Reach for the Sky The new sport of kitesurfing offers wind, waves, and the occasional bruise.
By Beth Kwon Additional reporting by Nicholas Ferrer

(FORTUNE Small Business) – I live in New York City, where the closest I ever get to extreme sports is dodging taxis and fighting for a seat on the morning subway. That means I'm probably not the most obvious candidate to try kitesurfing--a fast-growing new sport that's "equal parts windsurfing, wakeboarding, and surfing," according to Pete Cabrinha, a former windsurfer and founder of Cabrinha Kites. But in some ways that lack of X-Games experience made me the best person (or so my editor thought) to find out how tough kitesurfing is for regular people to learn. After all, one of the sport's selling points is that it's more accessible than windsurfing. The equipment is cheaper, you can do it in less wind, and the learning curve is a lot steeper. I could learn the basics, I was told, in just a few days of lessons.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's easy. Kitesurfing started almost by accident back in the 1980s, when adrenaline junkies experimented with water skis propelled by wing-shaped kites. (The first such kites were designed by a pair of French brothers, who drew their inspiration from a kite used to pull a catamaran.) Early enthusiasts, working with primitive equipment, learned by trial and error that putting themselves at the mercy of a decent breeze could make for extremely dangerous takeoffs and landings. It wasn't uncommon for people to get dragged up on shore or dropped into trees and phone lines, and a German woman reportedly was sent through the sixth-floor window of an office building.

Kite design has come a long way since then, and as the sport has gotten safer, it's also gotten more popular, especially among thrill seekers who might consider windsurfing but are put off by the months and months it takes to learn. With kitesurfing, most people can become at least moderately proficient in a week. In addition, the gear is small enough to fit in your trunk, and you can even go surfing on a lake in as little as ten knots of wind. All of which explains why the sport has gotten so hot lately. Pete Cabrinha's experience is an indicator. He was one of a handful of people making custom boards for the sport in 1998; today his brand is in 30 countries, and he has nearly two dozen competitors.

I signed on for a three-day package of lessons with Kite Surf the Earth, which is among the more reputable instruction companies. It runs classes in Florida, Maui, and Venezuela and features one of the bigger personalities in the sport--Paul Menta, a former pro wakeboarder and classically trained chef, who looks like a younger, heavily tattooed version of Mel Gibson.

On our first day at the beach, Menta gathered the class around him and demonstrated how to handle the kites. They're much bigger than typical kites, about 7.5 square meters for beginners and as large as 20 square meters for experts in light wind. The kites have inflatable bladders, which give them shape and keep them from collapsing when they hit the water. (Slang alert--that's called a "Hindenburg.") The trick to controlling the kites, Menta explained, is keeping them in the right position relative to your body. Wading into shallow water, he showed me that when your hands are straight up in the air, at 12 o'clock, the kite is in "neutral." Turn it to the right, to two o'clock, or to the left, to ten o'clock, and the kite will catch more wind and thus generate more power. Bringing it back to neutral is like downshifting. Menta made this all look easy and casually had the kite performing neat little figure eights in the sky. Then he handed it over to me, and those measly few square meters of rip-stop nylon yanked me off my feet so fast I felt as if I'd harnessed a freight train.

Most of the other people in the class had similar experiences, at least initially. My class was largely made up of British, Scottish, and Welsh tourists. (The sport is curiously popular in Britain, where I imagine wet suits are mandatory--we got by with helmets and life jackets.) Some of the spouses opted to watch instead of participating, smoking on their beach towels and eating Pringles. I'll admit it crossed my mind that maybe they were the smart ones, but after an hour or so and a few more face-plants, I started to realize the importance of subtle movement. The kites respond much better to gestures than to tugs. Soon I was able to stand with my feet firmly planted in the sand, the kite under control, weaving left to right and back on command. (Incidentally, there's a safety release on one handle, so that if you let go of the kite, it collapses instead of whisking you off into any looming office buildings.)

That kind of quick progress is actually pretty typical. Menta told me he decided to focus on kitesurfing because he wanted a sport that "wouldn't take a lifetime to learn." He became a master instructor just two years after taking it up--meaning he teaches other people how to become instructors--and he once attempted to kitesurf all the way from Florida to Cuba, making it more than 60 miles before a bout of food poisoning forced him to stop. Menta has a manic energy that was contagious to our class, and I found some of his tattoos reassuring, especially the ring of shark's teeth inked around his right ankle. He said he had gotten it to ward off future shark attacks --he's already survived two and once saved a woman from one in Florida.

After an entire day spent simply flying the kites, we started the next morning "body dragging," which early on was about as fun as it sounds. Body dragging involved easing myself stomach-down into the water and letting the kite pull me around. The path to proficiency was similar to the first day's multiple falls on my face (after a few hours I would have serious bruises up and down my legs and arms). Frustration. Practice, practice, practice. Epiphany. Exhilaration. My big realization with body dragging was the delicate balance of surrender and control that to me was a deep thought but is probably familiar to any extreme-sport enthusiast. I had to be in tune with the wind's ticks and rhythms, anticipate it when I could, and remain unafraid to land on my butt when I failed.

Of course, I still wasn't balancing myself on a board, which represented the final challenge for us on our third day. Kitesurfing boards are smaller than surfboards--they measure 142 to 190 centimeters, or about as long as a pair of standard skis--and they have bindings to hold your feet in place. Those bindings are what allow pros like Menta to do jumps 60 feet high and hover in the air for as long as eight seconds at a time. Before I put the board on, Menta tried to prep me by comparing the experience to other sports. Turned out I had never tried water-skiing, or surfing, or skateboarding, so we came up short. "Uh, I rollerblade," I said meekly. It's true that people who've done water sports before would probably progress faster than I did. Menta was good enough to turn my inexperience into a positive--since I came with no preconceptions, he said, that meant I didn't have to unlearn any bad habits. Right.

To get up, I had to float with the board on my feet and turn the kite to ten o'clock, letting the sudden burst of power hoist me up and onto the surface. For most of that third morning I had my usual battle with the kite over who was boss, but I finally got on the board and managed to cruise a short distance. No jumps or stunts, but I was actually doing it --riding on water, propelled by wind.

That brief experience was the highlight of my trip, and afterward it was back to bruising attempts to get upright and watching the Brits eat Pringles on the beach. Had I stayed a few days longer, I think I would have gotten to the point where I could get up more consistently. Menta agreed (though he might have just been saying that). Is kitesurfing easy? No. Is it quicker than learning to windsurf? Probably. Is it fun? Definitely.