(FORTUNE Magazine) – I didn't tell my mother that I was going kitesurfing in Hawaii. I'm a grown man, yet when it comes to activities that might lead to massive reconstruction of expensive orthodontic work, I tend to keep quiet.
The best way to describe kitesurfing is by imagining several extreme sports--wakeboarding, surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding--rolled into one. But there's no need for a boat, good waves, or superstrong winds: With as little as six knots blowing, you're ready to rip. Essentially, you fly a 12-foot Mylar-and-polyester kite while surfing a customized board with foot straps that lock you in--you dangle from 60-foot lines, and the wind is your power source. Think high speeds, big air, and lots of adrenaline. Think hyperfun, the kind of fun that gone awry can really hurt. Think Mountain Dew commercials.
The bartender at Milagros, a great Mexican restaurant on Maui, stops shaking my margarita when I tell him I'll be kitesurfing the next day. "A friend tried that recently," he says. "He totally smashed his face and teeth in." I force a laugh and wait for him to say something encouraging or at least a "Hang loose, bro." Instead, he asks if I'm taking the lesson on the north shore, out by Kahului Airport. (I am.) "I had another friend who used to kitesurf out there," he says gravely. "He was yanked out of the water and shredded over a barbed-wire fence. Not pretty." I pay the check and split.
On the beach with instructor John Holzhall of Action Sports Maui, I casually mention the bartender's grim tales. "Kitemares," he says with a big smile. "Don't worry, those usually only happen to people who don't take instruction."
Action Sports offers classes that range from one-hour lessons on basic theory and safety techniques to two-week, 40-hour instructor-training courses. I had settled on the three-hour orientation covering safety, theory, and an ominous "self-rescue" procedure (involving a razor knife); it gets you into the water and familiar with the essentials of kitesurfing. There was no guarantee I'd be skimming the Pacific at 30 miles per hour, and it was unlikely that I'd blast 40-foot air like some of the pros who were already on the water.
Kitesurfing was born in the mid-1980s when two French brothers created a wing-shaped kite with an inflatable bladder that both kept the kite from collapsing and allowed it to float. The sport didn't take off until the mid-1990s, when it migrated to Maui--home to steady winds and a ready supply of adrenaline junkies looking for the new new fix. Since then the sport's popularity has grown tremendously. In the U.S. alone, kites are tugging surfers in such states as California (obviously), North Carolina, Oregon, and New York. More than 12 companies now manufacture kitesurfing boards, and at least ten companies produce kites; sales of kites in 2000 are expected to hit 30,000. A complete setup, not including lessons, runs about $2,500. That's cheap compared with wakeboarding, steep compared with the price of a surfboard.
No doubt, a day in the surf with a kite is a total rush. Just maintaining the kite's position and keeping your body focused on standing up takes maximum coordination and concentration. If you submit to the excitement of surfing and forget about controlling the kite, it nose-dives hard into the sea, with you following. I was so close to getting it--but one day is definitely not enough. According to Holzhall at Action Sports, I was a quick study. "One more three-hour session," he said, and my wobbly he's up/he's down beginnings would evolve into long rides with the wind at my back. Unfortunately, my time in Hawaii was up, and I had to get back to the office. Fortunately, my experience was far from a failure. Stopping through L.A., I saw my mom and told her about the assignment. She was happy to see me, especially with my smile intact.
Action Sports Maui, 808-871-5857; actionsportsmaui.com. Three-hour orientation, $180; three-day short course, $500; five-day certification, $975. All lessons include equipment but not meals or lodging.