Once you decide to start kitesurfing, you’ll engage yourself in a long-lasting series of decisions, whether for choosing your gear, a location, your kite, and board size, whether to go out on a given day, etc. Your first and biggest decision, however, will be the school you will be learning with.
How do you choose a good kitesurfing school? There are a few things you need to carefully look at when evaluating a school :
- Check your kitesurf instructor competence
- Ask about pedagogy and lesson plans
- Learn about group size and composition
- Check the lessons location
- Verify the learning kitesurf equipment
- Ask about rescue, boat, and radio communications
- Check business structure and insurance
In this post, I will go over each of these aspects in detail in order of importance based on my personal experience – good and bad.
# 1: Check your kitesurf instructor’s competence
The first thing you should ask when considering a kitesurfing school is whether they use certified instructors – whether IKO (International Kiteboarding Association), PASA, REAL or other similar certification.
Most established schools will carry some certification, but you should check that the individual instructors are actually certified. Likewise, if you go with a “man-and-a-van” kind of operation, ask to see an official certificate before moving forward.
Of course, IKO or other certifications are no guarantee you’ll end up with a good instructor – or even a good kitesurfer. I’ve seen people who could barely kitesurf decide they wanted to travel while teaching kitesurfing and earn their certification in no time.
One very common problem with kitesurfing schools, particularly in the high season, is that they’re typically heavily understaffed and juggle to face the demand – one of my best friends run a well-known kitesurf school overseas so I’ve seen it close up.
As a result, you may not know ahead of time who your instructor will be since schedules get continuously shuffled around. If you’re not careful, you may even end up with a trainee as your instructor.
If I were to learn to kitesurf over again, I would request to chat beforehand with the instructor who will be teaching me. It not only forces the school to assign someone to you right there, a quick chat with the instructor can give you a sense for their experience both as a kitesurfer and an instructor and for their communication skills.
The instructor should be fit and capable of rescuing you in case of trouble. Also, make sure he/she is fluent enough in English! The kitesurf industry is full of IKO certified international people traveling the world and teaching wherever they can, sometimes without sufficient mastery of the language.
In short, try to avoid the common trap of booking lessons with that young freelancer from Croatia who just earned his/her IKO certification last year, and, although s/he can really get some big air with a kite, s/he really sucks as an instructor, particularly in English!
# 2: Ask out about pedagogy and lesson plans
The second main thing to look at in my opinion when choosing a good kitesurf school is the pedagogical aspects.
Ask the school about their teaching process and specific objectives. What are the specific goals of each lesson? What will you be learning? Do they have a clear idea of the skillset a new learner has to master to be a proficient and safety-aware kitesurfer?
What is the order in which these skills must be acquired? How do they measure skills acquisition and readiness for the next stage? Can the school guarantee a certain skill level after completing the course, e.g. being self-sufficient handling the kite and board, mastering the water start, and being able to ride downwind for a few minutes?
These questions are normally addressed by the certification framework they adhere to. Not all schools, however, have the same level of understanding and mastery of these aspects, and some will just leave it up to whoever is assigned to you as an instructor.
# 3: Learn about student group size and composition
Another hugely important factor is groups. As a beginner, you’re likely to opt for group lessons, as these are generally much cheaper and easier to book in high season than private / semi-private ones.
Some schools, however, cram as many as 6 students with a single instructor, which results in very little individual time, attention and advice for each learner. So make sure to ask what the max student-to-instructor ratio is.
Another thing learners often overlook when selecting a kitesurf school, is the kite-to-students ratio : if the 4 students enrolled in a group lesson share a single kite for practice, each will get significantly less practice time and learn much less than if 2 kites are shared among the four (there will rarely be more than that for group lessons).
A third crucial factor to check is group composition in term of kitesurfing skills. Trustworthy schools try to constitute homogeneous groups where the students have similar levels of learning advancement.
Other schools will just mix and match and bundle whoever shows up into a broad “beginner level” lesson. So you end up with some students learning how to set up and launch their kite, while others are already doing the body drag in the sand.
In a beginner group, each level requires a different amount of instructor attention, so students in mixed groups often end up unhappy because some students, often junior ones, get much more teaching time than others.
When selecting a school, be sure to ask if they match students with similar levels. The way the school goes about assessing your level, through talking, and chooses the right group and instructor for you is an indicator of school quality.
# 4: Check the lessons location
A crucial factor that defines how much you’ll get out of kitesurf lessons from a given school is the place where you’ll be learning. Ideally, the lessons will be held on a large sandy beach with little nearby hazards (rocks, buildings, cars, electric lines).
Though an uncrowded space is ideal, if, like most people, you do your training in the high season, chances are such a space will not exist.
Beach authorities typically assign limited space on beaches to kitesurf schools to avoid injuries on beachgoers and swimmers. As a result, kite school areas often get very crowded, albeit exclusively with kitesurfers and learners.
It’s important, however, that you be able to stand on the beach with about 90 feet of uncrowded space downwind from you.
When choosing the best kitesurfing school for you, ask them about the spot they’ll you to. Make sure the beach they indicate has relatively flat and shallow water to learn in, e.g. an ocean inlet with manageable current, and sandy bottoms to walk on without painlessly.
Ideally, the place should also have moderate (12-18 knots) and stable winds to learn in. Of course, this depends on your geographic location, in some areas such conditions can’t be found, so you’ll have to make do with whatever is available. Just be aware that it may take you much longer to learn the skills taught if in rough conditions.
Something to beware of (personal experience here): if current wind or sea conditions are too extreme for the local spot, some schools will make you wait a few days. Others, however, will offer to drive out to some faraway, shielded spot. If so, double-check that the driving time is not counted as lesson time!
In general, you can spot a trustworthy and honest school from the way they assess and schedule lessons depending on weather conditions.
Good reliable schools will postpone the lesson if the wind is too light or too strong, while others will maintain lessons knowing the wind will make it much harder (light wind) or hazardous (excessive wind) for students to build up their kite flying skills.
# 5: Verify the learning kitesurf equipment
When evaluating a kitesurfing school, be sure to check out their kites and boards. Is the gear brand new or old? How old? Well-established kitesurf schools buy new equipment every year.
This is important because school kites take a serious beating over the course of a year, as learners crash them repeatedly into the sand or in the water. Kites are often left sitting on the beach for hours in strong winds and flying sands, leading to fast wearing off of fabrics.
School kites also fall into the water a lot and typically don’t get rinsed, so seawater and salt remain on the fabric and bridles, corroding and weakening everything.
As a result, your school kite may just rip or blow up on the next crash, or a weakened line may snap, not only freaking you out but also ending your lesson early. Or, you’ll be left hanging while waiting for another kite to arrive, or for the other shared kite to become available. The school generally won’t give you a refund for the lost time!
When you get to the water stage, equipment failure can even be a dangerous event, e.g. your kite going into power loops and your lines getting entangled in your harness. Not a nice experience to have when taking a lesson.
Even if a kitesurf school has brand new equipment, another important aspect to check is whether it has enough equipment. One of the schools I know only has about fourteen 4, 5 and 6m2 kites, which is the right kite for learners to use on most summer days.
The demand for lessons is much greater than this number, however, so instructors end up using bigger kites for teaching, exposing the students to unnecessary risk as they are greatly overpowered while underskilled.
The school should have 4-line (no 5 liners) control bars with quick release systems in good condition – briefly and discretely inspect their bars while walking around. The kiteboards should be on the larger side, easier for a beginner to water start on.
Of course, the school you choose should have enough helmets and impact/floatation vests for every student, but that’s generally the case.
# 6: Ask about rescue, boat, and radio communications
When choosing a school, you also need to assess their preparedness for emergencies and rescue support. Many schools have either a jetski or a boat they can use to rescue a drifting student, while others only have a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard.
Whether a motorized watercraft is a must depends on the spot and weather conditions – wind direction, wave height, currents, downwind hazards… Be sure to ask about the school’s experience with rescuing learners in case of trouble.
Besides emergency support, a watercraft can also help you get more out of your lessons by taking you back upwind after every downwind ride attempt. But of course, this often comes as a premium option you need to pay extra for. The amount of time you save by not having to walk back upwind, though, may be worth the price.
Radio communication equipment is a plus some schools offer as part of the lessons. With such equipment, you’ll get to hear what your instructor is saying in your helmet. This is not only a great safety device, since students who get in trouble, e.g. after crashing their kite, typically can’t hear a thing the instructor on the beach is saying.
Radio communication can also speed up your learning as you stay connected with the instructor continuously, and you can hear her comments directed to you and to others. So such equipment greatly adds to the value of the lessons. All other things equal, I would choose a school that uses radio communication over one that doesn’t.
#7 : Check business structure and insurance
Last but not least, in selecting a good kitesurfing school, verify that it’s a registered business, and inquire about student insurance and liability coverage. If the school is registered as a legitimate business, it will likely have appropriate coverage. For a “man-and-a-van” school, you’ll need to double check, perhaps even ask for some proof.
Find out about the school’s emergency plans, from first aid kit to emergency transportation to a hospital. Bad injuries are rare but can happen, so you want to be prepared. Better safe than sorry!
That’s a whole of questions to ask! It doesn’t have to take hours of talking, though. A quicker way to find out about of a lot of these aspects is to ask if you can watch a class. In doing so, you’ll get an answer to a lot of the above questions, you’ll see first hand how the lessons and groups are organized and how much effective time they have.
You’ll see by yourself how much progress the enrolled students have made over the duration of the lesson, and what they were capable of doing in the end. You can also talk to the students and collect their sincere feedback.
While this may take a couple of hours of your time, it will not be a waste as you’ll be able to make a solid decision as to the best school to choose for learning to kitesurf. This, in turn, may significantly impact your future as a kitesurfer, since a good initial training will be essential in getting you started in this fantastic sport.
Photo credits :
Featured image: courtesy of Ocean Vagabond / Ion Club
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