Text by Rae Sojot | Images by John Hook and courtesy of Patri McLaughlin
When Patri McLaughlin was 12 years old, he asked for what any Maui kid might for his birthday: snowboarding lessons. “My mom got me kitesurfing lessons instead,” says McLaughlin, chuckling at his mother’s practicality.
Today, 31-year-old McLaughlin is a world champion kitesurfer with the best conditions for the sport right in his backyard. Blending Hawai‘i’s storied tradition of surfing with the use of large, curved, inflatable kites, kitesurfing has gained enormous popularity for its thrilling employ of Mother Nature’s elements. What Maui may lack in snow, it makes up for in warm water, waves, and the hallmark feature of the sport—a steady source of wind.
“Hawai‘i, in general, is a great place for kitesurfing,” says John Roland, a meteorologist based in Arizona, who forecasts weather conditions for several Hawai‘i ocean swims and biathlons, including the North Shore Swim Series. As North Pacific weather systems travel from Japan to Canada, they generate swells, which then arrive in the Hawaiian Islands as surf. But it’s the ka makani, or trade winds, that play the critical component in the sport. Originating from the northeast sector of the globe, they journey unobstructed for thousands of miles across the ocean before reaching Hawai‘i. Though the trade winds gift the islands with a balmy climate, it’s their reliability as a power source that kiters find most appealing. “Roughly 80 percent of the year features trade winds,” Roland says. “The winds are dependable and steady.”
Large volcanic mountains, such as Maunakea and Mauna Loa on Hawai‘i Island and Haleakalā on Maui, influence the trade winds as well. “Just like water moving around boulders in a river, air moves around and between the mountains of Hawai‘i,” explains Jamison Gove, a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In areas where trade winds pass through two mountains, a funneling phenomenon known as the Venturi effect occurs. On Maui, this effect is especially prominent. As ka makani sweep through the valleys and through the narrow neck between Maui’s Haleakalā and West Maui Mountain range, the air races through at accelerated speeds. “Maui’s winds are some of the strongest winds on any island in the archipelago,” Gove says.
Waterman Kai Lenny grew up on Maui’s north shore, where breezes are part of life. “Every day is a bad hair day,” says the 24-year-old. The wind’s susurrations are such a familiar background noise here that their absence is more apparent than their presence. “It’s eerily quiet,” Lenny says of the rare day with no wind.
Kiters like Lenny prefer the days with gusts, bad hair days or no, just as much as windsurfers, Maui’s original wind aficionados. (Windsurfing employs a surfboard with a sail attached.) In the late 1970s, a group of windsurfers struck waterman gold when they came upon Ho‘okipa Beach on Maui’s northern coast, where Venturi effect-influenced breezes complement a well-positioned reef. The result? A perfect combination of wind and waves. Soon, windsurfers from all over the world were flocking to the island.
“I came for the windsurfing,” says Martin Lenny, Kai’s father, who arrived in Maui in 1985 to experience the island’s fabled conditions. The sleepy town of Pā‘ia—formed as a sugar-plantation town in the late 1800s, and converted into a hippie haven by the 1960s—became a hot spot for windsurfers, especially those coming from Europe, where the sport already boasted a large following.
“It was common to hear a variety of languages spoken in town,” Martin says. Many windsurfers, like Martin and his wife, Paula Lenny (who had also heeded Maui’s siren call), stuck around, making Pā‘ia their home. Windsurfing remained a large part of the Lennys’ lives as they started their family: Outfitting their van with a crib for young Kai, they caravanned to the beach with other like-minded parents, taking turns getting their windsurfing fixes. “It was the Pā‘ia lifestyle,” Martin says.
By the late 1990s, Maui’s winds had ushered in a new variation of the island’s trademark sport: kitesurfing. It gained traction when renowned watermen Dave Kalama, Laird Hamilton, and Manu Bertin appeared in surf lineups with modernized, high-performance kites, thrilling onlookers with elaborate tricks and jumps. A frenzy ensued. Windsurfers had a new discipline to hone on Maui’s year-round winds.
At the beginning of this learning curve, Maui’s winds were as much a bane as a boon. “Everyone had a ‘kitemare,’” says Martin of the nightmarish accidents that prevailed during kitesurfing’s infancy. Being tied to a kite turned out to be disastrous often, as Maui’s winds are mirthful and malicious in equal measure. Sudden upwind drafts would launch a kiter 40 feet in the air, where they might collide with telephone poles, be dispensed into trees, or get dropped into shallow areas and dragged across reefs. Since then, advancements in safe practices and gear have led to a decrease in mishaps and an uptick in the sport’s popularity. Today, there are nearly 1.5 million kiters worldwide.
On a day in early January, onshore breezes buffet a group of vacationers from the U.S. Midwest who have set up a row of beach chairs on the bluff overlooking Ho‘okipa Beach. They watch as kiters swirl in and out of beach breaks, harnessing the wind to glide across waves. “We’ve been doing this for the past 10 years,” one of the spectators says.
Nearby, McLaughlin, home from traveling and competing, unfurls his kite and lays out his lines on the sand. His girlfriend, Olivia Jenkins, does the same, her ponytail whipping in the wind. Originally from England, and an avid kiter herself, Jenkins is part of the new generation of watermen who are proud to call Maui home.
Beyond Ho‘okipa’s craggy outcropping, a kiter launches from a well-formed wave high into the air, his kite a flash of color against the sky. The spectators marvel, their murmurs of delight carried aloft on the breeze. As waves and wind have shaped the Hawaiian Islands, so too have they shaped the passions of those who exist alongside them. Says Kai Lenny, who has made a life of maneuvering these elements, “We embrace the wind.”