It turns out flying a kite isn't always as easy as it sounds. On a recent visit to the Valley Isle, I joined Paul Franco from the Kiteboarding School of Maui (KSM) for a three-hour introductory session, thinking the hardest part of the sport surely had to be standing up on the board. I ended up spending a fair amount of that lesson, however, crashing his 12-foot kite into the beach.
It's clear to me now that handling an inflatable sail of that size requires a delicate touch, but during the first 40 minutes or so with Franco, my heavy-handedness and tendency to jerk the control bar led to lots of wild dive-bombing.
"Don't be afraid to just let go," Franco said frequently, reminding me that completely releasing the control bar, which was actually attached to a harness strapped around my waist, often helped the kite to right itself.
Although I never made it to a standing position on the ocean, I did get into the water while flying the kite and made a few controlled turns while lying on the board. After three hours, the thrill of those turns and dragging behind the power of the kite definitely left me wanting more.
"My recommendation is a minimum of three days," Franco told me after the lesson. "At that point, you can make a fair decision about whether the sport is for you."
Born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Franco relocated to Maui in the early 1990s and is one of the island's most respected kiteboarding instructors, having spent time on the sport's pro circuit and worked at KSM for 12 years.
"The first day might be a little frustrating for somebody who's not used to this type of stuff," he said, noting that his students range from children around age 8 to adults in their 70s. "But a lot of times by the second or third day they're getting up on the board, and a lot of times that will spark people's desire."
A remarkably patient teacher, Franco prefers to go out on his own when the waves are up.
"The bigger the better," he told me, adding that he's kited 40-foot faces at Peahi, an off-shore Maui surf break commonly referred to as Jaws. "I use the waves like ramps in a natural park." Kiteboarding capital
Folks familiar with Maui's tourism community may know Markus Schale as the general manager at the Hotel Wailea, but he also owns KSM, a company he purchased after first trying the sport only three years ago.
"I tried it, and I loved it," he said. "I just thought it was incredible, and I really saw the value of the instructions because it's one of those sports, like golf, where the lessons add so much value. It would have been a very unpleasant experience without the instructor."
Both Schale and Franco were quick to insist that Maui is home to the best kiteboarding conditions on the planet.
"The greatest thing about Maui is the consistency of the wind," Franco said. "It basically blows 300 days out of the year. That's a really high ratio compared to anywhere else, and we have specialized beaches specifically for kiteboarding."
KSM students generally take lessons at a place unofficially dubbed Kite Beach, which is so close to the Kahului Airport that kiteboarders can often be seen by passengers as their planes touch down. And on windy days, the beach is an excellent spot for folks to watch the jaw-dropping aerial maneuvers.
According to Franco, the sport has grown dramatically on the island since the late '90s, and today there are 10 times as many instructors. For those interested in lessons, choosing certified professionals is essential.
"Our mission is to make kiteboarding safe by instructing as many people as we can in the best possible way," Schale said, adding that KSM was the first school on Maui to be certified by the International Kiteboarding Organization.
Schale has also set up packages commissionable to agents where multiple lessons are combined with hotel accommodations on Maui, and he's already booked several agents on kiteboarding fam trips to the island.
"The highest degree of credibility comes when an agent actually comes out and really kiteboards," he said. "Developing an agent community of kiteboarders would be fantastic, because then they'd really believe in what they are selling."
A three-hour lesson with KSM is $270 per person, and its five-night, three-lesson Ultimate Kiteboarding Getaway package, featuring accommodations at the Hotel Wailea, is $1,495 per person. Visit www.ksmaui.com