Have we reached “Peak Kite”?

Did you know iPhone sales are dropping? Not only iPhones but in fact the smartphone market as a whole is starting to flatten out. The term “peak smartphone” is used to describe this situation – people just aren’t buying as many smartphones as they used to, and in 2016 they’ll be less inclined to immediately upgrade once a new model is announced. Even Ikea believes to have reached “peak curtains“.

So what does “peak kite” mean? Kite sales are starting to flatten and while you never seem to have enough space on the water, the reality is that the total amount of kiters is not really growing. Whats more, looking back at the last couple of years you will be hard pressed to find a lot of groundbreaking new stuff that changes the way we ride and that would warrant you to spend more money on new equipment. So in order to generate new sales, the kite manufacturers need to come up with solutions and there are two options:

If there is nothing left to innovate or you simply lack new ideas, you start to move into what I like to call the “bling-it” direction. When you have a product and just simply cannot come up with anything to improve it and yet you want to make it more valuable, well then you gold plate that Lamborghini or add a gold case and Hermes wristband to that Apple watch and presto, you can sell the exact same 300 USD item for 17.000 USD.

There have already been a few “bling-it” attempts and although I do not have any numbers, I am willing to bet the success rate of full carbon boards or specialized freestyle bars is rather moderate (*cough*NKB-Freestyle bar*cough*Cabrinha-Excalibur).

But there is another way and that is to spend time and effort on R&D to produce something new, something innovative, something that you will want to have and that actually changes the way you kitesurf for the better. And the good news is that kitesurfing is still a very young sport and given that it is a bit of a mix of various different sports, there is still loads of potential to innovate and improve the equipment, something that the big brands have understood and the fruits of their labor are coming to the market in 2017.

The Power adjuster is a bit of a crutch

If you own a mountain bike or a newer, automatic car, you will probably have come in contact with a system that allows you to shift gears without letting go of the steering wheel or handlebar. The logic is the same, keeping your hands on the control system at all times makes it easier and safer to drive or ride your vehicle. So when we kite, when do we have to take our hands off the bar? When you need to adjust the power using the adjuster/trim system. This part of our kitesurfing equipment has always been a bit of a crutch and the different brands had various solutions on the market. Shall we use a pull/pull strap or clam cleat system? Should it be above or below the bar? What to do with the dangling extra rope when depowered? How do you reach the adjuster if you have short arms?

Well these problems have been looked at already and if you do a bit of research in the U.S. patents office, you will find two solutions – one by Ocean Rodeo and another by Best:

In 2011 Best filed its patent for an integrated adjuster which takes the idea of changing the length of the back lines instead of the front lines and integrates it into your bar. The idea is to have a pulley system inside the bar which has a rope attached to it that comes out on one end of the bar and is locked in place with a simple clam cleat. This is a typical Best type solution, its relatively easy to make with the existing materials and parts, can therefore be produced cheaply and will do the job. While it does not look very elegant and you still have a piece of rope dangling around (now however at one end of your bar which could be very annoying), it is simple and should not wear and tear a lot more than your already existing depower systems.

In 2013, Ocean Rodeo filed their patent for a similar solution. Here we have the same concept, the front lines stay always the same length and instead they adjust the length of the rear lines (I mean after all, there are only so many ways you can skin this cat!). Their solution is a bit more technical and elegant as it is using a ratchet that is integrated into one end of the bar that allows you to wind up the rear lines in increments. When you wish to extend the back lines (depower the kite) you pull the ratchet sideways so that the teeth release the lock and allow the lines to unwind but it also requires you to let go of the bar in order to turn the dial.

This solution has the advantage of keeping it all inside the bar and you do not have anything dangling around, even when depowered. However, and this is a big however, sand and saltwater can very quickly bring an end to such a system. I have seen such locking systems fail plenty – remember Mystics adjustable clicker dial harness? Or the same system on footstraps? Yup, they all came and went quickly because it just didn’t work reliably. Look at wakeboarding boots and you will see pretty much only 2 options – laces or Velcro because that is really the only thing that works and is cheap to manufacture. Oh yes, the cost of manufacturing is one of, if not the primary factor that the big brands look at when designing a new system and this is where things get interesting.

Gripshift for Kitesurfing

UPDATE 12th July 2016

After doing a bit more Googling I found this patent by B&M from 2010. Now keep in mind how long ago this was already being worked on, I am hopeful that the mechanics have shifted from winding it by turning a part of the bar horn, into the grip shift system I am hoping for. Can’t wait for August to come!

Disclaimer: All the info below on Norths developments is me putting 2+2 together from infos on the web. This is not information given to me from North.

So this is where North Kiteboarding comes in. Being the largest brand and arguably the company with the biggest R&D budget, they came up with a solution that is as clean and integrated as Ocean Rodeos while also allowing you to adjust the power without letting go of the bar. The idea is to use a grip shift system which you will probably have seen on a mountainbike where you simply twist the handlebar to switch gears or if you ride a motorbike, think of it as the accelerator. On the kite bar, a section of the bar handle will be able to rotate and through using a gear and ratchet system, will wind up the back lines. On top of being on the bar you have the added bonus that similar to your grip shift on a bike, you will have a small dial indicator that shows you visually how much you already depowered or powered the kite. The release mechanism however is a button that will be located inside the nook of your bar “horn”, where you would normally wind up your lines. By pressing that button you will either be able to release the back lines gradually (click by click depending on the ratchet mechanism) or by holding it down, it will unroll the full length of your back lines.

Now while the button seems a bit off, since it does require you to release the bar to power the kite, I am assuming it will have two reasons. Firstly, the ratchet system needs to unlock before it can unwind and if using a see-saw mechanism (similar to what you have on Mountainbikes) you need quite a bit of force to actually twist the grip. If it is too loose, it could potentially unwind itself when the back lines get tension and if its too hard, your wrist will start to hurt from twisting. Secondly, its a matter of making a system that will survive sand and seawater. The danger here is to make something where sand can get in and completely lock up the mechanism so the designers had to make something that would allow to make this as closed as possible.

Re-inventing the wheel and over-engineering

Now being and engineer myself, I like how North Kiteboarding tackles such problems but they do tend to over-engineer things and that can become a problem. A rule that I like to follow is K.I.S.S. and especially when you need to design something that is rugged enough to survive a coupe of seasons covered in sand and saltwater, you can easily end up with a non reliable product. The good news is, North has been testing this bar extensively and even in competitions, so we can expect a rather polished product.

But there are also other brands that want to make an impact on the market by trying to re-invent the wheel and sometimes that leads to a new product but not necessarily a better one. A couple of years back (around 2007/8), Naish Kiteboarding came up with the Sigma shaped kites. Those came and went fast because while looking very different and definitely making a huge impact on Naish’s market share, just didn’t work well.

Breaking the mold is also something Cabrinha is trying to do with their Fireball control bar. In my opinion this is not as flawed as many other developments we have seen over the past years (as mentioned above) but it is an attempt to change something that our sport so desperately needs – unified standards! There is no doubt that having a harness hook that is closer to your body is a good thing for wave riding and when you have your kite up high, something you do particularly at the beginning of your kitesurfing career. But the disadvantages are that unhooking is pretty difficult and not recommended which means when using this system you locked yourself out of a huge part of the sport. Also, this system means you are incompatible with the rest of the beach, you can’t use any other kites, you can’t lend your equipment to anybody else, in an emergency situation many will not know how your system works and how to handle it, for schools it means they need to explain multiple systems to their students, etc.

The key point I am trying to make is that while it is important to think outside the box, you also need to be careful where you apply the resulting solutions. There is a good reason why North has not changed the harness hook and chickenloop solution – it works and it’s an established standard. That is not to say it won’t be changed at some point but I do think such an important element in our equipment needs to be tackled in unison by the big brands. The “I go my way, you do your thing” mentality leads to a “walled garden” which is not something we need in Kitesurfing and especially not when it comes to safety systems.