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Wind, water, and speed

Watching the kiteboarders on a gusty day.

Watching the kiteboarders on a gusty day.

Photo: A kiteboarder jumps above the water on Lake Mendota. In the lower left-hand corner, the figure of the kiteboarder is silhouetted against a bright blue afternoon sky. In the top right-hand corner is the kiteboarder’s sail, a parabolic span of red, blue, and white fabric.

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There are times throughout the year where the wind persistently buffets us here in Madison, not fast enough to be dangerous but definitely enough to be annoying in an “I’m walkin’ here” kind of way. The world is getting windier overall, so we may be in for more of that, along with the other disruptions climate change is already creating in the Upper Midwest’s temperatures and precipitation. At times it’s enough to ruin an otherwise pleasant day. As a fussy person who avoids strenuous physical activity of most kinds, I find that this really messes with my ability to enjoy the outdoors. But there is a silver lining, if you shoulder valiantly through the dreadful gusts on a day when Lake Mendota is full of kiteboarders.

Kiteboarding is considered an “extreme sport,” and up close it is clearly a demanding full-body workout—arms wrestling with the wind itself to control the large sail overhead, legs steering a board through the water, all that good torso stuff in between holding it all together somehow. I won’t try this because I am 100 percent sincerely afraid of having my arms ripped right off. I have tried and failed to eat lunch outside on windy days. Couldn’t even hold onto a fucking sandwich. (Though as Dr. Sami Schalk pointed out in a recent Pleasure Practices column, you don’t have to be a hardcore watersports type to take a nice kayak ride.) We cowards who stay on shore are lucky, though, because kitesurfing is that rare sport one can very much enjoy at a distance.

Sit down on a bench or a blanket or a pier. The skyline is dotted with brightly colored arcs. These sails seem to move almost languidly as the wind fills them up. But at the surface of the water, all that force becomes concentrated. The kiteboards and their riders zip along at an impressive clip, sometimes vaulting themselves high into the air. It cannot be a smooth process to essentially stomp a sheet of fiberglass into the choppy waves, but perspective and sheer athleticism make it seem almost peaceful. (The winter equivalent looks a bit more dangerous.) Madison Commons reporter Andrea Gunn took a look at the local kiteboarding scene last October and found that it’s a robust community, so don’t be surprised when you see a dozen or 20 folks out there at a time, all skilled enough to avoid crowding each other.

What puts kiteboarding above most other watersports is that it’s all wind and tension, no motors required, and thus it’s remarkably quiet. That means it coexists rather peacefully with the more low-key activities people like to do by the lake. I’m generally there to zone out, read a book, maybe spot a muskrat or two, whatever. I may sometimes grumble at people on their jetskis and speedboats, but can find no fault with kiteboarders. You can’t really hear them at all, until they steer in closer to shore, and then you mostly hear the crisp friction of the kiteboard slicing through the waves. 

On one recent Sunday, this made for a pleasant contrast with the muffled wooo-wub-blub! of someone making announcements over a PA system somewhere across the lake. The drifting sails and gracefully speeding figures turned the wind into a plus. I’ll miss it when the lakes freeze over.

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