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Old 08-21-2009, 02:32 PM
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Default The Star.com

"Taking a flier

DAVID ARNOLD PHOTOS
Clean wind — and lots of it — is the greatest natural resource off the island of Coche, heaven for kiteboarders looking for a good breeze and water like butter.
JUST THE FACTS

GETTING THERE: The fastest way to Coche is through Caracas, then flying to Porlamar on the island of Margarita. Beware the tax with every airport departure. From Porlamar take a 10-minute taxi ride to the coastal town of El Yaque, then catch one of the hourly ferries to Coche. Reserve a place by contacting the Hotel Coche Paradise.

WHERE TO STAY: Hotel Coche Paradise. Comfortable three-star facility with buffet meals. Rooms start at $110 nightly. hotelcocheparadise.com Kiters Cabanas. Lodging only in air-conditioned beachfront bargains starting at $40 nightly. A breakfast/dinner buffet meal plan from the Hotel Coche Paradise next door is $25 a day. www.cochekitesports.com

KITING: The Coche Kite Sports Center (www.cochekitesports.com) offers lessons.

HELPFUL WEBSITES: A new one-stop travel site for many adventure-oriented destinations including Coche: extremeelements.com

Kiteboarding has taken off - quite literally - in the last five years, and the tiny island of Coche is considered the ultimate playground
November 24, 2007
DAVID ARNOLD
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
OFF THE COAST OF VENEZUELA–Midway between the islands of Margarita and Coche, the easterly wind kicks up, as do the waves that have had a clear fetch from Africa.

This is absurd.

I am riding on something resembling a serving tray, skimming at close to 43 kilometres per hour over an ocean filled with toothy fish. And I'm hooked to a huge blue airfoil with the attitude of a snippy genie.

I'm kiteboarding and in over my head, sometimes literally.

One of three people making the first-ever kiteboard crossing from Margarita to Coche late last winter, I was the novice in the group. If we were skiing, I would have chosen the green circle groomers. But this was double-black diamond terrain. How I got here is a consequence of place and what happens when something is so perfect you cannot help but reach for more.

Coche is an inexpensive, unpretentious little island swept by winds that build daily. It lies at the far end of the kiteboarder's dream: cloudless skies, smooth water, and lots of wind. Every day of the winter, or so close to it.

The 60-square-kilometre island lies 11 kilometres off Margarita, which in turn lies some 240 kilometres east of Caracas. Getting to Margarita is a cinch by commercial jet.

Getting to Coche requires a 20-minute ride over rough seas in a small, twin-outboard launch with a cabin fashioned from planks and plastic wrap. There's an African Queen feel to the passage. The reward at the end is three kilometres of white sandy beach called Playa la Punta, a smattering of new hotels, and an aging fleet of taxi cabs that apparently have come here to die.

Local zoning limits hotel height along Playa la Punta to one storey because Coche wants to protect the unobstructed flow of wind. As geysers are to Yellowstone, clean wind is to Coche. It's the island's greatest natural resource.

"From November through April, there simply is not a better place to kiteboard than Coche," says Christian Valentine, a 32-year-old Scottish native who founded the Coche Kite Sports Center three seasons ago.

Here, seasonal trades are accelerated by thermal warming and a funnel effect between the islands. Normally such conditions would rile the waters and make the ride choppy. But for the entire length of Playa la Punta, the wind blows offshore. With the land offering a protective lee, the water is smooth – butter conditions, kiters like to say.

Offshore wind also means that if something goes wrong, your next landfall will be mainland Venezuela 24 kilometres downwind. Valentine's staff is available for boat rescues – 15,000 bolivars (about $7 U.S.) for the first, or all you need for 50,000 bolivars ($25). The underlying message is that this is a sport not to be taken lightly.

Scarcely six years old, kiteboarding has pressed the adrenaline button of extreme sport enthusiasts by reducing to bare essentials the equipment needed to ride the wind. The participant stands on something akin to a snowboard while steering a kite 27 metres overhead. Lines lead from the kite to a control bar hooked to the rider's harness. Kiters can turn, control speed, and jump nine metres high by simply maneuvering the bar. It is waterskiing with a vertical component, but without arm strain or internal. And the sport is catching on, apparently in a big way.

Where there might have been 5,000 kiteboarders in Canada and the United States five years ago, there are now probably 50,000 or more, according to Rick Iossi, a south Florida resident who has kept one of the longest records of kiting safety statistics.

Five North Americans died kiting last year, none of them using the newer, safer kite designs, according to Iossi.

I spent four days on Coche in March with a community of kiters dozens strong. I am 58 years old – perhaps twice the age of everyone else. We got along well. I gave them hope, they helped me forget I could have been their father.

In one neighbouring room at the Kiters Cabana motel were Matthias Jonsson, 22, Alex Ahlkrona, 22, and Jesper Ellisson, 19, two Swedes and a Norwegian. They had arrived in October and were slated to stay into April. They had a small room they shared with three beds, six kites, four kiteboards, assorted piles of laundry, a camp stove, a boom box, 40 CDs, and many boxes of spaghetti and bottles of ketchup.

"We don't spend much time here," Jonsson confided. I did some quick calculations to determined they were each eating for $1.65 a day. This included the beer. And the ketchup sandwiches for lunch.

Next door to them were Norbert Altenroxel, 26, of South Africa, and Josie Robinson, 27, of England. Robinson became my best friend after the first day of kiting because she had brought a lot of ibuprofen and was willing to share.

I had spent three hours that day going back and forth along the beach like a shuttle****. According to my GPS watch I had covered 83 kilometres and averaged 38.9 kilometres per hour. Magical stuff, these butter conditions – which is why it is easy to reach for more, and how I ended up party to the first-ever, 11-kilometre crossing from Margarita to Coche, courtesy of Chris Valentine.

His plan was to try for the windward end of Coche, then turn right and continue downwind around the island to complete a 67-kilometre loop back to Playa la Punta. His justification for inviting me went something like this: if I could manage even the first leg over to the island, then he might offer the trip someday as an extreme adventure.

We were joined by Paul Caswell, who, at 37, is the oldest regular competitor on the professional kiteboarding tour.

"I tend to crash a lot," the Margarita resident explained about a trait that has earned him the nickname Trashwell on the tour.

We were also joined by Jose Zabla, shadowing us in a rescue boat.

We launched from a tiny, crowded beach on Margarita, and it took just moments to conclude that simply reaching Coche would be a personal feat.

Hitting wave after wave at 45 kilometres per hour is like riding a bicycle very fast along the top of a never-ending stone wall. I kept up with the experts because they, like babysitters, kept doubling back to check up on me. Occasionally schools of little fish exploded with a whoosh out of the cobalt-blue water. How big were the fish chasing them? These are questions that came quite often at sea, standing on something no bigger than a doormat.

Halfway there, I was waterlogged. My thigh muscles screamed, my sunglasses were drifting somewhere toward the Venezuelan mainland, and my eyes were caked and stung from sea salt. It was time to quit.

Zabla helped me douse the kite, and then hauled me aboard like, well, a dead body. Valentine and Caswell continued on, playful grasshoppers leaping throughout the remainder of the marathon.

At dinner that night, Valentine said that because I had gotten halfway, then maybe, just maybe, he could offer an island-to-island tour someday.

It was a stretch, but I took it as a compliment. Then I took ibuprofen."
http://www.thestar.com/printArticle/278663
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transcribed by:
Rick Iossi
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