Gone With The Wind

In his maiden expedition to explore the French Caribbean, professional kiteboarder Evan Netsch joins teammate Theo Demanez to progress their riding and push the limits of the sport with photographer Thierry Dehove capturing every move.

By Evan Netsch

When winter hits the east coast, bringing gray skies and cold rain, the prospect of a weeklong kite surfing trip becomes an escape to relish; but even still, choosing where to go for the winter isn’t as easy as it sounds when constant wind is a must. There are the standard safe bets: Caberete, Brazil, Maui… But this year, I received the unexpected opportunity to head somewhere new — a locale that isn’t typically your go-to windy destination.

I had just booked a flight to Puerto Rico in early December when Theo Demanez sent me a message: “You know, Saint Martin is only a 30-minute flight from Puerto Rico. You should come over for a week.”  Within 5 minutes, I was on the phone with JetBlue canceling my return ticket and leaving Puerto Rico open ended until we sorted out the details. It never becomes easier to turn down a chance to discover someplace new.

Exploring The French Caribbean
Heading to Saint Martin, I knew two things and little else:  It’s famous for its dangerously short runway and is windy during the winter months. Flying from Puerto Rico to Saint Martin should have been a quick island hop, but in my typical last-minute booking habit, I got stuck on a flight making a connection through New York in the middle of the holiday travel fiasco. Getting blasted by 35-degree air for 10 seconds while changing flights was enough of a reality check to really make me appreciate heading right back down to the Caribbean.

The moment I landed in St. Martin, Theo and I immediately discussed the week’s plans, keeping in mind the best looking weather forecast was early in the week and again during the last few days. Theo was eager to head over to Dog Island to do some exploring. Before I even had a chance to kiteboard at his local beach, we were on his catamaran at 5 a.m. the next morning, heading over to explore the neighboring island with his dad Manu Demanez at the helm.

Theo Demanez and Evan Netsch

If you’re like me and have no idea of the local geography, here’s a quick summary before you find yourself lost amongst the islands as I did. There are three and a half French Islands in the Caribbean as part of the Lesser Antilles. Saint Barth’s and Saint Martin are considered the Northern French Islands, with Guadeloupe and Martinique to the south separated by Dominica and a few other islands such as Saint John’s, Antigua and Barbuda. Saint Martin is only half French and dates back to the 17th century when a line was drawn to divide the island following conflict between the French and the Dutch. Today the island remains split between Saint Martin (the French side) and Saint Maarten (the Dutch side). So even though the sail to Dog Island was only a few hours, and much closer than many of the other French islands, it is —as I came to find out—a marine preserve that’s part of Anguilla, which falls under the British Commonwealth. Luckily, I still had my passport packed.

Reaching Dog Island
At 8 a.m., we arrived at Dog Island. The skies were cloudy; the wind was steady and building. We raced to shore in the dinghy stacked so full of gear that it was nearly spilling over the sides. Anyone who didn’t fit in the dinghy on the first trip jumped overboard to swim ashore, too eager to get out on the water to wait for the dinghy to return for a ride.

We rode our kiteboards all day long with Theo’s family and friends in the butter-flat water behind the long sandy beach on the leeward side of the island.

Around 3 p.m., and after hours on the water, we set sail to head back to Saint Martin for a New Year’s celebration. With the building wind, we were able to sail quickly around the corner toward Anguilla in the 38’ lagoon, but that changed swiftly as soon as we turned the corner. We were nearly stopped dead in our tracks, heading straight into the wind for the last few miles. With some motor-assisted sailing, we averaged a staggering 3.7 knots for the next few hours, battering straight into the wind and seas. As the sun began to set, it was clear none of us would have the energy for New Year’s festivities back in Saint Martin, but watching the sun go down on the last evening of 2016 while at sail and after a long day in the water would be traded for fireworks any year.

Back in Saint Martin
The next few days back in Saint Martin were spent with Theo giving me the full-speed tour of all the local hot spots. Most people on vacation — myself included — would have been totally content kiting for a few hours a day and then mixing in relaxing and exploring for the rest of the day. But this was not the case staying with Theo. At 6:30 a.m. daily, alarms were set and kiteboarding sessions went as long as the sun would stay in the sky.

The day would start with a few minutes’ bike ride to Orient Bay where the Demanez family owns the local kite school, Wind Adventures. We would check the wind and then head into town to grab some breakfast at the local bakery.

Right out front at the school was one of the best spots to kiteboard on the island. Orient Bay, protected by Green Cay and a coral reef, offers everything from small waves to flat water and fun kickers.

Theo explained that with the right swell direction, a rider can get really fun surf.  On light-wind days, we would explore the whole area on a foil, and when the wind would build, we headed upwind around the corner to Embouchure Bay to ride some waves.

Sometimes, we’d stay right behind Green Cay Island just a few tacks upwind off the beach to ride flat water. The unique topography of St. Martin is one of the things that struck me as most surprising and memorable. It lent well to a variety of riding conditions. With many small peaks and the jagged and curving coastline around the island, the isle offered tons of hidden coves and riding spots, of which I only began to scratch the surface.

The Final Sensational Swell
Keeping an eye on the weather forecast, we could see  a large swell would arrive on my last day. 1.1m at 16 seconds out of the ENE (East North East) was the right size for a nice head-high wave at Theo’s favorite spot, just a 15-minute drive from the house on Orient Bay. It was also a bit bittersweet because it marked my last few hours on the island.

The swell arrived during the night of January 6 and, with my bags yet to be packed and only hours before I had to be on my way to the airport, Theo took me to a local surf break called Wilderness. We turned the corner and what had previously been a small wind chop had turned into a long period wave.

We launched from Grande Cay, which is also the local paragliding spot because the steep hill creates lift with a spectacular view over the ocean. The launch was pretty tight on a rocky shoreline at the base of the steep hill. With shallow sharp reef and straight onshore wind, we worked our way offshore as quickly as possible, lucky not to knock off any board fins on our way out.

Once on the outside, we rode around a small headland and I could see the stretch of deserted cobblestone beach with a perfect right-hand peeling wave. With no one or any road in sight, I could see where the name Wilderness came from. If the wind was to die or we had some sort of compromising issue, without a doubt, the trek out of this spot would be a fairly long hike.

With only a few hours to spare, we had one of the best kiteboarding sessions of the week. A small part of me hoped that we would get stranded so my flight would be missed – leaving me with a good excuse to stay for the second day of the swell.

In the end, all went to plan, and after 15 minutes of tacking back upwind, we were back on the small rocky shoreline and we started wrapping up our kites. With no time to shower or dry out our gear, everything got heaped into my bags in one big mess as we rushed to the airport.

Later that night, as I landed in Miami and stood in the bustling airport to clear customs, I looked down at my feet still covered in sand – the last little part of Saint Martin that I was able to bring back with me as a final reminder of the week’s great kiteboarding adventure.

PHOTOS BY THIERRY DEHOVE
Gone With The Wind