WHEN Katie Chandler was messing around in boats with the Sea Scouts off the Northumbrian coast as a girl, she must have had little idea that one day she would be putting her aquatic skills to good use in tropical Brazil.
But that is exactly what happened, and now the former Berwick High School pupil finds herself one of the most recognised kitesurfers in the world.
Her place in the vanguard of this growing extreme sport looks set: Katie came a very close second in a recent poll to find the Most Influential Girl Kiter in the world. The poll, run by the influential ‘Kitegirl’ magazine, saw Katie miss out on first place by fewer than 20 votes.
Katie remembers being inspired to become a kiter after watching ‘Flow’, a film described as “half documentary, half tone-poem” which sparked a worldwide kitesurfing revolution.
Getting airborne wasn’t simple, though. Even after her epiphany, Katie struggled to master her new sport.
“I had my first lessons on Beadnell Bay back in 2005,” she recalls, “but they were terrifying! Kiting was such a new sport back then; the equipment and the teaching methods were, to be honest, totally dangerous.
“After that I bought my own kit and proceeded to get dragged up and down the Northumbrian coast, because I’d not been taught how to use a harness, a vital piece of equipment to control the kite.”
The experience was dispiriting, to say the least. “I was almost put off completely,” Katie says. “I tried another course on a holiday in Egypt but didn’t learn too much and tried yet another time but a complete language barrier stopped those lessons short. In the end I just kept practising with the kite on the beach until my confidence returned, then headed to the water.”
She was lucky in her surroundings. Unlike Brazil, where she is guaranteed a nine-month season of perfect winds, most British breezes blow the ‘wrong’ way.
“You want cross-on shore wind when you kite, to blow you back to the beach if you have a problem,” explains Katie. “Beadnell Bay faces south-west so can be used in westerly winds and Budle Bay can be used in most directions depending on the tides. Northumberland has some amazing spots for kiting. Budle is without a doubt still one of the most beautiful places I have ever kited. I also love Bamburgh: there are not many places in the world where you can kite with a view of medieval castles!”
Katie swapped the North Sea for the north of Brazil, where she runs a kiting hostel in the small fishing village of Taiba.
“Running a kite hostel was the most fantastic experience and the people I met from all over the world have become some of my very best friends. Days start with waking up early to get breakfasts ready. Then there would be lots of organising to do, bookings and kite lesson reservations to manage, airport transfers, buying supplies for the bar and restaurant. Then you have all the maintenance that needs doing to keep the hotel running smoothly, checking aircon units, all of that.”
Katie was always a sporty youngster, and as a girl she fell in love with the idea of the Sea Scouts. “After seeing them getting pulled around lakes by speed boats in inflatable rings and playing in sail boats, I decided that the Girl Guides wasn’t for me. I was sick of knitting and baking bread and wanted something new. So I said I wanted to join the scouts. When we approached the group they said no as there was no female scout leader at the group.
“My mum, who still lives in Berwick, ever the amazing woman that she is, said she would become a scout leader so I could join! She became the first female leader of the 19th Tynemouth Sea Scouts so myself and two other girls could become possibly the first ever female Sea Scouts in the UK.
“The Sea Scouts was an amazing experience, learning to sail and to be given that kind of freedom in the ocean is so inspiring at a young age. We put up with some stick as some of the boys in our group were not too happy about us joining but I guess it just made us more determined to stay!”
That situation was repeated years later as Katie and her friend Ashley attempted the Downwind da Independencia, a gruelling three-day, 260km kiting event.
“Not only were we the first foreigners to take part,” she says, “we were also the first girls. Some of the guys were not too happy about us, thinking we would hold them back. On the first day I was first to reach our destination and my ‘chica’ Ashley was just a few guys behind.
“The mood improved and the guys were stoked to have us with them by the end. It was tough – some days we kited for seven hours straight with no other person in sight. Out of the 17 that started only seven finished including Ash and me!”
Katie knows that winning the MIGK would be a huge honour and achievement.
And she is hopeful that it could inspire other girls to get into kitesurfing and extreme sports. “It would also be great for the North East to hold the title too,” she says, “as there are so many people taking part in extreme sports around here. This summer I met a few kiters on the beaches and a wakeboarding park has opened at Foxlake, near Dunbar, which is fantastic for the region.”
Whatever the final result of the poll, Katie is already aiming to continue her kiting education back home.
“I’m hoping to have an English summer next year,” she says, “after so many away from home. I’m planning on running a kite school in Northumberland and also kite, yoga, surf and SUP (stand up paddle board) camps here and around the UK to try and get more people into sports that use the amazing coastline we have.”
Although casual onlookers might appreciate the ease and grace of kite travel, Katie is under no illusions as to the power of the wind, and has gone about protecting herself in a typically relaxed way – by qualifying as a yoga instructor.
“The wind can be pretty powerful,” she says. “If you don’t get the landing perfect you can get whipped backward and crash really hard.
“I’ve had a few pretty nasty accidents which mainly happen when trying powerful freestyle tricks. One really bad crash broke two of my ribs. Then I stupidly tried to kite too soon and re-broke them, which meant it took even longer to heal.
“I try to kite, do yoga and a little meditation every day. I’ll normally do an hour or so of yoga early in the morning and kite for as many hours as I can. Yoga complements kiting perfectly, because kiting can be quite a physical sport. Yoga keeps me flexible, helps with balance and keeps injuries at bay.”