By Jordan Kandell
Is kitesurfing the new golf? For some high-octane power players, it very well may be.

A 40-foot blue monster rises up before the pack of big wave mavericks scrambling for position in the lineup at Pe‘ahi, Maui. Shane Dorian turns, paddles into its whitewater jaws, takes the two-story drop down the raging face, and surfs out of the barrel unscathed. On the cliffs above the biggest paddle-in spot on Planet Earth, a hundred camera shutters click in unison like a horde of mechanical bugs.

But that’s not why I’m here. Today marks the start of the Virgin Kite Jam: a four-day, high-energy kiteboarding event co-founded by Sir Richard Bran-son. According to Branson, “after two overwhelmingly successful events in the British Virgin Islands, this year’s annual event comes to Maui, Hawai‘i—home to some of the most challenging and beautiful conditions in the world. The perfect setting for the world’s leading kitesurfers.”

Indeed. As the wind picks up and the surfers paddle in, a lone kiteboarder charges into view, pulling himself by his parachute-shaped sail across the sea’s skin, at speeds approaching 40 knots. He races down a set-wave too big for the others to catch. For a moment, wind, wave and rider are one—kite howling like a jetliner overhead. Until the face slams down, swallowing him whole. A collective groan goes up from the cliff dwellers … then a sudden gasp of surprise and awe. Like the birth of a new superhero, Kite-man levitates out of the deadly surge, his neon wing literally flying him to the safe water beyond.

“What I love about the kite is the power it gives,” says Pete Cabrinha—a Maui resident and early pioneer both of Jaws and the kiteboarding sport. Cabrinha, who’s founded one of the lead kite companies in the world and is a sponsor of Kite Jam, elaborates further,

“Kiteboarding is a fusion of a lot of different sports, with different elements around the world: snow-kiters, sand-kiters, wake-boarders, racers. I try to emulate surfing, but a lot of times the kite can transcend that.”

Kiteboarding is a relatively new sport, but one that has quickly taken flight. As Kite Jam co-founder Charlie Smith informs, “It was invented 25 years ago, became a commercial sport in the last 15, and will be an Olympic event in 2016. It’s growing 1000 percent annually every year.” It’s no wonder. With safety advances in equipment, “kiting” is no longer just an adrenaline junkie’s sport. I watch as a petite, bikini-clad, 18-year-old in~ ates her kite and walks it, one-armed, to the shore like a dog on a leash. Richard Branson, at 62, gets out on the water whenever he can. Some, including Forbes Magazine, have gone so far as to call kiting “the new golf.”

As I pull into the packed parking lot at Kanaha Beach Park, a fighter-squadron of kiteboarders tear past—racing the wind up and down Kahului Bay, its blue waters dotted with riders as far as the eye can see. To the untrained it is, from the shore, almost a bucolic vision: 100 rainbow-hued kites drifting languidly against a cloudless blue sky. But follow the strings to the ocean below, and it’s an entirely different sight. Watermen and -women rip across the wind-whipped chop. The pros in attendance (five of the 10 world champs) launch themselves airborne while performing acrobatic stunts that would make Cirque du Soleil gasp in awe. Maui native Jesse Richman launches off a wave into a 40-foot-high, 8-second, 180-degree rotating air. The “kiters” on the beach go wild.

During day three of the 2012 Virgin Kite Jam, conditions are perfect. A hundred neon kites lie unfurled along the mile-long, white sand stretch of beach, like a psychedelic clan of mutant bats.

Huddled against the 25 mph wind, a tribe of bronzed and buff kiting enthusiasts gather from all corners of the map: Moscow, Turkey, Aruba, New York. “Kite-Jam isn’t a competition,” stresses Scotty Wilson, former manager of Branson’s Necker Island and fellow co-founder.

“It’s a dynamic lifestyle event. A unique gathering of professionals and enthusiasts who’ve come together to advance kiting culture, all while having loads of fun.”

In that spirit, Kite Jam’s days are filled with demos, expression sessions and pro clinics, the nights with exclusive social events. A black-clad “kite kitten” slips a black band on my wrist and leads me down a long, black alley to a VIP party later on in the day. At a lawn below windswept purple-and blue-lit palm trees overlooking Pa‘ia beach—‘ukulele virtuoso Taimane tears through an electrified update of “Hawaii 5-0″ for an intimate and awe-struck crowd.

Behind me a teppan chef sets a scallop volcano on fire. A friendly kiter from Silicon Valley hands me a drink and asks if “I’ve had a chance yet to talk technique with the pros.” I’ve never kited a day in my life, but suddenly, I want to start.

Smith and Wilson take in the spectacle they helped to build with bemused smiles: “Four years ago this was just a casual conversation with Branson on Necker Island; a dream in our heads. Who knows where it will go four years from now?” What’s certain is Kite Jam is set to return to Maui next year. “It really is the wind mecca of the world,” says Smith.

“The place where the development happens, the boundaries get pushed, the records get set, and the pros come to train. Beyond that, it’s just an incredibly beautiful place.” www.mauikitejam.com

© HUBER JOHANNA/SIME-4CORNERSIMAGES

Paradise Rocks

Johnny Depp once infamously said: “money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a boat to sail right up to it.” Depp, who was talking about his private island in the Caribbean, could as easily been referring to the Saba Rock Resort (www.sabarock.com) in the British Virgin Islands. Nestled between two luxury retreats—the Bitter End Yacht Club and Branson’s Necker Island—tiny two-acre Saba, is a slice of paradise anyone can reach. A family-run operation built by the McManus clan of Maui—Saba Rock has transformed itself in recent years from a simple sailor’s stopover, into one of the premier watering-holes in the Caribbean. GM Jonathan McManus attributes this success in no small part to his friend and neighbor Richard Branson’s promotion of watersports, in particular kiteboarding.

“We’ve sponsored Kite Jam since its inception in 2010, and helped bring it to Hawai‘i this year,” says McManus, himself an avid kiter. While the 12-room boutique may not be able to grow at the breezy pace of the sport, it is getting a facelift for 2013. “We’re a small island with a big personality,” laughs McManus. And with rooms starting at $195 a night that’s a slice of happiness everyone can afford. If you’re an early planner, Virgin Kite Jam BVIs 2013 is scheduled take place from July 7 to 12 on Anegada, Necker Island and surrounding areas. More info will be available at www.virginkitejam.com.

—J.K.