Ryan Levinson's Q&A with North Sails
Q: When did you learn to kite? Who taught you?
A: Around 2000 or 2001. When the first kites came on the market. I was working as a windsurfing and sailing instructor and I convinced my supervisors to get a kite and see if it was something we wanted to pursue.
Back then we were all self-taught because there were no instructors. I had a super basic “how to” video and a patient girlfriend willing to follow me around in a small boat as the kite dragged me out of control all over the bay. There were no safety systems, nor any way to de-power the kite. It was super dangerous and pretty much the worst way to learn but it was the only option available at the time.
Q: Where have you kited?
A: I’ve kited all over, including California, Florida, Hawaii, Baja Mexico, Mainland Mexico, Tahiti, Mo’orea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Taha’a, and a bunch of the atolls in the Tuamotus.
It’s possible to have fun just about anywhere there is water and wind. I’ve had some great sessions in bays, lakes, the open ocean, lagoons, surf zones, and even the snow!
Q: What kite products do you have? (Board, harness, kite, etc)
A: I have different kites and boards for different styles of riding, all made by North Kiteboarding. My harness and wetsuits are made by Mystic (a company also owned by North Actionsports Group.)
For free-riding, which is basically everything from just cruising around to doing big jumps and tricks, I use a quiver of Orbit kites sized 12, 9, and 7m with an Atmos hybrid twin-tip board. This is a great all-around set up that will work well for most people in a wide range of conditions.
When I’m riding surfboards I use Carve kites sized 11, 9, and 7m. For riding waves I use the Charge, and for strapless freestyle I love the Comp.
“Riding the Comp reminds me of the freedom I felt during childhood riding around the neighborhood doing tricks on a skateboard and I’m looking forward to getting my Charge into some waves and seeing what it can do.”
“The Navigator control bar is like having a bunch of bars in one. Because it is versatile and easily adjustable I only need one or two bars, a key benefit when traveling or living on a boat.”
I use a Mystic Majestic harness because I think it has a perfect balance of support and flexibility. Sometimes I wear a Mystic Block impact vest and a Gath surf-convertible helmet for more extreme conditions.
Q: What's happening in Tahiti?
A: Tahiti is a tropical paradise that is kind of like Hawaii, but with far fewer people and a more traditional less developed feel. Tahiti has a barrier reef surrounding it that creates a protected flat water lagoon with a variety of good anchorages and spots for kiteboarding.
Many of the barrier reef passes have fun surf with powerful waves breaking over shallow coral reefs. But Tahiti is a small part of French Polynesia and we actually spend most of our time exploring the more remote islands and atolls in the region.
There are 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia stretching over 1,000 nautical miles. Many of the places we visit are uninhabited and uncharted. They are pristine vibrant gems waiting to be explored if you’re willing to embrace the challenge and adventure involved in voyaging in these isolated areas.
Q: How has kiting opened more doors given your condition?
A: For those who don’t know, I have a genetic disease called FSHD that causes my muscles throughout my body to continuously weaken. When I was diagnosed, there was nothing available to read except depressing stuff like clinical descriptions of symptoms so I've always strived to be a public example of one possible approach to living with the disease...
Kiteboarding empowers me to move and express myself with a freedom far beyond anything else possible given the effects of my disease.
I once described it as feeling “like a dance across the water and through the air to the rhythm set by wind and waves.”
It’s hard to explain how much that means to someone like me whose life has always been very physical and based around my relationship with the ocean. As my disease progressed I lost the ability to paddle a surfboard but with a kite I can ride waves. It’s now getting hard to walk but with a kite, I can fly!
“There are moments in kiting when your mind kind of shuts off and you feel like the kite and board are extensions of your body.”
In those moments you glide through the water and air with an effortless freedom that transcends what is otherwise physically possible. It’s an ecstatic feeling that usually happens when you’re challenging yourself to ride at a level that brings a focused mind frame without being overwhelming.
The noted psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes it well when he said it is "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
“In those moments, despite the constraints of my disability, I feel clear, alive, present, electrified, and free…”
Q: What are your personal goals with the new kiteboarding hobby?
A: In some ways, the continuous muscle loss from my disease sets goals for me because I have to constantly learn new ways to do the same tricks. When I succeed it feels kind of like hearing a good remake of an old favorite song. It’s a good feeling. I don’t know…I could list some immediate goals like improving my strapless surfing or learning a specific trick, and I’m intensely focused on achieving those things, but to me it’s more about how fully I immerse myself in the process rather than any measured outcome.
“If I come off the water with a smile, I’ve achieved my goal.”
Q: What made you buy North kite products?
A: Until recently, I was happily using kiteboarding gear from another manufacturer. Then two things happened… First the entire product design team from the other company moved to North Kiteboarding en masse.
Second, Hugh Pinfold (Director of Design and Engineering at North Kiteboarding) randomly showed up at a beach in Mo’orea where I was kiteboarding. He was on vacation but was super excited to show me the new North Kites and boards. It was like looking at much improved future generations of the gear I was already using, mixed in with some innovative new designs. Hugh explained that the North kiteboarding designers were given full access to North Sail’s expertise and technology and were given carte blanche permission to make the best equipment possible. My mind was blown imagining the results of having kiteboarding’s most talented design team working with the world’s leading sailmaker! Of course I switched to North!
On another level my former teammates and I won a national championship using North Sails, we used North Sails when I was on the national team, and over the past 5 years North Sails drove my boat over 20,000 nautical miles through the Pacific Ocean. Now I’m also on North kites and boards. I'm grateful to support such an incredible group of people and products.
Q: What is something you consider a long-term goal for kiteboarding?
A: I’d like to see kiteboarding and sailing equipment from all manufacturers made in a more environmentally sensitive way…I was encouraged to hear North is taking steps in that direction.
Q: What was the hardest thing about learning to kite?
A: The hardest thing for me was the lack of information available when I learned. We had to figure it out mostly by trial and error, a horrible way to learn to kite!
These days I think the hardest thing for people is having the patience to really dial in their kite skills before trying to ride a board. This includes at a minimum knowing how to use the safety systems, self-rescue, re-launch, and body-drag upwind. I’ve taught hundreds of people how to kite and it’s amazing how quickly people progress when they perfect those basic skills… and how much they struggle when they don’t.
Thanks to Ryan Levinson and North Sails.