Consistent Winds and Pristine Beaches Make Roatan a Perfect Destination for Kiteboarders.
For a couple decades, Roatan has been a place for sailors and windsurfers. More recently it has become a place to learn and enjoy kiteboarding. Located on the path of eastern trade winds Roatán is one of Central America’s top kite boarding locations. The prevailing eastern winds and the angulated, slightly curved shape of Roatan create great conditions for kitesurfing. Between Punta Gorda and Pigeon Cays, as the island turns completely east west, that is the best place to kiteboard. All-in-all it is Camp Bay Beach that is the ideal overall place for kiters practicing surfboard, twin tip or hydrofoil. Camp Bay’s long, two-kilometer beach has side or side on shore wind conditions and is sheltered by the reef a couple hundred meters to the north. Roatan offers many months of solid wind throughout the year. The dry months of May thru August offer great, strong predictable easterly winds. January thru May are not bad wind months either. ‘That’s the big advantage of Roatán. Eight great months to learn and progress.” says Chris Bergler, the owner of Kitesurf Roatan, Kiteboarding School in Camp Bay. The trade winds are an ever present part of the Bay Islands weather and only stop during peak hurricane season in September, and rainy season in October & November. Pigeon Cay is another great kitesurfing spot for more advanced kiteboarders. While the two cays are slowly disappearing, the left-over and bar is surrounded by turquoise blue water and plenty of wind. The kiteboarders also go to Saint Helene harbor for their kite sessions. “The spot needs to be handled sensitively because of its fragile shallow water ecosystem,” says Chris. “This spot is the best in the morning, with super steady winds coming from ESE and butter flat water.”
There are also a few less known kite-spots in the region like Ometepe and Corn Islands in Nicaragua, and San Andres in Colombia. There is also Rio Dulce in Guatemala and various cays along the Belizean coast that offer nice kiteboarding conditions. These are small destinations that haven’t developed yet to accommodate a growing sport like kiteboarding.
While not inexpensive, kiteboarding is less expensive, and more convenient than other sailing sports. It uses the wind energy from a kite at a much larger atmosphere volume than a sail.
Kiteboarding is the least extreme of the extreme sports. “It [kiting] has a steep learning curve, though a few days are required to ride independently,” says Chris, who taught children as young as 10 and clients as old as 75. As the sport rewards riders with finesse and good technique, it is attracting a good share of female athletes.
Roatan offers many months of solid wind.
While athletic abilities are not a prerequisite in learning how to kiteboard, deep pockets often are. “Kite gear, lessons and traveling is expensive, so a solid financial background is needed to afford getting into the sport,” says Chris. The typical kiteboarder is between 30 and 60 years old.
Most kiteboarders will have a quiver of two to three kites allowing them to surf in a variety of wind conditions. While kiteboarders can have fun at anywhere between 12 and 35 knots, the sweet spot for kiteboarders is 20 knots. “Most of the time I ride an 11-meter hybrid kite while Marilou prefers small freestyle kites,” says Chris. Chris’ wife Marilou Lavallée, is still sponsored by Core Kiteboarding so the brand is being used at the Camp Bay school. With many kiteboarding kites being manufactured in Germany, Core is an expensive option as far as kite gear.
While often-urban millennial launch into the sport quickly, many older kiteboarders started their experience on the water with sailing, windsurfing or wakeboarding. As they progress in their skills, for many the sport becomes more like an addiction. For them, kiteboarding is not just a sport, it’s a way of life, living in nature, harnessing nature elements and being in harmony with them. “Very often my students were in some sort of transition in their lives when they decided to learn how to Kitesurf and often it becomes a life changing decision,” says Chris.
Chris and Marilou found Roatan while looking over a Yoga magazine. It was 2012, and someone was advertising a yoga retreat on Rio Cangrejal, outside of La Ceiba. The timing was good as Chris was ending his work at a kite school in Punta Chame, Panama. In order to visit the resort Marilou was flying into Roatan as the island was a convenient entry point. “I’ve never ever heard about Roatan. One of my Panamanian friends had visited it and he said it’s stunningly beautiful,” said Chris.
At first, they couldn’t find any information about kiteboarding conditions on the island. Chris scanned the internet and determined that the trade winds blew on the island most of the year. The couple decided to give it a look. “We were set to discover Roatan’s kite potential. Marilou booked her ticket and I hopped on the TICA bus from Panama to La Ceiba,” remembered Chris. Thus, the couples Roatan adventure began.
Once they set their feet on the island, a Garifuna taxi driver took them straight to the island’s east end. “We booked a room at Marble Hill Farm, as we found out that “Brian, the manager was a kiteboarder,” remembers Chris. “He used to kite but wasn’t anymore as enthusiastic about it.”
Chris and Marilou found Camp Bay and almost instantly jumped in to test the wind. “This kite session, it was just magic. Blue sky, blue water, great wind, beautiful waves on the reef, outside huge ocean rollers which we shared with a pod of jumping pilot whales,” remembers Chris.
The couple took a rest at Wilks Point under an Almond Tree. “How it can be that a beach as beautiful could be still so deserted,” Chris asked Marilou, looking around the deserted two-kilometer Camp Bay beach. The only people they saw were a few passing fishermen in their dories.
“Mike,” the owner of Camp Bay lodge was eager to sell, but Chris was cautious. It was a big decision and something not to be taken lightly, or on a whim. “I bought a Salva Vida that day… that’s about it,” remembers Chris. After a couple more days the couple grew increasingly enchanted with the place, its people and their hospitality.
Chris’ journey to Roatan had many twists and turns. He grew up in a little Bavarian village in the south of Germany and was an amateur sportsman in track and field, and in football. Chris graduated with a physical education degree and had a life lined up for him. ‘I had the choice to work in a school in Munich but I choose to pack my bags.” says Chris. ‘I wasn’t happy with my life back then so it was an easy choice and I quickly booked a one way ticket to the Canary Islands to teach kids swimming.’
The History of Kite Sailing
It all started when George Pocock used kites of increased size to propel carts on land and ships on the water. Pocock used a four-line control system, not much different from what is used in kiteboarding today. His kite powered boats were able to turn and even sail upwind. The kites could be flown for hours on end and the idea was kiting as an alternative source of power.
Another kiteboarding predecessor was Samuel Cody, who in 1903 built “Man lifting kites” and crossed the English Channel on a canvas boat powered by a kite.
In 1977 Durchman Gijsbertus Panhuise, the inventor of kitesurfing, received the first patent for Kitesurfing. The invention described a person standing on a floating board and being pulled by a wind catching contraption like a parachute. The pilot had the kite tied to a harness on a trapeze type belt.
It took the sport another twenty years to hit it big, but when it did, it mesmerized fans and athletes across the world. ‘The real heroes were the pioneers back in the 90s where most of it happened on Maui: Lou Wainman, Pete Cabrinha.” says Chris. ‘The Maui crew already had experimented and pushed the limits.’ Today the kiteboarding equipment is safer, more durable and accidents are infrequent.
He had experience running swimming schools in different hotels and befriended an owner of a kite school in Fuerteventura. Chris soon learned how to kite, and began working at the kite school. ‘I was standing in a big lagoon and starting my best life.” says Chris. For several years Chris was a journeyman kiteboarder. He worked in Egypt, Panama, South Africa, Dominican Republic and Brazil.
He was always looking for a place to make his own mark, to put down roots. That place turned out to be Roatan. ‘You can’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, leave everything behind especially if you are not happy.” says Chris. ‘There is a journey ahead and why not flying through instead.’
The transition was a bit trickier for Marilou who was still competing as a kiteboarder all over the world. ‘Marilou is my absolute hero and I chased her around the world for many years as a diehard fan. She finally fell in love with me.” says Chris. Before suffering injuries Marilou, originally from Gatineau, Quebec, was one of the top freestyle riders in the world. ‘Marilou could combine hardcore tricks with a beautiful smile and great looks.’
The couple went back to Camp Bay in January 2013 and began teaching kiteboarding there. “Everything just fell in place and step by step we were able to live our dream,” says Chris.
Their first local kiter was Olwen, a local youth who was always there, determined to learn how to stand on the board, go upwind and jump. His lack of swimming skills didn’t hold Olwen back. “His curiosity and will to learn something new made him overcome the fear,” remembers Chris.
The path to the kiteboarding career Chris envisioned for the local youth was the following: start them off as a beach boy, progress to rescue driver, learn how to kite, be a kite assistant, then a kite instructor, hopefully head instructor and maybe one day become a sponsored international pro-rider. “We started to hire kids as much as we could, always with the goal to get them hooked,” says Chris.
Kiteboarding is not just a sport.
In 2015 Elloncito was the first to climb the tricky Camp Bay kiteboarding ladder. From Elloncito he became Ellon and earned his respect with hard work and athletic abilities. Four years into his life as a kiteboarder, Ellon, 21, is the head instructor at the school and Chris’s right hand man “I can fully rely and trust” says Chris.
While many of the school’s instructors hail from Europe and the Americas, the heavy lifting: the day -to-day teaching is done by a team of Roatanians. ‘Local crew has been always our backbone and has become our island family: Ellon from (Camp Bay), Junior & Jordan (Helene), and Jardale (Camp Bay).” says Chris
Ellon has not only become Chris’ right hand, but the head instructor and ‘chief rocker.’ To be closer to work and do more kiteboarding Ellon moved back from Pandy Town to Camp Bay in 2015. ‘I knew he could be very good at it. He had the perfect frame and athletic to become an elite kiteboarder.” remembers Chris, who stopped by Ellon’s grandmother to ask if he was up for the task. ‘It was a pretty short and typical island conversation. Chilling… Sure… Ok cool.” said Chris.
‘Leave everything behind especially if you are not happy.’
Ellon first started as a beach boy tasked with driving the rescue boat, packing kites, helping guests landing and launching. Ellon picked up kiting quickly and by the end of the year he did his first jumps. “First jump was a perfect. Powerful takes off… Boom. You could finally see he got special talents,” said Chris.
Ellon wasn’t just a natural athlete; he was also a good teacher. “He’s been teaching most of the lessons and adding new tricks. Currently he is in training to become the school manager.” says Chris. “I hope he inspires a few other fellow islanders especially the next generation.”
Chris has seen a lot of raw kiteboarding talent among the island’s youth. “They speak two languages, but what most impressed me was their problem-solving capabilities and creativity,” says Chris. His secret of how to develop skills among the locals is giving them opportunity to constantly progress in their skills, responsibility and helps them to grow. “I give them full access to our kite gear, I’ve passed on all my tips and tricks whenever possible, since they are keen observers, they learned most of it simply by watching us doing our thing,” says Chris. ‘One day we will see them riding on international competitions and represent Honduras at the Olympic Games.” predicts Chris.
Kiteboarding in Camp Bay doesn’t just bring a few hundred kiteboarders to the East of the Island. Chris and Marilou also wanted to start up a local kite community. They looked for island kids keen to learn kite boarding and even ready to make it their living. “It took a little longer than I expected to light the fire but finally we have a bunch of vivid kiters with unlimited potential.”
Over the last several years the couple has taught a group of kiters from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. “Often they would send me pictures when they were exploring spots on the coast between Tela and Trujillo or in the Gulf of Fonseca,” says Chris. The kiting community is growing in Honduras.
There are also several other good kiters in the Bay Islands. There is a French kiter who lives and kites often in Utila. Guanaja was a place where an Italian had a kiteboarding school, but several years ago the Italian relocated back home. “He had done a great job over there, but left a few years ago to live with his young family back home,” says Chris.
After six years with Chris, the kiteboarding community has slowly developed on the island. A few people from West End and several retired expats took kiteboarding classes. “It’s a slowly growing tribe but we are getting there,” says Chris. Awareness of how precious Camp Bay, Roatan’s arguably most beautiful beach really is, has grown with it as well.
As the island’s center of gravity moves further east, Camp Bay will most likely become more and more visited. The paving of the main road is being planned and cruise ships are scheduled to begin visiting the nearby Port Royal in October 2019.
No doubt, development will bring the quickening of the pace of life on Roatan’s east end. Several eco resort owners near Camp Bay, like it just the way it is: unspoiled not easy to get to and quiet.
‘We were set to discovered Roatan’s kite potential.’
Also Chris is concerned that the quiet, and not so easy to access Far East end of Roatan will turn into a nightmare, just like many other surfing and kiteboarding destinations in third worlds did before. “Surfers discovered little fishing villages which turn into tourist hubs, leave the local community’s behind and create a split society with crime, prostitution and drugs” says Chris. Meantime however, the flying kites off Camp Bay signal that the east of the island is still all about nature, wind and harmony.