Catch the breeze

To Rita Arnaus and Liam Whaley, the ocean and the sky combine to create one big playground. An enormous, blank canvas onto which they can carve the most beautiful patterns. To soar and to speed, to swoop and to skim. Rita and Liam are two of the biggest names in freestyle and big air kitesurfing, a sport that entails harnessing the elements like few others. One that combines grace with power, beauty with creativity.

While the two riders were both born and raised in Spain – Liam in Ibiza, now resident in Tarifa, Rita on the Costa Brava, in the far north-east of the country – they spend much of their lives travelling to locations around the world. They are in a state of near constant pursuit. A pursuit that takes these Porsche kitesurfing athletes to the best kitesurfing beaches around, looking for the perfect winds, the best waves and the most eye-catching tricks and moves. Their feet strapped into their board and connected to their inflatable kites – as they float in the water, inflatable kites are easy to relaunch – via lines attached to a harness around their waist, the horizons seem limitless.

Man and woman carrying kitesurfing boards, palm tree behind
Spaniards Rita Arnaus and Liam Whaley are two of kitesurfing’s most recognisable names

Freestyle – with substance

There is a range of disciplines in kitesurfing – including events that focus on speed and racing – but Rita and Liam compete in freestyle and big air events. Rita is a two-times Spanish champion and a regular on the podium at GKA Kite World Tour events. A love of boardsports trickles through her veins like the salt water that traces down her wetsuit. A native of the seaside town of Sant Pere Pescador, an hour’s drive north of Barcelona, she was born to parents who were both windsurfing champions. “I was always at the beach with them,” says Rita. “Waiting for the wind. My dad teaching me everything he knew about the elements, everything about the wind.”

After being given a kite for her ninth birthday, Rita’s love affair with the power of the wind truly began. Soon she was begging to join her parents in windsurfing and learning to sail boats. Then, at 15, she discovered kitesurfing. Sant Pere Pescador, with its broad, open expanse of sand is a perfect kitesurfing venue. To riders like Rita, mountains, buildings, or other such encumbrances can play havoc with the consistency of the wind. “Gusty winds”, as kitesurfers dub them, can act like kryptonite to riders, with their ability to knock you off course unexpectedly. Although they can also produce the high levels of adrenalin that makes kitesurfing so fun, Rita adds.

Kitesurfer riding waves, green Porsche in foreground
Battling with waves and wind is a shot of pure adrenalin, says Liam

Liam’s hometown of Tarifa is world famous for its winds – the strong, offshore ‘levante’ and lighter onshore ‘poniente’ – that make it a near year-round destination for boardsports enthusiasts. Although it was in his birthplace of Ibiza that he first put his feet on a board. A skateboard. And you couldn’t drag him off of it. “Parents of other kids would say to my mum ‘Liam doesn’t stop, does he?’” he says. “I would spend four hours just on one trick.” When he found kitesurfing – his British dad, like Rita’s parents, was also a windsurfer – that level of dedication he put into his skateboarding, that obsession, has helped take him to the top of his sport. Still only 24, he is a former world champion, and was runner-up in 2018 at the most prestigious competition in big air kitesurfing, the Red Bull King of the Air event in Cape Town. After becoming the 2021 Spanish champion in big air, he’s now training hard to try and win this year’s King of the Air when it takes place in South Africa from 17 November to 3 December.

Close-up of man on kitesurfing board in sea, showering spray
Liam is the reigning Spanish champion in the big air kitesurfing event

Storm troopers

Weather plays a part in most outdoor sports, but few are so tied to the elements as kitesurfing is. The wind – its power, its instability, its unpredictability – creates an unshakeable link with the rider and their kiteboard. “I check the forecast like 100 times a day!” says Rita. “If there are storms in the [Pyrenees] mountains then you know it’s going to get windy here in Sant Pere Pescador. We become weather experts. You feel the wind in a different way when you are in the water. You know that it’s giving you power, and you have to control that.”

But with that power, of course, comes an element of danger. In Big Air events, for example, where the aim is to jump as high as possible – heights of up to 25m (82 feet) are common – there are no crash mats for Rita and Liam if their landings go wrong. Liam draws a comparison with skiing. “You can put yourself in as much danger as you want to put yourself,” he explains. “If you go off-piste skiing, no matter how good you are, there’s a danger of having an avalanche. Something unexpected happening. And that’s the same when you’re pushing yourself in kitesurfing. You go out on a on a crazy, stormy day, you know that the weather conditions could change radically from one moment to the next.”

Woman hugging kitesurfing board by the beach, Porsche in foreground
Boardsports is in Rita’s DNA – both her parents were windsurfing champions

“I’ve been in situations where I’m like, ’How I am going to get back to the beach alive?’. That’s happened to me a bunch of times. Fortunately for me, nothing dramatic has ever gone wrong,” Liam says, before stressing that it’s “a super-safe sport” that anyone can try (his 75-year-old father kitesurfs every day). And if you ever do find yourself in a spot of trouble, he adds, with a pull on the safety system you can quickly release tension from the kite lines. This causes it to completely depower by making the kite lose its shape so that it won’t fly.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Being a relatively new sport – kitesurfing has only been around about 25 years – allows its riders to experiment unhindered by the restrictions that many established sports suffer from, explains Liam. Sports where the limits of tricks, plays and moves have long since been invented. Freestyle kitesurfing takes inspirations from sports like snowboarding, wakeboarding and even gymnastics. With the wind, as ever, proving to be a catalyst for innovation, the process of devising tricks that wow the judges watching close-by on the shore can be a brutal one for Rita and Liam.

Talk to anyone at the top of their chosen career, whether it’s in business or sport, and the message is almost exclusively the same one – it was achieved through hard work and determination. For Rita and Liam, there’s been plenty of bumps and bruises, especially when it comes to thinking up and executing new tricks.

Man blowing up kitesurfing kite on beach, green Porsche behind
Liam inflates his kite, ready for action. It helps them to float, so makes them easy to relaunch

“It means training off the water, spending countless hours on the water, hurting yourself doing these tricks, suffering injuries, trying to overcome them and then keep going back to the same trick,” says Liam.

The process for learning new tricks is try, crash, repeat, try, crash, repeat
Rita ArnausProfessional kitesurfer

“The process is try, crash, repeat, try, crash, repeat,” concurs Rita. “For hours and hours and hours. Although for me, progress truly comes when I’m with friends from the Kite World Tour. We really help each other. Push each other.”

Woman flying high on kitesurfing board, kite visible above her
In big air competitions, top kitesurfers like Rita can fly up to 25m above the water

Rita and Liam: the world at their feet

Of course, for all the pain that a top pro kitesurfer can endure, the lifestyle is difficult to beat. Liam explains that while Tarifa is home – and one of the best places to kitesurf anywhere on the planet – as a professional Rita and Liam both live a somewhat itinerant lifestyle. His summers are spent in Europe, in Greece and France as well as Spain, before heading out, like Rita, to the beaches of north-east Brazil. Here, in places like Cumboco, Taiba, Jericoacoara, kitesurfing is almost a religion.

Head to Google Maps Street View and you’ll see something akin to a kitesurfing rush hour in the skies, just offshore of these wild, expansive, untouched Brazilian beaches. Winters, for Liam, mean Cape Town while the early part of the year it’s the Caribbean that’s the destination of choice. If it all sounds unfailingly glamorous, there’s a more prosaic explanation. You need to follow the wind, whether to train or compete, in order to win.

Woman in bikini top and wetsuit leans against rocks
Another day, another beach: life by the ocean is one of the key attractions for a pro kitesurfers

Free your mind

But beyond their achievements – the prizes and the accolades – both Rita and Liam open up about what kitesurfing brings to them in a deeper context. About how it makes them feel. Ask Rita her greatest achievement and she doesn’t hesitate in saying that it’s being inspired by and being an inspiration to others to pursue their passion. She aspires to be a world champion, grow the sport – especially among women in what remains a male-dominated pursuit – but most of all encourage people to follow their dreams. “I get super emotional sometimes when I’m kiting. It’s beautiful,” says Rita. “It means absolute freedom. What hooks me to the sport is that feeling I get every day when kiting.”

There’s undoubtedly something spiritual about being at one with the ocean, the wind, and the sky. To be out on the board, propelled by the wind, the sea’s salty spray splashing your face. There’s a freedom and joy that Liam describes as being similar to driving a Taycan through the twisting bends of the hillside road between his home in Tarifa and Algeciras. Rather than straight line speed, it’s the thrill of those turns that really excite.

“Kitesurfing is like a meditation for me,” says Liam. “When I’m super stressed about something, I’ll just go out on the water, and it gives me peace of mind. You’re so focused on the elements and on what’s happening in that moment, you don’t have time to think about or worry about anything else.”

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Woman sat in green Porsche, kitesurf board leaning against it