Windsurfing vs Kitesurfing

It occurs very often that I have to hear how windsurfing is better than kitesurfing (or vice-versa), that kitesurfers are just a nuisance (or vice-versa), etc. That is not what I intend to talk about in this article. I think both sports are a great way to have fun on the water (personally I do both and think that badmouthing one or the other is juvenile as these sports can coexist perfectly and share the water without any problems). I will dedicated a whole other post on surf rage and where that comes from. Here is a fun clip illustrating what happens from time to time.

Working at a surf center I often get asked the same question: Which is better, windsurfing or kitesurfing? I usually give a rather quick answer to this as usually there are other people waiting to be attended. However, I thought I would break it down a little more to provide a more complete answer for those not knowing which of these to choose.

Transport

At the Surf Center Playa Sur we also offer storage of both windsurf and kitesurf gear I keep having to witness how burdensome windsurfing gear is. Usually the board bag with one (or two) boards and 3 sails will weigh around 30 kg and has to be dragged around the airport and ends up being a big of a hassle when added to the standard luggage we are taking with us. Kiteboarders on the other hand will have their one board under their arm and one kite over each shoulder or just a long bag the size of a large set of golf clubs. Kitesurfing turns out to be less of a hassle overall.
Kitesurf Kit 20131211-000131.jpg

 Equipment cost

The gear for both windsurfing and kitesurfing both cost roughly the same. When new they can be anywhere within the 1000€ to 2500€ range. An in used condition the gear will be somewhere around the 500€ to 800€. The difference comes in the life of each piece of kit. In general windsurf kit will last somewhat longer before it needs to be replaced. A kite (especially the lines) will need to be replaced after about 3 years whereas a windsurfer can easily last 5 to 6 if maintained well (ie. not leaving the rig laying out in the sun for longer than need be, etc.)
Buying used kit is a little bit more tricky in kitesurfing as the integrity of the lines must be checked carefully and the leading edge must be tested to ensure there are no slow leaks. For a windsurfer it is pretty easy to evaluate the condition of a board and sail.
The gear for kitesurfing is more fragile than windsurfing gear. Tears and holes will be much more frequent due to wear in the mite material than in windsurf cloth because it is much thinner (for less weight).

Learning

The two learning curve for each sport are pretty different. For kitesurfing you have to spend a couple of hours on the beach to learn how to handle the kite, then do a few sessions of body drag through the water and only then is it time to try to get on the board. This usually adds up to around 9 hours which is where you are at a point where you can continue to practice without supervision. For windsurfing this is different. I usually spend 15 to 20 minutes on the beach teaching my students what it is they will have to do on the water.From there it is off to the water.After around 2-3 hours with flat water, 4-5 in waves, my students are usually at a point where they can sail back and forth alone.
Now comes the main difference. A kitesurfer after about 20 hours will be riding with a speed and technique similar to that which he will be sailing in 2 years. A windsurfer on the other hand will have a more gradual and constant improvement throughout that time.
I have heard so often how kitesurfing is the sport that people turn to that are unable (or too impatient) to learn how to windsurf.
Windsurf vs Kitesurf learning curves

Physical requirement

Kitesurfing is less challenging. There is no denying that. The quadriceps get some working on but that is about it. People who take on windsurfing will be challenged more and will see their stamina increase with each session as the body adapts to the new requirements. The running joke among windsurfers is that kitesurfing is for girls and pensioners, basically referring to the physical condition required.

Independence

While it is technically possible to launch and land a kite on ones own, you need a certain level of experience to be able to do so as getting the procedure wrong can end pretty bad indeed. Usually therefore it is at the very least “strongly recommended” to have a second person on the beach to launch or land your kite. The problem mainly comes that it is also dangerous to launch someones kite while flying your own so two kitesurfing buddies will have to some interesting (and dangerous) juggling if they want to go kiting simultaneously). For windsurfing this is not the case as you are quite independent in that sense.
That being said, just for general safety it is wise to go on the water with others around who can lend a hand in case of injury, equipment malfunction or any other precarious unforseen situation.

Locations for sailing

There are two types of locations which are exclusive to one sport or the other
The first is shallow water. As a windsurfer you are in big trouble if you are cruising along at speed and the fin suddenly touches the ground. It can result in a very spectacular and possibly painful catapult indeed (and possibly some board repair). On a kiteboard you don’t have this problem since you are only skimming the water surface.
On the other hand, if we are at a spot where the shoreline is lined with tall structures such as trees or lamp posts it is rather tricky and very dangerous to go in as a kiter since if the lines get caught in them, kitelooping along the ground and crashing into stuff ensues. Windsurfers have less trouble as all they have to deal with is the immediate surrounding.

Safety

This is where the two sports have their greatest discrepancy. Ever since kitesurfing has hit the beaches I have been seeing a continuing increase in accidents. My explanation is that since kitesurfing is easier/faster to learn than windsurfing, a lot of people the are not physically and psychologically ready to do an extreme sport start to do an extreme sport. The thing is that as long as nothing goes wrong, it is a fun sport which gives the sensation of speed and planing pretty easily. The problem arises when something out of the ordinary occurs. In that case, circumstances can turn dire pretty fast which lead to serious injuries. Since many kitesurfers have started to kitesurf at a level way beyond their experience, when things go wrong they don’t know how to react and are unable to reduce the consequences,.The trouble is that these consequences do not always affect only the kitesurfer but also anyone up to 200 metres downwind of them. Windsurfers on the other hand have only 5 metres to worry about, 20 if they are jumping.
Also the severity of the accidents in kitesurfing is greater. While it is true that i have seen windsurfers with dislocated shoulders, sprained ankles, broken legs and cracked ribs. Usually these are few and far between. Admittedly they tend to occur on the water and the rescue is a bit of a hassle but even then you have the option of getting on the board to save energy, be more visible and lose less body heat.

Conclusion

From an objective point of view, kitesurfing offers many more advantages over windsurfing except for when it comes to safety, and there it is far behind. This is also an aspect which I don’t see being eliminated from the sport. The long fragile (but very dangerous) lines combined with the immense power that can be generated by the large surface of the kite will always be a hazard, regardless of technological improvements. This is the reason this sport is an extreme sport.
Combine this with the fact that it is easy to learn and that the minimal physical requirements for kitesurfing and you have a dangerous combination. People that are not suitable for doing extreme sports will start to do extreme sports. And the worst part is that they are not aware of the possible risk they are putting themselves in.
I am by no means trying to say that no one should do kitesurfing. I just think that it is not made clear enough to students how to go about learning it safely and practicing it responsibly. Most of the accidents that happen are due to bad decision making and irresponsible riding (like going onto the water in unreliable offshore winds or practicing or showing off tricks near the shore or in areas with a lot of people).
As for the sensation, kitesurfing is a fun sport. I started to use it as an alternative to the low wind days where 5.7 m sails were no longer enough. For me personally, having to sail with 6.0 m or more was too much of a hassle and with a kite takes less physical effort to handle regardless of its size. As a windsurfer kitesurfing is really fast and easy to learn so it was a nice addition to broaden my range of conditions in which I can have fun on the water.