A New Sport with a New Set of Rules

Kiteboard racing is different, and so are its rules. "Rules" from our November/December 2009 issue.
Sailing World

Kiteboard Racing Rules

Under the kiteboarding rules, there’s no penalty for touching a mark. Abner Kingman

What started as a small group of kiteboard sailors racing around buoys in 2005 on San Francisco Bay at the St. Francis YC is now a worldwide activity that’s coming on fast. A check of the kiteboard course-racing schedule on the website of the International Kiteboarding Association shows 18 regattas in the last six months. The highlight of this year’s schedule was the first Kiteboard Course Racing World Championship, again at St. Francis, with 67 entries from 12 countries. While the growth of this new sailing discipline has been accelerated in the past year, so too have the rules under which they race.

Tree Bay Area kite enthusiasts, John Gomes, Geoff Headington, and John Craig, along with Bryan McDonald, a windsurfer and experienced team-race umpire, drafed an initial set of rules for the first races. These were tested, refined, and then posted by US SAILING on its website. Shortly thereafer, the IKA joined forces with ISAF and asked that ISAF develop a set of rules for kiteboards as it has done for Windsurfing Competition (Appendix B of the racing rules). At this point, as a member of the ISAF Racing Rules Committee, I volunteered to work on the project. The result is Appendix BB, Experimental Kiteboarding Competition Rules, now available on the ISAF website at It is likely that this appendix will appear in the 2013 edition of the racing rules, alongside the special appendices for windsurfing, match racing, team racing, and radio-controlled boats.

Working on these rules has been great fun and a challenge. The “boats” are really different from all other boats that race under our racing rules. Although the board itself is no bigger than a windsurfer hull, a kiteboard in its entirety is huge. The kite is several times larger than the hull, and the control lines can be upwards of 110 feet long. What’s more, the kite can be flown anywhere from just above the surface of the water to right over the hull. Steering the kite in a pattern of repeated big figure eights, a practice called “looping,” adds lift. Therefore, the kite is not always flown in a steady position with respect to the hull. Competitors loop their kites when sailing downwind or in lulls in the wind when their speed drops. Changing course takes a lot of skill, and those skills are developing fast. As recently as last year, most kiteboarders were unable to tack and instead jibed through 270 degrees whenever they wanted to change tack on a beat to windward. At this year’s Worlds, about half the competitors were tacking rather than jibing. It is quite common for sailors to lose contact with their boards and have to swim after them. Hulls almost never hit one another. When a competitor breaks a rule, what usually happens is that one sailor’s control lines hit another’s and the two sets of lines become tangled, a disaster that can result in huge losses in a short race.


Kiteboard equipment, kiteboarding skills, and the rules governing kiteboard races are all evolving at a rapid pace. Here’s are a sampling of some of the challenges we faced while developing rules for kiteboards, and the rules we wrote to meet them.

Basic Definitions: Obviously, there is no mast or boom, which helps define the tack a sailboat is on. A kiteboard is on the starboard (port) tack when the competitor’s right (left) hand would be forward if he were in “standard riding position” with his heels on the edge of his hull and both hands on the control bar. The definitions of clear astern, clear ahead, and overlap are based on both hull and equipment, just as they are for boats. However, when two kiteboards on the same tack overlap, the one whose hull is on the leeward side of the other’s hull is the leeward kiteboard, and the other is the windward kiteboard.

Basing this distinction on the position of the hull is necessary because the control line and kite are often more than 100 feet away from the hull. Sometimes when two kiteboards converge while sailing downwind it is not possible to determine which one has right of way. In such cases, there is a special rule that states, “the one on the other’s starboard side or the one astern shall keep clear.”


Kinetics: Rule 42 is changed to read, “A kiteboard shall be propelled only by the action of the wind on the kite, by the action of the water on the hull and by the unassisted actions of the competitor.” This is the same rule as the rule in Appendix B for windsurfers. It allows any unassisted action of the competitor, including unlimited looping. However, because a kiteboard that is looping her kite takes up a great deal more space than one that is holding her kite steady, and because the pattern of the loops is often unpredictable, there is an added rule that states, “When sailing downwind, a kiteboard that is looping her kite shall keep clear of one that is not.”

Port-starboard crossings: Suppose Paul, on port, is about to duck Stan, on starboard. Stan could sail with his kite low and close to the water (a practice aptly called “clothes-lining”) and thereby force Paul to bear off to avoid tangling lines with Stan. A special rule prohibits this practice. It states, “On a beat to windward, when it becomes clear to a starboard-tack kiteboard that a port-tack kiteboard is keeping clear by sailing to pass astern of her and there is risk of contact, the starboard-tack kiteboard shall, if reasonably possible, keep her kite high enough to allow the port-tack kiteboard to pass close astern of her hull.”

**Special starting rule: **The risk of control-line tangles is highest just before and just after the starting signal. Competitors almost always make a “Vanderbilt start,” culminating in a timed approach to the line, closehauled at full speed. When they all do this, their control lines and kites are at relatively predictable angles and the risk of tangles is low. However, if one competitor is early and raises his kite in an effort to slow or stop, he can quickly cause the mother of all tangles. For this reason, this rule has been added: “During the last minute before her starting signal, a kiteboard that stops, or significantly slows down and is no longer making material forward progress, shall keep clear of one that has not.”


Judging the start and finish: Just as in a sailboat, a competitor can judge where his hull is with respect to the starting line. When several kiteboards are about to cross a line, it is difficult for the race officer to determine and keep track of which kite is attached to which hull. For those reasons, the moment of crossing of the start and the finish line is based on the position of the competitor and his hull. The position of control lines and kite
are irrelevant.

Penalties: Because kiteboards are so difficult to turn and take so much time to do so, kiteboard rules specify a Scoring Penalty in place of the Two-Turns Penalty. Also, there is no penalty for touching a mark.

Identification: The kites used by competitors are multicolored with elaborate patterns. Also, as noted, it is sometimes difficult to determine quickly which kite is attached to which hull. For these reasons, sail numbers are impracticable. Instead, the race committee issues a shirt bearing a unique number, which is used for identification.


Redress: In a sailboat race, redress can be given to a boat that was physically damaged by another boat that broke a rule of Part 2. In kiteboard racing, redress can be given if, as a result of another kiteboard breaking a rule of Part 2, a kiteboard’s lines are tangled, her kite is in the water, or the competitor becomes disconnected from his hull. Redress was given for these reasons several times during the Worlds in San Francisco.