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Kitesurfing Safety Lesson | Best Safe Release Systems

Kiteboarding Safety Systems:

There have been a few known fatal accidents while kitesurfing. So for kitesurfing or any other disciplines of power kiting, safety has to be taken seriously. It is recommended that you take kitesurfing lessons from a local reputable school. 

If you have to learn this watersport all by yourself, make sure that you have read and fully understood the following:

Table of Contents

Classic LEI Bow Kites

Modern kitesurfing more or less became popular since 1998. Pioneer kitesurfers have been through generations of equipment and had their shares of accidents. Even though most had no clue what risks to encounter in the early days, many managed to stay out of serious accidents due to some very simple rules and common sense.

Many years have passed and kitesurfing is no longer a “mystery” as it was in the early days. Kitesurfing know-how, teaching methodologies, and safety guidelines are very well-known and well-published. It is no longer acceptable for any excuse of not knowing what risks to expect in kitesurfing or kiting in general.

The dangers of kitesurfing are manageable

Personally, I would compare the risk of kiting similar to the risk of driving a car in North America (for sure much less risk than driving in Paris or Saigon). And similar to driving, there will be more serious and fatal kitesurfing accidents (like driving, the risks are manageable but they’re still there, still require attention).

I have been driving in North America for 25 years, driving in Paris for a couple of summers (and will be soon driving in Saigon). I had my fair share of minor accidents but managed to stay out of serious accidents. So here it is a table showing the Art of Staying Alive for both kiting and driving:

The Art of Staying Alive
KitesurfingDriving
Don't kitesurf in severe weather (storm, thunderstorm, etc.) unless you absolutely must do soDon't drive in severe weather (heavy rain, blizzard, freezing rain, etc.) unless you absolutely must do so
When in doubt of the weather condition or equipment, stop kiting.When in doubt of the weather condition, the car or the road, stop driving.
Use your "automated" (dead-man) safety devices when launching, landing or near hard objects.Use your "automated" safety devices (air bags, auto-locked seat-belt, ABS, etc.)
Don't attach yourself to the kite in certain conditions (launching, landing, near hard objects)Don't attach yourself to the car - wear your seat-belt - in certain conditions (driving on ice - frozen lake)
Wear appropriate protection devices (helmet, PFD or impact vest, etc.)Wear appropriate protection devices (seat-belt, helmet for formula-one racing, etc.)
Go slow and be careful in crowded place (near shore, people and hard objects, etc.)Go slow and be careful on crowded road.
Don't jump in crowded place (near shore, people and hard objects, etc.)Don't jump your car on crowded city streets (unless you are filming some action movies of course 😉
Be alert and prepare to handle unexpected risks (extreme gusts, other "crazy" kiters, submerged rocks, etc.)Be alert and prepare to handle unexpected risks ("black ice", other "crazy" drivers, objects on the road, hidden driveway, etc.)
Take a Kiting LessonTake a Driving Lesson
Don't Drink and KiteDon't Drink and Drive

Those are the most basic rules and common sense all kiters should have. Now read on for more safety details.

Kiteboarding Safety Guidelines

Use the following safety guidelines when riding:

  1. Do not kitesurf without a safety release system that allows you to disable the kite at any moment. 
    • Traditional kites cannot be fully depowered while the surfer is attached to the kite (chicken loop or chicken loop line). When things go wrong, the surfers activate a safety release system that detaches them from the kite. While this system works when you are conscious and can react fast enough, it DOESN’T when you are not conscious or don’t have enough time to react to a dangerous situation. A few kitesurfers have had serious or fatal accidents in the past due to these devices. Use such kite and safety release system with care and only do so when you are out in open water.  Also, make sure that you test your safety release system properly as described later on this page.
    • The new generation of kites (e.g. Flat LEI) can be depowered fully by simply dropping the bar. Such kites are safer as once the control bar is dropped, the kite becomes more manageable and the kiter can have more time (and chance) to activate the safety release to detach from the kite.
  2. If you use a traditional kite that cannot be fully depowered while hooking into the chicken loop, do not hook in before launching and landing. Depower it using the trim strap before launching or landing. If you use a “spin leash” or “swivel bar”, use the modern bar that allows you to launch and land unhooked. 
  3. Don’t launch, ride or jump upwind of people or hard objects. Give yourself at least a 1.5 line-length distance from those obstacles.
  4. Check your kite, lines, and setup before launching your kite.
  5. Don’t ask a non-kitesurfer to assist you in launching or landing a kite (it is safer to launch and land the kite yourself than having a non-kitesurfer to assist you).
  6. Attach the safety leash “permanently” to your wrist or harness using Velcro tapes or a quick release.
  7. Don’t kitesurf near power lines or airports.
  8. Don’t kitesurf before, during, after a thunderstorm, or in stormy weather.
  9. Don’t kitesurf in offshore wind.
  10. Make sure that there is a “friendly” beach downwind from where you start.
  11. Don’t kitesurf in crowded water. Get out to the open water or any un-crowded area as soon as you can.
  12. Do not kitesurf in a very strong wind if you are a beginner (in 20+ knots) and be careful even if you are an experienced kitesurfer (in 30+ knots).
  13. Wear a life jacket or impact vest.
  14. Wear a helmet.
  15. Flying lines can cut when the kite is flying. Never let yourself or others even having a chance of getting tangled up with the flying lines (e.g. do not fly your kite over other people, never wrap flying lines around your hand).

Safety Release Systems

A kite should come with a working safety release system. Don’t buy any kite without a working safety release system. There are a number of safety release systems currently used depending on the type of control device they use.

2-Line inflatable safety release system

For a 2-line inflatable, the safety system makes one line about one kite span longer than the other line to disable when you stop holding the control bar. The systems have a safety leash attaching to your left wrist (or harness) to allow you to retrieve the control bar.

4-Line inflatable release system

The 4-line system should be similar to a 2-line inflatable. For a 4-line inflatable, the safety release system makes one line (either one of the front line or one of the rear line) about 1 span longer than all the rest to disable when you stop holding the control bar.  The systems have a safety leash attaching to your left wrist (or harness) to allow you to retrieve the control bar.

For a 4-line inflatable, the modern kiters normally use a “spin leash” that allows them to “unspin” the lines easily after a spin jump. Most older spinning leash system requires that the rider is permanently attached to the chicken loop (the depower/empower line) even on land. One of the spinning leash systems on the market is the Swivel Bar which does not require the rider to permanently attach to the chicken loop.

Most inflatables can be rigged with a 5th line. The safety leash can be attached to the 5th line instead of any of the other 4 lines.

2005 KiteLoose Swivel Bar that allows launching and landing unhooked. 

Waroo Safety Bar

Waroo Bar. 

Flat LEI Safety Release System

For Flat LEIs, the kite can be fully depowered while hooking in; however, the kiter should still wear a safety leash similar to a traditional LEI.

2-line foil safety release system

There is no way to safely disable a 2-line foil except for trying to land it on the side of the wind window or to dump it in the water! 

3-line foil safety release system

The safety release system for a 3 line foil is a simple Velcro tape wrist band (or harness band) that attaches to the center leader lines on the bar (which attaches to the brake lines or the trailing edge of the kite).  If you attached the safety leash to your harness (via a Velcro tape or a snap shackle), you can pass the safety release line through the harness loop to make it a “spin safety leash” allowing you to spin the bar to untangle the line.

4-line foil safety release system

The safety release for a 4-line foil with handles is a simple tape wrist band (or harness band) that attaches to the kitesurfer’s left wrist (or harness). From the wrist band (or harness band), there are two lines (regular 500 lb. line is fine).

One line around 1’6″ (or longer if you use a shorter harness line, I use around a 2′ harness line) attaches to the same spot on the left brake leader line as the left brake line. The other line around 4′ attaches to the same spot on the right brake leader line as the right brake line. To disable, just drop the handles.

For a 4-line foil with a bar, the safety system is similar to a 4-line inflatable.

Quick Release Safety Systems For Kitesurfers

Some safety systems are completely dependent on quick release systems (especially for 4-line inflatable kites). Don’t rely on the claims of other kitesurfers, equipment manufacturers, or dealers, test your quick release systems yourself (biological or mechanical) each time you go out as follows:

  1. Find 2 tables about 4′ high. Place them around 40 – 50 cm apart.
  2. Place your control bar between the two tables (one end on each table).
  3. Wear your harness, impact vest, and all the associate clothing or gloves (i.e., if you do both summer kitesurfing and winter kitesnowboarding/kite skiing then you need to repeat each test twice, each one with different clothing, glove, etc.)
  4. If you use a fixed loop, hook into your fixed loop and suspend yourself in the air.
  5. Hold the bar and make sure that you can unhook from the fixed loop within 10 seconds. If not, then you need more lift-up exercise or a longer fixed loop, or a quick-release on your fixed loop.
  6. If you have a quick-release on the fixed loop, make sure that it works (within 10 seconds) by locating it and activating it while suspending yourself attaching to the fixed loop.
  7. If you use a chicken loop, tie the loop tightly with the bar so you can suspend yourself by attaching to it.
  8. Hold the bar and try to unhook from the chicken loop within 10 seconds. If you can do this consistently then it’s great, you are one of the few who can do it!  If not, you need a quick release on your chicken loop.
  9. If you have a quick-release on the chicken loop, make sure that it works (within 10 seconds) by locating it and activating it while suspending yourself attaching to the chicken loop.
  10. If you shackle in then tie the shackle line to the bar and suspending yourself while shackled in. Make sure the quick release of the shackle works within 10 seconds by locating it and activating it while suspending yourself.

Now you can feel better that your systems the way you installed them on your bar are tested with your harness and clothing set up with a load of your weight. If possible, you may want to wear some extra weight while doing the testing. 

A prudent kitesurfer may want to repeat the same 10 steps after putting the quick release systems in water and mixed them up in sand for a while (step 5 and 7 does not need to be repeated).
A prudent kitesurfer may want to have 2 or 3 quick systems (preferable of two different types) so if one fails, the others can be used.

Kite Rescue Techniques

A kiteboarder must be familiar with the following techniques to self-rescue or to rescue other riders on the water. 

Self-rescue Kiteboarding Techniques

  1. If your kite is still flying, just use its power to pull you and the board to the beach. With this method, you normally can go around 60 degrees downwind either to the left or to the right, so make sure there is a friendly beach in that direction. This is one of the main reasons why you should make sure that there is a friendly beach downwind from where you started.
  2. If your kite is on the water and cannot be relaunched for whatever reason (light wind, bridle mixed up, broken battens, broken lines, water leak, etc.), you need to wind all the lines in. If you are using an inflatable or closed-cell foil kite, you need to reel in with 1 line 10 – 12′ out-of-sync of the other such that your kite will not relaunch accidentally when to wind the lines in. If you use a reel bar, you need to pull the left line 20′; reel both lines in 10′ while holding the left line (at the 20′ position); pull the left line another 10′ and continue to reel both lines in while holding the left line.
  3. If you are using an inflatable, you can use the kite as a sail to get you to shore. After having wound the lines in, just hold the bridle with both of your hands and position it to act as a sail to get you to shore. You can go only around 60 degrees downwind either to the left or to the right, so make sure there is a friendly beach in that direction. 
  4. If you are using a foil and the water has yet gotten into the foil, you can relaunch the foil using the bridle and park the kite on one side to get to shore.
  5. If you are using an inflatable and there is no wind, you can just hold it with one hand while swimming to shore (you can hold the board with the other hand). 
  6. If you are using other types of kites (or the wind is pushing your inflatable offshore), you need to pack it. You can pack a ram foil by folding both wind tips together a number of times until around 3′, 4′. Then you can roll it from the trailing edge toward the leading edge. If you use an inflatable, you can use the same packing method but have to deflate all the inflatable tubes completely before packing. If you use a framed kite, you have to use the packing method.
  7. Put the packed kite on top of the board and then hold the board with both hands in front of you while swimming to shore. You can also hold the board and the kite with one hand on the side while swimming to shore. If your board is big enough, you can lie on top of your equipment and paddle to shore.

Techniques to Rescue Another Kitesurfer

  1. To rescue another kitesurfer, you should tell the other kitesurfer to pack his/her board properly. You should try to stay within the same area (within 1 mile) while the other kiteboarder packs his/her kite.
  2. Once it is packed, you can stop beside the other surfer. Make sure that the other kiter has wound all the lines in completely. The other rider should put the packed kite on top of your board and holding your board with both hands while you use the power of the kite to pull both you and the other rider to the beach. With this method, you can go only around 60 degrees downwind either to the left or to the right, so make sure there is a friendly beach in that direction.
  3. You can use a similar technique to rescue any other water user as long as they can pack their equipment on the water and can hold on to both your board and their equipment with both hands.

Avoid Getting Lofted When Kiteboarding

Lofting is one of the most serious dangers of kitesurfing. Due to the high power requirement of this sport, a serious wind gust can send the rider upward if he/she has the kite park overhead. Getting lofted in the water is fun (it is normally called tea bagging). It is getting lofted on land that normally results in serious injuries or death.

Rick Lossi on How To Avoid Lofting

Lofting is a reality for us, fortunately for whatever reasons, a somewhat rare one though. This may be due to the critical timing of the gusts while being airborne off the water and more vulnerable to being moved along further and/or higher.

Who really knows at this point. Several kiteboarders have been lofted while standing still, so being airborne isn’t strictly required, but it helps. I have put together a set of precautions that seem to make sense. Input is welcome, particularly from riders who have been lofted.

Gusts are the most common cause of course, more rare causes could include the apparent dust devil that occurred in Spain with Robert Sanchez’s fatal accident and the thermal bubble that lofted Eric in Oahu to an incredible 225 ft.
  1. Pick your weather carefully. If the weather radar, wind plots imply squalls or unduly gusty weather or if obvious storm clouds or other signs of unstable weather are moving in, it would be a good idea not to go. When in doubt, don’t fly, wait for stable weather.
  2. If you are stationary in the water or on land, try to keep it at the edge of the wind window and near the surface. This may result in your being dragged as opposed to lofted, so plan accordingly. Be ready to depower at the earliest opportunity if hit by a strong gust to try to avoid extended dragging and potentially serious injury.
  3. If you are near hard objects or if pronounced gusty conditions are developing, stay unhooked and be prepared to let go or more ideally, use a snap shackle to secure your chicken loop. It is important that the snap shackle is rigged properly to improve the reliability of the release. If you do use a snap shackle, rehearse mentally, frequently, ” if I get lofted, pull the snap shackle release cord”. In the shock of lofting, your reactions may be slow, so rehearsing may help. Of course, if you are already high over land, this one is a very tough judgment call as riding things out may be the wiser course. To avoid having to make such critical decisions in very little time, which may result in injury regardless of the decision, the best course is to work hard to avoid circumstances that may lead to lofting in the first place.
  4. Avoid or simply don’t fly with onshore winds or within 300 ft. upwind of hard objects. If you go out in onshore winds, which is NOT RECOMMENDED, ride more than 300 ft. offshore until it is time to come in. I would come in without delay, keeping the kite low and be prepared to let go of your bar if lofted. This technique generally requires assisted landings shortly after you make it to shore. Do not jump within 300 ft. offshore or hard downwind objects. If feasible it would be a good idea to have assisted launches and landings at least 200 feet offshore in onshore winds, thereby avoiding having an airborne kite closer to shore than 200 feet.
  5. Be particularly cautious while upwind of bystanders. If circumstances seem to support possible lofting, it would be best not to launch at all. If the rider decides to go despite this recommendation and prudence, he should move a substantial distance away from the bystanders.
  6. Try to use shorter line sets if you are expecting stronger winds. Also, try not to fly a larger kite than supported by apparent conditions.
  7. Always wear a helmet! Wearing an impact vest is also a good idea.
  8. Do not come within 100′ of substantial vertical surfaces or walls with onshore winds to avoid potentially being lifted. In theory, even relatively minor winds could cause substantial uplift along the face of buildings, cliffs, etc.
  9. Do not fly near thermal generating conditions.

Risques Of High Jump Lofting

Of course, kiteboarders can break all of the above guidelines and perhaps be perfectly OK for hundreds of hours on the water. Then again, maybe not. One rider I know made it through two years of going out in virtually every kind of weather including two hurricanes before he smacked into a bad landing and serious injury onshore. Unfortunately, sad experience has shown that given enough time, bad things have a way of catching up with us if we go a little too extreme, too often. We really need to avoid lofting, particularly near others, for both our own good and for the sport.

Following is an interesting email about lofting that I received in May, 2004.

Hi there,

I have been looking over your site and have found the information very useful to me as I am interested in all things kite-powered. I am a paraglider pilot looking to try kite surfing and was very interested to read the section on lofting (this is a new expression to me). Just thought you would like to know about my experience with lofting.

I was flying an Advance Off-road 3.8m power Ram Air in a relatively sheltered field (high trees running along 3 sides of the field. I’m not sure of the length of the lines but they are the standard ones that came with the wing. The wind that day was moderate and was exerting a low pull on the wing. It was a good day to practice, stalling helicoptering and spinning. 

My wing control is generally very good as I am used to controlling a 13m wing (my paragliding canopy) in wind up to 17mph.

A freak gust of wind caught my kite (3.8m ram air) witch lifted me to around 10-12ft. I know this is not very high but the speed with which I was lifted and accelerated horizontally was shocking! I let go of both control handles ( I was flying it on a 4-line system with a handle in each hand) and fell to the ground. Fortunately, my father was there to run after the kite as I couldn’t get up because of a hard landing. Both my ankles were swollen and bruised by the impact, a day spent sitting down was the result.

I am well aware of the power of the wind and know that every time you fly you are harnessing a truly powerful thing. This said, I weigh 75kg and didn’t expect that to happen to me with that particular size in those conditions. I was lucky and learned a great lesson that day.

Don’t know if this is any good for your site but I thought it may have been of some interest to you.

Regards

Daniel Sidoli

Kiteboarding Accident Statistics

The following table shows some accident statistics derived from the KSI database compiled by Rick Ossi from 2000 to September 2003.
 2000%2001%2002%2003%Total%
Total9165921105
Total unknown skill30.3350.31150.2540.19270.26
Total beginner10.1120.13110.1950.24190.18
Total experienced50.5690.56330.56120.57590.56
Total light or no injury40.4460.38200.3440.19340.32
Total serious & moderate injury40.4470.44300.51160.76570.54
Total fatal10.1130.1990.1510.05140.13
Light or no injury (unknown skill)20.2230.1950.0810.05110.1
Light no injury (beginner)20.0310.0530.03
Light or no injury (experienced)20.2230.19130.2220.1200.19
Serious injury (unknown skill)10.1120.1380.1420.1130.12
Serious injury (beginner)10.1110.0660.140.19120.11
Serious injury (experienced)20.2240.25160.27100.48320.3
Fatal (unknown skill)20.0310.0530.03
Fatal (beginner)10.0630.0540.04
Fatal (experienced)10.1120.1340.0770.07
Categories
No kite leash & run away kites20.2210.0620.0310.0560.06
Badly rigged kite leash1*0.0620.0330.03
Kite leash got tangled30.0530.03
Badly connected kite lines/lines got tangled near the kite5****0.0820.170.07
Lofted / dragged (hooked in on land)30.3320.13160.2750.24260.25
Lofted / dragged (hooked in near shore)10.1170.4460.150.24190.18
Lofted / dragged (hooked in unknown or not relevant)10.0690.1530.14130.12
Stormy weather20.2220.02
Steep wind gradient10.1110.01
Board leash10.0660.120.190.09
No Impact vest10.0610.01
Poorly anchored kite10.0610.01
Lines tangled with body, hands, etc.10.0630.0520.160.06
Jump in shallow water & near shore10.0610.0220.02
Ride in shallow water with fins10.021*0.0520.02
Boat collision & riding too close to boats20.0320.02
kitesurfers / kites collision20.0320.02
Fisherman collision / conflict10.0210.01
Inexperience launch assistance20.0320.02
Man-lifting10.0510.01
Cause unknown20.0320.02
1* This accident is also recorded in another category
5**** 4 of these 5 accidents are also recorded in other categories

Special Safety Notes

  • The US Coast Guard initiates a full search whenever they determine a rescue is needed. This results in very expensive resources being dedicated until the missing person is found. Too often the Coast Guard has searched through the night for a windsurfer who has made it safely to shore and was safe at home. It is important to follow up with the Coast Guard if you have been the cause of an emergency call. (This paragraph is taken from the San Francisco Boardsailing Association website).
  • Today there is extensive information about kitesurfing safety available that should be reviewed by all safety-conscious kitesurfers.

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