North Carolina has a long history of getting people high—after all, this is the birthplace of aviation (the Wright brothers launched the first successful human flight in Kitty Hawk).
And no one knows this better than Sensi Graves.
Six years ago, Graves tentatively signed up for a kiteboarding lesson in North Carolina's Outer Banks—one of the top destinations for the sport in the world—and she's been full-on obsessed ever since. Just two years later, she applied to be a kiteboarding coach, relocated to the East Coast, and started collecting accolades. And when we say she's good at what she does, we have the proof: She regularly places in the top three at some of the biggest national kiteboarding invitationals, garners continuous coverage in kiteboarding magazines, and even launched her eponymous swimwear label to meet the demands of her sport (after losing one too many string bikinis in the surf, she decided to cut out the middle man and design suits that—you know—actually stay on in rough conditions).
"Kiteboarding is the ability to fly across the water," Graves says, the passion for her sport practically spilling from her pores. "In actuality, it's a wind-driven sport. You ride a twin tip (like a wakeboard) or surfboard and have a harness around your waist with a bar and 23 meters of line connecting you to the kite. You steer the kite using the bar to generate power in the kite to pull you across the water.”
If it sounds challenging, make no mistake: it is. Mastering the mechanics of the kite is often the most difficult things about the sport, says Graves.
"It's intuitive for people to 'drive' the kite, steering as they would a car, but instead it's a push and pull motion with the bar in which you shorten and lengthen the lines," she explains. "The biggest beginner mistake is hanging on to the bar too tight and for too long. Once again, new students want to feel like they're in control and therefore keep hanging on to the bar even when they should have let go long before. Kite flying is all about finesse."
And Graves has no shortage of that. Still, managing a surfboard, long lines, and a massive kite is a dangerous juggling act—one even Graves sometimes fumbles with. During a trip to Maui, a storm squall came through while she was out in the water and caused the wind to die down, leaving Graves stranded at sea.
"The waves were chest high, breaking right on my head," she remembers. "I got pushed underwater and while tumbling, my bar and lines got wrapped around me and I felt the kite powering up and pulling me. Luckily, I surfaced pretty quickly and shed the lines before the next wave hit. I let my kite go and started paddling on my surfboard. It was scary and exhausting."
Graves calls such instances "kitemares": having your kite deflate, getting tangled with another kiteboarder, having the wind die on you. Everyone will experience them, but Graves suggests viewing them as learning experiences.
"They're simply a part of kiteboarding," she says. "You're on your way to becoming a better kiteboarder!"
That's not to say kiteboarding doesn't have its perks. While there's a strong and growing presence of female kiteboarders in Hood River, Oregon, where Graves now calls home, being a leader in a mostly male-dominated sport still does generate plenty of buzz … and secret admirers.
"Last week, I was hurrying off the water to get back to work and some guy landed my kite and started detaching my lines," she laughs. "I thanked him and ran to change out of my wetsuit. Running back to the beach, he came walking over with my kite pack up in one hand and a cold Tecate in the other saying, 'Have a great day at work.'!"
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