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22nd Dec 2012 11:24am | By Dea Birkett
I’m trying to stay upright, but it’s hard. A big kite is attached to my waist on a harness, and I’m bobbing in the North Atlantic Sea like a giant cork.
Even in my wetsuit, I’m freezing cold and my fingers feel akin to the contents of a frost-crusted box of fishfingers. The wind is so fierce that the seagulls are practically flying backwards.
Achill Island, part of County Mayo in western Ireland, is a wild place. On its west coast, the two-mile long, broad, sandy Keel Beach is framed by a trio of treeless mountains and the dark Minaun Cliffs. Rain clouds blow towards the island, across the ocean, in an almost constant threat of bad weather – but the same wind blows in plenty of visitors. In the blustery winter months, kitesurfers arrive on Achill from all over the world to do battle with the Atlantic waves.
That’s why I’m here, learning to kitesurf with Francois Colussi, a 34-year-old Frenchman who blew into Achill himself three years ago, took over a local bar in the foothills of Slievemore mountain, and turned it into a kitesurfing school, hostel and pizza restaurant called Pure Magic.
“Ireland is well-known for its big, big swell,” says Colussi, forcing his fingers through salt-stiffened hair. “Kitesurfing is playing with these waves; it’s like a symphony of the waves and the rider.” The Kite Surf Pro World Cup this October attracted over 30 world-class kitesurfers to Achill’s stormy seas, firmly planting this small island on the sport’s map. But you don’t have to be a professional athlete to kitesurf in Keel. “It’s one of the most extreme sports, but the most accessible. It’s much easier that surfing or windsurfing. You can learn in a weekend,” Colussi assures me. “You don’t need huge upper body strength – you’re powered by the wind.”
I begin with a trainer kite on land. It only measures 2.5sqm, but still threatens to lift me up into the air and dump me back down on the sea-hardened sand. Colussi hugs me from behind, guiding my arms with his hands, showing me how to use the lines, pulling them in and out to make the kite dive and rise in a figure of eight. “Ninety-five per cent of kitesurfing is how to fly the kite,” he says. “It’s like learning to dance, and the kite is your partner. At first, you don’t know when to lean forward a little, to take one step back, to take a step forward.”