For many kitesurfers, riding waves with a kite is the ultimate riding experience. Wave riding, however, requires not only solid flying and board skills but also a dedicated kite. All kitesurfing kites are not made equal, and true wave kites are specifically designed for surfing waves.
How do you choose the best wave kite? The best surfing kite needs to be lightweight, very fast turning, and easily depowered. It has to remain stable and responsive when depowered. If should have good drift, easy relaunch, and be strong enough to withstand waves when crashed. It should have a low aspect ratio, yet reasonable upwind performance.
Why do you need a specific kite for waves?
Riding waves is very different from freeriding or freestyle kitesurfing, and involve some or all of the following:
- Riding down the line using the power of the wave instead of the wind
- Carving tight successive turns up and down the wave using a combination of wave and wind power
- Riding back upwind to return to the wave take-off zone
In contrast, freeriding involves riding upwind most of the time. Freestyle, meanwhile, is about doing jumps and tricks, boosting, floating and looping a lot, then riding back upwind as fast as possible.
So the objectives wave kites must meet are quite distinct from that of other styles. Even within the wave riding discipline, there are two different schools:
- Riders who want a really fast kite that tightly follows their turns and moves immediately upon demand. These kites are great for playing with waves (“type 1”)
- The second style of wave riders like a slow and stable kite that sits there without interfering as they surf the wave without kite power until they’re ready to get out of the wave. they can then activate the kite to exit the wave (“type 2”)
Whether you want a kite of the first or second type depends not only on your preference but also on wind conditions you typically ride in. Most regular surfers (no kite) prefer a “type2” kite they can forget about in the wave, while kite power lovers will want to feel the pull at all times.
It’s important noting that the “set and forget” (aka “park and ride”) wave riding approach requires optimal wind direction, typically sideshore/side-off, i.e. about parallel to the wave. Onshore winds (more common) generally require much more kite action when riding a wave.
The form and length of the wave also play a role in the type of wave kite you need. Long waves with a consistent wall let you take “down the line” rides with less kite action. In sloppier or mushier waves, though, you need lots of kite action to power you through the weak sections.
So to recap, the first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you want a slower kite that will stay out of your way as you surf the wave, or a “mosquito” kite that will react and turn on a dime with your every move.
Qualities of a good wave kite
Now that we’ve looked at what riding waves entails both types of wave riding, let’s turn our attention to the qualities to look for in a wave kite for both styles.
Fast pivotal, low-power turning
A wave kite should first and foremost have tight pivotal turning including when depowered. This is particularly important for riding in onshore or side-on winds, where merely parking the kite and forgetting about it is often impossible.
In these types of conditions, I usually take off on the wave, ride straight down, and set up for my bottom turn. I dig my rail in to turn as tight as possible and face the wave while sending my kite into the other half-window towards the wave.
Keeping tension in my lines at all times is much easier on a kite that closely follows my turn. A fast-turning “mosquito” kite is a requirement for carving tight turns in onshore winds, as well as for riders who like to fly the kite a lot.
A wave kite should have significantly less pull in turns compared to a freeride or all-around kite. Too much pull from the kite while turning will pull you out of the wave or off your board. Your wave kite needs to generate much less power in turns than other types of kites.
Lots of depower
Depower is crucial for a wave kite, regardless of the type of wave riding you do (type1 or 2, see earlier section). The main reason is that when riding a wave, again the last thing you want is for the kite to pull you out of the wave due to too much power.
A good wave kite depowers quicker with less bar throw – you want the kite to cool down immediately when you push the bar out in the wave.
Your wave kite should also turn well depowered. So if your bottom or top turn is not as tight as you wish – depending on your board slashing skills – ideally, your kite should still turn fast even with less tension in the lines.
In contrast, freeride kites tend to become much less responsive when there is slack in the lines – this is by design as you want the kite to remain stable when you ride upwind or jump.
Good drift and balance
Drift refers to the ability of the kite to stay ahead of you as you ride towards the kite (downwind). A kite that drifts downwind just floats up there and moves gently backward, thus avoiding too much slack in the lines and complete loss of responsiveness.
Drift is essential in a wave kite because it allows you to ride the wave with minimal traction from the kite and without excessive line slack. On a wave kite, drift allows you to kill the power and just focus on surfing the wave. So drift is particularly important for “type 2” riding, e.g. in side-shore winds.
In more offshore winds, you’ll typically chain very tight turns up and down the wave. Because of wind direction, you’ll need to actively keep tension in your lines by doing small cutbacks on each turn. Drift is not as important in such situations.
Good wave kites tend to be lightweight – the lighter the kite, the better the drift. That’s why a lot of wave kites are 3-strut kites as opposed to the heavier 5+ strut freeride/freestyle kites.
Surf kites tend to sit back deeper in the window than freeride kites – which stay closer to the edge of the window. The best wave kites are well-balanced, that is they won’t fall out easily even when there’s a lot of slack in the lines.
Easy relaunch & fabric resistance
Easy relaunch is a crucial feature of the best wave kites. When your kite crashes, you typically need to get it back up and get out of the wave zone as fast as possible. Getting caught in a big set with your kite down can be a daunting experience.
Another essential related quality for your wave kite is fabric strength. Waves are very destructive for a kite as they can easily rip right through it. You want a solid kite with reinforced canopy and seams to be able to withstand the pressure of smaller waves.
Note: if you crash you kite in waves and have trouble relaunching immediately, you can try to steer your floating kite away from the shore and against the waves to avoid them flushing inside the kite. If you can’t do that, your best bet is to pull the quick release and even set the kite loose to eliminate all resistance to wave impact.
A wave kite should generally have light bar pressure – which generally goes hand in hand with depower range and drifting ability. Carving fast and tight turns on waves can quickly get exhausting with heavy pressure on the bar.
I sometimes ride my Cabrinha Switchblade in waves. My hands end up getting sore from all the turning because to the high-pressure bar. The Switchblade’s bar pressure is well-suited for freestyle riding (read my full experience here) but not so much for waves.
Aspect ratio for wave kites
So we’ve seen the main functional features the best waves kites should have. Many of these features are partly due to the kite’s shape and aspect ratio. Aspect is a key point in choosing a kite. Below is a summary of the impact of aspect ratio on a kite’s behavior and performance:
- High aspect kites (longer and thinner, e.g. Ozone Edge) are the best for boosting (jumping hard and high), gliding (hang time), building up speed on the board, and riding upwind.
- High aspect kites generate more power for a given size, turn slower, are harder to relaunch, don’t drift/ride downwind as well, and provide less depower at the bar.
- Low aspect kites (shorter and fatter) turn faster, drift and fly downwind better, relaunch better, have more depower at the bar.
- Low aspect kites, however, don’t go upwind as well, boost less, and glide less.
|High Aspect Kites||Low Aspect Kites|
|Looks||Longer and thinner, e.g. Ozone Edge||Shorter and fatter, e.g. North Neo|
|Plus||Best for boosting (jump hard and high), gliding (hang time), building up board speed, riding upwind.||Turn faster, drift and fly downwind better, relaunch better, have more depower at the bar.|
|Minus||Generate more power in turns, turn slower, are harder to relaunch, don't drift/ride downwind as well, less depower at the bar.||Don't go upwind as well, boost less, and glide less in the air.|
The best wave kites are typically low aspect as they need to drift and ride downwind well and turn fast – especially in wave spots that don’t have perfect side-shore wind and downwind conditions. A high aspect kite is typically just not maneuverable enough for onshore conditions.
The tradeoff is that low aspect kites usually don’t ride upwind or boost nearly as well as high aspect ones. High aspect kites tend to stay closer to the window edge which improves upwind capability, though at the cost of drift – as mentioned earlier, good drifting wave kites sit deeper in the window.
For more about the boosting capabilities of high aspect kites, check out this post on choosing a kite for high jumps.
Riding upwind on a wave kite
Due to their low aspect ratio, many wave kites, such as the Cabrinha Drifter, lack low end and make it hard to ride back upwind to the take-off zone after going down a wave.
When the wind is above 15 knots, most kites will allow you to reach the start of the wave. If the wind is really light (or if you’re a very heavy rider) however, you may struggle to ride upwind with your wave kite – and may end up walking.
Among low aspect wave kites, some kites perform better upwind than others. Some have a slightly higher aspect ratio, or other specific shape features such as squared cutoff tips that help improve upwind capacities.
Aside from the kite, I find the board you ride can make a big difference in your upwind performance on a given day. Riding a Vanguard or similar board, for example, can greatly improve your ability to get back upwind to the take-off zone on a relatively light wind day, compared to a similar sized normal surfboard.
Using a sliding harness hook such as this Ride Engine spreader bar (Amazon) can also nicely boost your upwind capability – and for those days when you’re unable to consistently ride upwind, it will make walking back with your wave kite much smoother.
So which wave kite should I choose?
As for all types of kites, there are endless debates about which are the best wave kites for surfing. There are obviously lots of good kites, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and ideal riding style and conditions. These are among the best-regarded wave kites:
- North Neo
- Ozone Reo
- Cabrinha Drifter (drifts as well as its name suggests)
- Naish Pivot and Slash (better low end than others)
- Slingshot Wave
- Core Section
- RRD Religion
I haven’t tested them all – I’ve mainly ridden the Neo, Drifter, and Religion – by my heart goes to the North Neo so far.
I’m really impressed by the Neo’s super fast turns and responsiveness in waves, low bar pressure, low pull in turns, yet nice low-end power.
I find the Neo has better upwind capabilities than most other wave kites I’ve tried and is pretty solid (maybe not as tough as the Drifter or Slash). Kite schools use it which is rare for a wave kite, they find the wind range, amount of power, stability, and crash resistance learners need.
For the record, that I use a “type 1” riding style most of the time, actively flying the kite and playing in the wave a lot. I tend to ride smaller (6-7m) Neo kites in 25+ knot, mostly onshore winds. The fast “mosquito” feel of the Neo is perfect for me.
I’ve had some great side/offshore sessions though, which have allowed me to get a taste of the Neo’s nice drift and “parking” capability. Nevertheless, I haven’t really tested it in perfect down-the-line waves, offshore winds, island-style conditions. Hope to have a chance to do that soon.
For more details on my personal experience with the Neo, see this section of my recommended kites page.
Wave kite vs all-around kite?
Wave kites tend to be average for non-wave riding use. As we’ve seen, drift comes at the expense of upwind, low pull at the cost of low-end range etc
If you’re not going to be riding waves all the time, or if you like to play on your twintip as well, you may prefer to opt for a more all-around kite vs a true drifting surf kite.
Freeride kites have varying degrees of “surfiness”. Some freeride kites have less boost and better drift, while more freestyle/wakestyle kites have a stronger focus on wind range, jumping, and upwind (think Cabrinha Switchblade).
Deciding which kites to include in your quiver is really hard and depends on a lot of factors (style, wind, weight, size, board…). As far as I’m concerned, my combination of Switchblades for power, upwind and jumping, and Neo for waves and all-around freeriding works really well.
Another fantastic versatile kite I’ve tested that also works really well in waves is the F-One Bandit 5. If I had to go on a trip and take only one kite, I’d probably choose either a Neo or a Bandit for the most versatility and the best drift/power mix.
Which size for wave kite?
Size for a wave kite is another complex question. Not only does your choice depend on your usual variables – wind speed, weight, board size, kite aspect ratio etc, but it’s also affected by your wave riding style.
Some riders like to ride waves “down the line” in light wind using a smaller kite, then get off the water, roll up their kite and walk back up. Others prefer to use really big kites (e.g. 12-13m2 for a 75kg rider) and adapt their surfing technique to that size, e.g. move the kite less.
There are basically no rules with regards to wave kite size! Particularly given the widely varying wind ranges between models. I’ve had wave sessions on a 9m2 Neo while my friend, who is slightly lighter but works his kite much more than I do, was on a 5 or 6m2.
You’ll just have to observe and experiment!
Wave rider: Smook Boards