the world seems to be lacking. Why would a non participant be interested in wakestyle kiting when they could just go wakeboarding? Why would they want to investigate kitesurf waveriding when they can just to surfing? Why would they want to ride up and down on a twin tip when…well just why would they? I kind of joke there but I think many people would choose the convenience of a fortnight’s snowboarding for their ‘falling leaf’ lawn mowing fix and then just get on with their lives the other 50 weeks of the year. A kite shop in Poole recently shut its doors for good, while down the road a cycle shop reported the best first half of a year they’ve had in ten years of trading. It’s those road bikes – everyone’s buying them. Even I bought one the other day; I’m a bit late to the party with it and when I tell friends I’m surprised how many of them tell me they’ve got one too. What I instantly enjoyed about cycling was the simplicity and certainty of it. Plan a ten mile route, set off at a certain time, and barring torrential rain you’re session will go ahead, and now you can track your progress on your smartphone, upload it and compare your times with others. While the dependence on weather and tides that kiting and surfing have bring a sense of interacting with nature, I’m realising that being able to stop and start when I want and to all but guarantee the intensity of my activity is something that I’ve missed.
A new hope
Will I cut back on surfing and kiting and go cycling more? A little, but it will be the marginal sessions that get thrown out, and I’ll probably start cycling in the dark as the evenings draw in. I do wonder how the sporty segment of society that kitesurfing would appeal to will respond. I see a huge uptake in endurance sports and a decline in ‘extreme’ sports, I think it is trend based since people like to seek out the ‘new thing’ and right now endurance is new and extreme is getting old. But kitesurfing does have a strong response to this shifting of trends: course racing. If you’re a kiter and have yet to try it, I challenge you to find a kite friend, two boards as similar as you can get, and agree on a triangle shaped course to sail around, maybe using lobster pots as markers. It’s the closest thing to Mario Kart you will get on the water, and very addictive, not to mention a surprising test of sinew! There is an obvious competitive element to course racing that appeals to the basic instincts in us in a way that judging based competitions cannot get close to, which is why course racing and not freestyle will be the first time we’ll see kitesurfing on the world stage at the 2016 Rio Olympics… As long as people are getting out there and finding out what their minds and bodies are capable of then it doesn’t really matter what sport they’re doing. But what do you think to this? Do you feel that the trend towards endurance sports is eating into the hours people put into kiting? Is it time for kitesurfing to be re-branded? Or would you just be happier with less people on the water at your local spot? Let me know in the comments below!