At the time of this writing, the city is frozen in the dead of winter. The temperature stubbornly fixates near freezing, but out here at the Lakefront, the wind chill beats you with excessive icy agony like a pair of arctic brass knuckles. As I quietly pray to the patron saint of global warming (I assume there's one by now) - shivering, despite my supposedly thermal wetsuit - I laugh inwardly at just how ill conceived the scheduling is for my first kiteboarding lesson.
For those unacquainted with the sport, Kiteboarding employs a massive kite to capture wind momentum, propelling a board-based rider across water. And for those who think me seasonally dyslexic, there is rationalism behind my masochism. I am a week away from celebrating my birthday in the Dominican Republic, where I'll luxuriate in blissfully more inviting tropical temperatures. I will also be participating in a beginner's kiteboarding course as part of a day excursion. I'm here so I can get a head start...so I can show off, of course.
My introduction, along with two others, is a land-based lesson learning to control the kite. Our instructor is Chris Stuckey, a professional kiteboarding coach with more than 400 hours teaching at the country's most prestigious kiteboarding school. The course begins with a trainer kite - too small to pull you on water, yet still forceful enough to catch a burst of wind capable of throwing my 165 lb. frame about 15 ft. forward.
Once everyone masters the basics of the wind window and develops an intuition for kite control, we upgrade to a full-sized inflatable kite. The actual kite is at first intimidating to the eye - at nearly 15 ft., it dwarfs the trainer's puny physique. If the trainer kite packs a punch, than the full kite plows with the fury of a battering ram; catching a gust of wind is like God flicking his mighty finger and punting you like a paper football.
Because of the kite's strength, it's necessary to anchor it to the rider with a harness, using your body weight to hold down the power of the kite. Before giving it the old college try, our instructor proceeds to show us how to secure ourselves to the kite.
"Once you have the harness on, you want to lock in to the kite by putting the donkey dick through the hook and chicken loop."
"Can you say that one more time," I ask.
"You put the donkey dick in the hook and chicken loop," he says, jerking a long, flaccid cord swinging from the chicken loop, motioning it through the correspondingly phallic hook it locks into on the harness.
"Classy," I retort, "but can you tell me what it's really called so when I do this on vacation I don't need to ask the female trainer we've booked where to put my donkey dick?"
"Why not?" he shoots back. "That's a good ice breaker."
"Well," stumped, attempting to regain my argumentative equilibrium, " I'm not certain I want to print the phrase donkey dick. Surely there's another name for it?"
"Well, I'm not sure what you're going to do. This sport was invented by a bunch of 20-year-old dudes; does it surprise you they called it that?" Stuckey asks."Go find a book on kiteboarding and you'll find the term donkey dick in the appendix."
"Once you have the harness on, you want to lock in to the kite by putting the donkey dick through the chicken loop."
Indeed, the day's dialect was often foreign, if not sophomorically poetic, reserved to the extreme sports community, Bart Simpson, and those who recall the film Point Break. Instructions and adulation for a performance well done were often punctuated with terms of endearment such as "killer," "wicked awesome," "stellar," and "getting gnar."
The renegade, DIY origins of kiteboarding are a perfect fit for Stuckey. First discovering the sport on television his freshman year at the University of New Orleans, he convinced a friend to take out a bank loan on his behalf so he could purchase the equipment needed to take up the sport (not cheap, weighing in at around $2,500). Using YouTube as his mentor, he taught himself the sport off Lake Pontchartrain, where wind was bountiful. Two years later, he was teaching kiteboarding professionally at Real Watersports in North Carolina, the country's largest kiteboarding facility.
After some time abroad during school and a few other stops along the way, Stuckey returned to New Orleans in 2009. Though no longer working professionally, he was determined to create a community for kiteboarding in the Crescent City. It was also around this time that he became involved with the local chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). Having lost his father to leukemia during middle school, Stuckey was looking to give back to the charity with some of his new-found free time. That is when he discovered the New Orleans Leukemia Cup Regatta. The Regatta is an annual charity event hosting a series of sailing races on Lake Ponchartrain, concluding at the Southern Yacht Club. Sailors each must meet a fundraising minimum in support of LLS as a condition to enter. Stuckey wanted to contribute, but as a participant, not a volunteer. He did not own a boat, but was not about to let that get in his way.
"I decided I was going to participate, but as a kiteboarder," says Stuckey.
Indeed, kiteboarding and sailing share more in common than a handful of sexual innuendos. Most notably, they both employ the wind for propulsion, requiring the same nautical knowledge for navigation. Still, spanning the 26-mile marathon distance across the lake on a board is a significantly more strenuous undertaking. Yet Stuckey tackled it in a brisk 1:30 minutes, raising more than $11,000 towards his required fundraising goal. Thus, the Kiteboarder Crossing was born.
Five years on, the Kiteboarder Crossing is now recognized as it's own event - though still technically symbiotic with the New Orleans Leukemia Cup Regatta - growing from 1 participant in 2009 to more than 30 in 2013. It has also morphed into a 12-mile downwind ride from Gulfport to Bay St. Louis, MS, relocating from Lake Ponchartrain to further encourage regional participation. To date, the fundraiser has brought in more than $40,000 for blood cancer research and treatment.
Because kiting is not possible without ample wind conditions, a weekend window is set for the event rather than a solid date. This year's event has been set for the first permissible Saturday falling between March 22 and April 12.In the event that conditions are not fit for riding during any of these days, the event will resume next year.
"In previous years, we would just keep pushing it back indefinitely," says Stuckey. "We've had people register from as far away as Canada - you can't keep someone on hold for week after week when they need to book a flight."
Stuckey modeled this year's scheduling system after The Quicksilver big wave surfing invitational, held in the big, blue Hawaiian waters of Oahu's Waimea Bay. Celebrating the memory of surfing legend Eddie Aikau, the yearly one-day event has only taken place eight times in the past 29 years due to the strict requirement for a minimum wave height of 40 feet.
"It creates a sense of exclusivity for the event," says Stuckey. "You know it's going to happen between a certain time every year no matter what, so you have a chance to prepare."
In addition to raising money for the Regatta, the Kiteboarder Crossing has also spawned tertiary fundraisers fueling its cause. In 2011, the Kiteboarder Crossing team rented a hotel-caliber port-o-let off St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras. Fittingly dubbed "Pee for the Cure," guests could purchase a 10-visit pee pass, good for 2-days, which included an event cozy. In 2013, the organization hosted another charity, Bikinis and Bellinis, a swimsuit runway and art show at Indulge Island Grill in the Central Business District. The event brought in nearly $2,000; plans are currently underway to host Bikinis and Bellinis again during early to mid-summer this year.
While the Kiteboarder Crossing gives the sport its 15-minutes each spring, Stuckey does offer lessons on weekends to those interested in the sport year round out at Lake Ponchartrain.
"Obviously, kiteboarding is not something that comes to mind when you think of New Orleans, or anywhere that isn't a beach," says Stuckey. "But if winds are good enough to sail, they are good enough to kite. There is definitely a solid community of kiters you can spot out on Lake Pontchartrain from time to time. I'm happy to do what I can to grow and advance the sport, locally and beyond."
While I had a blast getting gnar in the DR, my second kiteboarding attempt was humbling. I'm still about 12 practice sessions shy of riding 12 miles up the Gulf Coast in this year's Kitebiteboarder Crossing. Getting behind a good cause, however, requires no lessons at all...and I've yet to exhaust the humor of putting a donkey dick through a chicken loop.
Click here to find out more, register for, or donate to the 2014 Kiteboarder Crossing.