Kite surfer for all seasons

With Metallica in his headphones and the Strait of Juan de Fuca under his feet, Jim Irwin feels at home on a board pulled by a kite flying on a westerly wind just north of Sequim.

He said anywhere can feel like home if there are conditions friendly to kite surfing. He's been doing it for about five years and partially based his move to Sequim on the hobby.

"I had a business partner move to the area and he was looking to have the same drywall business up here and wanted me to help," Irwin said. "I wasn't sure at first, so I came up, spent some time in the area scouting the wind and waves and discovered Sequim and other places nearby are pretty good for the sport."

Irwin made the move.

He's somewhat of a celebrity when he rides the waves strapped to a large red and white kite shaped like a slice of orange peel. Cline Spit generally fills with cars at the sight of the kite and traffic on Marine Drive becomes even slower.

"You get used to people watching," Irwin said. "But what you never take for granted is when eagles fly by or land on a piling to check you out or when seals swim up next to you to see what's going on."

He said the number of harbor seals in the strait is staggering, more than he'd initially thought.

"They are not scared of me, that's for sure," he said, almost laughing.

Kite surfing is almost the same as regular surfing but the need to surf in the direction of the waves is eliminated by the propulsion provided by the kite.

Different kites are used for different conditions. Experts are known to change their kite if the wind changes but a few miles per hour.

"The ideal wind speed that I look for is about 25 mph," Irwin said. "Any slower and it makes it difficult to ride."

He said the area around Cline Spit in Dungeness Bay is ideal for freestyle riding, where more tricks and aerial moves can be done. Other areas can provide more waves, opening the door to other types of riding

He's ridden near Port Town-send, Hobuck Beach, Bremerton, Kingston and more.

"Once, I had some 6- to 8-foot waves in the Elwha," he said. "I'll ride down the river, out its mouth and into the strait and come back and do it all over again."

Irwin isn't alone. He's one of a handful of kite surfers who live in the area. Many others visit the peninsula for its water access.

"Surfing, windsurfing and kite surfing, all have opportunities out here," he said. "I've just dedicated myself to the kite."

Irwin suggested that beginners go through a lot of training before going it alone.

"You definitely have to pay your dues," he said. "I've blown out a knee, gotten tangled in other people's lines and carried away by the kite, but it's all worth it to be where I am today."

He said although the water can hurt, it sure can be fun, too.

The kite can be ditched if the surfer is experienced enough to know what to do and when to do it, such as cutting loose from the kite when it gets caught in an uprising thermal gust of wind. But beginners often are distracted.

"There is the kite, which is the most important thing to master, then you have the lines, the board and the water," he said. "So it's easy to see why beginners get dragged off."

Kite surfers refer to kite position like numbers on a clock. Noon would be neutral in a car and, depending on wind direction, three or four can cause a sudden burst of speed.

"You can pump in between the two to really get going for some of the harder tricks," he said. "The biggest roadblocks are in your mind and in getting comfortable with your equipment. After you get past that, you can get past anything."

Irwin again stressed the need for beginners to exercise caution and safety measures. He carries a knife in order to cut lines if he gets tangled. He wears a helmet and suggests that those starting out do the same, including wearing a life vest.

Equipment is available online or through the two surf shops in the area, Lost Mountain Surf Company and Far North Surf and Sport.

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