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The Dangers of Kitesurfing: Everything That May Go Wrong

There’s always lots of debate among non-kiters about how dangerous kitesurfing is and the kind of hazards kitesurfers are exposed to.  Until you really start flying a kite and get out in the water, it’s easy to imagine all sorts of tragic, death-causing situations that can happen when practicing the sport.

So what are the actual dangers of kitesurfing? The potential hazards kiteboarders face can be grouped in the following categories:

  1. Hazards from kiter errors
  2. Weather & nautical hazards
  3. Equipment failures
  4. Obstacle hazards
  5. People hazards
  6. Underwater hazards
  7. Health hazards

In this article, I’ll quickly go through the dangers in each category, and for each one, I’ll give my own assessment of its likeliness (based on my years of kitesurfing experience ), a worst-case outcome, and ways to mitigate the risk.

1. Hazards due to kitesurfer errors

These are hazards stemming from bad practice on the kiteboarders’ part.

1.1. Getting overpowered – losing kite control

  • Hazard description: your kite is too large for the current wind and drags you out of control
  • Probability: medium for newer kiters
  • Worst case: getting dragged out to sea or into an obstacle without being able to release
  • How to avoid: observe and talk to other kiters to check what size kite they’re using

1.2. Being underpowered

  • Hazard description: your kite is too small for the current wind so you’re unable to ride upwind.  You drift toward an unsafe zone, or your kite ends up dropping into the water.
  • Probability: medium for newer kiters
  • Worst case: ending up in an area downwind with big rocks or strong current
  • How to avoid: same as previous, ask other kitesurfers for optimal size.

1.3. Failed launch or landing

  • Hazard description: your kite goes right into the power zone when launching in strong wind (>30kn).  You’re unable to lower your kite at the edge of the window for landing.
  • Probability: low with modern kites – enough depower to handle strong wind.
  • Worst case: getting dragged or lofted out of control inland over a road or into a building.
  • How to avoid: use a recent kite and bar with good depower, avoid launching in bad weather

1.4. Getting caught in running kite lines

  • Hazard description: someone upwind from you loses their kite in strong wind with the lines connected.  Or, your kite gets blown away while setting up.
  • Probability: low to medium on school beaches
  • Worst case: having a limb, your face, or your neck badly cut by the loose lines.
  • How to avoid: don’t stand downwind from learners on strong wind days. if you can. Always keep an eye on what’s going on upwind.

1.5. Losing control while practicing on land

  • Hazard description: while practicing jumping on the sand with your kite, you get lofted by an upward air stream or dragged downwind by a gust.
  • Probability: high for a learner spending much time flying the kite on land.
  • Worst case: being pulled off the ground high and towards the road/buildings/power lines, then dropping like a stone from a high point.
  • How to avoid: avoid flying your kite on the beach in strong winds, get in the water asap.

1.6. Hurting yourself while jumping

  • Hazard description: you do a jump and land hard in shallow water or collide with another kitesurfer downwind.
  • Probability: medium – happens a lot with newer kiteboarders learning to jump.
  • Worst case: twisted or broken foot or ankle, injured knee or back.  Causing injury to another rider.
  • How to avoid: check there’s enough water for jumping, check for downwind clearance before each jump.

1.7. Getting wiped out in waves

  • Hazard description: you take off on a bigger wave, lose tension in your lines, your kite drops, a big set arrives, you and your kite get washed out.
  • Probability: high if you ride in big surf with insufficient wave skills.
  • Worst case: getting tangled up in your lines while the kite is pushed by the waves, not being able to release (pray that waves end up ripping through the kite).
  • How to avoid: don’t go in big waves without proper surf kiting experience.

1.8.  Getting hit by a kiteboard

  • Hazard description: your board whips back and hits you hard in a wind gust as you fall, get distracted by your powered kite, or try to land a jump
  • Probability: medium to high in strong winds
  • Worst case: being knocked unconscious, getting a head commotion or cut in the face, getting a broken bone.
  • How to avoid: gain experience in moderate winds first, wear board straps until you have good control, wear a helmet, don’t use a board leash.

1.9.  Getting hurt by a kite line

  • Description: your kite drops into the water in a wind lull, then suddenly relaunches with a gust, tensing up the lines as you were holding one of them.
  • Probability: medium for newer kiters
  • Worst case: the line cuts your hand, your face, or your throat  as the kite relaunches.  A kitesurfer I know even had one line get into his mouth and rip his teeth out on relaunch following a failed wakestyle trick attempt…
  • How to avoid: always be prepared for a sudden relaunch after your kite falls.  Be very cautious when pulling your slack lines with your hands – wrap them around your bar instead if you can.

2. Weather and nautical hazards

2.1. Undergoing sudden wind change

  • Hazard description: wind suddenly picks up strongly e.g due to a storm and you get lofted.  Wind suddenly drops and you get stuck at sea with your kite down.
  • Probability: low (but can happen)
  • Worst case: wind gets so strong you can’t help getting dragged upward and have no choice but hit the release.  Or, wind dies out completely, leaving you drifting in offshore currents.
  • How to avoid: know the wind forecast, know the spot, avoid currents, don’t go farther than you can swim

2.2. Being caught in very gusty wind

  • Hazard description: strong gusts constantly rip you off your board, then make your lines slack with your kite ready to drop from the sky.
  • Probability: low to medium – fairly common in certain spot with certain winds.
  • Worst case: getting thrown onto an obstacle (reef etc), losing your board, dropping your kite while close to rocks.
  • How to avoid: avoid going out in very gusty wind – e.g. places with mountains or buildings upwind.  Or, learn to cope with gusts by using a smaller kite and learn to work it in lulls.

2.3. Getting in trouble in cross/offshore wind

  • Hazard description: getting in trouble in offshore wind – unable to relaunch, snap a line, health problem…  The wind blows you out to sea or parallel to the shore.
  • Probability: Medium in cross/offshore wind
  • Worst case: let go with your kite and swim back toward the shore, get caught in currents or surf and possibly drown.
  • How to avoid: avoid going out in offshore wind, or use a surfboard with a leash so you can paddle back in case of trouble. Prepare to sacrifice your kite.

2.4. Hitting something at high speed at lowering tide

  • Hazard description: you don’t realize the tide goes down, making sandbars and rocks very shallow.  You hit a sandbar or rock at high speed.
  • Probability: medium on a spot you don’t know
  • Worst case: hurt yourself, break a bone e.g. hand, arm or leg, need someone to rescue you in the water
  • How to avoid: know the spot and tides, ask around, steer clear of shallow rocks.

2.5. Getting caught in strong currents

  • Hazard description: you unknowingly reach a zone of strong current (lagoon pass or rip tide).  You’re barely moving despite the strong wind.  Or conversely, current pushes you toward your kite.
  • Probability: low – some spots are knowned for current hazards
  • Worst case: you get caught in the current and/or your kite drops, you can’t swim or paddle out of it and need help.
  • How to avoid: know the spot, its currents and tides.

2.6. Getting caught in big waves

  • Hazard description: you unwillingly kitesurf into a wave zone with large sets coming in and unreliable wind keeps you from escaping fast
  • Probability: medium to high in flatwater spots with outside waves, e.g. sheltered bays and reef lagoons.
  • Worst case: you’re unable to get out of the wave impact zone fast enough, get washed out with your kite dropping.  You need rescue to avoid drowning
  • How to avoid: make sure you stay within the lagoon or bay unless you know what you’re doing.  Ask ahead of time what to do if you get caught in the waves.

3. Equipment failure hazards

3.1. Snapping a kite line

  • Hazard description: a line breaks while you’re far away from the shore or in the wave zone.  Due to increased stressed, one or more additional lines snap shortly after.
  • Probability: low to medium depending on line age and maintenance
  • Worst case: your kites goes into powerful deathloops dragging you endlessly out of control, and you’re unable to push your safety release due to line tangle.
  • How to avoid: check your lines on a regular basis and replace them when necessary.  Carry a hook knife at all times.

3.2.  Having your harness spreader bar break

snapped harness spreader bar

  • Hazard description: your harness spreader bar snaps – one of the loops that attach to the harness straps snaps.
  • Probability: low with a  good harness.
  • Worst case: your harness remains attached around your waist but one side of the spreader bar is loose so the kite lines pull you helplessly on your side, so you can’t really control the kite.
  • How to avoid: choose a brand new harness from a decent brand (though it’s happened to me anyway).  If it occurs, either try to body drag to the beach or fully let go of your kite.

3.3.  Having your leading edge bladder lose air

  • Hazard description: while you’re riding offshore in strong winds, your kite’s leading edge starts losing air, flapping and swirling out of control
  • Probability: medium to high depending on kite age
  • Worst case: your kite goes into power loops out of control, or ends up dropping into the water while you’re far from the shore.
  • How to avoid: regularly pump your old kite up to check for discrete bladder and valve leaks.  Be on the lookout for slight deflating after each session.

3.4.  Having a twintip strap go loose while riding

  • Hazard description: one of the straps on your twintip kiteboard turns loose, with the strap no longer holding your foot, effectively preventing you from using your board.
  • Probability: medium
  • Worst case: the straps goes loose while you’re doing a jump so that only one foot is now stapped to the kiteboard.  The board spins, hurting your attached ankle badly (true story)
  • How to avoid: check your kiteboard straps and screws, especially before doing jumps.

3.5.  Having your quick release go off by itself

  • Hazard description: your quick release gets triggered too easily, and goes off as a result of a wrong move while riding at sea
  • Probability: low to medium depending on control bar age and model
  • Worst case: the release triggers while you’re near an obstacle or another rider downwind, sending your kite and lines their way.
  • How to avoid: check your safety system and replace it if it triggers too easily.

4. Hazards due to obstacles

4.1. Getting blown out into a inland obstacle

  • Hazard description: due to strong onshore wind, you get pulled by your kite inland toward a building, a power line, a tree, or onto a road.
  • Probability: low to medium, depending on proximity, wind strength, and rider skill level
  • Worst case: getting lofted upward and swept inland at high speed over a road and against a nearby building (true story), being dropped like a stone in the middle of a road.
  • How to avoid: don’t go out in weather fronts. When getting lofted release your kite fast before going too high. If lofted high, try to steer your kite back toward the water.

4.2.  Getting dragged into an obstacle in the water

  • Hazard description: due to excessive or insufficient wind, you get dragged or drift onto rocks, a reef, a peer, or a large buoy downwind.
  • Probability: medium to high depending on wind
  • Worst case: getting stuck in the rocks or on the reef, damaging your board or injuring yourself (“cheese grater” on sharp rocks), having to part with your kite to avoid injuries.
  • How to avoid: don’t go out in places with downwind obstacles unless you know you can reliably ride upwind (and have the wind and skills for it)

5. People hazards

5.1. Colliding with another kitesurfer

  • Description: you unwillingly get too close to another kiteboarder and your lines cross, or your kite goes right through the other rider’s lines.
  • Probability: medium to high  in crowded places with strong or gusty wind
  • Worst case: both sets of lines get tangled, both kites go into dangerous death loops with the riders losing control.  One rider may trigger the release while the other is unable to.
  • How to avoid: don’t go out when it’s too crowded (e.g. Tarifa in August). If you do, ride far from the shore where more beginners and freestylers hang out.  If you get into a wave or a jump, always check for downwind clearance first.  If your lines do cross with someone else’s, try to coordinate with the other person to release both kites simultaneously.

5.2.  Catching a swimmer or bystander with your lines

  • Description: as your kite drops to the ground or water, your lines extend lie around a swimmer or a beach bystander downwind from you.
  • Probability: medium to high in popular beaches
  • Worst case: as your kite relaunches from the water or sand, the lines tense up suddenly, catch the swimmer or bystander and cust them badly.
  • How to avoid: always check for beachgoer clearance downwind both on the sand and in the water near shore.  If your kite drops with your the lines surrounding a person, immediately flag your kite to complete depower it and avoid a dangerous relaunch.

5.3. Colliding with a boat or jetski

  • Description: your riding course crosses with a boat or jetski’s course, a wind lull keep you from avoiding it at the last minute.
  • Probability: low to medium
  • Worst case: crashing into the boat or jetski.
  • How to avoid: ride defensively, don’t wait for the boat to change its course even if you feel you have right of way, head far enough upwind or downwind, whichever is easier.

6. Underwater hazards

6.1. Stepping on sea urchins

  • Description: as you walk into the water with your kite in the air and your board by your side, you step onto a sea urchin on a rock or in the sand.
  • Probability: medium to high in some rocky beaches or points
  • Worst case: dozens of urchin spikes stuck deep into your underfoot skin and giving you significant pain.
  • How to avoid: if possible, get into the water as far away from the point or reef as possible, through a sandy area – though it’s possible to step onto an urchin in the sand, I’ve been there – even if that means having to ride upwind to get to the spot you want.

6.2. Getting stung by a weeverfish

  • Description: weeverfish is a venomous fish that hides in the sand.  As you step into the water you step on it, causing you a very painful sting that irradiates up your leg and all the way to your bones, and can last an hour or two.
  • Probability: medium in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea (it’s happened to me 3 times)
  • Worst case: standing in strong wind with your kite up and no-one around to help you land, and far from a source of clear water to rinse the sting and sooth the pain.
  • How to avoid: there’s no way to spot a weeverfish in the sand, it’s a matter of (bad) luck. Having a bottle of water on the beach where you kitesurf can be a good idea.

6.3. Getting trailed by a shark while riding

  • Description: as you’re riding you spot a large shark following you
  • Probability: low, higher in Australian and South African spots
  • Worst case: shark attacks you
  • How to avoid: get out of the water asap, avoid riding at sunset in shark-infested areas

6.4. Hitting a shallow coral

  • Description: as you kiteboard around a lagoon you hit a shallow coral reef at high speed
  • Probability: low to medium in tropical places
  • Worst case: you break your board, get stopped dead in your tracks and cut yourself badly when landing on the reef
  • How to avoid: learn about the lagoon’s coral reefs, currents and tides before going out.  Keep an eye on the (usually transparent) water to spot any reef ahead.  If possible, wear a wetsuit to reduce cuts in case of trouble.

7. Health hazards

7.1. Getting cramps when riding

  • Description: after riding for a couple hours, you start feeling cramps in your hamstring and/or calf.  Cramps may also kick in hours after your kiteboarding session, after your muscles cool down.
  • Probability: high for a lot of riders
  • Worst case: getting a crippling painful cramp while kitesurfing that keeps you from being able to ride back to shore.  Getting a lasting paralyzing cramp at night after a session.
  • How to avoid: drink a lot of water before your kitesurf session, take regular pauses to rehydrate, stretch before and after the session, don’t go for very long sessions without previous endurance build-up.

7.2. Getting sunburns or UV eye damage

  • Description: getting a bad sunburn after a kiteboarding day, UV eye damage.
  • Probability: high without sun protection
  • Worst case: skin damage, risks of skin cancer, eye damage (early cataracts, serious retinal problems)
  • How to avoid: always use abundant sun protection on your face, particularly in the summer, even in cloudy weather.  Also, make sure to use highly effective kiteboarding glasses.

7.3. Getting hypothermia from drifting in cold water

  • Description: you’ve lost your board or kite while far offshore, and you drift in cold water waiting for the current and the wind to push you back to the beach way downwind.
  • Probability high if you’ve lost your board or kite
  • Worst case: the wind or current is somewhat cross-shore (parallel to the beach) so it may take a couple hours before you reach land.  The water is cold giving you hypothermia.
  • How to avoid: always wear a thick enough wetsuit to keep you warm and afloat in case you have to drift for a long time.  Avoid riding much farther offshore than you can swim.

7.4.  Getting back pain while kitesurfing

  • Description: during a session, you get sudden strong back pain that makes it very hard to ride back to the beach
  • Probability: low unless you already have serious back issues
  • Worst case: you back goes out (e.g. disc slip) due to a bad movement or posture while kiteboarding, giving you excruciating pain even for body dragging.
  • How to avoid: doing appropriate preparation, choosing the right harness, avoiding being overpowered.  See this complete article on kiteboarding with back pain.

Conclusion

Going through the list of dangers related to kitesurfing can be scary, however this list is probably comparable to that of many other “action” sports (biking, surfing, mountain climbing, paragliding…).

Personally, in 8 years of kitesurfing I’ve seen a lot of these dangers occur around me but have always managed to avoid them or mitigate their impact on me, simply by using my head and thinking ahead.  Use common sense to predict what may go wrong and take precautions to avoid it.

If you do that, my prediction to you is, you’ll be just fine and have a great time 9 times out of 10.

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Photo credits:
Featured image: “MINI KTE Spain 2012” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by kitesurftour_europe
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