On first sight, the wide, golden beaches of the Moroccan port town of Essaouira, with its herds of camels and horses galloping through the surf, might not seem like a hotbed of extreme water sports. But a chance combination of reliable winds, a gentle, shelving beach and enthusiastic locals has turned this former haunt of Jimi Hendrix into the perfect place to learn kitesurfing.
RSNG travelled there with KiteWorldWide to find out how to take to the waves on a wing and a prayer…
Tom Court is a kitesurfing wanderer who travels the world looking for the best winds and the most beautiful beaches to launch from. The former competition pro embodies the kitesurfer’s spirit of a restless search for that perfect day – the one where the conditions match your inspiration and energy, allowing you to hitch a ride on the wind and soar across the waves. There’s a kind of freedom that you can only experience when totally immersed in the world of sun, sea and flight.
You can see it as Court flies his kite high above the beach in Essaouira – he jogs down to the surf, throws his kiteboard onto the water and in one practised, move hops onto the board, slips his feet into the loops and then carves off into the breaking waves, while the camels look on.
I see him power up the kite using his control bar and then he pops off a wave, floating through the air as he grabs his board – it looks effortless but I know there’s a hell of a lot of force harnessed in the kite 30ft above his head.
Engines Of The Air
RSNG has come to Essaouira to take advantage of the port’s famous trade winds. They blow consistently and powerfully, while the winter sun beams down. I’m about to find out just how powerfully as I prepare to fly a kite that’s attached to the waist harness I’m wearing by a control bar and lines. Court holds the kite before launching it into the air and I pull on one side, and then the other to keep it flying up until it’s directly above my head.
’It’s like the kite is in neutral now,’ says Court. It’s true – there’s hardly and pull on my harness. As soon as I get the kite to turn down towards the ground, the pull increases. It’s heading into its power pocket – this is where the wind is acting on the whole surface area and generating drive.
But I let it drop too far down and as well as dragging me down the beach, the kite also takes a nose dive into the beach. ‘You have to keep working it while it’s up there, using small movements on the control bar,’ says Court. I’m soon getting the kite to turn figures of eight on the sky – it’s a satisfying feeling.
‘Kiteboarding is a fantastic all-over body workout’
I’m itching to get into the sea, so we head into the whitewater, to about thigh deep. It’s here that you really start to get a feeling for how a kite can drive you through the water. By steering the kite down nearer to the power pocket, and keeping it there with a tight figure of eight turning pattern, I soon feel the power building and let the kite take my bodyweight and drag my legs through the water. A couple of faceplants and mouthfuls of sea water later, and I’m starting to get the hang of it.
It’s actually quite hard work on the thighs countering all of the power in the kite. ‘Kiteboarding is a fantastic all-over body workout,’ agrees Court. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not your upper body that has to do all of the work, despite you using it to control the kite. ‘Once you're up on the board it's all about using your weight – you don't need to have strong upper body strength as many people imagine. Instead, by controlling your posture and balancing on the board, you're working your core and strengthening your upper body.’
The City Of Walls And Waves
We take a break for some food and a wander around Essaouira. The fish market is one of the port’s main draws. This morning an ethereal mist had sat over the port, and the sight of a traditional fishing boat, decks painted bright blue, slowly emerging through the harbour’s stone arch transported me back a few centuries. You may recognise parts of the harbour from Game Of Thrones, which used it as a set.
The fisherman sit and gut their catch right on the harbour walls – walking around you can see baskets of fish and prawns, as well as outlandishly large conger eels and other less identifiable critters. It’s just as well that messing about in the sea burns so many calories because the BBQ fish served up in the kiosk restaurants is plentiful and delicious (as the persistent feral cat population would tell you, if they could).
The fact that Essaouira is a walled city and that the KiteWorldWide kitesurfing ‘Slice Of Life’ clinic is right on the beach means you feel like you’re having an authentic experience of Moroccan life, rather than a sanitised resort. There’s an interesting mix of a hippie vibe, a hangover from the 1960’s visitors, surfers and local life, visible in the bustling street markets, which sell everything from groceries to argan oil cosmetics and art.
One evening, another of the instructors, Rashid, takes us to a bring your own BBQ hidden away in a side street. We stop at the market stalls to buy lamb, bread and peppers and the proprietor cooks it for us. It’s delicious and the kind of insight into how the locals live that only happens when you ‘get stuck in’.
The Learning Curve
Back in the water, I’m ready to involve the kiteboard in the equation. In water thigh deep, the idea is to sit back, getting your feet into the straps and then driving the kite towards the power pocket so that it drives you up and your lower body out of the water.
At first it’s hard to power up like this without the kite just yanking me up so that my legs and board get left behind, crashing the kite. I find that you have to turn the board as I’m lifted up, so that it cuts through the water. Court tells me I need to commit. ‘Be confident with your kite – at the beginning when you are learning something new you have to over exaggerate it, sometimes we think we are doing something but when we look at a video replay you realise you are not actually fully committed to the manoeuvre.’
I’m getting close, but every time I get up I crash the kite. You have to get used to flying the kite but then manoeuvring the board – like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. ‘Make sure you are really moving your kite to drive you out of the water, then as soon as you feel yourself being lifted move your kite again,’ says Court. ‘Lots of people are so happy they are getting up they forget to move their kite and end up back in the water again. As soon as you feel yourself moving along then you can adjust your board and posture to ride upwind.’
Suddenly, I put it all together and I’m up, riding the board as it slaps between the waves. It’s an amazing feeling and I’m totally absorbed in the experience, my mind racing as it tries to get a handle on the world of wind, waves and light, that’s forever in flux.
‘Kiting helps me clear my mind and focus on the here and now’
For Court it’s not just the physical side of kiting that appeals. ‘The benefits of kiting are mental as much as physical, I have been kiting since I was 9 years old and being on the water is part of who I am, as well as SUP and surfing – as long as I get to spend time on the water every day I am a nicer person to live with. Kiting helps me clear my mind and focus on the here and now.’
In fact, you’re so focussed on what you’re doing that you don’t even realise you’re getting a workout, and you can tailor what you do to your fitness goals. ‘Wave riding is more about your central core, building your balance and your flexibility. If you’re pushing for the unhooked tricks then it is about your core and upper body and your legs to absorb the impact. Then, cruising around and discovering new spots is good for your core and general fitness.’
Feeling is believing, but it’s pretty easy to get into kitesurfing – Court recommends you invest a bit of time into it to begin with: ‘If you spend a week, by the end of it you will get to the point where you won’t forget what you have learnt. It will be in your muscle memory, like riding a bike.’
I’m feeling surprisingly comfortable once up and riding the kiteboard, so much so that I spot a small wave coming and pull the control bar in as I hit, powering up the kite – my board pulls through of the grip of the water and suddenly I’m gliding through the air – everything goes quiet as the slap of water on the board ceases and the resistance dies. For a brief, intoxicating moment I feel weightless, but at the same time totally connected to the air around me. It’s a sublime moment and I suddenly understand why Tom Court is so quick to smile – kitesurfing is its own unique a buzz.
WHAT NEXT? Watch Tom Court’s vlog of his Morocco kite clinic where he jumps a kiteboard over a camel…
KiteWorldWide, the kitesurfing travel specialist is hosting a series of exclusive 2019 kiting clinics this year with international pro kitesurfer Tom Court in the Carribbean, Dakhla, Zanzibar and Sicily
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.