"We're on the doorstep of the next millennium," proclaims Marcus "Flash" Austin. "And kitesurfing is ushering it in!" Typically, when greeted with such breathless declarations, our response is, well, gack. But if you try to look at it from the standpoint of those who frequent Maui's Ho'okipa Beach, Austin's blustery rhetoric begins to make some sense. Here, on any given day, one can find a crowd of tourists gawking as a cluster of boardsailors and surfers strap themselves onto fiberglass boards, don harnesses attached via 100-foot lines to inflatable nylon kites, and go scorching across the ocean at speeds of 35 miles per hour while executing rail grabs, fakies, and double backflips that can send them as much as 40 feet into the air.
A combination of boardsailing, surfing, and paragliding, kitesurfing offers the equivalent of attaching a small airplane engine to the front of your board. "Because of the upward angles of wind force," says David Dorn, president of the newly formed Maui Kiteboarding Association, "maneuvers and jumps are unlike anything that's been done before."
Austin, 28, is the unofficial world champion of a sport that may be on the verge of an X Games-style breakout. And a decade after French brothers Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux first dreamed up this activity in Senegal, Ho'okipa Beach has become its epicenter. Each summer, the area's robust trade winds, capricious surf, and nerve-jangling minefield of submerged reefs draws a small clique of veteran surfers and boardsailors eager to tap a notch or two deeper into their adrenaline reserves.
This crew, which includes such luminaries as perennial boardsailing world champion Robby Naish and renowned big-wave surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, will have a chance to showcase its freshest moves next month at the Mondial du Vent festival in Leucate, France. In the meantime, however, the sport must overcome a number of lingering hurdles before it can claim to have attained the status of a full-blown craze. Though Austin makes it sound like child's play ù "I taught an eight-year-old how to do this in two hours," he boasts ù kitesurfing has yet to shake the perception that, in the hands of the uninitiated, it can be a foolhardy pursuit. "You've got guys cruising along at the end of hundred-foot razor blades with lots of tension on them," says Naish, referring to the lines that connect surfers to their kites. "If you're not careful, it can be really dangerous."