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Kiteboarders evade sharks to conquer Atlantic

By Paul Gittings, CNN
January 2, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Just what does it take to kiteboard across the Atlantic Ocean? Just what does it take to kiteboard across the Atlantic Ocean?
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Six-strong team of kiteboarders set record for relay crossing of Atlantic
  • 6,000km journey from Canary Islands to Turks and Caicos Islands
  • 27-day venture with each kiteboarder doing four hours per day
  • Team encountered sharks and severe weather systems

(CNN) -- It's not every day you get a chance to kiteboard across the Atlantic evading sharks after winning a social media competition.

Eric Little's day job in insurance and retirement planning had hardly prepared him for the "scary experience" of coming up close and personal with a shark during a daredevil crossing of the Atlantic in a six-strong team of kiteboarders.

Little, nicknamed 'Pequeno' -- Spanish for small -- was cruising the waves on the second day out of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands when he spotted the unmistakable fins "about 24 feet away" from his rig.

The 30-year-old from West Bloomfield in Michigan was the final team member to be selected after winning a Facebook competition and had to put up with constant ribbing from his fellow team members about the incident during the remainder of the 27-day landmark crossing of the ocean.

Kiteboarding harnesses the power of the wind using a large kite suspended on four lines and Little learned the ropes of the sport on the Great Lakes, but conditions in the Atlantic were altogether more challenging.

Apart from the odd encounter with sharks, he also rode through schools of flying fish and had the unusual experience of surfing the waves through the night.

The team, consisting of Little, four Dutchman and one woman -- 30-year-old Camilla Ringvold -- were assigned two shifts of two hours each per day -- one in the daylight and one at night -- so constant progress was made on the 4,000 mile (6,000km) plus crossing to their destination in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

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Support crew

A support boat -- a Lagoon 500 catamaran -- was a constant companion, with five crew members including the Dutch professional sailor Erik van Vuuren as team captain.

Van Vuuren is a three-time world champion -- competing against the likes of Britain's sailing great Ben Ainslee -- but for the 43-year-old Dutchman this was an altogether different challenge.

Constant vigilance was required in case the kiteboarders were dumped into the waters at high speeds, particularly in the dark and the crew had to develop rigorous safety procedures.

Only at the finish after nearly a month at sea did Van Vuuren understand the physical and mental demands. "When we came into the harbor I suddenly realized how tired I was," he told CNN.

With his sailing expertise, Van Vuuren was one of the first people recruited to the challenge, which was the brainchild of Filippo van Hellenberg Hubar, who set up the Enable Passion Foundation with the express aim of completing inspiring and original challenges.

Ground breaking feat

"We have done something groundbreaking," said the 30-year-old Dutchman, but admitted he was in a "state of shock" at the finish on December 17.

Van Hellenberg Hubar, found the night sessions the most exhilarating, "the only thing you could see was the rope and the kite in front of you."

He added: "Kitesurfing really went places with this challenge."

Kiteboarding or kitesurfing may indeed be going places, with another crew member, Max Blom, 28, from Amsterdam confident it will eventually be included in the Summer Olympics.

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Only a late volte face by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) saw a decision to replace windsurfing with kitesurfing for the 2016 Games in Rio reversed.

Blom makes his living in the sport's industry and believes its growing popularity lies in its wide appeal with all ages able to participate.

"You can just cruise around, but for me kitesurfing is a physical sport and very competitive."

During the Atlantic crossing, Blom lived up to his ethos, determined to clock up the most distance for a two-hour stint. "74 kilometers," he said proudly.

But he also acknowledged that it had been very much a team affair, with the only female team member playing her full part. "Camilla was the lightest and took on the most squalls."

Girl power

Indeed Ringvold, from Norway, proved her worth on many occasions, particularly in lighter winds as they became becalmed. "I would definitely do it again. I did not want to get off the boat," she reflected.

The other female to actively participate -- a woman producer from a Dutch TV channel was on board to film the action -- was medic Sophie Cohen - a 28-year-old doctor from Amsterdam, who specializes in paediatrics.

She was selected for her professional abilities and is also a trained sailor.

But despite that experience, she admitted to a degree of trepidation throughout the challenge, in case of a major injury.

"A shark bite, or high impact trauma, that would have been a real problem," she said. "We were really alone in the middle of the ocean."

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Little's brush with a shark aside, the closest Cohen came to that nightmare scenario was an accident which befell Dennis Gijsbers, who "got it a bit wrong" at the start of a new stint.

Gijsbers was forced under a support dinghy moving at five knots for about five seconds -- "it felt like 15 seconds" -- and only narrowly escaped serious injury, other than a few cuts and bruises.

"She (Cohen) was checking my lungs and I threw up a lot of salt water," he said.

Danger guy

It underlined the inherent risks in the challenge, "I was the danger guy," joked Gijsbers, but each team member was hand picked for their abilities.

Ike Frans was the oldest kiteboarder at 40 years of age, but is the Dutch champion in the sport of Stand Up Paddle, where competitors propel themselves on a flat surfboard using only a single paddle.

"It was 11 people on the boat all working together, real teamwork," he said.

Frans was grateful to Van Vuuren and his skill when he went down during a night stint and was picked up within minutes.

In pitch darkness it proved a surreal experience, "the water is nice and clear, an island of light around you," Frans recalled, but he was grateful for the prompt rescue.

Glorious arrival

The team eventually arrived to "red carpet" treatment at a luxury resort complex in the Turks and Caicos, and a glowing tribute from the governor of the British overseas dependency.

"The feat of the Enable Passion organization in completing this marathon across one of the world's wildest oceans is awe inspiring," said Peter Beckingham.

It remains to be seen whether other relay teams attempt to beat their new record but for now Van Hellenberg Hubar is content to live with the memories.

"We crossed the Atlantic ocean sailing and kiting and it was perfect," he said with pride.

Meanwhile Little will go back to his desk in the U.S. and dream of getting the call for the next challenge.

"Time will tell. We shall see, we shall see," he said.

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