Kiteboarding’s Longest Flight

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John Bilderback

Cruising along during the first two hours of an ambitious 10-day expedition to kiteboard the length of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, trip co-leader Alex Unsworth was feeling confident. He'd spent over a year organizing the trip, and in addition to helping secure a 70-foot support boat, he'd put together a crew of nine other kiteboarders: a mix of amateurs from Australia, the U.K., and Bulgaria, plus one pro, from Hawaii.

But then the trip was over before it really began, at least for Unsworth. He was kiting at full speed when he lost balance and crashed. Hard. The result: a broken femur. "I knew immediately," says Unsworth, an investment banker in Sydney. "But I was a bit confused, as there was zero pain." As the rest of the kiters looked on, Unsworth was airlifted back to the mainland.

The goal had been to kite the reef and set a record for longest distance traveled via kiteboard, as part of a fundraising campaign for motor neuron disease.

"At the time I thought, 'Well, there's no chance of making the record now,' " says Richard Hatherall, another co-leader. Jesse Richman, the lone pro, wasn't sure if they should continue at all.

"Nothing against their riding, but everyone was pretty much novice at best," he says. "But I'm looking at all these guys, and they're like, 'Yeah, let's do it!' "

When the crew finished nine days later, they'd set the Guinness record for the longest journey via kiteboard, 736 miles.

"We had no idea what we were getting into," says Richman. "But we were just blasting through the most pristine ocean you can imagine: sharks, manta rays, deserted islands. We could have gone another 10 days, no problem."

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After Unsworth's early exit, the biggest concern was simply getting the group to ride together. The various levels of experience created a situation in which the kiteboarders, each decked out in 25 pounds of gear — backpacks with emergency beacons and flares, radios for communicating — were getting separated by miles of open ocean. If something went wrong, it could take too long to reach one another.

"You're on this crystal clear blue water," says Richman. "But then you drop off the reef, and you have a two-mile channel that's 1,000 feet deep. You don't even want to think about what's under the water there."

The team quickly devised a system in which one person would lead, with Richman taking up the rear to help anyone who couldn't keep up. Soon enough, they were kiting up to nine hours a day. One day they made 72 miles. Another, 126. At night, they'd sleep on the boat or on a remote atoll under the stars.

Midway through the trip, Richman was flying along when something slammed his board. "Suddenly I'm two feet in the air because I hit something," he says, "and I'm thinking, 'Wait, there's nothing here to hit.' " When he looked back, he saw a black figure in the water. "For whatever reason, it didn't really get a good chomp," Richman says. Jess Digs, the only woman on the trip, had her own run-in with a small shark. While floating in the water during a short break, she felt something hit her backpack, then thrash in the water. When she looked at her CamelBak later that night, she noticed small teeth marks.

Besides those encounters, the hardest thing was putting up with the long days. "Everybody had something different hit them," says Hatherall. "Jess's ankle was hurting, my knee was irritated, and everyone was sunburned somewhere." Hatherall's hand became so tense that he couldn't hold a fork properly at the end of the day.

"Mentally, it was totally exhausting," says Richman.

When the team reached the island that marked the end point, the front-runners held up. "We agreed that we would cross the line as a group," says Hatherall. "Alex had been discharged from the hospital that morning, so he flew out to meet us. It was pretty emotional."

So what's next?

"There's going to be a point where we get too old for this," says Hatherall. "But I can't help but think there will be another one, if only because Alex needs to do it again. If he does, the rest of us will have the fear of missing out, so it'll be hard not to say, 'Yeah, let's do it!' "

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