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Kiteboarders battle strong winds ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Corpus Christi

Spanning between Texas A&M University Corpus Christi’s Ward Island campus and the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, the Oso Bay Bridge is a popular spot for shallow water fishing and observing Oso Bay’s wetland birds and wildlife.

But on Sunday afternoon, visitors parked their cars or walked to the bridge for a different reason: to observe a group of kiteboarders attempting jumps, loops and spins, taking advantage of the strong winds brought by Hurricane Beryl.

While the natural response for many people during a storm is to seek shelter, water sports enthusiasts chose the storm-force winds to fly their kites and were not deterred by the dark clouds or the pouring rain that lashed the shore.

“If there’s wind, we go,” says Jeff Chilcoat, a certified kitesurfing instructor and member of the Texas Kitesurfing Association who says he’s been kitesurfing for 25 years. “If you live in Corpus Christi, you know there’s a lot of wind here. Most of the kitesurfers, myself included, moved here 30 years ago for the wind, and we just watch the tropics for that opportunity.”

As Beryl moved toward the Texas Gulf Coast last week before reaching Matagorda on Monday, kiteboarders were preparing for the possibility of it heading into the backwaters of Oso Bay or Laguna Madre.

The flat, landlocked waters provide an ideal environment for kiteboarders, and Oso Bay, with its muddy bottom, offers great kite surfing, making it one of more than a dozen spots in Corpus Christi with consistent, reliable winds, according to information at Kiteboarding.com, a Portland-based company.

The best days for kitesurfing generally depend on wind direction, speed, water level and season, Chilcoat said.

While kiteboarders can practice year-round, the summer season offers steady winds ranging from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with daily averages ranging from 17 mph to 21 mph. According to Kiteboarder.com, these prevailing winds are created by the thermal effects of the farmlands surrounding Corpus Christi Bay.

As a result, riders enjoy the sea breezes blowing between the Wild Horse Desert and the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months, and a good kitesurfing trip can be had on the water between 4 p.m. and dark every day, Chilcoat said.

On stronger windy days, “big air” will allow riders to perform jumps, one of several tricks and maneuvers characteristic of the freeride style of kiteboarding, in which the rider glides over the water on a double-ended, dual-pronged board while attached to the kite in mid-air.

“Twenty-five to 35 miles per hour winds are ideal,” Chilcoat said. “We like high wind stuff. We push up and have this competition to see who can jump the highest. You need a lot of wind to jump really high.”

He said that kiteboarding, which is done by surfing on the beach, is called kite surfing, but there are big differences between the two activities.

“We have a lot more options for where we can ride: surf, bays, backwater lagoons, shallow bays and lakes,” Chilcoat said. “We really only need at least 6 inches of water. Surfers can only ride waves in the ocean, and the waves here are usually very small, irregular and can break very fast.”

A more challenging maneuver is when kiteboarders pull on the kite’s bar to spin the kite in a full circle, thus generating a lot of additional power.

“There’s a technique to it,” says Mike Lugo, a kiteboarder. “It takes a lot of practice and it’s very dangerous, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Danger is a factor, as with any water sport. Chilcoat said he has lost two friends to kitesurfing. Having kitesurfed in about a dozen tropical storms, Chilcoat stressed that it is an activity for highly experienced riders.

“One must be careful and respectful of the power of the wind,” he said. “The safer or more dangerous you can make it, the safer it can be.”

The instructor added that the maximum wind speed for kitesurfing is 55 to 60 mph, so timing is everything.

Some riders will prefer higher wind speeds of 55 miles per hour or more to perform jumps of 50 to 80 feet.

Whenever kiteboarding, riders should be wary of other hazards, such as algae on the lagoon bottom or floating debris that can cut their skin as they speed through the water.

Beginners should take a board lesson or lessons that start on land before heading out on the water, Chilcoat said.

Kiteboarding lessons can range in price from $85 for a 1- to 2-hour refresher course to $295 for a 3-hour beginner session, although this varies depending on the company and whether participants bring their own equipment.

Chilcoat said most kiteboarders have previously participated in another sport such as windsurfing or wakeboarding, but kiteboarding has a steep learning curve and people should not start out thinking it will be like other sports.

“You don’t fly the kite, the kite flies you,” he said. “You need a lot of practice and a lot of safety awareness. There are safety features that allow you to unhook. You can choose to wear boots. It can be dangerous, but if you practice and take your time, it can be really safe.”

He said people now have access to videos and other online resources to help them learn how to buy kitesurfing equipment and do the tricks, but those were not available when he was learning the sport.

The sport’s convenience with its easy-to-carry equipment and gear, and the versatility it offers for riders looking for a relaxing experience on the water or those seeking a more upright challenge, further adds to kiteboarding’s wide-ranging appeal.

“Anyone can really do it,” Chilcoat said. “I’ve been taught to do it a lot. Corpus Christi is the No. 1 place to kiteboard in North America and in the top three in the Western Hemisphere.

“There are so many places, launches and water conditions here that give people options for kitesurfing,” he said, noting that Portland’s Wildcat Park, Laguna Madre, Packery Flats and the lagoon side of Padre Island are just a few. “We’re known for some of the best wind and water conditions in the world, and people come from all over the world to kitesurf here.”

More: Here’s how an old train bridge could become a walking and cycling path over Oso Bay