Kitesurfing in Kenya

by Maria Knodt

A traveler escapes the frustrating confines of Nairobi in search of an escape on the coast, where she attempts to learn how to kitesurf.

Cussing, sputtering, crying – I was gliding through the shallow ocean, desperately trying not to swallow more of the briny water. Perhaps this time I’d reach my board. I adjusted the kite, extending my right hand to steer me in the correct direction as my lessons had taught me. Watching my instructor, it had all seemed so effortless. “Just zigzag back and forth with your kite until you reach your board,” he had calmly explained. But after ten attempts, I was still missing it by a few meters every time, and the frustration was mounting. On my fifth try, I had crossed into shallow waters amidst the low tide, and the kite had pulled me over sharp corals, leaving my hands and legs with painful cuts. The water concealed the blood, but the memory of a fellow kitesurfer’s recent encounter with a small shark added to my unease.

A few days earlier, I had arrived on the Kenyan coast. While COVID-19 still cast a shadow, Kenya’s restrictions were milder compared to many European countries. However, Nairobi had been under lockdown for several months, rendering travel outside the city impossible. Concerns about my parents in Germany getting sick loomed alongside the nagging worry about whether Kenya’s medical infrastructure could cope with a surge in cases. At the same time, the rising crime rate in Nairobi fueled concerns about personal safety, especially after a friend was robbed in broad daylight. As soon as restrictions eased, I saw an opportunity to escape temporarily to the coast, a breath of fresh air away from the confines of Nairobi.

Watamu, situated approximately two hours north of Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city, provided a tranquil escape. This town predominantly attracted expatriates and tourists who occupied the various hotels and residences lining Turtle Bay Road, an extensive 16-kilometer stretch from Mida Creek to Jacaranda Bay. In the aftermath of World War II, Watamu became a haven for Italian immigrants, with some of them, according to rumors, coming to avoid prosecution and engage in money laundering. Their influence could be seen in the authentic Italian restaurants and ice cream shops that graced Watamu’s downtown area. Behind the opulent beachfront properties, many local Kenyans resided in smaller houses and huts along mostly unpaved streets and amidst markets that, instead of selling souvenirs, offered fruits and vegetables, brooms, plastic containers, and other essentials. 

My kitesurfing journey began with a three-day beginner course, where I learned how to handle a small kite on the beach, understanding how to control its positioning in the air to generate the required pull in various directions. Then, we ventured into hip-deep water to master “body dragging” without a board. This step, where the kite is responsible for dragging you through the water, proved more challenging, as it depended on the wind’s unpredictability, alternating between gusts and lulls. However, after various attempts, we began to gain a sense of speed, balance, and directional control.

Though a kiteboard includes straps to secure your feet, gaining the necessary traction to rise from the water and keep the board afloat was an entirely new challenge. This required maneuvering the kite to position it at twelve o’clock and then swiftly steering it to around three o’clock, which was crucial for getting pulled out of the water. Overcommitting leads to overshooting and falling forward, while too little force leaves you struggling to get out of the water or causes the board to sink back quickly. The intricate coordination of the kite and board demands hours of practice.

After finally mastering the art of standing up and gliding along the water’s surface, it seemed like the most arduous part of the journey was over. But I was wrong. Picture losing your board, drifting far from the safety of the shore, unable to retrieve it. Imagine the wind intensifying, causing your kite to spiral out of control, leaving you at the mercy of unpredictable wind gusts or, worse, lifting you several meters into the air, only to be rescued by activating the safety leash. There are those challenging days when the temptation to give up almost wins out, a battle against both physical exhaustion and self-doubt. Then, there are days when you inadvertently swallow copious amounts of seawater, inducing a sense of sickness, or when an encounter with jellyfish results in throbbing pain and a mild allergic reaction. 

One day, after yet another episode of losing my board and struggling to retrieve it, I decided to take a break. I settled onto the beach, treating myself to a coconut to replenish my energy. While the local saleswoman skillfully opened it with a few well-aimed hits of her machete, I observed fellow kite surfers in action. The children, in particular, seemed to effortlessly glide over the water, executing transitions and jumps fearlessly. Perhaps the key was to go with the flow instead of thinking too much. To accept the wind and waves and work with them rather than resist them. After enjoying the coconut water and flesh, I dragged my board back into the water. 

As I pulled myself out of the sea with my kite, initial progress was slow. However, with a few precise maneuvers, I gained speed. My board floated above the crystal-clear waters, cutting through gentle waves. Leaning back into the harness, I felt almost weightless. When the time came to change directions, the kite followed my calm hand movements, sending my board to carve an elegant figure-eight in the water. I hadn’t fallen, and I had found the sweet spot to gain enough speed and not lose control. I was gliding back and forth, back and forth, creating an almost hypnotic rhythm. A few meters beneath me, a sea turtle attempted to keep pace with my movements. 

Hours passed as I lost awareness of exhaustion or hunger. A shout of pure joy escaped as I soared over the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Tears welled up in my eyes. For a moment, I forgot about the sorrows and fears of the past months: the sleepless nights, the days confined to our apartment, and the distressing global news. Kitesurfing had transformed into a grounding anchor, preserving my sanity and providing freedom. 

Heading to the ocean for a daily two- or three-hour kitesurfing session either before or after my remote work soon became routine. At the end of the second week, after hours of work calls, I again dashed to the beach, hastily donned my harness, hoisted my kite, secured my board, and ventured into the water to bask in the remaining hours of daylight. The brisk gusts of wind swept over me, their cool embrace providing a welcome respite from the day’s oppressive heat. As my hair swayed behind me, my mind slowly cleared. I allowed myself to be carried further from the shore, my surroundings evolving into a canvas of pure tranquility. The once prominent beach had now dwindled to a distant yellow line on the horizon, and fellow kite surfers became specks in the expanse. Nature enveloped me entirely, the unending stretch of nearly transparent water and corals beneath casting a subtle interplay of blue, green, and brown hues. Then, I began to shout with all my might, releasing the stress, frustration, and fears that remained. Here I was, an isolated soul adrift in the vast ocean, alone, at peace, free, with the setting sun casting a soft, golden glow over the water. The shoreline had already surrendered to shadow, but the last rays still reached me, creating a glistening path ahead as I steadily approached the vanishing sun.

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