Skip to main content
Original Issue

Austin's Power Everything about kiteboarding screams Flash, from the competitors' sick aerials to the name of the sport's biggest star

Flash Austin's name is everywhere. It's emblazoned like a
superhero's crest across his orange-and-gray rash guard; it's on
his orange-and-white kite; and it might as well be scrawled in
the sands of this windswept strip of Maui's North
Shore--popularly called Flash Beach--where few other
kiteboarders launch. Austin's nickname has even rubbed off on
his 67-year-old mother, Marjorie, a.k.a. Mama Flash. Nearly
every day during a three-week visit from her home in Florida,
Marjorie has sat in a striped beach chair and watched through
binoculars as her son flipped and twisted through the air 25
feet above a treacherous reef. "I've seen him spend five hours
at a time out there, totally focused," she says. "Where was
kiteboarding when he was a kid?"

Kiteboarding as Mama Flash has been observing here on Maui
hardly existed until her son, whom she still calls by his given
name, Marcus, stumbled upon the nascent sport seven years ago.
He embraced it with missionary zeal and started testing the
limits of how much fun a man could have while tethered to a wing
10 stories above him. "Before Flash and two other guys--Lou
Wainman and Elliot Leboe--came along, this sport was just guys
riding behind a kite," says Ryan Riccitelli, editor of
Kiteboarding Magazine USA. "These guys added aerial tricks and
made us realize the potential of the sport. Flash, though, is
the sport's first superstar. He's the one who put competitive,
professional kitesurfing on the map."

Kiteboarding is exploding much the way snowboarding did a decade
ago. Last year 50,000 kites were sold, compared to 250 in 1998.
More than 20 companies are making kites (compared to fewer than
five in '99), and while there was one official kiteboarding
event four years ago (with beer as the first prize), there are
more than 30 scheduled worldwide in 2002, with purses of up to
$50,000. Austin, 28, is the young sport's most iconic figure,
the kiteboarder most likely to be recognized in a European
airport or to have gifts thrust upon him by admirers. (In
Tarifa, Spain, last year he was approached by a Russian fan who
exclaimed, "You're Flash Austin! Here, take my watch!") Austin
makes enough money to travel all over the world for
competitions, buy a few antiques--his collection includes a
sword used in the defeat of Napoleon at Leipzig--and keep gas in
his '96 Mustang. He has had, he says, "a taste of the rock-star
life," but there's more he'd like to do.

He wants to recapture the world championship he won in 2000
before a serious rib injury dashed his title hopes last year.
He'd like to take his graceful freestyle moves--the so-called
Flash Tacks that involve launching into the air in one
direction, doing a flip or a twist and then hitting the water at
full speed going in the opposite direction--into wave-riding
competitions. And he hopes to persuade anyone who will listen
that kiteboarding is rapture itself, an experience akin to
"touching the face of God," as he puts it. "This sport allows
you to do superhuman feats you can't do in any other sport. When
you're out on the water flying in the air, you get a sense of

Every time the unfailingly enthusiastic Austin launches into one
of his evangelical riffs, he's careful to insert a note of
caution. "Kiteboarding is like a rose," he says. "It's a
beautiful, wonderful thing, but there are thorns. You don't
reach out and grab it without caution." Make a single mistake
over the reef off Flash Beach, for instance, and "you're
hamburger over razor blades," he says. "People underestimate how
powerful the wind is."

Austin admits he has been guilty of recklessness himself. Early
last year at a windsurfing/kiteboarding event in Leucate,
France, he took exception to a windsurfer's description of
kiteboarders as "wimps" and attempted to ride in hurricane-force
gusts. The wind tea-bagged him--that is, violently dunked him in
the water--three times before he was able to disengage his kite
from the harness. He broke a rib and considers himself lucky to
be alive.

His other close calls have been primarily of the trespassing
nature. Austin, the first person to kiteboard the 70 miles
across the North Sea, from Norway to Denmark, was also the first
person to attempt the nine-mile crossing from Spain to Morocco.
Austin's shaggy blond locks and unconventional watercraft
immediately drew the suspicion of Moroccan authorities, who were
waiting on shore to arrest him; luckily for him a Spanish patrol
helicopter turned him back a few hundred yards from his goal. He
is probably also the only kiteboarder to get stranded on the
rocks inside San Quentin State Prison's boundaries in Marin
County, Calif. (He was briefly detained and, after a stern
lecture by a burly guard, released.)

During a mid-June afternoon Austin was standing on a patch of
sand just west of Flash Beach, holding his wind-whipped
shoulder-length blond hair out of his face with both hands. Half
a dozen kiteboarders skimmed over the whitecapped azure water,
some launching off small waves to fly 10 feet in the air for a
few seconds. A few others, beginning students at a kiteboarding
school, bobbed in the water with instructors, trying to get
their kites aloft. A few years ago, in the midst of tense turf
wars with windsurfers, Austin and about 35 other kiteboarders
reclaimed this former beachfront dump hard by a sewage-treatment
plant near the Kahului Airport. They cleared out trash and
rocks, and the ocean added sand. Ka'a Point, now better known as
Kite Beach, has become a tourist attraction among kiteboard
enthusiasts, although the smell of sewage lingers. So, too, does
resentment from some windsurfers. In December 2000, Austin was
allegedly run over by windsurfer Dane Barnhard, who left a
six-inch gash in Austin's shin and now faces prosecution by the
Maui district attorney. (The trial is scheduled to begin on
Sept. 30.) "It's the same story as the skier-snowboarder rift,"
says Austin. "Every sport has its growing pains to get through."

While many kiteboarders are former windsurfers and wakeboarders,
Austin brings a different set of skills to the sport. Growing up
on Siesta Key, Fla., he was riding a unicycle before a bicycle
and a surfboard before that. At age eight he joined a children's
circus and learned the teeterboard from a former member of the
Wallenda acrobatic troupe. As an adolescent Austin had a
recurring dream about waking up to find huge, surfable waves;
the reality of the Gulf Coast break was nearly always
disappointing. So he took up skimboarding. Years later, when he
was working in a Panama City Beach (Fla.) restaurant where
everybody had nicknames and sported goofy hats, his manager
noticed the lightning bolts on his hat and, having seen his
speed on a skimboard, rechristened him Flash.

Austin's life changed soon after his name did. In 1995, after
watching a guy use a power kite to drag his feet across the
sand, Austin ran home and got $200 in $1 bills that he had
collected in tips and bought the man's kite. He had an idea: The
next day he jumped on the skimboard while holding onto the kite
and hurtled down the beach as tourists cheered. With no harness,
no foot straps, a flat board and a kite that didn't float, he
had no hope of skimming upwind. Instead he took a taxi 15 miles
up the coast and kite-skimmed back down. It was two years before
he realized that other people were doing the same thing--that,
in fact, kiteboarding had been more or less invented in the
mid-'80s in France by Bruno and Dominique Legaignoux, brothers
who made the first water-launchable kite with inflatable spars
and leading edges. In '97, after someone showed Austin a
magazine article about Manu Bertin, a Frenchman who had adapted
the Legaignoux brothers' kite design for surfboards in Maui,
Austin sold everything he owned and moved to the island. Within
two weeks he had won $600 in a contest. Within a year he was
winning enough to give up his job waiting tables at Mama's
Fishhouse, one of his early sponsors.

In the five years since then the burgeoning popularity of
kiteboarding and the relative ease of mastering the sport have
created a fresh generation of stars such as Mark Shinn of Great
Britain and Martin Vari of Argentina. The competition keeps
Austin honing his craft and his body every day. Besides spending
two to six hours a day on the water, he watches his diet, takes
vitamins and avoids alcohol and coffee. "Four years ago it was
easy to beat 12 other people," says Austin. "Now you have to
beat a thousand. But that competition makes us all try harder in
coming up with new moves and in building better equipment."

While the speed of technical innovation in kiteboarding
equipment has slowed after a three-year surge, the influences of
wakeboarding, surfing, windsurfing, skateboarding and
snowboarding have made kiteboarding the fastest-evolving water
sport in terms of maneuvers. "What was difficult four weeks ago
is basic now," says Austin. The most difficult trick, he adds,
is to please the judges. "You never know what they're looking
for," he says. "One day it's skatie stuff [in which the boarder
doesn't use bindings or straps], the next it's wave riding. In
order to be Number 1 now, you have to be all-around."

Given the sport's still mutable judging criteria, the two
existing professional tours (the Professional Kite Riders
Association and the smaller Kiteboard Pro World Tour) and
kiteboarding's several disciplines (wave-riding, hang time,
freestyle, racing), it's hard to predict what the sport will
look like a year or even six months from now. "Kiteboarding
hasn't been finally defined yet," says Riccitelli. It will have
to be if Austin is ever to realize his dream of seeing it in the
Olympics. But for now he is happy to keep trying new things and
seeking converts.

Marjorie Austin, alas, will not be one of the converts. For all
of her son's rhetoric about the sport's universal accessibility,
he won't let his own mother try kiteboarding. He cites her "lack
of athleticism at this point." Sitting in her beach chair as the
wind tears at her straw hat, Mama Flash is wistful. Where was
kiteboarding when she was a kid? "It looks fun, doesn't it?" she
says with a sigh. "If I were 30 years younger, I'd be out there

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIK AEDER STRINGS ATTACHED Austin routinely soars 50 feet in the air, but if he misjudges the wind, he risks being cut to pieces on a reef.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIK AEDER FOR SAIL Austin's landing on Flash Beach in the late '90s gave his young sport a serious lift.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIK AEDER BLOWN AWAY The high-flying Austin (here off Maui) has traversed the North Sea and, in France, was nearly killed in high winds.

In Tarifa, Spain, last year he was approached by a Russian fan
who said, "You're Flash Austin! Here, take my watch!"

For Flash, kiteboarding is rapture itself: "When you're out on
the water flying in the air, you get a sense of immortality."