The start and growth of kiteboarding in Australia are inextricably linked to Mat and Rebecca Colefax and many key kitesurfing friends as described below.
Part 1MC: My life had always been all about boardsports and bikes, since the beginning I gravitated towards the freedom of carving turns and boosting airtime. Water always played a big part in my addictions, and progression. Not having easy access to surf meant I became a windsurfing grommie instead. Teaching myself to windsurf started my life long love affair with nature's power, and an interest in fluid dynamics. As a schoolkid my books were full of sketches of imaginary surfers, skateboards, windsurfers, hydrofoils etc. When I was about 10 years old I built a huge sled kite which I wanted to pull myself around with ! Talk about fate. I also sketched up a hydrofoil windsurfer idea, just one of my crazy flights of fancy, now manifest in my hydrofoil kiting. Its clear I was destined to bring many "crazy" ideas to reality and I can say I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunities and taken them. You dont get to be 1st by following, you'll only ever get it by daring to be different and following your dreams no matter what.
During the 1980's I was part of the birth of modern mountain biking when Glen Jacobs and crew took it to the next level in Cairns. That rare experience of being at the cutting edge of a new sport and going beyond what anyone imagined possible tempered me for thinking outside the square. Breaking new ground and watching limits shattered gave me a taste of true innovation. It honed my drive to do what no-one else was doing. From windsurfing and Mountain biking around Cairns I graduated to surfing and snowboarding when I moved to live near Torquay Victoria, the heartland of Australian Surfing. Cold water, powerful waves, and solid surf culture. In the expansive windswept setting of the beautiful south coast I learned more about the sport of kings and respect for the elements. Behind all of this I became ever more grateful for and determined to protect the natural environments that enrich our life and opportunities to ride. And after a taste of travel I became focused on travelling to explore more of the world's riding terrain be it off the beach or in the mountains.
So I spent the early 1990's globetrotting around the world in search of good surf and snow. I surfed the south pacific islands and snowboarded seasons in Europe and Nth America. I did make a long dreamed of trip to Maui the windsurfing mecca, but in general windsurfing was just too much bulky gear to carry when travelling, anyway there was not enough wind in most places. However one day I caught a glimpse on TV of large kites being used with beach karts and I immediately envisaged using such kites with my surf and snowboards. The idea of kiteboarding flashed into my mind and my imagination ran wild. It was not long before I had tracked down a few of those big soft air mattress powerkites which were modelled off paragliders. And on my return to Australia I began in earnest to try to invent kitesurfing.
After my first experiences with large power kites, 5 sqm parakites and a 12'6" Flexi ! I realized getting enough power was easy, controlling the power not so easy, and swimming with a submerged kite full of water was very very difficult. But the power was there in bucketloads (pardon the pun), and it was unquestionably addictive so there was absolutely no question of giving up. And besides, looking back on this culmination of my life experience, this challenge was purely destined to be mine.
Did I mention power? The ability of kites to generate their own apparent wind was a revelation coming from my windsurfing background, No more waiting for 20 knots to have fun !!!. Kites quickly proved to have the most power to weight ratio Ive ever seen! My windsurfing and wakeboarding experience prompted me to design a simple control bar to replace the 2 webbing handles that all the soft kites used. I then attached a standard windsurf harness loop so I could fly longer without tiring by using my windsurfing harness. This was a good start but , making the kites float and relaunch on water then became the top priority. My research and reputation soon saw the local kite buggy guru telling me about the Kiteski reel bar system built and used to impressive effect by Cory Roeseler in America. There were none in Australia at that point, and I seriously considered getting one but I was convinced there had to be a better way. The Kiteski was definitely fast, Corey beat most windsurfers and he could do 40 foot high, 10 second aerials which was totally rad. But the complexity, size, weight and mechanical reelbar with all its associated potential problems put me off, I quickly decided Wipika was the way (below). Note- A few years later another pioneer Ian Young in WA showed me a kiteski, which just confirmed my original intuition. I always knew that making kitesurfing simpler was the key to success, thats why I chose Wipika. This remains true today.
So back to floating and relaunching a kite, my first optimistic attempt of sticking empty plastic bottles in the kite cells did not work at all. I decided to pursue my own ideas about permanently inflated cells to give kites structure and flotation. I was aiming to try balloons or condoms and was looking for information on the internet, when in the course of my research I found a reference to Wipikat inflatable marine wings (kites) in France. I was soon in contact with the inventors, the "Legaignoux brothers" who were very keen to share their invention. Wipikat stood for Wind Powered Inflatable Katarmaran, because they sold a complete package including inflatable hemispherical gore kite and inflatable katamaran to sit or lie down on. The name was eventually abbreviated to Wipika, 'Wind Powered Inflatable Kite Activity'. In the 1980s the Legaignoux brothers started winning speed sailing contests using their wings with boards, skis and hydrofoils. Their patent was for a hemispherical gore kite, able to fly on 4 lines or with an ingenious bridle for 2 lines. This half circle, C shape design kept a continuous tension through the canopy in flight for maximum efficiency and also allowed the kite to roll around on the water for relaunch. The 2 line bridle invention greatly simplified control and in fact was key to accelerating the uptake of kitesurfing worldwide. I happened to come across Wipika at the same time they engaged the Neil Pryde factory to build the first production run of Wipika wings in mid 1997.
C shape footnote: A true C shape kite negates the need for complex bridles or supported leading edge. Trends too far away from C shape always sacrifice the inherent simplicity and feel, not to mention pure performance. A fact amply demonstrated by C-shape kites getting the 2009 World Records for outright speed sailing all classes all craft! similar delta c-shape kites have held the record for long distance speed, crossings, and are widely recognized as the ultimate elite performers in most disciplines and aspects. Freestyle, Surf, Speed.
Part 2The critical difference that transformed my novelty into a new sport was Wipika. Around the world it was the same in every instance, pioneers like Flash Austin, Lou and crew in Maui, Peter Trow in Cali, Manu Bertin and Raphael Salles in France, Mat Colefax and Rebecca Nicholson in Australia, all committed with Wipika wings to this fledgling new sport. It was the breakthrough we all needed.
In September 1997, without any idea of how it would work I purchased a Wipika 5.0m classic wing, one of the very first ever produced!. Flying it for the first time I was awestruck by its potential. Over a decade of effort by the Legaignoux brothers of France had produced the definitive "Marine wing" or water kite, a beautiful solution to all the issues of kites on water. I spent the next few months discovering how to really kitesurf and giving great amusement to all observers, but for me it was pure satisfaction. I tried a range of boards from wakeboards to windsurfers. My favourite board was my 7' Bushman thruster surfboard which I fitted with my own custom deckplates, a foam sandwiched aluminium baseplate with footstraps. This and many other historic pieces remain in my museum today! My spirit of innovation ran rampant, every session trying new things, coming up with new solutions. The rush of discovery was a feeling so unique I wont even try to describe it. No matter how impossible each new level seemed I was driven and absorbed entirely in the process of progression. And from those first days that I got up and riding I knew where the next stage of my life lay. I was certain that Wipika Inflatable kite technology would revolutionize wind & water sports, and that I had a vital part to play to make it happen.
Keen to share the experience of learning I asked Bruno Legaignoux who else was using Wipika wings. His reply that I was the only one anywhere near Australia and one of only a handful of pioneers around the world made me even more determined to concentrate on growing my dream sport. I approached several windsurf shops about my dream but they unanimously condemned kitesurfing as a silly idea. I would not be deterred however, so in the summer of 1997 I quit my job and travelled the east coast of Australia with my Wipika wing and surfboard all the way from Cairns, QLD to Torquay in Southwest Victoria. There were many memorable sessions along the way, and no shortage of humorous comments either like "it'll be a bloody miracle mate", etc etc. Well miracle it was as far as I was concerned, the excitement and adventure of this trip lives with me forever. I was more than ever convinced that kitesurfing in Australia had a big future and by the start of 1998 I had set up the first Australian kiteboarding business and ordered the first 50 production Marine Wings. Also at the end of 1997 wipika.com.au went online as maybe the first pure kiteboarding only website in the world ! My vision of kiteboardings future had begun to take shape.
Interestingly because I was kitesurfing solo mostly at windsurfing locations I was going upwind almost from day one due to neccesity ! and I also had to develop several unusual techniques like an in the water or off a boat self launch and/or linefix, plus prone sailing for light winds. With a 5m kite it was still possible to get upwind in light winds by laying on the board and tacking... hey it beats paddling upwind. These techniques get lots of people out of some tricky situations even now. Manouvres such as carve tacking and laydown gybes then switching stance came naturally because of my windsurfing background. I was really digging kite aerials of course, plus airs off waves and ramps, and a bit of wakestyle like surface handle passes reminiscent of my wakeboarding days. Plus a whole bunch of other tricks and techicques, anything you can imagine, it was all fresh and invigorating. All these moves eventually were taken to whole new levels by todays riders and I still get a lot of satisfaction remembering about creating them first.
As I travelled down the coast I had many great sessions, and a few accidentally big jumps due to chaotic kite handling. But ... unfortunately in February 1998 I had a serious accident while kitesurfing alongside windsurfers in extreme conditions at Point Danger, Torquay VIC. The wind was 20-30 knots and the surf overhead, the windsurfers were bugging out at me kitesurfing there because like everyone else they had never seen kiting before. And I was having an absolute awesome time flying off the big waves. Having got a taste of sending the kite for more airtime I decided to really send it for a massive air.... into a death loop where I was spinning madly out of control far above my kite.... Bad move... BIG crash. I managed to rupture my ACL - anterior cruciate ligament, which led to two knee operations, one full knee reconstruction, a relationship breakdown and a full year off any sports... This was a significant setback and almost shattered me.
It was a tough year, but I continued to work on kitesurfing in Australia, writing the first articles on kitesurfing in Australian publications, and canvassing retailers (sometimes on crutches). The first to give me a break were 4 winds Marine in Geelong, thanks Cameron & Lloyd. By this stage finances became very strained and I can remember having to choose between eating or putting fuel in the old car to get to another knockback. Trying to create something new always meets resistance from the old, but I was not going to baulk, in spite of all the let downs I remained driven to realise and share my dream with others. Besides, Every now and again someone would actually get onboard and buy a kite from me which was boost in more ways than one. People such as Dale from Mornington Peninsula, and Kym from Ballina who shaped me an epoxy kiteboard. And of course the Wynn brothers from Caloundra who incidentally were the first to push it wakestyle. Their friendship, support and inspiring enthusiasm will always be legend to Rebecca and I.
Read on below about Rebecca, 1st lady of kiteboarding, and my rock through all lows, and highs. As I recovered I resumed demonstrating kitesurfing around Australia, sometimes getting TV and media coverage such as at Australia's first kitesurf event hosted by Skites kiteshop (Lachlan) on the Gold Coast where we had a grand total of 4 participants... including Kane from NZ. And that was most of the entire oceanic kitesurfing fraternity at the time!. I went on to attend a lot of events the next few years, including my first Mambo at Merimbula where I copped a lot of MC Craig (Tommo's) razor wit about teabagging. And Australias first kitesurfing race at a kite festival in Adelaide in 1999. At this race I helped the others launch and get going before I hit the water, then proceeded to pass everyone and round the final mark well in front, I was disqualified officially for coming in the wrong side of the finish buoy, (perhaps I was just too damn fast). Meanwhile the accident and painful process of recovery and relearning how to walk, surf, everything.. firmed up my resolve to seek another way to keep kiting at the center of my life. And rather than risk revisting injury by pursuing proffessional riding as a career, I worked on the M8kite business to grow kiting and earn a living at the same time. I did still enter and win some competitions along the way though, and I ended thoughts of a competitive career on a high note by winning the first ever Aussie wave kiting event held in conjunction with a wavesailing windsurf event at Flat Rock NSW. In side-offshore head high righthanders I was riding 2 lines - unhooked on a surfboard... Pure.
In 1999 I was honoured when Wipika International had me write their kitesurf manual, a benchmark for safe kiteboarding. It was the 1st handbook, the 1st definitive how to. An honour and a priviledge to produce. This was at the fragile stage of kitesurfings growth where a bad accident / publicity could have really set us back bigtime, and frankly it's amazing we managed to avoid it. Although the first wave of pioneering kitesurfers were in general pretty capable and resourceful because they had to be, theres still plenty of scars and a few missing appendages to prove it. An example was my overnight inter island expedition on a kayak powered by a kite, I had to improvise a lot on that one as you probably guessed. But I did not lose any bits, and in fact picked up an extra body!!! a wayward swimmer in the middle of "shark alley" a pommie tourist who decided the best thing for his hangover would be a nice swim to the island..... he swore if I had not rescued him he would ave drowned for sure. Crazy tourists... I have on another occasion used a kite to help rescue from potential drowning a disabled man caught in dangerous currents that were carrying him out to sea. And my kite has saved my bacon more than once too. Quite literally without it we would not be here today.
love is in the airAfter a few years cruising the coast chasing the sailing seasons, I was back in Cairns gatecrashing an outer island windsurfing race when I met Rebecca Nicholson. Beck became Australia's first female kiteboarder, went on to be our 1st kitesurfing world champion (KPWT 2003), 2x Australian women's champion undefeated, 2x Mambo champ, 1st IKO examiner, etc etc and eventually she said yes to become my better half. Rebecca campaigned tirelessly for the advancement of kiteboarding and crucially for getting more girls into it. Kiteboarding brought us together, and it gave us both intense purpose and fulfilment in return for all the effort we put into growing the sport. Certainly Rebecca had a great positive influence on kiteboardings early growth, and my own too. Bonded by common passion, we revelled in it and dared to dream and do. Early in the piece we decided to give back by creating a website traqua.com for aussie kiteboarders. Rebecca also made many interesting kite trips around Australia and abroad. For some finer detail see this page. Rebeccas story is ever inextricably intertwined with kiting, its happily very glamorous and high profile, plus has many other intriguing facets far beyond kitings confines.
There were of course many other inspired individuals who contributed to the growth of kiteboarding, notably Alex Gillan at Stonker Kiteboards - one of the first to put his money where his mouth was, and to this day a stalwart. Alex built for me a custom twintip board which was the first I ever saw and may have been the first twintip in the world. This board and more are pictured in the Fascinating facts page of this site.
Also around that time we started our annual expeditions to the snowfields, and discovered a new love of backcountry riding powered by the wind. We made expeditions between ramshead tops and kosciuszko, and on one solo mission I crossed the bogong high plains between falls creek and mt hotham... arriving to the hotham carpark at midnight ! Luckily there were some campers at a hut along the way and they had some spare scotch to share. I certainly would not reccomend embarking on high country adventures without proper preparation. When the weather turns nasty its gets serious quick. Australia may not be the alps but we do have some great backcountry snowkiting, its definitely dangerous to go alone though so take common sense, or a friend... and whisky of course.
During one of our annual snow kiting trips Marcus Lovett of snowshowTV produced this national to air TVshow. Credits Marcus Lovett. Production - Snowshow www.snowshow.tv
Part 3Along the way we did plenty of media stories to grow kitesurfing and in 2000 things stepped up to a whole new level when we sent some kitesurf concepts to a big ad agency. From that came possibly our most famous contribution to kitesurfing worldwide, the Coca Cola Waves of Freedom ad campaign. This 30 second TV commercial and 45 second cinema ad Combined with over 2 dozen kiteboarding demos around the country, plus billboards, buses, and associated media to give kiteboarding an unprecedented boost. It was a huge project and gave great benefits to the sport, even now many remember it as their first glimpse of kitesurfing. Filming the ads was quite an experience, having helicopters follow you around kitesurfing, then stepping ashore to a 5 star buffet with huge shiny baine marie, full posse of chefs and a glass of bubbly ! Kiteboarding hit the bigtime thanks to us putting it right there on centerstage with that campaign. Soon dedicated events began to pop up, the AKSA was formed (we were founding members) and we no longer knew every person in the sport anymore. There was no going back now, kitesurfing had a firm foothold in Australia, and popularity exploded exponentially. I still occasionally see the Coca Cola 'waves of freedom' posters in shops and buses around Australia. But no that's not Rebecca or me in the face shots, we were action stunt doubles along with the indomitable Wynn brothers of Caloundra.
Note this site has no connection with coca cola. For more early kitesurf history, videos etc go to fascinating facts m8kite.com/?a=54 and scroll down the page.
The flow on success of this massive campaign saw our kite importing business grow and my brother Andrew get onboard. Our full time family business was the ultimate realisation of my original dream. We had a legitimate work reason to be at the beach, we got to develop some cool stuff and we were the first on any new gear. The firsts just kept coming too, Wes Greene filmed a TV segment of myself and Adam on the (wake)Boarder mag slider for the first ever kitesurfing slider session. I won the first ever Aussie wave kiting event held during a wave sailing event at Flat Rock Woolgooga. Rebecca became the first IKO examiner for Australia, and got the first coverage in surfing (chic) magazines. And we kept pioneering new ways to kite. Many years ago I was the lone strapless surfboarder at the iconic annual Mambo Merimbula event, amongst a sea of twin tips. Next year I was the lone wakesk8tr and so on. Ask Henry and John, each event saw me out there always frothing on something new. Every Merimbula saw me doing something no else had done yet, spearheading something fresh, starting with kiting then staying upwind then boots then strapless then skim/sk8 then hydrofoil kiting. Always kiting, always loving it.
At one Mambo we hosted one of the first big name pro riders Mauricio Abreu on what became an annual Aussie tour. A lot of our inspiration comes from Mauricio Abreu and friends. I remember meeting Mauricio on Maui back in the 2 line era. It was blowing 40 knots, all our kites were way too big... Mauricio did not hesitate to offer us (total strangers back then) his own small kite so we could go out. Mauricio also always led the charge in all the cool stuff like sliders, sk8s and strapless surf. We always liked how he keeps it simple, focusing on skills and fun rather than the gizmo tech-out that gets a bit out of hand otherwise. Tricky twirlywirly kiteboarders (performers) are a dime a dozen, but awesome ambassadors for the sport with true style like Mauricio are priceless.
2001 saw the arrival of 4 line hi aspect ratio kites, it was actually re-incarnation of the original early Wipika speed kites before they figured out how to make them fly on a simple 2 lines and in doing so kickstart the sport... Ahhh those 2 lines take me back. The "lost art" of surfing with 2lines... But now the market and the skills were in place so the relentless acceleration of technology and competition began. Autolock bars, reverse relaunch bridles, mutant boards, every year it was something new, something hyped up and occasionally something useful. In most cases the key advances were pioneered by Wipika then ripped off by others. In parrallel F-one were the first company to make production kiteboards, I still have my 215cm F-one red directional from 1999, a big difference to the latest F-one Bamboo boards. In fact between Beck and myself we have a veritable collection of kitesurf memorabilia which one day will be pulled out and polished up for posterity, 'Mat's museum' perhaps even a book. Drama, intrigue, struggle against adversity, overcoming daunting odds, and romance, its got everything going for it. Rebecca has compiled a mountain of memorabilia, print, photos and articles accumluated from this wonderful journey of Australias 1st kiteboarders. Occasionally its tapped into by media articles and curious kiters like yourself. And of course we gladly share it at every opportunity and hope you will too. Eventually I will also unwrap the mint condition Wipika 5.0 Classic first serial production that has been reverently saved as a tribute to those awesome times.
Part 4Vindication beyond any doubt of Rebecca and myselfs conviction and leap of faith to give everything to kiteboarding all those years ago is the present plethora of Inflatable kites and businesses. Also the passion in todays kite community is a great reminder of why we dropped everything to go and kite. It's funny to see each 'new crew re-discovering' the future, 'surfboards, unhooked, wake boots, whatever' What goes around comes around and thats the way it should be. As the french say vive la difference, and its all been done before. Always the more variety we inject into our kiteboarding experience the more rewarding it becomes. My own unique chronicle comes from doing it 1st. From sk8 to surf to being 1st to try many great spots, each exploration and challenge I have enjoyed and now get to enjoy again and again as new kiting friends find it afresh. Now my own children come kiteboarding with us as shown at left. And thats as good as it gets.
The future of kiteboarding is bright, but it's cool to remember the roots. Every now and again I remind myself with an unhooked session on the old Wipika classic 2 line kite and a beat up surfboard, what a buzz. Otherwise we are continually pursuing excellence in all aspects of kiteboarding from hydrofoils to wakesk8's. As well as campaigning for better recognition and support for kitesurfing. I am exceptionally proud of our legacy, and to see the sport, community and business that eventuated from my humble beginnings. And perhaps more importantly, now when I go to the beach I can look forward to the magic of kiteboarding, with dear friends, anywhere and everywhere around this global kiteboarding paradise we call home.
Mat Colefax, Australia's First Kiteboarder
FNQ Photos copyright to Steven Nowakowski photography. c 1998
Other videos and photos as noted, and courtesy of Becks collection.
Footnote: Mat Colefax was born in Kuranda, FNQ, surrounded by pristine world heritage listed mountains. Growing up in the amazing natural environments of FNQ bred a keen interest in outdoor adventurous activities. Mat taught himself how to windsurf at an early age and has core experience in the full spectrum of board sports including surfing, skateboarding, windsurfing, wakeboarding and snowboarding, as well as Mountain Biking and other extreme pursuits. The first dedicated Aussie kiteboarder and one of the first kiteboarders in the world, Mat's vision for the sport is running strong and he still loves kiteboarding with family and friends every chance he gets.