The Crissy Field beach looked like a psychedelic tent city, with dozens of colorful kite-boarding kites strung along the shore. Seventy-five kite boarders representing 22 countries slipped into white and blue jerseys as an air horn summoned them to the ready.
The scene was part of the Northern American Kite Board Racing Championships, a four-day kite board course race which originally began at the St. Francis Yacht Club five years ago.
“Our group here, the local fleet and the St. Francis Yacht Club figured out how to get these boards to begin to sail upwind,” said regatta chairman Jim Kiriakis, “and then sail in a classic upwind downwind sailing, yachting format.”
Just a month before the America’s Cup Yacht Race begins in the frigid bay waters, dozens of riders were zipping along just as fast – strapped to kites and boards instead of million-dollar yachts.
“You’re basically standing on this board, harnessing the power of the wind,” said racer Sky Solbach, who traveled from Hawaii for the competition. “Flying around the water, it’s a blast.”
The competition began this week with two days of qualifying heats, with finals on Thursday and Friday.
The colorful sails looked like gnats hovering around Alcatraz as the heat of 40 racers began bearing down on a course of buoys stretching out to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The home court advantage in the competition may go to Larkspur’s Erika and Johnny Heineken, the brother-and-sister racers who currently wear the titles of men’s and women’s kite boarding world champions.
“We go out almost every day and sail against each other in summer,” said Erika Heineken. “So we’ve got a ton of local knowledge and support.”
In the first of the days qualifying heats, Johnny Heineken demonstrated the difference between a world champion and everyone else, blasting past the field of riders and smoothly gliding into shore well in front of the closest competitor.
“It’s super fun to have everybody come to us for once,” he said. “It’s the one time in the year we get the little bit of advantage.”
The sport of kite boarding has evolved since the early days when the big thrill for riders was launching into the air, carried by a floating kite. Now riders travel the world racing on highly competitive courses.
But the sport was dealt a recent setback when it was denied a slot in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Kiriakis believes kite boarding’s day will come sometime soon.
“We believe by 2020, there will be kite boarding Olympic sailing class,” Kiriakis said. “There’s a high probability that happens.”
For now, the racers will have to be content zipping along at the same speed as the America’s Cup Racing Yachts, hoping the winds of progress will help the young sport finally catch air.