Strapped or Strapless?
Mark Shinn’s one-man debating society continues in his regular column this issue. Somehow he’s swerved the topic of Brexit again and instead focuses on another contentious issue: straps or strapless!
After last issue’s ‘Foil or Tube Kite’ commentary, I’m going to swiftly move on to another hot topic in kiteboarding – whether thou shalt ride waves strapped or strapless. It’s another question that seems to induce certain factions of the kiteboarding population into zealous over-excitement. This topic recently hit the limelight again after Kevin Langeree finished third at the Cape Hatteras Wave Classic event in the US, finishing third… with (cue surprised gasps and horrified looks)… footstraps!
Kevin Langeree, strapped and unrestricted at full power. Photo: Cape Hatteras Wave Classic / Real
Let’s start with a small history lesson and then we’ll refocus on the current nitty gritty.
Since the beginning of kiteboarding riders have been messing around in waves, which isn’t especially surprising considering that most early adopter kiteboarders came from windsurfing and surfing. Indeed, many early kiteboards were simply surfboards with footstraps bolted on and it has to be said they were truly terrible vehicles to kite with! Surfboards are designed to go in a straight line when ridden flat and to turn when ridden on the rail; the exact opposite of what you want a kiteboard to do because you spend most of your time edging against the kite.
Given that the kites of the time had little or no depower it was a WAR to make a surfboard go upwind, so the trend towards twin-tips made complete sense. Riders were riding waves on all kind of kiteboards, but somewhere in the winter of 2003 / ’04 the infamous Space Monkeys crew (having revolutionised freestyle the year before) set about trying to legitimise wave riding with a kite, riding some of the world’s finest waves along the way.
Hot on the heels of this, I believe the ‘artist formerly known as North’ (now known as Duotone) released the world’s first serial production kiteboard for wave kiting — the Rocket Fish. It was small (around five foot) and 100% dedicated to strapped riding — which is not very surprising given that we were still riding kites with little or no depower and it was a fight to get upwind, but also deal with the kite power when riding the wave.
I remember the *first time that wave events featured on the then PKRA World Tour. The event was in Fortaleza, Brazil in 2005 and most of the riders used their freestyle kites and strapped surfboards. I was the only rider to ride strapless in this event (and yes, I did win it, but the result was far from un-contentious).
I believe that the whole discussion around strapped or strapless riding truly started just after this time, along with the introduction of kites that actually de-powered. Riding upwind suddenly became easy because you could ride the board flat, using the fins to take you upwind and, for the first time, you were also able to get rid of all the kite’s power when riding a wave. This era led to a rapid period of board development. Suddenly, our boards no longer needed to be able to harness massive amounts of power, so instead the focus could turn squarely to the deck’s surfing ability. Carving, snaps and the ability to ride only using the power that the wave provided quickly led us to boards that owe a lot to their pure surfboard forefathers.
So, there you have it; the extremely brief history of surfboards under a kite. We all started strapped and a large number of riders now shun them. The big question is why?
Okay, let’s start with strapless. The biggest benefit of strapless riding, as far as I’m concerned, is pretty obvious: the ability to move your feet. The perfect position to stand during every aspect of riding is not a fixed position. Wanna make a super snappy off-the-lip? Move your back foot right to the tail of the board on top of the fins and you’ll be able to make an extremely tight radius turn or even break the fins out in a tail slide, but try to make a fast, tight bottom turn with the rear foot still in that position and the same thing can happen; the tail breaks out and you make the most elegant of surfing moves… a belly flop in front of a breaking wave.
It’s also pretty naïve to think that the perfect position for quickly riding back upwind for the next wave can be with your feet in the same spot as for your latest super radical turn. Strapless riding is difficult, your technique needs to be tuned and perfect to not only arrive in the critical places on the wave, but to also still be connected to your board when you arrive there. Get it wrong and you’ll swim, A LOT. It’s satisfying if you can do it, but pretty frustrating if you only get to ride in waves a handful of times a year and then you’ll spend more time swimming than actually riding waves.
“So, there you have it; the extremely brief history of surfboards under a kite. We all started strapped and a large number of riders now shun them. The big question is why?”
Riding with straps is a compromise and, whilst the inability to constantly move your feet into the perfect position means your feet are rarely ever in the perfect spot, when well set up you are in an acceptable place 90% of the time and, barring all but the most calamitous of attempted moves, you’ll still be connected to your board throughout the whole procedure.
If you don’t ride waves very often then straps can be the difference between having fun and steadily improving your technique, or a session of doing nothing much at all. Just like owning a Hadlow Pro kite doesn’t mean you’ll ride like Aaron Hadlow, taking the straps off your board won’t turn you into Airton Cozzolino, either.
Of course, that completely ignores one other aspect of footstraps; an aspect that is responsible for a great number of us even starting to kiteboard in the first place. Yes; jumping! It’s true that the pros can go MASSIVE strapless, but let’s not kid ourselves; most of us are capable of little more than a chop hop without the foot loops! If you love to fly (and in general the conditions for jumping are at their best when there are waves around), leaving the straps on is going to be pretty much a dead cert and that’s not counting the aerial aspect of wave riding either. There are all manner of aerial antics possible when surfing in footstraps. The purist might tell you it’s not ‘surfing’ and you’re simply ‘jumping out of the wave’, but since when was flying a kite ‘surfing’ anyway. For that matter I don’t see the windsurfers taking the straps off their boards any time soon.
I’m not going to come down off the fence and recommend one side or the other, but what I will say is this: don’t let your prejudices spoil your fun. There are pros and cons on each side, so maybe play around with both and change your set-up depending on the conditions of the day (practise your strapless when the conditions are cleaner and more friendly, then put the straps back on as the wind increases and the wave size develops). No matter what anyone tells you, there are no rules and the only ‘winner’ is the rider that leaves the water with the biggest smile on their face.
It’s true that in 2000 the KPWT ran a kiteboarding event at Punta Preta, Cabo Verde. It’s also true that there were some decent waves at that event, however, with no dedicated equipment available for this discipline and with performances that were little more than speed runs down-the-line (there was very, very little turning going on), I don’t think we can call this a legitimate start to kitesurf wave riding. It’s also important to point out that as one of the only riders to attend this event who is still active in the sport, there are not too many people left to argue with me!
Shinny takes a trip down memory lane in KWs celebratory Issue 100:
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