Singapore kiteboarders chasing the wind

Kiteboarders hope more here will pick up the sport ahead of its debut at the 2024 Olympics

They go where the wind blows and call themselves windchasers in the sport of kiteboarding, also known as kitesurfing.

The shores of Changi Beach and East Coast Park are their playground - it is where they are at one with the sea and sky when the wind conditions are just right.

Their kites are like colourful birds in the sky as they glide, skip, jump and dance above the water.

Kiteboarding is an extreme sport which involves riding on a board on water, harnessing the power of wind with a large controllable kite. It combines aspects of sailing, wakeboarding, surfing, windsurfing, skateboarding and paragliding.

There are slightly over 400 registered kiteboarders here under the Kitesurfing Association of Singapore (KAS), an affiliate of the national Singapore Sailing Federation (SSF).

For Mr Lawrence Ng, 55, the call of the wind has kept him in the sport for over 20 years.

"The ability to fly over the water without any external energy power source - that feeling of freedom is just amazing," says Mr Ng, the chief executive of a training company.

Mr Lawrence Ng, 55, performing a trick on a hydrofoil board in the sea off Tanah Merah Coast Road. The hydrofoil, which extends below the board, enables a kiteboarder to surf above the surface of the water. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Ng untangling the lines of a foil kite. Such kites tend to travel upwind and downwind faster than tube kites. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

However, the sport's dependence on wind conditions means there are only two seasons for kiteboarding in Singapore - during the north-east monsoon from December to March, and the south-west monsoon from June to September.

And in land-scarce Singapore, space is another issue.

Kiteboarding can be conducted only at certain areas demarcated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

During the recent north-east monsoon, the long-term average monthly surface wind speed recorded at the Changi climate station was about 3m per second in January and February – an ideal condition for kiteboarding. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
A group of kiteboarders taking shelter during a heavy downpour on March 7, 2021. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

KAS also has a permit for a site in Tanah Merah Coast Road which is open only to its members. That is also where most beginners learn.

The association has seen a mini-boom in membership, with popular kiteboarding destinations such as Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines out of reach due to travel restrictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

KAS president Edmund Tang, 56, says: "From December till now, we have had about 100 sign-ups. Most of the people are stuck here - otherwise, they usually travel to places like Bintan, where it's cheap and the wind is much better."

Kiteboarding is set to make its debut at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, and KAS hopes to grow the sport locally and develop an elite field of kiteboarders in Singapore.

KAS has four International Kiteboarding Organisation-certified instructors, but faces problems with drawing young people to the sport.

Retiree Arlene Tan, 59, who has been kiteboarding for more than 10 years, tapping her head as she approached the shore to signal that she needed help to land a returning kite. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
A kiteboarder carrying his kite after a session at Changi Beach. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Kiteboarding enthusiasts in the waters off Tanah Merah Coast Road. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Mr Tang says: "Not many parents will want their children to hang around at the beach and wait for the wind. Wakeboarding, you can go any time. For sailing and other sea sports, even though there's light wind, you can still float on water, but for kiteboarding, you can't."

Only about 5 per cent of KAS members are aged 20 and below.

Mr Kelvin Ee, 55, head of youth development at KAS, says the pandemic has affected KAS' youth development programme, which was introduced in 2019 to recruit athletes to aim for the 2024 Games.

He adds: "Before Covid-19 hit, we did roadshows at Raffles Marina and Singapore Wake Park, as well as an internal recruitment programme with SSF. Covid-19 forced us to stop all the programmes."

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One-on-one lessons resumed with the start of the third phase of Singapore's reopening at the end of last year.

Service engineer Mohamad Ridzwan Hussin, 52, learnt about the programme and introduced kiteboarding to his 13-year-old stepson Raoul Revfan Hardy Rosslee.

"At his age, instead of going out, it's best that he spend more time at the beach with his mother and me. At least we can watch over him and he can also enjoy the sport together with me," says Mr Ridzwan, who has been kiteboarding since 2008.

Hillgrove Secondary School student Raoul Revfan Hardy Rosslee, 13, pumping air into the primary bladder and struts of a tube kite during a training session. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

KAS is hoping for more kiteboarders like Maximilian Maeder, 14. He is currently the only Singaporean who frequently competes overseas, and is home-schooled and self-funded.

He ranked 17th out of 122 at the 2019 Kitefoil World Series and was the Asian champion at the 2019 Formula Kite Asian Championships in Beihai, China. He was also Singapore's sole representative at the 2019 World Beach Games in Qatar.

Maximilian has set his sights on the Paris 2024 Games. However, as the competition format will be a two-person mixed-gender kitefoil relay, he needs a partner for the race.

In answer to the call, national wakeboarder Gooi Jia Yi, 22, has been trying out kiteboarding over the last few months.

National wakeboarder Gooi Jia Yi, 22, practising kite control with the help of her trainer Jackson Chua. Mr Chua, a mechanical engineer by profession, is training Ms Gooi on a pro bono basis to prepare her for a possible shot at the 2024 Paris Olympics. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

"I would find it a shame if Max can't have a go at the Olympics just because he doesn't have a partner. That's why I'm giving this a try," says the undergraduate.

While there are similarities between kiteboarding and wakeboarding in terms of balancing on the board, Ms Gooi still needs to master kite control, wind skills and get more water time.

KAS hopes to create more awareness about the sport so more people will take it up.

Says Mr Ng: "If you love the sea, if you love the wind, you don't mind the sun and exercise, let's go dance on the water."