Kite, board, wind and the infinite blue
It looks easy, it is easy - like walking on water, writes Greg Clarke.
Professional kite-surfer Ben Wilson is standing on the white sand of a Fijian island, his eyes shifting constantly among the "kiters" he's coaching. Even one of the world's best can't see everything, though, including a black training kite that suddenly spirals out of control, plummets and crashes on his head.
Wilson untangles himself from a jumble of lines and quickly relaunches the beginner's kite with a shrug and wave.
Within minutes the marauding kite is at it again. This time it dongs fellow instructor and former ironman champion Trevor Hendy, who again helps the kite back to where it is supposed to be, up in the trade winds cruising in Fiji's precious blue sky.
The fortunately harmless crashes are part of the first hours of a week spent at Wilson's Jeep Kite Surfing School, one he has temporarily relocated from his base on the Sunshine Coast to Namotu, about five kilometres west of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, and roughly 25 kilometres from Nadi.
Kiters of all levels - beginner, intermediate and advanced - have congregated on Namotu for a week of intensive training. Wilson and Hendy plan to have us all kite-surfing by week's end. "The learning curve is not as crazy as it might seem," Wilson says.
We fly the training kites for about two hours on the first day. I hit no one else and feel a sense of progress, yet I'm tense and twitchy. Not all my feelings can be summarised in the successful sailing of a small, as-yet-landbound kite.
Hendy recognises I'm tense. I, too, can feel the tightness in my arms and my neck, and know it's not from physical exertion. Kite-surfing doesn't require strength: kites can be controlled with one hand. Hendy quietly suggests I relax and connect with the wind and the kite.
Day two dawns and all beginners graduate to the kites we will use on the water. For some hours I practice working with the kite and the wind. It is far more rewarding than fighting on two fronts. Fear continues to drift away.
After some hours, we progress to the next stage; flying the kite while being dragged through the water. Over the next two days I manage to get the kite doing figure 8s but when I'm slow to de-power, the kite pulls me, thrillingly, almost right out of the water. Somehow I never once lose my shorts.
During "body dragging", the kite often crashes into the water: a sensitive tug on one of the kite's lines is required for a relaunch. I struggle with this and once while trying to do it, I float to Vanuatu - OK, not quite, but you get the idea. Eventually I climb into the boat for the ride back to Namotu.
Eventually, after some 16 hours of land and water-based lessons over five days, it's time for a menage a trois of sorts: me, the kite and a twin-tip board. Hendy treads water nearby to offer final instructions.
On this day the wind isn't strong, and to generate the power to get out of the water I need to position the kite above my head, make it dive close to the water, pull it back to the sky and rapidly repeat the process. The hours of lessons come together. My kite control is reasonable; I embrace its power.
After three attempts I rise from the water. I feel its smoothness under the board, realise I am kite-surfing, then fall. Though the longest of four rides lasts a measly 30 seconds, the indefatigable Hendy cheers each time.
I've a long way to go before I can truly claim to have kite-surfed, and still more to get back to the beach sans boat. Yet I made a wedge of new friends on Namotu, my kite included.
Greg Clarke travelled to Lifestyle Week on Namotu as a guest of Ben Wilson's Jeep Kite School.