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Men (with nerves) of steel

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Red Bull King of The Air!”

But all cheesiness aside, if you were one of the 10 000-strong crowd who witnessed the “world’s most bad-ass, big air kiteboarding contest” last week, you would agree the aerobatic feats of the 24 competitors were nothing short of super.

For the second year in a row, the world’s best kiteboard specialists converged at Kite Beach, Blouberg, to draw their lines in the sand. Thursday 6 February brought the perfect consistent wind conditions and huge waves needed to execute their heart-stopping tricks.

Thirty-four heats and seven hours later, American kiteboarder Jesse Richman, 27, was crowned Red Bull King of the Air champion.

Flying Cape Town’s flag, or should it be “kite”, high on Thursday was Joshua (Josh) Emanuel who lives Table View.

Josh, 25, grew up in Durban where he got involved in the sport at age 10.

He originally moved to Cape Town six years ago to complete his studies in business management at Varsity College. However, the self-confessed warm water baby eventually got used to Blouberg’s icy waters and decided to stay.

In 2017, he won the prestigious Red Bull Megaloop Challenge held annually in the Netherlands – the first South African to do so. This win firmly placed him on the map as one of the world’s top kiteboarders.

The King Of The Air and the Megaloop Challenge contests are the two biggest annual big air events in the world for specialist kiteboarders. Not only do they draw huge crowds but their online live views run into millions.

Josh says he loves the energy the big crowds bring to these events.

“It gets me so psyched up – the South Africans, all there to shout for you,” he says.

What makes these contests so popular are, of course, the gravity-defying tricks.

A megaloop runs on a clock. Basically, you move your kite, starting at 12, all the way round in a clockwise direction. The movement of the kite generates a lot of power, causing your body to zoom up in the air at tremendous speeds.

The idea is to go as high as possible (often higher than 20 metres) while doing as many rotations, backflips, frontflips and jumps as possible (and taking your feet off the board). 

Josh explains that, although there are several standard trick combinations, kiteboarders are constantly pushing the limits. 

“Training new tricks can be nerve-racking. You often have to convince yourself to do it. But you have to. If you don’t progress in the sport, you will get left behind,” says Josh.

Knee injuries are the most common among kiteboarders. Josh had his worst accident in 2013 when a megaloop went wrong. 

He fractured his tibia and tore his meniscus and his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL – also in the knee). It took him 11 months to recover.

The only way your body can take these big crashes, says Josh, is to make sure you are fit and strong.

“The biggest misconception out there is that you need strength to manoeuvre the kite. Not so. Co-ordination, yes.” 

He explains the kite is connected to a body harness, so you can direct the kite with the touch of a finger. 

“But if you are not fit, your body feels the strain,” he says.

Josh’s exercise regime includes climbing, bouldering, skateboarding and surfing.

“Just about anything that will keep you fit,” he says.

But this life isn’t all about sun, sea and sand. It also requires wind – preferably the lean-into-it-without-falling-over kind. And that means a lot of travelling. South Africa’s “windy” season stretches from November to April. The rest of the time, Josh travels from country to country, chasing storms. 

He has been to Spain, Portugal, Egypt, Mauritius, France, Mozambique, the US, Greece and Madagascar, to name a few. 

“I love it, hey. But sometimes it gets hectic,” he says, describing a torturous 37-hours journey from Greece to Cape Town (missed connecting flights and delays included) followed by a three-day drive to Tofo in Mozambique – in total he travelled five days straight.

Doing shoots for your sponsor brands is another big part of being a pro kiteboarder. Josh says the equipment and travel required to compete professionally is very expensive and wouldn’t be possible without the support of sponsors. His first sponsor was a small local kite shop in Durban.

“Most kiteboarders start out that way,” he says. 

Today he enjoys the backing of industry leading brands Core Kiteboarding, Brunotti, Dirty Habits, Leech Eyewear and Xtreme Xccessories.

No doubt Thursday’s performance by the world’s kiteboarding elite inspired quite a few spectators to try their hand at kitesurfing. Josh, who also gives lessons when he is in Cape Town, says it is best and safest to first learn how to get the basics right. He says if you know what you are doing, the sport is relatively safe. 

It is only when you sail off into the unknown, so to speak, that there can be consequences. 

But when you get it right …

“Oh man, you can’t explain in words how it makes you feel. For me, doing something I absolutely love and getting paid for it – it just doesn’t get any better than that,” says Josh. 

  • Follow Josh on Facebook (Joshua Emanuel) and Instagram (josh_emanuel_).
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