Kirsty Jones, 27, is the best thing to come out of Wales since sheep and Tom Jones. Cooler soaks up the salty magic with the super-determined Kitesurfing champ to chat kites, comps and bouncing from Brazil to Bangladesh...
Have you always loved watersports? Yes, as soon as I tasted the sea! I grew up in the country but would be in the river every day after school swimming and catching trout and eels with my hands! I would go sailing down to west Wales with my dad every weekend from the age of 3. Sailing got a bit boring so I started windsurfing at 15 then eventually surfing and kitesurfing and now stand-up paddle surfing too!
How did you get into kitesurfing? I started quite late as I was so committed to my windsurfing and surfing that I didn’t have the time to think about another water sport. It was when I was out in Hawaii training for the World Windsurf Tour that I first tried kitesurfing on a day when the wind was too light for windsurfing and the waves were too small to surf. My boyfriend at the time was a professional kitesurfer and my curiosity about kitesurfing finally got the better of me and asked if I could have a quick play with the kite in the water. I absolutely loved it and it was so much fun learning and getting dragged through the water by the power of this kite!
How does it differ from surfing or wakeboarding? Well it depends on whether you’re doing freestyle kitesurfing or wave riding… Freestyle kitesurfing is very similar to wakeboarding except you don’t need to rely on a noisy fuel guzzling boat! When you ride waves kitesurfing you generally use a board exactly like a surf board but with straps and you use the power of the kite to pull you into waves and do big powerful turns, aerials and tricks on the wave. It’s also very easy to get out through the waves with a kite (once you know what you’re doing!) The great thing about kitesurfing is there are so many different aspects and its so versatile that you can do what ever suits you or whatever the conditions are best for.
When did everything turn serious and you decided to commit yourself to the sport full time? It kind of just happened naturally once I started competing and winning some competitions. I guess it turned more serious and full time when I realized I couldn’t keep running my kitesurfing school in wales as well as train and travel away so much to do more and more comps, photo shoots and trips. As soon as Animal signed me up on a promising contract I committed myself 100% to achieve certain goals and put all my effort into being a professional rider.
How have you found this year’s Kiteboard Pro World Tour? I’ve loved doing it but as I’ve put so much pressure on myself to do well, I’ve found I’ve taken it much more seriously. I wanted to do well for my sponsors mainly as they’ve supported me so much and I wanted to get a World Title for them. I’ve learnt a lot from doing the World Tour, like the importance of keeping things in perspective, overcoming defeat and turning it into a positive, staying humble in victory and actually realizing that winning doesn't make you any happier or a better person. It's much more important to be a good role model. My kitesurfing has improved the most whilst doing contests and I found it helped me to constantly push my limits, but doing competitions has also helped me to appreciate more than ever those special moments of freedom surfing in a remote place, with friends or wildlife or alone and just sitting on your board soaking up the salty magic.
Is it exciting to be leading the rankings for the Kitesurf World Wave Masters with only one event to go? Are you feeling the pressure now? Last year I was winning all year and on track to get the world title but got 3rd in Brazil which meant I went down to 2nd just before the final in New Caledonia. I was determined that I could win the final in New Caledonia and claim the title but the comp was never run due to lack of wind and waves so I remained 2nd which was really disappointing for me. This year I was not going to be satisfied with 2nd, so I put so much effort into trying to win every event this year which is what I’ve achieved so far. This final event is going to be more enjoyable for me because I am pretty far ahead with points so it means I can’t lose the World Title now even if I come last! It’s the opposite situation to last year and just shows if you really put 100% effort and focus into something you can achieve your goals.
How do you prepare for a big competition? The main key aspects are to be totally prepared physically, mentally and with all the right equipment. You have to be able to ride in really bad conditions or really challenging conditions and keep your head together. Mental attitude plays such a key role too. I find I have to toughen up mentally but at the same time keep a balanced calmness through the rough times on and off the water.
Do you still get nervous before a big contest? I never used to get nervous but I seem to be more now that there are titles at stake! As soon as I’m on the water and the heat starts I go into this really calm present state and all my nerves disappear. Once I’m on the water I’m in my comfort zone and that’s when I really start to enjoy competing.
What is the atmosphere like behind the scenes? It's like a big family and while there is bickering and strong competition, at the end of the day everyone laughs and jokes about stuff. Everyone throws their toys out of the pram from time to time when they’ve had a bad heat! It's so cosmopolitan on the tour that sometimes I forget what country I’m in and what language I should be talking as everyone is talking with totally different accents! I love it!
What made you decide to take a trip to explore Bangladesh? I’ve always wanted to visit that part of the world, especially Burma and Pakistan so when photographer and journalist Stuart Butler emailed me while I was out in Brazil about a last minute trip to Bangladesh, I jumped at the chance. Only thing was I would have to fly out the day after I got back from the Brazil! It was totally bizarre going straight from Brazil to Bangladesh as the differences in the two countries and their culture is staggering.
How did it feel to become the first person to kitesurf the Bay of Bengal? Well actually I didn't end up kitesurfing as the only time the wind picked up during the whole trip was when I was teaching the local body boarder girls to fly a power kite on the beach and they were loving it so much I wanted to let them feel the amazing energy of the wind in a kite which they might never have the opportunity to experience again. I thought about going back to where we were staying to pick up my kitesurfing gear but I had a queue of about 30 local kids who had been waiting patiently to have a go at flying the kite and I couldn’t possibly turn them down! I know the feeling I had from giving those kids a go with the kite was way more amazing than kitesurfing myself which is something I have the opportunity to do all the time. Despite not getting wind, and the waves were far from world class, we did manage to surf everyday in very mediocre waves. However, the whole Bangladesh experience added up to be one of the most rewarding and interesting surf trips I have ever been on and I wouldn’t have swapped it for any other trip with perfect waves and wind!
What were the highlights of the trip? One of the reasons for the trip was to support the local Bangadesh surf contest that had been organized by a group of Hawaiian missionary surfers from Surfing the Nation. Believe it or not but thanks to Surfing the Nation, there is actually a small very special surfing community in the Bangladesh beach resort of Cox’ Bizaire close to the Burma border. Half of the local surfers and body boarders are actually women which is incredible as Bangladesh is a very traditional society founded on Islam and any girl going surfing here is breaking all social taboos. One of the one moments that really touched me was handing out the prizes after the contest to the local girl body boarders and seeing the overwhelming joy on their faces. This surf competition was a big deal to this community and probably one of the most significant days of the girls' lives. Other highlights were surfing with the locals there who had never surfed with people from other countries and they just kept just saying ‘thank you’ every few seconds in the water... They were thanking us for visiting their country and surfing with them. Something you won’t experience in many lineups these days! Another highlight was being invited for lunch into the home of a family who I had given a bag of Animal clothes to. They lived in a tiny bamboo home close to where we were staying in the remote part of the jungle next to the river. The little house was empty apart from a hole in the ground where they cooked, two pots, a happily roaming chicken and six chicks. The mum, dad and three kids all slept on the hard floor under a single mosquito net. The little house was so tiny yet so perfect and peaceful. Despite me not understanding a word they said, we communicated through smiles and they seemed to find great joy in watching me eat the food they made. One word they spoke that I did understand though was ‘Shanti’ which means peace. I guess they had understood me when I tried to act out in gestures that I thought where they lived was very peaceful. There were so many other special magical moments during this trip that I could write so much about but I don’t think Cooler mag has enough space!
Did you suffer any setbacks out there? A few setbacks, but every setback had a purpose and made the trip all the more meaningful. When we arrived in Cox’s Bizaire at 12 midnight there was literally no accommodation available as it was the Bangladesh holiday. This was initially quite a setback after two days of traveling to get there and the boys moaning that they needed a shower! To cut a long story short we ended up sleeping in the middle of nowhere overlooking the river and the entrance to the sea. We were in the jungle in an open air wooden/bamboo unfinished house with no water or electricity! It was such a magical, peaceful place and I would not have traded this experience for anything! However my hair did start to feel a bit skanky after a week of not washing it!
What are your suitcase essentials when you’re on the road? I always take my favorite sun creams, moisturizers and Redken hair conditioners, which save my hair and face from the sun! Also a good range of Animal bikinis…however these are not so useful in Muslim countries! Sometimes I have to sacrifice shoes and clothes for extra kites and boards which is hard!
What’s your favourite kitesurfing spot? There was so much potential for good kitesurfing and surfing where we were in Cox’s Bizaire as apparently it has the longest beach in the world… according to the Bangladesh tourist board! I can’t tell you the name of my favorite place we surfed as it has definitely never been surfed or named before us but I do know that you had to go through some rice fields, past a few baby goats and head towards the Burma boarder which was apparently a few miles up the road! The waves were absolutely rubbish but the journey to get there and the villagers we met along the way made it my favorite spot.
What have been your biggest career setbacks? Breaking my ribs learning a new freestyle trick kitesurfing and not being able to finish the Freestyle World Tour one year… Although this actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I started to get more into wave riding kitesurfing and that’s how I ended up doing the Kitesurf Wave World tour instead of the Freestyle.
What have your greatest achievements been so far? My long distance kitesurf crossings I’ve done for charity have been my greatest achievements. My longest solo kitesurf crossing was from Lanzarote to the Western Sahara which was 140 miles and took me 9 hours non-stop from land to land and I raised money for a disabled charity in the Sahara. Also winning the Master of the Ocean competition in the Dominican Republic where I beat the men while competing in a combination of surfing, windsurfing and Kitesurfing.
What affect does your career have on your personal life? I don’t really have much of a social life as I’m always away and I find it hard to make plans to do things with my friends as dates for trips and comps change so much and when I am home my life revolves around what the wind and waves are doing!
Is it nice to return home to Pembrokeshire? I love coming home to Wales and the more I travel the more appreciate where I’m from. There’s nothing quite like putting on a 5m wet cold wetsuit and diving into the fresh Atlantic ocean!
How do you relax when you get the chance? Doing yoga, long walks in the country and swims in the river with my dog, and sharing a bottle of good organic wine with my best friends.
What are your plans for this winter? I’ve done so much traveling this year so after the final in Morocco I don’t want to go too far. I’m going to spend a couple of months in my house in Lanzarote to make the most of the winter Atlantic swells. I always find my surfing improves the most after spending some time in the Canaries and it’s a good place to toughen up to some bigger waves!
What are your ambitions for the future? Any spots left to conquer? I have another long distance kitesurfing journey I want to do but it’s a pretty big mission so I will need a bit of time and support to organize it. I’ll tell you when I have it planned!
Thanks to my sponsors: Animal, Flexifoil, C-Skins, SDF and Jimmy Lewis Surf boards.