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CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals

Kite Kayaking Central America
5/16/99 by Jean-Philippe Soule

How is it possible to kayak 5000 miles between Mexico and Panama? When you look at a map it isn't; it doesn't add up. The distance tracing the coast is closer to 2000 miles. That's because when we planned the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition it wasn't just about paddling from Baja to Panama. It was about using kayaks as a means of transportation to visit the indigenous people of Central America and document their lifestyles. When you add up all the coastal mileage, crossings and river paddling into wild rainforest, 5000 miles becomes a good estimation. Have you ever set out to paddle 5000 miles? Neither have we. Wind should be used to your advantage. Sailing is an option, but on a kayak it only works downwind. How about a traction kite? We looked at the new cult in boardsailing and saw them tacking up wind, jibing, maneuvering quickly and generating speed like never before. Would it work for us on our fully loaded expedition kayaks? This is what we wondered a couple of years ago when we were planning this expedition. If there was a way to use a double-line control kite, we would find out and CASKE 2000 would be the best way to test it.

 The first time I saw a kite of any type attached to a kayak was on a short Australian documentary on the circumnavigation of New Guinea. I was fascinated by the bright parafoils floating in the air 50 feet above the kayaks. But I thought their use was too limited. They were single-line kites, which meant they only pulled the kayaks straight downwind. After a few months of research, I found two double-line kites which could fly even when wet. One was a giant delta wing developed for speed water skiing, but it had a heavy and bulky design. The other one was a five-square-meter parafoil with an inflatable frame developed in France for windsurfers. It looked promising.

 When I ordered my first kite and took it out for its first test run, I went sprawling out of control sliding around on my stomach on a snowfield near where I was living in Hokkaido, northern Japan. My friends laughed and advised me to abandon the idea and get a sail. My thoughts were that a sail would take too much space, add more weight and wouldn't match the speed of the kite. My mind was made up; I was going to learn how to use this thing. It didn't take long to convince my expedition partner Luke to buy his own kite. We spent the full winter skiing on the snow-covered beaches of Hokkaido. The five square meter wing pulled us at incredible speeds. On windy days we would even catch air off of the bumps. And with our ski edges holding our line in the snow, tacking upwind was easy. If it was possible on skis, I thought it ought to be possible on a kayak. It was all theory of course, as I hadn't much kayaking experience. As of the winter of 98, I had never sat in one.

In the spring of 98, we flew to Thailand to learn the basics of sea kayaking from Sea Canoe International with Dave Williams, a hot shot white-water paddler from the '80's, and John "Caveman" Gray, an experienced man of the sea from Hawaii. We finished our kayak training in the Pacific waves of Baja learning from the master in the field, Ed Gillet.

On October 98, we pushed off from San Felipe for La Paz, the first section of our Expedition. Our Feathercraft kayaks were barely floating with an incredible load of equipment. Planning for a two and half-year odyssey, we had no choice but to load each boat with a mountain of gear. We were even forced to strap three large dry bags on deck. We learned the hard way, that we were way overloaded. The Sea of Cortez was our testing ground. Dead calm seas often changed rapidly into blustery chop and we encountered full-blown storms with 8 to 12 foot waves. The relative narrowness of the body of water also created steep wave shapes and shorter frequencies. The opportunities to use the kites were very limited. Strong gusts and an excess of equipment on deck made it impossible and our two kiting tests failed.

 In March 99, we portaged through Mexico to Belize. The second leg of the expedition was designed to start in Belize City and end up at the border of Costa Rica from which we would portage across the country to paddle the Pacific coast until the Darien Gap of Panama. Protected by a barrier reef, Belize was the perfect place to try out the kites. We had significantly less equipment on deck than in Baja, the wind was fairly consistent, and the waves were very small.

On March 24, we were on a small tropical island next to the reef. The wind was strong but not gusty. The conditions were good. I emptied my kayak, put on the sea-sock, and for our first test, added the lateral sea wings for increased stability. We thought of using a sea anchor to keep enough tension on the lines to launch the kite from the water. But this first time we were just trying to sail, and Luke would launch the kite standing in knee-deep water and hand it off to me after I got situated in my kayak.

I fastened my spray skirt. The wind was strong enough to throw Luke in the water. He didn't let go and stood back up in waist deep water and kept control of the kite. With my paddle attached to the deck, I just hand paddled to him. He handed me off the control bar while holding me until I had the kite in a stable position 50 feet above my head. We were ready for what we were sure was going to be very brief glory. I gave the order, "Let go!" I threw the kite into a crosswind and the acceleration almost pulled me out of my seat. Skimming across the water, I could hear the sound made by the sea-wing sponsoons strapped to the side. They were causing much resistance in the water, but I was going fast enough to leave a wake behind the kayak.

The kite was fairly easy to handle and required only minor adjustment to stay up in the crosswind. With a leeboard I could have tacked upwind without any difficulty. Within a few minutes I was already far enough from the island that I couldn't see Luke standing on the beach. I wanted to come back on a broad reach with the crosswind, but first I had to change direction. It had been an easy maneuver on the skis, but this time I made the mistake of turning the kite and the kayak at the same time. When both faced downwind, the kayak accelerated quickly in the direction of the wind and the kite no longer had as much resistance, the tension on the lines sagged and it stalled in the water right in front of my bow. Without a sea anchor to keep my boat static during the launch and offer resistance to the kite, all my efforts were in vain and I just drifted for ten minutes.

I packed everything into a small bag and paddled back. I was very surprised about the distance I had covered in so little time. The boat had certainly reached maximum hull speed with the sponsoons attached. I felt like with practice, we could kite without the sea wings and be rid of their added resistance. My first test was more successful than I expected. Running on a crosswind was easy and fast. Ironically, going downwind was more of a problem.

Three days later, Luke and I were set to paddle 15 miles to a small Garifuna town on the mainland. The wind was moderately strong and directly from the rear. Our two kayaks were loaded up with our 400 lbs. of gear, food and water. We decided to tie our kayaks together with a towrope. I put on the sea wings and prepared to pilot the kite while Luke, being dragged behind, prepared his sea anchor for possible water starts. I sat in my kayak. Luke handed me the control bar with the kite in the hover position in the air and held on to the rope tying my stern to his bow, and worked his way back to his kayak. While he got in his cockpit, I kept the kite hovering but already we were moving. As soon as his spray skirt was secured, I brought the kite down into the wind and traced figure eights in front of me to maintain a downwind course. I expected that we would last only 20 seconds but the extra resistance in the water of a second kayak prevented us from accelerating much faster than the kite and I was able to keep it in the air.

The only ensuing problem that I encountered was that I had not planned to have the kite in the air for long and wasn't prepared for the intense strain on the arms. I should have put on my harness and clipped the kite to it. After 10 minutes, in spite of all the resistance in the water, we were moving as fast as our top paddling speed had ever been, but my arms were sore and my shoulders filling up with lactic acid. A few times I put the kite back above me in the hover position and rested my arms for a few seconds. Then I sent the kite back into its figure eight pattern in the sky.

Each time you send the kite from one side to the other, its velocity increases quickly and it pulls hard on your arms. Even with the sea wings, I had to anticipate that side pull and put pressure on my knees to compensate for it. I think it would be possible to do it without the sea wings after much practice.

After 20 minutes of successful sailing, I dropped the kite in the water a couple of times. The wind was starting to die on us. Luke didn't need to use the sea anchor as he was able to apply enough resistance by backpaddling to allow me to launch the wet kite. When we reached the Midway Islands, the wind died entirely leaving our kite floating in the water. We packed it and started paddling the 13 miles to our destination.

In half an hour of kiting we had covered 2 miles. Because I had not put on my harness, it was more exhausting than if I had paddled. However, I was ecstatic to find that one kite was able to pull two heavily loaded kayaks with the added drag of a pair of seawings at 4 knots. Imagine that a 5 square meter kite folds into a small bag weighing less than 2 lbs. There is a 3.5 square meter version weighing less than a pound and half. Kite kayaking certainly has the potential to become a big water sport but it may not be practical forcovering long distances on long expedition paddles, at least not when most of the paddling is against headwinds or irregular crosswinds. We had great fun. got strange looks from boaters passing by, but it turns out that we will be paddling most of the distance after all.

by Jean-Philippe Soule (view profile)

If you liked these stories, you will find many more in our other journals:

CASKE 2000 Expedition Journals by Jean-Philippe Soule and Luke Shullenberger