Catching wind

Howard Abbott talks about taking on kiteboarding at the age of 70

It looked like magic. The kite just hung still in the air, whizzing past the backdrop of the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls, as the person glided along Howe Sound’s green waters. That was it, Howard Abbott thought as he sailed past on his Hobie Cat. Somehow, one day, he would be one of them. 

“It was fantastic,” the long-time Squamish resident recalls. “I wondered if I could do it or was I too old.”

At the time, Abbott was 70. Determined to learn about kiteboarding, he ventured down to the Squamish Spit, where he asked six older-looking kiters the same question — “Can I learn this sport?”

Five replied, “Yes, it might be possible.” One said, “No way. A lot happens out there.” And Abbott’s friends just shook their heads, writing off his quest as another of his crazy ideas.

But if there’s one thing that can be said about Abbott, it’s that he’s determined. 

“I walk into the wall until the door opens,” Abbott, who was set to turn 73 in June 2014, jokes. “I think it might be more stupidity.”

For the next three weeks Abbott exercised. He did leg raises and knee bends on the living room floor. When he thought he was ready, he again ventured down to the Squamish Spit — this time to book lessons. 

It’s been a long journey of baby steps, Abbott says. He found a patient instructor at Aerial Kiteboarding. For two sessions, Daniel Grains took Abbott out on his boat in the sound, with the kite in the air. And for two sessions Abbott never got wet. 

“I was getting on the bow of the boat flying the kite and I did not want to get in that water,” he says, before laughing. 

Today, Abbott has travelled halfway around the world in the pursuit of clean wind and butter-smooth water. He’s been to Texas’s barrier island of South Padre and challenged the Caribbean waves in Barbados. 

Abbott is a regular at the Spit. At least two times a week, he suits up in his well-used wetsuit with the knees duct-taped and heads into the sea. While not every day goes according to plan, Abbott says he always learns something.

“In my next life, I want a little less desire and a little more talent,” he jokes. 

Kiteboarding is not about strength, Grains says. With the force of the kite attached to one’s core through a harness, your hands are free to guide it. So when Abbott approached him for lessons, Grains had no hesitation.

“Getting comfortable with the pull of the kite does take a little getting used to,” he admits. 

Kiteboarding is an accommodating sport, Grains says. It’s developing into a range of styles, from surfing to foilboards that have a hydrofoil extending down into the water. As a result, there’s something for everyone, Grains says, noting he’s creating a program for people with disabilities.

There are a number of kiteboarding schools to choose from at the Spit — Squamish Kiteboarding School, Vancouver Kiteboarding School, Sea to Sky Kiteboarding and Aerial Kiteboarding. Each can tailor packages to meet a client’s needs. 

For 15 years windsurfer and kiteboarder Martin Goetsch has been riding Squamish’s wind. Besides upgrades to the beach and parking, the spit itself hasn’t changed much, but the demographic of those who come to the spit has. 

“There are a lot more females participating now,” the Squamish Windsports Society member says, noting on the weekend, the ratio is getting close to 50/50.

Famed kiters Slinky and Ole brought the sport to Squamish in the early 2000s. It was a time when windsurfing was dying down and the spit was a pretty lonely place.  

Today, the Squamish Windsports Society, who manages the spit, has 522 members. From May 15 to Sept. 15, the society hires four staff to maintain the area and help kiters that may need help on the water. 

Squamish’s consistent winds have caught people’s attention worldwide. The opening of the new Sea to Sky Gondola will only further showcase the sport, as hikers peer down at the action on the sound, Goestch says. 

“We are desperately needing more real estate,” he says, noting kiterboarders are hungry to see the District of Squamish’s proposed wind sports beach at Squamish’s oceanfront come to fruition.

The kiteboarding community is amazing, Abbott says. As the thermal winds barrel up the waterway during the summer months, he estimates approximately 500 people a day visit the spit, all eager to get their few hours on the waves. The retired electrician has met people from Paris to Puerto Rico to the Queen Charlotte Islands out at the end of the Squamish River dike. And Abbott has also gained a friend in his enduring instructor. 

“It is a fabulous sport,” he says with a smile. 

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