The thrill of flying through the glistening blue water hooks many water enthusiasts. The high winds lift the colorful kites high into the air and pull the surfers soaring through the rising waves. Over the past 20 years, a passion for kitesurfing has grabbed ahold of a group of men and women in the Iowa Great Lakes, and on any given windy summer day, you will find them riding the waves of Big Spirit.
“We love everything about kitesurfing,” said 20-year veterans Jesse Leiss and Casey Powers. “It’s a time when you’re not in control—the wind is in control of what you do on the water.”
Kitesurfing is considered an extreme water sport where the kiter uses wind strength to power a large kite, pulling them on water, land, or a snow surface. The sport combines aspects of paragliding, skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, wakeboarding and windsurfing. Kiteboarding has a higher upfront cost to get started in than some, since you need difference size kites and boards, depending on the wind speed.
“But it’s all cheaper than a boat,” Powers laughed.
Curtis Harms got involved with kitesurfing seven years ago. He loves being out on the water but activities like boating are harder to enjoy when the wind is strong.
“You can’t go boating when it’s really windy. I saw a group of guys out on the water near our house, using kites to pull them through the waves. I decided I wanted to try, so that first year I started out on the snow,” he said. “I moved to the water that next summer.”
During the summer months, the kitesurfing group launches off from Crandall’s Beach on the west side of Big Spirit. They help each other with the long kite strings and getting out in the water. Because of the southern landscape, they must work to control the kite until they can hook into the wind farther away from the shore.
”For beginners, one of the biggest challenges can be going upwind to get to the middle of the lake.” Curtis shared. “Kitesurfing can have a steep learning curve but it’s worth the process.”
Most kite surfers have multiple kites, and the type of kite used out on the water depends on the current speed of the wind. The stronger the wind, the smaller the kite used. The kite is harnessed to the surfer, pulling them through the waves. They want to angle similarly to how a sailboat glides through the water.
Technology has improved immensely the past few years, where now a kite surfer can relaunch if they crash in the water. The kites and equipment have become safer. The boards are thinner and bigger than a wakeboard but allow for foot straps rather than boots.
The surfers generally like to go out as a group, just in case the wind dies a mile from shore.
“It’s nice to have a group of people to help each other, because a lot of different things can happen out on the water,” Curtis said. “It’s nice to have support watching you. We back each other up.”
Rather than using a flat board, some kite surfers have started using a foilboard, where the board extends farther below the water surface. The hydrofoil minimizes the effects of choppy or rough conditions and jumps are generally higher.
“Due to the hydrofoil's underwater characteristics, the rider can angle higher into the wind compared to traditional kiteboards, which ride the water’s surface,” said Powers.
Perry Pearson has been kitesurfing for almost 17 years, and he enjoys the challenges the wind provides out on the water.
“It can be total chaos and that is what makes it exciting,” he said.
Another member of the group is 71-year-old Bill Voss, who has also been kitesurfing for almost 20 years. His goal is to continue the activity until at least 75, and he enjoys the freedom of being out on the water.
“You feel like you’re on the top of the world when you’re out there,” Voss said. “Endorphins are high, and trouble can pop up at any moment and everything could go haywire.”
Like many of them, Voss goes kitesurfing three to four days a week. Often depending on wind strength and direction, the guys enjoy the riding, jumping, and flying out on the choppy water. The kite continually takes them right back to a wave, and they can easily spend over two hours out on the lake.
“Kitesurfing challenges you right from the start, more than you ever expect,” Pearson added. “It takes a lot of patience.”
There is certain protocol they follow when surfing together. One will take the high side, while another will go underneath to pass. This keeps the kites from tangling and strings from becoming intertwined.
“The water is choppy and everything else gets canceled, kitesurfing is something you can do when it’s too windy to do anything else,” said Chad Holloway, who travels from Sioux Falls to enjoy the activity.
Because the length of time the group has been kitesurfing, they have learned each other’s tendencies.
“We can help each other out quickly if something happens out on the water, during a launch or when we come in,” Curtis said.
He has started teaching the extreme sport to his three sons, who have also fallen in love with the ability to be out on the water when it’s windy.
“Kitesurfing allows you to go out on the water any time there’s wind!” Curtis’ son Sam said. “I started kitesurfing last summer, and I find the sport to be peaceful, especially when you’re out in the middle of the lake. You don’t have the noise of a boat motor or others around you. It’s just peaceful amongst the wind and waves.”
Peace amongst the chaos—this group of kite surfers know how to enjoy the thrill and beauty of the Iowa Great Lakes on a windy day, and like Sam said, “It’s always windy here!”