As the first decade of the 21st Century draws to a close, what better time to take a look at where we're at in terms of kite evolution. It's pretty crazy when you think that at the start of the decade kitesurfing was, well, not really a real sport - and look at where we are now.
In 2000 your standard setup would probably have been an 11.5M Wipika FreeAir and something like a 6'1" directional board - with a heavy windsurf style construction. Wipika's early kites, such as the FreeAir, were revolutionary and opened up the sport to the masses, but they were also pretty dangerous! With pretty much zero depower and no QR system, you just had to hang on and hope for the best... This decade has seen what feels like century's worth of kite evolution in ten short years and - particularly in the last couple of seasons - it really feels like the kit has settled down and is more about 'refining' rather than 'revolutionary' designs.
The last decade has seen the extremes of kite design generally being mellowed out so that the middle-ground of 1) decent depower, and 2) good feedback from the kite, is now expected from all styles of kite. But it is still horses-for-courses, and with clearer boundaries between disciplines (who'd have thought we'd have Wake/Snow/Freestyle/Wave/Race even five years ago!), different riders expect different things from their kit.
We're going to take a look at three different types of kite here, their history and what they're now generally chosen for, and also at three specific kites that define their design and are currently recognised as classics, and as leaders in their class...
A few years ago there would be fights on the beach as to whether x, y or z kite as an SLE or a Bow or a hybrid. Times have mellowed out and, although some kiters could argue about the nuances of this particular design, the fact is that - whatever the system - these kites offer full-depower, good hangtime, and the widest useable wind range.
The fundamental idea behind a SLE (Supported Leading Edge) kite is that, through the use of bridles, the leading edge can be 'forced' into a specific shape. This, combined with the use of a straight or a slightly concave trailing edge, results in a kite that, when the bar's out, allows the wind to flow straight over it and to give the rider complete depower.
This was a revolutionary idea when it first came out - especially for kitesurfers just starting out and for kite-schools wanting the fantastic safety option of full depower. But the problem was that, if we're honest, they weren't great. You got full depower but at the expense of any kind of 'feel' from the kite, and the pulleys and bridles and bar set-ups got pretty confusing and were pretty liable to get clogged up with sand.
A few years down the line though, and the modern SLE/Bow kite has fully come of age and is one of the most effective and useful kites around. Its shape provides the best ratio of size to power, and means that it's a great choice for racing and for freeriding. Its good hangtime and high-depower capacity also makes it a popular option for use on the snow, plus you really can have a two kite quiver and get out in anything from 10-35 knots.
The original and still one of the best SLE kites: The Cabrinha Crossbow.
Before Computer Aided Design, and the involvement of companies with cash to invest in R&D, it's easy to see why the C Kite was the first ever kitesurfing kite. The simplicity of a piece of material, an inflated leading edge, and four control lines enabled the first kitesurfing pioneers to attach themselves to a kite, head into the water and kick the whole unlikely sport of kitesurfing off.
It is this simplicity that has ensured that C Kites are still recognised as the purest and most direct style of kite. (And also why every kite advert for the last 7-years uses the phrase: 'C-kite feel' to flog their kit!) There are far less 'true' C Kites around nowadays though, and those which might look similar to the FreeAirs of yesteryear are an entirely different experience in terms of depower and safety when you get them in the air. But for hardened freestyle and wake riders, nothing will ever match the C Kite for complete control and for unmatchable grunt.
One of the longest running, constantly evolving and most highly respected models of C kite, the Slingshot Fuel:
As is often the way with 'progression', it didn't take the 'C Kite fans' and the 'Bow kite fans' long to realise that neither was completely right and there would never be an outright winner.
For a few years the 'death of the C Kite' was forecast, but people still wanted that responsiveness, and the Bow kites weren't really delivering it. Sometime around 2006, C Kites suddenly started to be released that you could actually depower quite a lot, and some of the Bow kites began to look less 'flat' and have fewer bridles and pulleys. It became clear that both styles of kite were moving tentatively towards the middle ground. And they've continued moving towards the centre ever since: 90% of modern kites are essentially some kind of a hybrid - some have more bridles, and some just make use of loaded fifth lines, but they all basically borrow the best bits from kite design over the last 10 years and come up with a kite that may be better suited to wake-style, or may be better suited to racing, but is basically a hybrid kite.
One of the earliest, more 'C style' hybrids, and now a classic incorporating all of the best features of the last ten-years of kite design, the North Rebel:
So, whatever your discipline and whatever your kite of choice - now is definitely a great time to be kitesurfing, with better kit and more things to do with it. The irony, of course, is that we'll look back in 10 years time and laugh-out-loud at the kites we're using today - but that's progress for you and long may it continue!