BATROUN: Two weeks in, the second edition of the Lebanon Water Festival is going swimmingly. Launched last year by Annette al-Khoury and her father, world water-skiing champion Simon al-Khoury, the festival aims to increase local and international awareness of water sports in Lebanon and make them more accessible to the public. To this end, the organizers have negotiated reduced rates with local instructors across a range of sports, from water skiing to kite surfing, for those who sign up during this year’s festival.
The Daily Star was invited to take part Saturday in a clinic run by Tobia Kmeid, whose company Lebanon by Kite offers instruction in kite surfing. In this extreme sport surfers use an enormous kite to pull themselves across the waves, feet strapped to an oblong surfboard.
As I sit on the bus to Batroun I am filled with glee. A half-decade old dream is about to become a reality. I have never surfed in any form before today. I’ve never even flown a stunt kite. The closest I’ve come to anything resembling any part of kite surfing is getting blown off the edge of a pier at the age of 13.
Not being known for my pragmatism, this doesn’t faze me. I am filled with delightful daydreams, in which by late afternoon I’ll be surfing my way merrily across the bay, the enormous kite responding to my every whim as I leap 10, 20, 100 meters in the air and land smoothly in a blaze of glory.
The reality turns out to be somewhat different. My colleague and I begin by practicing with a training kite on the safety of the beach. Our friendly instructor, Nicolas Saade, explains to us about wind direction, the various sections of the sky and something called the “power zone,” where the wind is at its strongest.
Warning us not to let the kite enter the power zone, he shows us how to get it airborne and hands over the bar the strings are attached to, which is just wide enough to allow both hands to grip it comfortably, shoulder-width apart.
My first attempt at flying the kite is disastrous. Turning the bar, as instinct demands, rather than gentle pulling the left or right side of it to turn the kite, as Saade instructs, seems to merely enrage the kite, which plunges straight into the dreaded power zone.
Just as I think I’m about to take off and fly into the side of nearby Sawari Resort, the kite dives to earth, like a bird of prey swooping on a field mouse, hitting the sand with an ominous thud.
Luckily, these kites are made for inept first-timers like me, and as far as I can ascertain are near unbreakable.
Nothing beats the thrill I feel when I suddenly get the hang of it on my third try. The kite swoops and dives, dancing in figure-eights, dipping suddenly toward the beach, only to turn skyward again at my command. I am Aeolus, god of the wind. I can harness the elements.
Then I lose control of the kite and it nosedives once again, the strings catching a passing man in the face, like a cattle wrangling gone wrong. No matter – I’m already hooked.
Having felt the power of the kite, which is quite capable of pulling me across the sand when the wind gusts, I begin to realize why kite surfing is considered an extreme sport. Our training kite is perhaps two meters across. The kites the experts are using, which are swooping and circling like a flock of bats in the bay behind us, measure up to 14 meters. What happens if one of those gets into the power zone, I dare not imagine.
As we practice tamely on the beach, Saade suddenly lets go of the kite and takes off running. A kite surfer has crashed into the rocks at the end of the bay. Luckily he’s fine, and so is his equipment, but later that day another surfer hits the rocks near the resort, damaging an $1,800 kite. Saade is unconcerned. One of the surfers’ moms will sew it up, he says.
An average of nine hours of instruction is needed before a beginner is able to enter the water. This varies according to natural aptitude. Some people may be good to go in four hours, Saade says, while others may practice for two years and still not be ready. He’s joking – I think. Still, my hopes of becoming an expert by the end of the day were clearly a little ambitious.
We may not be ready to go it alone, but we’re given a taste of what taking to the water involves all the same. Courtesy of Saade and Jessica Baettig, a lovely Swiss instructor working with Lebanon by Kite for the summer, we get to experience a body drag, which is exactly what it sounds like – the power of the kite is used to pull the rider through the water.
Saade and I walk down to the far end of the bay, where we wade into the sea. The kite is strapped to a harness around his chest, on the back of which is a small handle. He tells me to hold on and we’re off, the kite pulling us both effortlessly through the water.
At first I am all but blind and keep swallowing sea water when I try to breathe. Then, suddenly, I get the hang of it and my head clears the waves. Even with someone else controlling the kite, it’s an exhilarating experience. Whipping through the water is novelty enough, but then Saade asks if I’d like to try a jump, and suddenly we’re airborne.
That’s all it takes. I may not be an expert kite surfer yet – or indeed a kite surfer at all – but by the time we make it back to the beach I’ve decided. This is the sport for me. Where do I sign up?
Lebanon by Kite are offering discounted lessons as part of the Lebanon Water Festival. For more information see www.lebanon-by-kite.com or call Tobia Kmeid on 03-253-624. To find out more about the Lebanon Water Festival, which continues until Sept. 29, visit www.lebanonwaterfestival.com