Kite-surfer knocks out swimmer’s teeth — why?

Kite-surfer at Tourmaline
  • Kite-surfer at Tourmaline
  • Image by Joel Kriger

On August 28th, a female surfer, after finishing a surf session at Tourmaline Surfing Park made the mistake of going back into the water for a swim. Not only is this not legal in a designated board-surfing zone, it is not safe because a swimmer can get hit by a surfboard. However this time it wasn’t a surfboard, but a kite-surfer going at half speed (according to the kite-surfer). When the kite-surfing board hit the swimmer, it caused a “Deep 3 inch laceration to lower left jaw and dislocation of 3–5 lower teeth,” the official lifeguard report said.

This incident and others have brought back the question: are kite-surfers legally allowed to kite-surf at Tourmaline Surfing Park?

My research for an August 29, 2012, Reader article showed that they are allowed in that area as long as they do not exceed five miles per hour and stay 1000 feet away from shore, based on the mean high-tide line. That is not what is happening today. On a busy day you can count 20 or more kite-surfers sailing with the surfers. Sometimes they spray water on the surfers as they go by, and some jump directly over the surfers while going against the wave. Obviously they are being propelled by the wind and not the wave. This is important because the definition of a surfboard is a non-inflatable device that is carried along or propelled by the action of the waves. If the kite-surfer is jumping a wave going seaward, it is not being carried along or propelled by the wave, and hence is not considered a valid surfboard that is allowed in a board-surfing area.

It appears that back in 1994 sailboarders asked for and received an exception to the law preventing them from sailboarding at Tourmaline Surfing Park. However, this exception does not apply to kite-surfers (in my opinion), whose sails are attached to the surfer, and not the surfboard, as required by the exception.

Kite-surfing has become extremely popular in the past ten years. This is at least in part because the cost of the equipment is less and the equipment is lighter and easier to use. With today’s equipment, it takes only a relatively strong wind, when previously the wind had to be very strong to be able to kite-surf. A very strong wind usually keeps most of the regular wave surfers out of the water. However, with the new equipment for kite-surfing and the increasing number of them at Tourmaline Surfing Park, incidents between kite-surfers and regular surfers are increasing.

Another reason for the increase in surfer/kite-surfer incidents is that the season has changed. There normally is not much surf during the summer months. The wind would come up in the afternoon, and the kite-surfers would have the place to themselves. But this summer was extraordinary for surfing. There were good waves about every day. And some swells were large and brought out a lot of surfers, so in the afternoon you had a lot of surfers and a lot of kite-surfers.

I met with the two top lifeguards for the City of San Diego, chief Rick Wurtz and captain Nick Lerma, to discuss kite-surfing at Tourmaline. They had recently watched the kite-surfers on a windy afternoon and agreed that some of the kite-surfers were too close to regular surfers. However, they disagreed with my conclusion that kite-surfing was illegal at Tourmaline. Chief Wurtz walked me through the municipal code. He felt that the definition of a kite-surfer in the code meets the existing general description of a surfboard.

I contacted the city attorney’s office and asked, “Is kite-surfing legal at Tourmaline Surfing Park?” Here is their reply:

“Modern kite-surfing is an aquatic activity that post-dates many City and State regulations. As such, kite surfing is not specifically defined in current law. Our office is working with City staff to determine which regulations would apply to this activity and possible legislative options. All questions related to the enforcement of present laws should be addressed by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Lifeguards.”

I asked several kite-surfers about what they think might be realistic rules that could be put in place to keep the two groups separate. They could give me no good answers.

Most of the regular surfers at Tourmaline would rather not have kite-surfers. Josh Hall, president of the Pacific Beach Surf Club, says, “It is obviously inherently dangerous. Tourmaline is a beginners’ beach. It is a family beach for teaching kids how to surf. The kite-surfers are making it a dangerous place to learn to surf."

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Seems to me kite (and sail) surfers ought to have an area where they can be free to enjoy themselves, separate from regular board surfers. It shouldn't be too hard to designate such an area as they, unlike regular surfers, do not require good breaks and surf, but merely a good wind, which is everywhere up and down the coast. It makes no sense to have wind surfers and regular surfers in the same area. I would think it wouldn't be that difficult to find another beach for them. The Lifeguard service ought to designate a new area for the wind surfers and leave the areas with good (and necessary) breaks to the regular board surfers.

@Joe Altieri What's your reasoning for this statement?

What are the statistics for accidents with swimmers involving other vehicles, such as surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, etc?

What a bunch of surf centered, surf selfish, narrow minded comments. I surf and I kite surf and these days I would much rather be kite surfing. Just like you, Kite Surfers have every right and should be able to enjoy the ocean just as much as you. I can think of quite a few things that can be done to allow everyone to enjoy the ocean. Which by the way, you don't own. As much as you think you do. Nothing bugs me more than a surfer who says "My Wave." In general you will find Kite surfers to be a much more amiable and laid back community open to ideas and feedback than many groups. Kiters, have an almost old school soul surfer kind of way about them in general. In stark contrast to todays increasingly more territorial surfer who often flashes dirty looks because you possibly have to share a wave with them later. But on to more constructive comments. So many possibilities it's endless.

  1. There is a reason why beaches get black balled after a certain time for surfers during the summer, to protect swimmers. You surf in the surf zone. So why not have a kite entry and kite zone? The number of injuries I've seen occur from other surfers dropping in, throwing fists, getting hit in the white wash, or even just catching their own skeg far out weighs injuries caused by a kiter, but it wouldn't surprise me to see every chance taken to generalize and find a way to claim the "ocean" as your own. One bad surfer or one bad kiter can ruin it for everyone in the wrong situation. Zuma used to be like this because of one persons mistake. Fortunately over time the guards adjust the policy and now it's agian ok to kite the north end of Zuma.

  2. I've seen places set times of day. This works well in that most of the time the wind comes up later so Kiting allowed after 1PM. Also usually this coincides with wind mushing up the surf and beach goers heading home.

  3. What about kite zones and entry procedures. For example, kiters can enter and exit the surf zone at any time throug a specific area. That way if a kite drops, the only people worried about the lines are other kiters who know what to do, not surfers or swimmers. It doesn't have to be a big zone either. Entry and exit through surf zone while body dragging allowed. Kiting is permitted at all times 200 feet from shore (obviously use a good distance for a particular break that puts kiters beyond the break) and after 2PM may one may kite in the line up provided they observe right of way rules. Kiters should also be able to rip a wave if they want and should try and stick to right of way rules. In fact, kiters have "right of way rules," they learn them as part of kiting, and one of those rules is the rider on the wave has the right of way.

  4. Kiters may kite in and out in order to get to the kite zone while maintaining control and safe speeds.

  5. Intermediate or better kiters only.

6) One thing I think happens a lot that makes kiting tougher in surf situations is trying to kite in lighter winds. The tendency for kites to drop out of the sky when hitting the white wash increases. Kite size and experience makes a difference here, but it would be pretty safe to say no kite zone in less than 10 knots is probably reasonable.

The idea of just banning it is a shame

To any city official or life guard reading, I would hope the spirit of all of us being able to enjoy the beach prevails and a bunch of selfish surfers whining don't destroy your open perspective . I'd offer my own experience with a guard as my closing. I was having a rough day in the surf. Having a hard time getting out because wind wasn't great. As I cruised out I got caught up in fishing lines so had to make a few tacs inside. The guard flagged me in and wasn't real happy with having me zip in and out of people. Frustrated with the wind I explained that I had gotten caught in fishing lines and was just trying to avoid the lines, as soon as I got beyond them I'd be out and past the break. His comment was great. "The fisherman has every right to be here just as much as you do. I've seen you get out past the break before, but I just can't have you zipping back and forth for saftey on the inside." It was cool. So I waited for better wind, which didn't come and ended up calling it a day.

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