March winds draw enthusiasts to Edmonds kiteboarding mecca

“The wind, the waves, the clouds, the mountains, the ferries – what a fantastic day!” enthused Kirsten Andrews.

She was standing next to the water at Edmonds’ Marina Beach Park — the sun and wind in her face — watching kiteboarders riding the March winds, churning up the surf, and completing impossible-looking aerial flips while harnessed to high-flying colorful kites. Marina Beach has become a popular spot with local “kiters,” offering a great combination of amenities for devotees of the sport, and on almost any windy day passersby can watch the spectacle.

Just standing on the beach and watching kiteboarders swoop, jump and dive is an adrenaline rush in itself – but according to Andrews, watching pales in comparison to being out there doing it.

20-year kiteboarding veteran Kirsten Andrews, who lays claim as the first local women to take up the sport, gets some air on Jetty Island with Mount Baker in the background. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Andrews)

“I got in when the sport was first developed in the late 1990s,” Andrews explained. “I was the first woman to take up kiting locally and have been doing it for more than 20 years. When I started around 2000, there were maybe 20 kiteboarders in the greater Puget Sound area. Now there are thousands!”

According to Andrews, kiteboarding began pretty much simultaneously in France (by the French brothers Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux) and the Columbia River Gorge (by Cory Roeseler) and quickly moved to the Puget Sound area.

Over the years, equipment has gotten more sophisticated and safer, also becoming lighter and more varied. While the traditional board utilizes foot holds to keep the rider in place, others are more like surfboards and rely on the rider maintaining pressure on the board to stay upright. Recent innovations include “foil” boards that add a hydrofoil attached to a stilt (mast) on the board’s underside, allowing the kiteboarder to ride above the water with only the foil making contact. “With less wetted surface and hence less resistance, foil boarders can reach some pretty incredible speeds, often in lighter winds than needed by traditional boards,” Andrews added.

Another recent innovation eschews the fancy harness system in favor of butterfly-shaped “wind wings” held by the kiteboarder. According to Andrews, this arrangement allows the kiter to go out in lighter winds, but sacrifices much of the aerial acrobatics that add large measures of adrenaline, athleticism and visual interest to the sport.

But what makes Edmonds and Marina Beach such a mecca for kiteboarders?

“It’s a happy combination of several things,” explains Andrews. “First, there’s plenty of close-to-the-water parking and a large grassy area to set up your equipment and launch. And the winds are great in two directions.  Northerly winds tend to be steady and can give you a nice, predictable ride, but southwesterly squall and storm winds – typically stronger and less easy to gauge – can pack some heart-pumping excitement and riding them takes some real skill.”

But be forewarned — no matter what the wind direction, Marina Beach is definitely not for beginners. Compare it to a black diamond ski run when winds come out of the north — double black diamond in southwesterly storm and squall winds.

And if this weren’t enough, regardless of direction Marina Beach winds typically do not blow into the beach. This means that if a kiteboarder gets in trouble they need to know how to “self-rescue” – that is, know how to get their kite back in the air and get themselves back to the beach. “Otherwise they risk being blown down to Point Wells by a north wind or into the ferry lanes by a southerly,” Andrews added.

And there’s more: the shape and size of the shoreline also make Marina Beach a place for experienced kiters only.

“It’s a really short beach, so you’d better be able to navigate back to where you started,” explained Andrews. “There’s no opportunity to land a mile or so down the beach – you’ve gotta hit that target between the dog park and the jetty by the south Marina docks. There’s no room for error here. This means even in the best conditions you have to plan ahead. But conditions change fast on the water — knowing how to self-rescue is an unwritten prerequisite for kiteboarding at Marina Beach.

“A few times we have had folks get in trouble and end up being rescued by ferry crews and passing boaters,” Andrews warned.

So what’s a beginner to do?

Job one for the budding enthusiast: Get lessons. A quick internet search for kiteboarding lessons will turn up several schools in the immediate area.

Urban Surf Kiteboarding, The Kite Lesson, and Kite Paddle Surf,” are among those offering lessons in our area, and are a good place to start your search,” explained Andrews.

“Three lessons is the bare minimum,” she continued.  “Then you’ll need at least 15-20 hours of getting up and riding the board yourself to get the feel of it. If you ride a lot, within a few months you might be ready for an advanced spot like Marina Beach.”

But happily there are other close-in beaches that offer more forgiving conditions and give beginners the chance to hone their skills.

At the top of the beginner-friendly list is Everett’s Jetty Island. The beach is long, so unlike Marina Beach you don’t need to land right where you started. The winds, which are northerly and thermal, tend to blow steadily into or side-on to the beach, so a kiteboarder in trouble will usually be blown back to shore (though tides can pull a kiter out if they’re not able to use the kite to self rescue). And when the tide is out, it’s shallow, even 50 yards or more out, which makes getting out of trouble as easy as just standing up and walking back in, though at high-tide the water can be over your head.

“Jetty is kind of the beginner mecca, and a lot of the schools operate there,” added Andrews. “On a good day you’ll see 60-100 kites out there at a time.”

Other close-in spots that draw kiteboarders include Richmond Beach and Double Bluff Park on Whidbey Island.

While men have dominated the sport from the beginning, more women are joining in as kiteboarding grows in popularity, a trend seasoned kiteboarding veteran Andrews is pleased to see.

Among these is local resident Merridy Rennick, who along with husband Roger has called Edmonds home since 2012.  Another local pioneer of the sport, Merridy has been kiteboarding since 2004.

“We just love it here,” Rennick explained. “The small-town feel, the restaurants, great place to raise kids  — it was everything we were looking for and more.

“I’ve always been into active outdoor sports like skiing and rock-climbing,” she continued. “At one time I was rock climbing maybe 100 days a year, but I suffered some injuries, so I took some time off to focus more on work and grad school. But I missed my active sports like crazy.

“Then one day about 19 years ago Roger and I were walking along Golden Gardens and saw a kiteboarder do this incredible floaty aerial and land gracefully on the water,” she recalled. “I immediately turned to Roger and said, ‘I have to do that – this is 100% for me – I need this sport!’”

Edmonds’ Merridy Rennick has been kiting for 17 years, and is one of a growing number of local women embracing the sport. (Photo courtesy Kirsten Andrews)

They ran down to the beach to talk to the kiteboarder, and in the next few months Rennick signed up for lessons, bought equipment and honed her skills at harnessing the wind and water.

But it took another chance meeting at another local kiteboarding hotspot — Whidbey Island’s Double Bluff Park — to bring Rennick and Andrews together.

“It was 2014, and still pretty rare to find a woman kiter,” Rennick recalled. “So of course we went over and introduced ourselves.”

As the conversation turned to where each lived, Andrews related that she was currently in Ballard, but was getting increasingly turned off by changes in the neighborhood and confessed that she had her antennae up for a slower-paced, less-built-up place to live.

“Oh, you should move to Edmonds!” enthused Rennick. “We’ve been there for a couple of years and totally love it – and it’s close to some really good kiteboarding.”

Less than a month later, Andrews had not only explored and fallen in love with Edmonds, but found a house, and had her offer accepted.

“It was pretty impulsive,” she confessed with a laugh. “My only experience with Edmonds prior to moving here was driving down to the ferry. I had no idea about the charming downtown, the lively arts scene, the great restaurants and the strong shared sense of community. And yeah, a hot kiteboarding spot at my doorstep!  How perfect can it get?”

When she’s not on the beach, Andrews can frequently be found at local coffee shops, restaurants and the Edmonds Center for the Arts, where she works as an event manager.

But when the wind blows, find her at Marina Beach, where she and Rennick join other kiters in a display of flips, turns, circles and amazing aerials.

— By Larry Vogel

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