With the tail end of another hurricane heading our way, competitors in one of the most extreme sports around have just one message – hang on in there guys!
Blackpool is bracing at the best of times, but 65mph gusts are set to batter the coast as what’s left of Hurricane Ophelia hits.
The three-day Centrica Kiteival Blackpool Festival, which starts tomorrow at Little Bispham, is tipped to be the most hair-raising ever – unless grounded.
And, as things stand, chairman Richard Gowers, of the British Kitesurfing Association, says it’s all systems go – with surf very definitely up!
He explains: “We’re monitoring the forecasts and, unless they change dramatically, we reckon we can cope with whatever the weather throws at us – and it’s going to be spectacular. The skies will be full of people flying around for all the right reasons.”
The Fylde coast offers some of the best beaches for kitesurfing from Lytham St Annes through to Fleetwood, and beyond Pilling.
The finals of Kiteival take place just a few miles south of one of the UK’s leading kitesurfing and allied sports schools, based at the Power Kite shop, on the Esplanade between Rossall and Fleetwood.
Hangtime Kitesports is run by owner-instructors Alex and Anna Fishpool.
Alex is a BKSA senior instructor with 18 years of experience leading and teaching in the outdoors. Anna works for Blackpool and The Fylde College and lectures in sport and leisure. It was eight years ago when Alex got a beat-up second hand 11-metre kite from a pal, rigged it back to front in 30 knot winds and flew 200 metres horizontally across Pilling Sands.
“It was not a safe, fun or good way to learn about kitesurfing,” he admits. He set about improving the experience for others,
Blackpool also boasts a recognised club affiliated to the BKSA – the South Shore Kite Boarders Club, which shares the facilities of Light Craft Club at Starr Gate.
But Kiteival is the undisputed highlight of the year for local and national adrenaline junkies.
From tomorrow at 10am, weather permitting, professional kitesurfers will compete in two very different disciplines, with the crowd-pleasing freestylers pulling off complex jumps and manoeuvres close to the shoreline while racers match speed with endurance around a course marked by buoys.
Competitors on kite buggies and landboards will also look to impress judges with freestyle tricks on sand. Amateurs compete later in the week, and taster sessions are available too.
Top kitesurfers in the Pro Men’s Division, who have slugged it out in earlier stages at other resorts, go for glory with the British champion title finally in reach.
Local hero freestyle surfer Ali Barrett, from Lytham St Annes, is ranked third in the division and up against stiff competition from leader Luke Whiteside, from Liverpool, and last year’s British champion Exmouth’s Ned Taylor, in second place.
BKSA chief Richard says there’s no shortage of fast-rising talent from the Fylde.
“The line-up includes two other local competitors as well as Ali – Hannah Whiteley, who’s originally from Southport but has moved to Lytham St Annes, and Will Makison from Bispham.
“But we also love Blackpool because people there really get into it. We couldn’t have a better location. Your beaches are just made for kitesurfing.
“We tried a central point for the festival between South and Central Piers one year but it was a logistical nightmare because it was right off the seafront and meant crossing tramlines and so on.
“Little Bispham is ideal for our purposes because there’s plenty of parking, camper vans permitting, the sea walls offers a great vantage point, others line the park behind it, so it’s great for watching beach based competitions, the landboard and buggy contests, as well as the pro-competitions.
“Those taking part really rate it too. They want winds and they will certainly get them here. Our big worry is dead calm.
“One event at Redcar struggled because there was little wind. Racing and buggying is fine when it’s calm but you need more wind for freestyle which is what most people want to see.
“I think timing is with us in Blackpool – conditions are currently set to become less windy Friday and Saturday.
“You never really know until you get out there, but we think we’re good to go. If the winds become unsafe, we will make the call on the day. Back in 2005, we had to cut one day short – just as all the competitive stuff was ending – as the weather hit really hard.
“But freestylers welcome the winds. It’s part of the challenge. Particularly for the pro-men. The upper limits are generally around 35 knots – about 40-45mph – and that looks to be pretty constant for Thursday and also onshore.
“The winds seem set to ease Friday and Saturday but temperatures are dropping too. But I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and we’ve not cancelled one yet, so our advice would be hang on in there folks, and turn out to support your local competitors.”