June 29, 2016

In the wind: Life at the Spit

Squamish’s steady breeze is drawing kite boarders from around the world

— Discover Squamish
Lynn Hilborn wraps up her lines. — Rebecca Aldous

It’s 10 a.m. The summer sun hangs low over the Stawamus Chief, as seals splash around in the turquoise waters at the mouth of the Stawamus River feasting on tired pink salmon. The air is still and warm. Seagulls and crows join the mornings’ activity, scavenging for leftovers that escaped the ocean dwellers.

In an hour, the tranquil setting at the Squamish Spit will change. Wind will drown out the birds’ calls and approximately 150 kiteboarders will camouflage nature’s banquet. Since the 1980s, Squamish’s steady, consistent summer wind has drawn windsurfers and later kiterboarders to its waters. Today, word of the areas idyllic windsports environment has spread. 

As the wind creeps up in strength, a steady trickle of people arrive at the rocky finger. Martin Broza, from the Czech Republic, unrolls the lines on his kite bar. Anges Rogoz, from Bellingham, gets set for a lesson with Vancouver Kiteboarding School instructor Brett Wilson. Wilson’s enthusiasm for the sport runs so deep that he slept in a car for two seasons before finding a place to rent in Squamish. George Tomo of Vancouver delivers Timbits to the Spit staff before pumping up his kite, eager for what’s shaping up to be a perfect day on the water. 

“It is nice to beat the crowds,” Tomo says as he looks out at a fleet of Laser dinghies with the only people so far to be enjoying the light wind. 

Denham Trollip and his trusty four-legged sidekick Kigote go about opening up the Sports Can – a container converted to changing rooms and kiting and safety equipment. For the past two years the Squamish Windsports Society (SWS) has hired Trollip to manage the Spit. The non-profit organization holds liability insurance to protect the Crown and District of Squamish against damage, loss or injury; without this indemnification, access to the Spit would be banned.

During the kiting season at the Spit, which runs for four months from May until September, Trollip and two full-time staff field thousands of questions relating to kiteboarding, maintain the area, protect the estuary and Squamish Terminals, and rescue kiters when they’re in trouble. 

 “I’d say we help people launch 80 kites a day and we’ve retrieved about 1,500 people over the past two seasons,” he says, as he sits down to start up the computer powered by a wind generator. 

The volume of people at the Spit is continually on the rise. Over the past two seasons, the Spit has lured 15,000 visitors, Trollip says, pointing to statistics on the computer screen. The area sees approximately 86 season pass holders a day – people that have paid a membership with the SWS. There’s also been 1,204 day users over the past two years and 823 kiteboarding school students. 

“The maximum [sailors] we saw in one day was 170,” Trollip says. “We also get a lot of spectators, tourists who come out to the Spit after seeing the kiters while up the Sea to Sky Gondola.”

This year, maintenance work was carried out to accommodate the influx of kiters. More carpets were put in place to make the areas where kites can be set up without harming the gear. Gravel maintenance was undertaken, and the SWS purchased two new jet skis for rescues and upgraded the dock for them, Trollip says. All the work and the staff are paid for through user fees collected by the SWS.  

Trollip stops his flow of facts and figures to pick up the binoculars. He checks on a person whose kite has hit the water. It’s closing in on noon and the Spit is humming with activity. Neon pink, yellow and green kites hide the grey carpet on the launching area. Kiters and windsurfers zigzag through the glacier water. Trollip gets up to help manage the traffic flow. It’s a necessity that doesn’t just keep the calm, it also maintains a safety level, Trollip says.

Management of a windsports park is something the community will have to consider if the Squamish Oceanfront development moves forward. Plans for the redevelopment of Nexen Beach have long included a watersports portion of the seashore’s green space. If the District of Squamish and Newport Beach Development Limited Partnership sale agreement comes to a close, it’s crucial the developers don’t underestimate the importance of creating the park in a manner that works for windsports, Trollip says. Not only are stakeholders key in the planning of the park, but the community will have to decide whether the space should be managed like the Spit, Trollip notes.

“People are going to try and kite there no matter what. There will be accidents,” he cautions.

The wind has steadied now at 21 knots. Lunch has passed and the afternoon kiters are arriving. Daniel Grains is packing up his gear after a freestyle session. There’s a smile on his sun-kissed face from the adrenaline of spinning through the air. Today’s his off day. As the owner of Aerial Kiteboarding, on weekends he’s out in a zodiac in Howe Sound teaching some of the 1,000 students that come through his school in a season. 

The kiteboarding scene in Squamish is busy, he says. Squamish needs another location where people can not only fly kites for boarding, but toy kites as well, and have a picnic while watching the action. 

“Kiteboarding is one side of kite sports. We need to value every water and kite sport there is out there, like toy kites. There’s no place that accommodates this in the Lower Mainland. It would be a huge draw,” Grains says, noting San Francisco has such an area. 

Vancouver Kiteboarding School instructor Ivet Krskova heads to the water with a student from Slovakia. Krskova has taught kiting around the world, from Morocco to Spain and Mexico, and has taught at the Spit for four years. 

“There’s a lot of girl riders here,” she points out. 

While Krskova unties a zodiac, ready to teach, Lynn Hilborn is detaching her lines from her kite. She’s part of the original crew that started kiting at the Spit 12 years ago. Unlike today when there are four kiteboarding schools in the area – Squamish Kiteboarding School, Sea to Sky Kiteboarding, Vancouver Kiteboarding School and Aerial – there was only one at the time. You were pretty much on your own, Hilborn says.

“It was just a cement wall with trees,” she says, her words hovering above the wind. “You could just launch two people.”

Kiteboarding is one of the fastest growing watersports in the world – spend one day at the Spit and that becomes clear, Hilborn jokes. While the visitors bring kites, they also bring their wallets, she notes, adding many kiters stay at campsites for the season or a weekend.

The Spit’s steady winds have attracted attention and tourists from across the globe. This season it’s also blown pro kiteboarder Sam Medysky into town, Hilborn says, pointing to a man with a sun-bleached beard. Medysky, who is getting ready to have one of the last sessions of the day, has moved from Ontario to call Squamish home on account of the wind. Hilborn knew him when, as a teenager, he ventured to the Spit on visits. 

With the water now free from the congestion of kiteboarders, Medysky glides, loops and twists through the air with an ease that makes it all seem simple. The sun is low, white-washing the Stawamus Chief and turning Shannon Falls into a silver ribbon. 

“It’s just awesome here,” Hilborn says.

 

WIND PARK IN THE WORKS

A world-class wind park has always been a part of the Oceanfront development, Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman says. “It’s always been a part of the zoning. That has always been foremost in the design of the Oceanfront.”

Should the deal with Newport pull through, Heintzman says collaboration with recreation stakeholders will be a huge part of the design effort. 

“We aim to make this a destination,” she notes, adding the windsports bring spectators as well. 

While the major project is under negotiation, the district has plans to update the community’s directional sign to its recreation site including the Spit. Currently the signs to the Spit only show windsurfers and direct visitors past the West Coast Heritage Railway Park rather than through downtown. “We have budgeted some (signs) for this year,” says Heintzman.


© Copyright 2018 Discover Squamish

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