Kite power

There's a new social network in Silicon Valley. If you want in, you have to ride the wind.

By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, Fortune senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) -- Here's an unfortunate secret about Silicon Valley: There's no there here. Sure, the Valley is thick with corporate offices housing the most successful tech companies. Yes, powerful venture capitalists call the region home.

But few places exist for the disconnected dreamer to rub shoulders with the real players. There are restaurants -- most famously Buck's Diner in Woodside -- but it's not as if Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hold forth there over cappuccino.

So where do the captains of technology go? Try Third Avenue Beach, a tiny, muddy enclave wedged between a golf driving range and the San Mateo Bridge.

It's a public spot that is often crawling with VCs, serial entrepreneurs, bleary-eyed engineers -- even Larry and Sergey. They arrive around 3 P.M. most summer days (through October) for one reason: to kitesurf. This tight-knit community has just one requirement: If you want in, you have to ride the wind.

Kitesurfing (a.k.a. kiteboarding) is a cross between water-skiing, windsurfing, and snowboarding. While standing atop a board, a rider is pulled by a parachute-like kite that features an inflatable leading edge. The first such kite was designed by a French sailing instructor 20 years ago.

In the mid-'90s a few extreme-sport nuts in Maui took a version of that kite, added 100-foot lines and a waist harness, and were suddenly able to jump 20 feet into the air off flat water (no waves required). Maui's Kite Beach remains the kitesurfing epicenter, but the sport has taken off around the world recently, and nowhere more so than at Third Avenue, where a steady thermal wind makes for nearly ideal conditions.

Of course, even in perfect conditions the sport is dangerous. Every kiter seems to have a "kitemare" story about a friend being impaled. Nevertheless, as an enterprising reporter in constant search of new sources, I decided to ignore good sense and get in on the action.

But not without a few lessons. I called a local school, Helm, and booked some time with John von Tesmar, a 27-year-old part-time model who has been kiting for five years. He told me to practice flying a training kite on land to understand how the wind pulls. I did. It was fun. I was ready for the real thing.

First I cased out the Third Avenue parking lot. I ran into the Valley's kite evangelist, Bill Tai, a partner at Charles River Ventures. A self-professed "kiter who VCs," Tai chronicles his adventures at kitevc.blogspot.com and organizes an annual techie kitesurfing trip to Maui.

One Friday afternoon Tai introduced me to several tech luminaries -- including Chris Moore, the founder of iPass, and Young Sohn, CEO of Inphi and former president of Agilent. They told me that kitesurfing is a great way to meet people because unlike, say, in surfing, kitesurfers rely on one another to help launch and land -- and get out of trouble.

When pressed for advice on how to get started, everyone warned that the learning curve was steep and potentially painful, but assured me that one needn't be strong or athletic to succeed (making it the perfect sport for geeks).

On my first two attempts, the wind didn't cooperate. To make my deadline, von Tesmar and I crammed two lessons into one five-hour day. Before I knew it, I was on the water, my kite dragging me across the bay. I learned to self-launch the kite and body-drag. I was getting the hang of it.

Then it came time to get on the board. It's easy to fly a kite when you're watching it. But putting the board on means flying the kite blind. I'd get my right foot in the strap okay, but whenever I raised my left foot to the board, my kite would dive. Sometimes it would crash. Or it would yank me out of the water and send me careening. No one told me I'd have to be good at multitasking.

At the end of the day, von Tesmar assured me that a lot of people don't get up on the board the first day. He said to call him in a couple weeks, and we'd try again.

I might do that. But first I think I'll check out the scene at Buck's. Top of page