The Better Kiter – Issue #108

This article featured in Kiteworld multimedia issue #108. First published: January 2021

The BKSA’s head of training, Andy Gratwick, posts the second part in a series helping build awareness as you become a better kiter. This issue he discusses how observing water state and picking up some extra knowledge about the sea bed can have a big effect on your session success and enjoyment.


Camille Delannoy, packing heat / Photo: Ydwer van der Heide / Mystic


Water… we’re drawn to it. We love it. We spend our lives in it, yet in so many cases we don’t really understand it. Could you describe the surface of the seabed or the depth and maximum flow rate of your local spot?

You may have seen clips of Hawaiian watermen and women running rocks across the seabed, showing the crazy efforts that the big wave riding fraternity go to, not only to build underwater endurance, but also to learn more about what lies beneath the surface.

I’ve become more aware of the seabed at my local harbour, seafront and a few locations where I run clinics, having donned my mask in search of foil fuselages and hydrofoil wings that came detached in recent years.

Why should you care? Understanding more about the effects that the seabed has can be used to your advantage in terms of picking good conditions and in avoiding trouble.


The water’s depth dramatically effects sea state. Event insurance companies now state that most watersports activities should occur in a depth of less than 40 metres.

The basic rule is that depth enables more water movement, which can create big lumps on the surface and a sea state that’s more challenging to ride. When deep water suddenly becomes shallow, overfalling currents, downfalling currents and even whirlpools can be created.

Sudden large depth changes can also alter horizontal flow. For example, if you’re kiting out beyond a reef you might feel constantly underpowered because there’s more tidal current than on the inside. You might therefore find it difficult to get back upwind if your kite is too small.

Go and have a look at your spot on a really low tide. This is an especially good idea for foilers who have more chance of hitting hazards that lie under the surface. Although six foot and 6,000 feet are both out of our depth, the latter might be a lot more challenging to ride in.



Lewis Crathern, winter warrior at home, Worthing, UK / Photo: Eunice Bergin


We all know the water is cold in winter. Here in the south of England it’s currently 8°C / 46°F. The RNLI (UK coastal rescue) consider anything under 15°C to be cold and can bring on ‘cold water shock’ – increased heart rate and breathing, resulting from the sudden reduced temperature when suddenly immersed.

After about a minute, this initial effect subsides. The next three minutes might feel good, and many of you will have seen the latest lockdown coastal craze being cold-water swimming! It has some genuine and powerful benefits for the health and immune system. Check out Edge Watersports’ ’20 Reasons to Try Cold Water Swimming’ here.

However, after about four minutes these benefits rapidly subside in very cold water and the simple reality of hyperthermia starts to take hold. After about seven minutes the average human (or even an over-average one, having been tested on former Olympic swimmer, Sharon Davies) loses pretty much all ability and judgment to be able to help themselves. Hence, problems progress far quicker in the colder winter waters.

Did you know that here in the UK, March 1st often records the coldest water temperature in the year? Certainly worth noting!

We can hugely mitigate against the effects of cold water by investing in a modern, thick winter wetsuit. They really are amazing these days and the hoods, boots and gloves are far more comfortable, dynamic and functional these days, too.


I’ve started using this as a quiz / learning discussion for all levels of coaching:

“Look at the water, tell me how windy it is and why you’ve decided on that answer.” Everyone says, “What do you mean?”

The water never lies (even when it looks like it’s lying).

A clever chap, Francis Beaufort, came up with a simple scale of numbers, 1-12, for measuring wind. It’s logically based on velocity, however he also related each number to the visual descriptions of the surface of the water.

Next time you’re eyeballing the coast to see if a session is ‘on’, check the water’s surface and study what it’s telling you:

Mirror calm: go home
Ripples and the odd white cap: go foiling
Whiteys everywhere: get the twin-tip / surfboard out
White all over with streaky bits and big lumps: go watch Lewis Crathern rip it up (with a warm frappo in the van)

The scale is readily available here, but it will really help if you can start relating it directly to the surface you’re playing on. You may start making other observations:

Why is there more wind out back or on the inside? Why is everyone flying up that side of the race course? Why did she jump big over there? Why am I wallowing here? Learn to constantly read the surface of the water, even during your session.


The tidal flow or sideshore drift can make a reasonable breeze a total non-starter if the water is flowing in the same direction. Here in the UK you could ask the Exmouth crew for a lesson on this!

Water sloshes about, in the bath, in the sea and in lakes. Water is also lazy, so it always finds the path of least resistance in terms of escape.

Waves break on beaches. If the wind and the waves are coming from a common direction, eg.cross onshore, this often means the water breaks on the shore and then drifts away downwind. This creates a river type situation within the ‘impact zone’ (the area where the waves are breaking). Behind this, ‘out the back’ this drift reduces greatly.

What you may experience is feeling underpowered in the shore break area until you get behind the breaking waves. How do you deal with it as a kiter? Work the kite, take the fastest and most direct route out and then stay behind the breaking waves to enable easier upwind progress.

One place this has a profound effect is here on England’s south coast in easterly winds, which often bring short, bumpy seas with lots of white caps, making it look windier than it actually is. Easterlies also commonly give rise to sideshore drift, due to the short lumpy sea and the seabed.

Millenia of prevailing southwesterlies have groomed the land and seabed to smoothen out water (and wind) from this direction. Imagine stroking your cat from tail to its neck… this is what the water’s doing over the seabed in places in an easterly.

My advice for dealing with sideshore drift situations is to get out through the impact zone quickly and then stay out to avoid the sideshore drift.

Imagine the area where the waves are breaking is a river flowing at 3-5 knots along the beach in the same direction as the wind, which is happening because all the water landing on the beach has to head back out to sea, causing a river-like flow within the section of breaking waves. When you’re in this zone you’ll feel like your kite is depowered, so take a slightly bigger kite to ensure you have a bit more power. I’m not saying follow KOTA riders by taking a nine metre in 40 knots; I’m saying if you’re contemplating your nine metre, try your 12 metre which could give you the extra oomph.



Wetsuits with built in hoods offer superior warmth! / Photo: Ride Engine


Why when we go to the beach in January can it look flat calm but people are still managing to kite and having fun?

One reason is wind density (as we discussed in part one last issue). Lesser wind ‘speeds’ in colder air get you going earlier. The sun shining on the surface of the water also gives a windier ‘look’, although that’s a winter and summer effect, but obviously there are more chances of it in summer. Thirdly, the science bit: colder water has a greater surface tension, which delays the whitecap ration point (when a white cap forms). If you flip that: warmer water has less surface tension, so whitecaps form sooner.

So, when you’re down the beach in winter and there’s barely a whitecap in sight and the velocity in your wind metre is showing low figures, it could still be good, but you should only go out if there are other riders out or on the beach to watch out for you.

Conversely, if you’re in the Caribbean, the sea might be awash with caps and your hair flowing in the breeze, yet you might barely be able to get off the beach. Once again, that’s to do with the lack of density (power) in warmer wind.

There’s so much to think about, but just digesting the broad principles might help understand past mishaps and prevent future ones.


  • Know what’s lying under your spot and how deep it is. It will help
  • Go swimming for three minutes in your boardies / bikinis. If you want to go out for longer than that, pile on as much neoprene as you can!
  • Study that water surface and reason it to yourself. Eventually you’ll make better spot and kite size decisions.
  • Go bigger in easterlies… if you’re on the south coast!


Here are some pearls of wisdom from the far better (looking and able) past UK Champions, Lewis Crathern and George Dufty, on what goes through their heads before and during a session:


  1. Being visible could be the difference in being spotted or not should you end up in the worst case situations. I like to wear a hi-vis beanie and have now started choosing bright kite colours in my quiver!
  2. When on the beach, I feel it is every kiteboarder’s duty to be keeping an eye on the situation on the water. Be the one that rushes over to land somebody; be the one that recognises a kite has not relaunched for a little while; be thinking and actively helping others out. This is what makes us kiteboarders.
  3. Squally, crazy weather is usually easy to see coming. Pay attention to the clouds and don’t leave it too late to come in. Some will naturally try to stay out too long, so it helps to have people on the beach ready to land others. Why not be that person? Your decision to get out before the weather turns bad could also influence others.


  1. Suit up for the swim not the half-hour blast. When I was younger I would always get in the thinest neoprene, no booties and definitely no gloves. It was a ‘macho’ thing, hidden under a guise of wanting to have the best flexibility (and therefore ease) for performing the latest handle-pass I was trying. Now I put on the warmest kit I have available! I would much rather be toasty and enjoy my session and also be prepared if things do go wrong.
  2. Start your session warm. I see a lot of people rigging up and then put on their gloves. Gloves are much more effective at keeping your hands warm rather than warming them back up. Same goes for your whole body to be honest. Start warm and stay warmer for much longer!
  3. Don’t be a hero. One reason is to help ease pressure on hospitals, but this is also not the time to be throwing your latest and greatest. Get out there and have a blast, but stay safe. In the winter a packdown is a different ball game with gloves on in potentially really cold water. Your muscles also aren’t as receptive to those big slams in winter temperatures. So take it easy, protect yourself and we will be back to big tricks, BBQs and fist bumps before we know it!


After developing their visual skills, Andy’s clinic group start working on their armpit senses to gauge kite size / Photo: EasyRiders

Find more winter preparation and tips on dealing with strong wind situations from Andy in the Kiteworld 020′ Winter Issue, out now:

Become a member of the BKSA and you’ll be covered for £5 million third party liability should you be in an accident. It’s a good idea to check your mates are covered, too! The BKSA also work hard on the behalf of all kitesurfers to ensure that beach access stays open and that the instructor teams and clubs are operating safely.

Thanks also to Lewis Crathern:

George Dufty Coaching: @georgeduftycoaching /

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