When Michael Szromba and his buddies get together to kite board, a crowd of onlookers is usually nearby watching in awe as they put on their own type of air and water show.
"As awesome a sight to behold as it is seeing a rider being powered through the water by a large, stunning kite. Being up on one is 100 times as magnificent," says Szromba, of South Holland. "It’s a sense of freedom and adrenaline pumping all the time."
"When I first saw it, I just thought I’ve got to do that ... It’s multiple feelings. It’s such a pure feeling and invokes a sense of freedom. It’s just you, the wind and the water and waves."
Even though the kiters usually try to go out in pairs or groups, it’s a solo sport.
"It’s just you in control."
"We call it ‘catching the stoke.’ I’ve become a chronic wind junkie. I'm constantly watching wind meters and forecasts." If the conditions are right, he says it's time to put the "gone kitesurfing sign" on the door.
The five-year veteran of kite boarding turned his passion into a business as owner of 3Me Kite Sports, the only kiteboarding shop in the Chicago area (3mekite.com; 708.341.0003; firstname.lastname@example.org). The shop is part online business, part surf wagon as he works the local beaches depending where the wind blows that day.
Kite boarding gear includes the kite, board and harness. Chicago kiters also need cold weather gear like thick wetsuits, hoods, gloves and boots.
Kiting enthusiasts travel the world but locals hit spots all along the Lake Michigan shores. Montrose Beach is the only spot within Chicago city limits where kiting is allowed and only experienced kiters can come here.
"Montrose is a great spot," Szromba says. "It’s a big launch area. It’s a big beach. You need a lot of room to do this sport. It has nice jetty protection that cleans up the choppiness that comes in across the lake. You turn around and you have the city skyline." There are also a lot of wonderful places to stop and get a beer afterward, he says. "A lot of people like places less crowded. I just happen to like people."
Northwest Indiana's Miller Beach, Lake Street Beach and Washington Park Beach are also popular spots to catch sight of kiters.
"Chicago is the windy city and it’s not just because of the politics. The known kite boarding destination spots are places where you can almost set a clock by the wind. In Chicago we can’t predict it. You can’t have a staunch schedule and be a kite boarder at the same time. ... Kite boarding can be challenging in Chicago just because of that but that also adds to how spectacular it is. If you like riding the edge and doing things spur of the moment, it adds a whole new level of excitement to it."
It’s good to learn the sport with a friend or family member, he says, so you can make arrangements to be together at last minute depending on weather. You also have someone at the same experience level.
"It’s not an activity for the uninitiated," he says. "A lot of safety points need to be learned and practiced before going face to face with forces with wind and water."
Henry Lazerow, of Chicago, has been kiting for seven years and teaching the sport for three (chicagokiteboardinglessons.com). He teaches at Waukegon Beach, the only Chicago spot where beginners are allowed to kiteboard.
"People are definitely learning it more," he says, even compared to two years ago. "It’s a good full body workout. People want to do something fun. It’s an adrenaline rush." Most of his students are men in their 30s to 50s.
"It's a lot of businessmen who work full time jobs. It’s not the skateboarders you’d think.
“It takes a lot of devotion to get into it." Newcomers fall a lot but after a few months of lessons, they can enjoy the free spirited nature of the sport.
"Then they can do jumps and tricks. That’s the really fun part."
Board grabs, flips and catching waves are some of kite boarding's high points.
"We get overhead waves quite often on Lake Michigan when it’s windy," he says, adding that kite boarders like the big waves.
“We have really good kite boarding here in Chicago. We wear wetsuits so cold really doesn’t bother us. We’ll kite board all year. People go in the middle of winter into Lake Michigan. With a modern day suit, you don’t get wet. It can be 20 degrees in the air and the water is 30 and you would actually be sweating."
Kiters will be out any day the wind is blowing toward shore, he says. "Any day with an east wind.”
Future kiters come for lessons at Waukegon all the way from Wisconsin and Indiana, he says. The wide open beach has good winds, making it a perfect spot for beginners. Across the lake on the Michigan side, kiters also take to the water.
Jake Mitchell works for MACkite Company in Grand Haven, Mich. (800.622.4655; mackiteboarding.com) and has been kiting three or four years.
“We specialize in board sports,” Mitchell says. That includes kite boarding, snowboarding, stand up paddle boarding and a growing skate presence.
“Basically how the sport works is you have a harness that goes around your waist. You have a control bar that attaches to it. That connects to the kite you inflate. You’re basically leveraging the kite to get power. On the water you’re generally perpendicular to the kite.”
The sport is universal and he has seen students range in age from 12 to 76. There’s also a pretty big population of female kiters out there.
“The cool thing about it is there are so many different avenues you can take with it. People love the feeling of riding across the water. It’s not intensive. You have to learn how to control the kite but you are just riding around having a heck of a time.”
Kiting pioneers started things in the early 90s using stunt kites but without modern amenities, it was a dangerous sport, Mitchell says.
It wasn’t until around 2006 that equipment became safer, allowing the rider the control the amount of power. With the advent of safety releases, the sport started exploding.
“Back in the day you only had full power or less power. Nowadays you can release all the power in the kite,” Mitchell says.