It occurs very often that I have to hear how windsurfing is better than kitesurfing (or vice-versa), that kitesurfers are just a nuisance (or vice-versa), etc. That is not what I intend to talk about in this article. I think both sports are a great way to have fun on the water (personally I do both and think that badmouthing one or the other is juvenile as these sports can coexist perfectly and share the water without any problems). I will dedicated a whole other post on surf rage and where that comes from. Here is a fun clip illustrating what happens from time to time.
Working at a surf center I often get asked the same question: Which is better, windsurfing or kitesurfing? I usually give a rather quick answer to this as usually there are other people waiting to be attended. However, I thought I would break it down a little more to provide a more complete answer for those not knowing which of these to choose.
At the Surf Center Playa Sur we also offer storage of both windsurf and kitesurf gear I keep having to witness how burdensome windsurfing gear is. Usually the board bag with one (or two) boards and 3 sails will weigh around 30 kg and has to be dragged around the airport and ends up being a big of a hassle when added to the standard luggage we are taking with us. Kiteboarders on the other hand will have their one board under their arm and one kite over each shoulder or just a long bag the size of a large set of golf clubs. Kitesurfing turns out to be less of a hassle overall.
The gear for both windsurfing and kitesurfing both cost roughly the same. When new they can be anywhere within the 1000€ to 2500€ range. An in used condition the gear will be somewhere around the 500€ to 800€. The difference comes in the life of each piece of kit. In general windsurf kit will last somewhat longer before it needs to be replaced. A kite (especially the lines) will need to be replaced after about 3 years whereas a windsurfer can easily last 5 to 6 if maintained well (ie. not leaving the rig laying out in the sun for longer than need be, etc.)
Buying used kit is a little bit more tricky in kitesurfing as the integrity of the lines must be checked carefully and the leading edge must be tested to ensure there are no slow leaks. For a windsurfer it is pretty easy to evaluate the condition of a board and sail.
The gear for kitesurfing is more fragile than windsurfing gear. Tears and holes will be much more frequent due to wear in the mite material than in windsurf cloth because it is much thinner (for less weight).
The two learning curve for each sport are pretty different. For kitesurfing you have to spend a couple of hours on the beach to learn how to handle the kite, then do a few sessions of body drag through the water and only then is it time to try to get on the board. This usually adds up to around 9 hours which is where you are at a point where you can continue to practice without supervision. For windsurfing this is different. I usually spend 15 to 20 minutes on the beach teaching my students what it is they will have to do on the water.From there it is off to the water.After around 2-3 hours with flat water, 4-5 in waves, my students are usually at a point where they can sail back and forth alone.
Now comes the main difference. A kitesurfer after about 20 hours will be riding with a speed and technique similar to that which he will be sailing in 2 years. A windsurfer on the other hand will have a more gradual and constant improvement throughout that time.
I have heard so often how kitesurfing is the sport that people turn to that are unable (or too impatient) to learn how to windsurf.
Kitesurfing is less challenging. There is no denying that. The quadriceps get some working on but that is about it. People who take on windsurfing will be challenged more and will see their stamina increase with each session as the body adapts to the new requirements. The running joke among windsurfers is that kitesurfing is for girls and pensioners, basically referring to the physical condition required.
While it is technically possible to launch and land a kite on ones own, you need a certain level of experience to be able to do so as getting the procedure wrong can end pretty bad indeed. Usually therefore it is at the very least “strongly recommended” to have a second person on the beach to launch or land your kite. The problem mainly comes that it is also dangerous to launch someones kite while flying your own so two kitesurfing buddies will have to some interesting (and dangerous) juggling if they want to go kiting simultaneously). For windsurfing this is not the case as you are quite independent in that sense.
That being said, just for general safety it is wise to go on the water with others around who can lend a hand in case of injury, equipment malfunction or any other precarious unforseen situation.
Locations for sailing
There are two types of locations which are exclusive to one sport or the other
The first is shallow water. As a windsurfer you are in big trouble if you are cruising along at speed and the fin suddenly touches the ground. It can result in a very spectacular and possibly painful catapult indeed (and possibly some board repair). On a kiteboard you don’t have this problem since you are only skimming the water surface.
On the other hand, if we are at a spot where the shoreline is lined with tall structures such as trees or lamp posts it is rather tricky and very dangerous to go in as a kiter since if the lines get caught in them, kitelooping along the ground and crashing into stuff ensues. Windsurfers have less trouble as all they have to deal with is the immediate surrounding.
This is where the two sports have their greatest discrepancy. Ever since kitesurfing has hit the beaches I have been seeing a continuing increase in accidents. My explanation is that since kitesurfing is easier/faster to learn than windsurfing, a lot of people the are not physically and psychologically ready to do an extreme sport start to do an extreme sport. The thing is that as long as nothing goes wrong, it is a fun sport which gives the sensation of speed and planing pretty easily. The problem arises when something out of the ordinary occurs. In that case, circumstances can turn dire pretty fast which lead to serious injuries. Since many kitesurfers have started to kitesurf at a level way beyond their experience, when things go wrong they don’t know how to react and are unable to reduce the consequences,.The trouble is that these consequences do not always affect only the kitesurfer but also anyone up to 200 metres downwind of them. Windsurfers on the other hand have only 5 metres to worry about, 20 if they are jumping.
Also the severity of the accidents in kitesurfing is greater. While it is true that i have seen windsurfers with dislocated shoulders, sprained ankles, broken legs and cracked ribs. Usually these are few and far between. Admittedly they tend to occur on the water and the rescue is a bit of a hassle but even then you have the option of getting on the board to save energy, be more visible and lose less body heat.
From an objective point of view, kitesurfing offers many more advantages over windsurfing except for when it comes to safety, and there it is far behind. This is also an aspect which I don’t see being eliminated from the sport. The long fragile (but very dangerous) lines combined with the immense power that can be generated by the large surface of the kite will always be a hazard, regardless of technological improvements. This is the reason this sport is an extreme sport.
Combine this with the fact that it is easy to learn and that the minimal physical requirements for kitesurfing and you have a dangerous combination. People that are not suitable for doing extreme sports will start to do extreme sports. And the worst part is that they are not aware of the possible risk they are putting themselves in.
I am by no means trying to say that no one should do kitesurfing. I just think that it is not made clear enough to students how to go about learning it safely and practicing it responsibly. Most of the accidents that happen are due to bad decision making and irresponsible riding (like going onto the water in unreliable offshore winds or practicing or showing off tricks near the shore or in areas with a lot of people).
As for the sensation, kitesurfing is a fun sport. I started to use it as an alternative to the low wind days where 5.7 m sails were no longer enough. For me personally, having to sail with 6.0 m or more was too much of a hassle and with a kite takes less physical effort to handle regardless of its size. As a windsurfer kitesurfing is really fast and easy to learn so it was a nice addition to broaden my range of conditions in which I can have fun on the water.
|Record Speed||55.65 (WR) knots||52.05 knots|
|Upwind Capabilities||About 70° from wind direction. The more a kite board tracks upwind, the more its leeward side must edge into the water to resist lateral drag. Upwind riders adopt a similar stance to kite fliers onshore, who slide their feet forward in the beach sand to brake the kite. The kite board's center line is way off the track line, dramatically reducing speed.||About 45° from wind direction (strong wind) depending on the skills of the rider. The sail board's center line runs virtually parallel to the track line, as most lateral forces are encountered by the tail fin and little edging is required. Because of this, upwind courses are fairly fast. Fastest speeds are achieved at broad reach.|
|Skill Set||Kites usually have 3 different setups, so not much to think about. Most kiters never experiment with different line lengths (pity, can make a huge difference too). Physical fitness not required for back and forth riding / jumping. Wind range much larger than windsurfing, so less technical knowledge necessary (there is always some power available).||Windsurfing requires dedication, skill, physical fitness and technical knowledge of equipment (not at all plug and play). Setup/tuning can make a very big difference (down haul, out haul, boom height, harness lines length/position, mast track position). Basically a good windsurfer will be a much better sailor than a good kiter.|
|Theory||The faster the kite moves the more force it develops. Standing still and actively steering the kite up and down (pumping) one can almost immediately create a lot of force. It is almost always possible to have the kite travel faster (much) than the board. The kiter/kite system is very dynamic. This is the reason kites have so much range (wind range).||The sail and board move at the same speed. With pumping one can sometimes push oneself onto a plane or maintain planing in marginal conditions. But sail and board travel at basically the same speed. This is the main reason why windsurfing requires a lot of equipment. The equipment must match the wind conditions much closer than kiting.|
|Physical Strain on Rider||The traction force of the kite is solely transferred to the rider via the harness loop attached to the harness hook when hooked in. When "hooked in" the rider uses muscle strength (thumb and index finger suffice) to steer the kite and control the kite power by pushing the bar in and out (depending on setup one might actually notice a slight effort). When "unhooked" the rider steers the kite using their arms with no depower, which can be very strenuous. Generally, kitesurfing is more of a light cardio training.||Windsurfing without a harness requires a lot of physical effort, especially in strong wind (a theoretical point, nobody does it...). With a harness, recovering from a fall or when maneuvering (jibing, tacking) the rider needs to detach the harness completely from the sail, which means that both traction and steering forces are to be countered solely by the rider's muscle (well here's the part involving skill, they usually use their weight/balance to get the job done...). For jibing maneuvers, muscle effort diminishes as the rider becomes more skilled in maintaining board speed in the jibe. Actually windsurfing in barely planing conditions is very physical due to pumping and locking in to a rigid stance keeping everything perfectly aligned. In race conditions it can get quite physical as well, planing "over the top" of wave sets keeping the board absolutely level and the sail well powered. In the strongest winds it can get physical as well due to the sheer force of the wind, but that is attributed to poor choice of equipment or lack of skill.|
|Fall Recovery||The kite is fairly easy to keep flying during a fall, with 'Hindenburgs' being rather exceptional. The rider can be pulled out of the water by the force of the moving kite. The kite power can be regulated by changing the angle of attack of the kite. In light winds the kite may fall into the water and stay there.||In light winds (non planing conditions), the rider needs to get on the board and pull the sail out of the water. However, in stronger winds (planing conditions (depending of equipment/weight/experience approx. from 9kts on)), water starting is a better option. This means positioning the board-sail combination through aligning the sail into the right wind angle, allowing the wind to pull the body out of the water onto the board using the sail, and then easily hooking back in and stepping into foot straps. This maneuver actually requires slightly less than planing conditions.|
|Tacking and Jibing||Twin tip kiteboards (the majority of kiteboards) are designed to be bidirectional. If the rider wants to start the next tack only the kite's sailing direction must be reversed. The "stern" of the board now becomes the "bow", so the feet can be kept in the footstraps. Since the windward edge of the board doesn't change sides, the terms "jibing" or "tacking" are somewhat of a misnomer. Falling into the water is not a major problem, as even beginning riders can quickly and fairly effortlessly execute a water start using the kite to pull them out of the water. Nower days many kiters use directionals as well (all wave, racing as well as foils). These need to be jibed or tacked. This actually requires practice. Full planing race jibes are almost as difficult as in windsurfing.||The rider has the choice between tacking or jibing. In both cases the windward edge changes sides, so the rider will need to change footstraps. At high winds the only option to change tacks while maintaining speed is to carve jibe, which is a maneuver that requires many practise hours for it to be performed with a reasonably low risk of falling. .|
|Jumping||Kitesurfers can use their kite to "jump" (actually using it as a paraglider), without the need for a launch wave. Jumping is relatively easy but can be hazardous. Being launched (jumping) can also happen unintended, even to beginners, especially in shifting winds and during jibes (how?), where the rider can get pulled into the air as the kite reverses direction.||The rider needs considerable forward speed (basically planing) and ideally a "ramp wave" to get airborne. When the wave is not large enough, the riders must initiate the jump by kicking down the tail of the board. Unintended jumps very rarely occur (unless bouncing over waves...), as jumping requires active rider input (except for off waves). Jumping requires skill and can generally only be executed by advanced riders.|
|Aerobatics||Most aerobatics and tricks (tail grab, barrel roll etc.) can be executed without the airfoil's position in the air having to change. Therefore, executing "aerobatics" is only marginally different from executing them on shore suspended by the harness from some fixed point. Beginners with a lot of caution may start attempting some basic tricks after the first few weeks or even days. This part of kiting can actually be physical.||With most aerobatics the airfoil's position in the air tends to change dramatically, very much like it does in an airplane. Each figure has its own ideal airfoil movement. With some aerobatics like the barrel roll, the rider needs to jump sufficiently high to allow the full length of the mast to rotate forward underneath. Often the risks to the rider of having fast moving and relatively heavy (board + mast + sail) gear so close by are substantial. None of this is similar to any action onshore, and therefore the learning curve is very shallow. As aerobatics are considerably more complicated than jumping, they are the done by the most experienced of riders, commanding huge respect within the sail boarding community.|
|Clearance||Clearance of at least 50 meters upwind (from any object) and 30 meters downwind (from another kitesurfer) is required. The risk of being blown into an airborne situation by a strong wind gust is real, effectively turning the kite boarder into an uncontrolled para-glider in risk of hitting any object downwind.||Since there are no kite lines, no upwind or downwind clearance is required from any object other than a kite surfer or fishing lines, which means that windsurfers do not need to worry about 'rotor' or strong wind gusts (again, not true). Also, they can emergency stop almost immediately. Experienced riders will do this by 'crashing' (with some risk to themselves) while beginning riders (who typically do not wear a harness) can depower the sail instantly by releasing the back hand or letting the mast fall on water. The risk of hitting hard objects or other water-goers is therefore minimal.|
|Learning Curve||The learning curve of kitesurfing is very different from windsurfing. At the beginning the handling the kite can be largely taught on shore, as kite boarding evolved from beach kiting. However once on the water you need to be safely guided by an instructor until you learn the basics. After you have the basics and are independent you will progress much faster than in windsurfing.
Recovery from falling is relatively easy (the kites, especially the newest models, stay normally aloft to pull the rider out of the water, with little effort) as is changing tacks, even in strong wind. Staying upwind is regarded as an advanced technique. Light wind kiting (<9kts) is also an advanced technique: traveling much faster than the wind any mistake can lead to loss of apparent wind -> kite falls into the drink and stays there.
|The learning curve for windsurfing is gradual. As you progress through each stage of the learning process you will find it very rewarding. However the difference from kiteboarding is that you can practice safety a lot more on your own. Initially handling of the airfoil (sail) can be learned on the water or on land. Once on the water it takes lots of practice to improve.
Recovery from falling takes more effort than kiting. The rider needs to either up haul the sail standing on the board (non planing conditions) or water start (planing conditions), which both take some balance. Up hauling large sails can be a bit of work. Falling into the water is part of the overall experience (experts can go days without a fall).
|Equipment Safety||In case of material failure or accidents, normal kitesurfing equipment offers limited rescue possibilities. Kitesurfers can perform a self rescue and use their kite to sail back to shore. The last option for the rider is to abandon the kite and kiteboard and swim to shore.||Any sail board will allow the rider to keep the body sufficiently out of the water to postpone or avoid hypothermia. Smaller boards may require that the mast be detached, to avoid sinking. Thus, as a rule, a rider should never abandon the board. Windsurfing equipment is inherently safe in high winds against tea bagging or collisions due to loss of control: In case of too strong wind, the rider can depower the sail instantly by letting go with the back hand or letting the sail drop on water. Doing so (or falling) means that the board stops almost immediately as the sail will act as a floating anchor in water (except for the cases when it doesn't and sails on w/o sailor...).|
|Equipment Transport||A kite and kiteboard will fit in most vehicles. An average rider may need two to three kites and one board to ride in a wide range of wind strength.||The sail board and sail mast (even telescopic) do not fit in most vehicles, and need to be transported on a roof rack or trailer. If they do, they will often exclude passengers from the vehicle (this applies to European vehicles only...). Several different sails and boards (and often masts and booms) are necessary to cover the full range of rideable conditions.|