Up, Up, and Away

Nevin Sayre of Vineyard Haven, five-time U.S. windsurfing champion, launches himself into the brave new world of kiteboarding.

Why is this man smiling? Wearing jeans, sweatshirt, and flip-flops, Nevin Sayre sits sipping a coffee frappe at Linda Jean’s restaurant in Oak Bluffs, gleefully recounting the fall morning he has spent windsurfing in gusts up to forty knots. Such strenuous activity is ill-weaved ambition for most of us, but strictly routine for Sayre, forty-five, the five-time U.S. champion and two-time second-ranked windsurfer in the world.

And yet, his conversation soon turns to another sport, kiteboarding. “I got into it because I’d satisfied every goal in windsurfing, and there weren’t many days when I felt challenged,” he says. “You can kiteboard at eleven to twelve knots, but you need fifteen knots for high-performance windsurfing. That’s
actually a big difference on Martha’s Vineyard.”

And there’s a big difference between the two sports. According to one on-line encyclopedia, “Windsurfing (also called boardsailing) is a sport involving travel over water on a small [2 meter to 4.7 meter] board powered by wind acting on a single sail, that is connected to the board via a flexible joint. The sport is a hybrid between sailing and surfing. The sailboard might be considered the most minimalist version of the modern sailboat, with the major exception that steering is accomplished by tilting the mast and sail rather than with a rudder.” Knowledge of sailing technique helps in windsurfing because you’re constantly adjusting to the wind, and it’s easy to bail out into the water if you get in trouble.

Kiteboarding, by contrast, is a lot of action in a small package. Also known as kitesurfing, the sport uses a large, powerful kite to drag a surfboard over water (or a wheeled board or snowboard over land). Kites are made of spinnaker cloth – a reinforced type of nylon – and can fit into a backpack. A framework of inflatable struts help the kite keep its shape. The size and kind vary widely, according to the weight and skill of the kiteboarder and wind speed. Training kites measure from one to three square meters. Serious kiteboarders have at least two kites, their size in inverse proportion to the wind speed. Boards are constructed of fiberglass and carbon fiber over foam, measure about three feet long and two feet wide, and are small enough to fit into overhead compartments on planes. Boards and kites connect when kiteboarders stand in foot straps on the boards and use their arms and hands to manage the three lines that feed from a control bar up to the kite.

 To get going, a kiteboarder sits down in shallow water, straps on the board, and tries to fly the kite in the direction the board points. When everything works, the kite drags the athlete to a standing position, as if he were being pulled up by a boat while water-skiing. A good kiteboarder goes crosswind. An excellent kiteboarder can go upwind, no matter how windy. If he heads downwind for too long, he may go too fast, lose control, or crash into the rocks, trees, the beach, or other coastal inconveniences ahead of him. Kiteboarding is not for sissies, and some would say not for the sane. “I weigh 190 pounds, and the kites can lift me thirty feet in the air or potentially pull me into something – hopefully just the shore,” Sayre says. “As long as there are no boats, breakwaters, or buoys, people don’t get hurt too seriously.”

Nonetheless, Sayre estimates that about twenty people have been killed kiteboarding. Bic Sport North America, a West Wareham–based distributor of kayak, surfing, and windsurfing equipment for whom Sayre serves as marketing director, got out of the sport because of liability issues.

“It’s important for people to take lessons first,” Sayre says. “I taught myself six years ago only because there were no instructors on the Cape and no kiteboarders on the Island. I bought the gear and learned how to fly the kite. Then I learned how to man the kite while standing in water. Then I went out on the board.

“The kite has control over you rather than you over the kite. As is the case with a wild tiger, if you’re safe and give it some love, you’ll have a great time. But if you make a bad mistake, it’ll tear you apart. Kiteboarding is a combination of flying the kite, balancing the pull of the kite, and edging the board as if it were a ski. That’s where the finesse comes in. The first skill you learn after going crosswind is to go upwind. You can adapt to riding the waves. It’s like surfing, except with a kite. And there’s jumping. You edge the board up and fly the kite up until it’s at its apex, and you can go twenty-five or thirty feet in the air. You learn to do loops and spins while airborne. It’s impressive, because the wind always blows horizontally. You’re defying gravity.”

Sayre’s life would appear to have defied expectations. The great-grandson of President Woodrow Wilson and the youngest of the four children of Harriet and Francis Sayre, the activist dean at Washington National Cathedral, young Nevin would awaken to find that peace protesters or civil-rights workers had crashed at his house. Four days before he was assassinated, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. came to lunch and told Nevin stories about his son, who was also eight at the time. But Nevin never was pressured to go into public life. It’s not that he’s apolitical. He worked for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004, and he and John Kerry (“a tremendous athlete”) used to windsurf the thirty-five miles from Falmouth to Nantucket over Fourth of July weekends. But an equally strong influence on the Sayre children was their Vineyard Haven summer home and their life on the water. When Nevin caught the sailing bug as a kid competitor at the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club, he discovered, in Beach Boys lingo, that when you catch a wave you’re sitting on top of the world. “It became a passion and avocation,” he says.

First, Sayre and two teammates won the southern Massachusetts junior championships for the Vineyard Haven club. Eager to experience another culture, he enrolled at Tulane with a kind of double major: sailing and architecture. Architecture didn’t pan out. “I realized I wasn’t ready to spend twenty-eight hours a day at the drafting board,” he says. Instead, Sayre became an All-American sailor. His cultural imperative satisfied, he transferred to Tufts and graduated with a history degree as the country’s first four-time All-American sailor.

Meanwhile, Sayre picked up windsurfing. With the 1984 games approaching and windsurfing introduced as an Olympic sport, he received funding to train for the U.S. team. Unfortunately, the windsurfer sail was about six square meters, ideal for someone who weighs about 140 pounds, and Sayre was too big at six feet, two inches, and about 190 pounds. Nevertheless, he was allowed to take the funding to develop his skills.

Segueing neatly into the world tour, he found that although he’d never surfed, he could outfox the dominant Hawaiians over racecourses by using the technical skills he’d learned as a sailor. “The total purse for the tour was something like $2 million, but I was making six figures a year from finishing well and getting sponsorships from people who’d pay me ridiculous money for things like wearing sunglasses.”

 The tour proved most profitable for Sayre in 1983, the year he met Swedish champion Stina Hellgren at the world championships in Barbados. Four years later they started traveling together, and they married in 1989. In 1991, Sayre retired from the tour because Stina was pregnant, “and I didn’t want to be an MIA dad,” he says. Nevin and Stina, forty-six, a fashion designer with her own line of women’s apparel, live in Vineyard Haven with their daughter Solvig, thirteen, and son Rasmus, eight.

A founder of Fiberspar, an early manufacturer of windsurfing masts and booms, Sayre will probably windsurf until the day he dies. He taught the sport at the Nevin Sayre Kids Camp on Cape Cod from 1999 until it grew to 250 participants in 2004 and became unmanageable from the Vineyard. Sitting at Linda Jean’s, he talks enthusiastically about the program at Sail Martha’s Vineyard, a nonprofit program devoted to helping Island kids (fifth through eighth grades) learn to sail. He doesn’t mention that he got the group a good deal on eight windsurfers with fourteen sails.

Ah, but kiteboarding. Look for kiteboarders at South Beach at Katama, and State Beach on Nantucket Sound, where there are good winds and few obstacles. “Almost every time I come to the beach, people ask me how to do it,” says Sayre. “Because they skateboarded or water-skied, they think they can do it. I may have saved the life of a guy I saw on State Beach. He had bought the equipment on the Internet and was about to use it with a breakwater downwind. After about two questions, I realized he didn’t know what he was doing, and I talked him out of it. You don’t need gear for lessons, but it will take a summer to become barely competent.

“There’s some competitive kiteboarding – completely subjective, judged after heats of ten minutes or so. But there’s plenty of fun and challenge without needing competition. It’s a great workout, using every muscle, and a mental challenge, too. You can’t make a bad mistake or you’ll pay for it.” Sayre has bruised his ribs and twisted his ankles kiteboarding, but nothing worse. Imagining lots of thrills and not too many spills ahead, he knocks on the wooden restaurant table and smiles.