Improving one’s own skills is a goal that every kitesurfer is aiming for. With increasing skills people automatically take more risks. For lots of kiters that also means to go out when it’s massively pumping. Kitesurfing in strong winds is one thing – but when it comes to unpredictable, unstable frontal winds and thunderstorms it’s an entirely different matter which unfortunately is too often underestimated … and due to this frequently ends in serious accidents. Read about how to deal with those weather conditions and get some helpful tips from Servus TV weather expert Sebastian Weber.
Why one wind is not like another
It’s no wonder that most kite schools (on spots with frontal wind systems) stop teaching above 25 knots – cause it’s simply too dangerous for students. Not all kind of wind is alike, and really strong winds are for experienced kiters. Missteering of the kite, incorrect material choice and small errors may get eavily punished. But even if one has high level kitesurfing skills it’s not possible to fight against natural forces like sudden storms. So it’s time to get some weather related safety management done.
My homespot in Podersdorf at the Neusiedlersee is a spot with frontal winds, I learned to kitesurf there and so I kind of grew into the sport with unstable wind conditions. Please don’t get me wrong – it’s a wonderful spot that offers a lot of fun, but there are days when the wind is not easy to handle and not beginner-friendly. If you are not very experienced or insecure, it’s good to have experienced people keeping an eye on you. Even as an experienced kitesurfer the spot can be very challenging and hold some weather surprises.
About weekend warriors and self-overestimation
In recent years I spent a lot of time on different spots over the world. And nearly everywhere you find kitesurfers who are typical “weekend warriors” … people who see proriders doing huge jumps and megaloops in stormy conditions and think that they can do the same – but unfortunately they’re not aware of their own skills, of the weather situation and of the risks.
One thing is that this guys (like Ruben Lenten or Nick Jacobsen, who are for example competing in the Red Bull King of the Air) are PROS, which means that they have far more experience than kitesurfers who only do it on vacation or from time to time. They very well know how to deal with risky situations. The other thing is that they train their moves all the time, it’s a profession – and they also specifically train their body for their moves and even for hard crashes. And the third thing is that they are always completely aware of the weather conditions, no matter where they are. (Note: If those guys are rocking in Cape Town at the KOTA it’s also something different cause the trade winds there are super strong but quite predictable).
Therefore it’s dangerous that for some weekend warriors who think that they are like pros the only thing that counts is that it’s massively pumping – cause they want to go overpowered and do huge jumps, no matter if there are thunderstorms around, no matter about the gusts, no matter if they can handle it. Such people very often choose way too big kite sizes and rely on the depower of their kite … well, if there’s too much wind even depower can’t help anymore, cause nobody can cross the boundaries of physics!!!
Many kitesurfers massively overestimate theirselves, the bit between their teeth, no clue about what might happen if anything goes wrong. Ask really experienced kiters and they will tell you that reaching a proper jumping height depends mainly on the technique … sad but true, it’s not only the size of the kite that leads to success.
About frontal winds, gusts and thunderstorms
Frontal winds occur in the northern hemisphere due to low-pressure-systems. The main problem with frontal winds is that – compared to e. g. thermical or trade winds – they are not so predictable and not stable. Frontal systems can come with rain, storms, and massive gusts. Even if the spot only gets the offshoots of the weather front the wind can be extremely gusty … and if it’s surrounded by mountains this might additionally enhance the gustiness of the wind.
I’m really wondering about this but still I note a lot of kitesurfers who only seem to look at the basic wind in the forecast. Cause especially when it comes to strong wind one should particularly be aware of the gusts! This might not be a big thing when we talk about 12 knots with 17 knots gusts. But – and that’s one thing that is unfortunately not widely known –, the power of the wind is exponential. The stronger the wind is, the stronger the gusts are. When it’s already blowing with 7 or 8 bft, even a 5-knot-gust can nearly knock you out with it’s power! So the stronger the wind, the more challenging it is to control the gusts.
Of course every spot is different, but if you kite on a spot with frontal winds you have to be more attentive with the weather conditions. Often the weather in front of a passing storm seems to be calm, but thunderstorm cells can appear quickly and nearly out of nowhere. One thing should go without saying: If you see a storm front approaching (dark clouds or even a dark grey “wall” behind you), then hurry up to get out of the water before it’s too late. I think I don’t have to explain what happens if lightnings hit the water and you’re still in!
Even if you don’t see any lightnings thunderstorms may have a strong suction effect, can heavily increase the wind immediately up to storm level or lead to changes in it’s direction, sometimes up to 180 degrees. Even simple rain fronts may boost, decrease or stop the wind or lead to sudden wind shifts. When strong squalls hit you, unfortunately it doesn’t matter how much depower your kite offers – it will still pull you, and if the wind is onshore, this may end in a desaster. Landing on the beach, even if there are no obstacles, is definitely not what you want!
I talked to Servus TV weather expert Sebastian Weber who gave me some hints that are useful for people doing watersports, especially on spots with frontal winds:
Some expert tips concerning frontal winds and thunderstorms
What are the most important points to check about the weather forcast as a kitesurfer concerning spots with frontal winds? Are there specific warning signs?
When it’s already muggy and warm in the morning this is a reliable indicator that there will be thunderstorms in the afternoon or evening, including squalls. Also the shape of the clouds (Altocumulus castellanus) reveals a lot about thunderstorms, particularly when already in the forenoon you see clouds growing upward like small towers. Then thunder and lightning will highly likely appear in the following hours.
When should a kite- or windsurfer immediately leave the water?
You should get immediately out when you hear the first thunder. Lightnings can even hurry ahead an actual thunderstorm by 10 kilometres. And on the water a kitesurfer is very likely the hightst point which makes him, from a physical point of view, the perfect target for a lightning discharge.
What about thunderstorms or rain fronts that are not directly at the spot or that pass by in other directions?
The keyword is outflow. That means that a thunderstorm comes with rain that cools down the surrounding air. Cold air is heavier than warm one and so it’s heading down towards the ground like a waterfall. This falling air spreads on the earth surface into all directions. The results are squalls that are unpredictable in strength and direction.
Which websites would you recommend for (kite)surfers on the Neusiedlersee?
How to minimize risks
LAUNCHING: Always launch your kite as close as possible to the water, so you can keep it low and walk towards the water. Especially in gusty conditions and with wind turbulences on the shore it’s safer not to put your kite on 12 – cause it might stall or lift you up. Also if you have to put your kite over your head from one side to another on the beach this can be very dangerous in strong and gusty winds.
ON THE WATER: If storm front or a heavy gust hits you – put your kite low on at the edge of the wind window – for sure you might get dragged doing this, but you avoid to get lifted. If necessary, let go your kite completely. Of course a kite is not a cheap thing, but your life is worth more!
SPOT & WEATHER CHECK: Be aware of the characteristics which your spot offers you – what’s the usual wind direction, what about obstacles, currents, stones in the water, wind shadows … being familiar with such factors might save you when it comes to the crunch. Apart from checking the weather thoroughly (see tips above) before you go for a session, you can measure the wind with an anemometer. Make sure that you do this on the water’s edge and look out for possible wind shadows.
EQUIPMENT SAFETY CHECK: It should be self-evident to us kitesurfers to regularly check our equipment – chicken loop, quick release, depower, lines, canopy, tube, struts, pigtails, line attachment points, line knife, harness …
ADD SOME SAFETY FEATURES: When kitesurfing in strong winds an impact vest makes sense when it comes to hard crashes. Also check out an iflatable safety backup like Restube that might help if you have to let go your kite completely. Also your wetsuit might play a key role in the event that you have to swim in colder water – so ensure that it’s not too thin and that it doesn’t have holes all over.
SAFETY MANAGEMENT ON THE WATER: Every kitesurfer should know about the right of way and of course act accordingly. Especially in heavy conditions it’s super important to keep enough distance to other (kite)surfers, to look around you before you turn and before you jump.
So one thing should be clear: Concerning frontal winds and storms it’s definitely better to be overly cautious. A lot of risks are not worth to take them as a kitesurfer – as we all want to ride on and on and on, right?
In this sense, have fun and stay safe!
P. S. If you’d like to read more about safety in kitesurfing, I’ve got those articles for you: