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LEARNING TO KITESURF ON MARGARITA ISLAND

With the sun at my back and a wave beneath my board, I am surfing off El Yaque Beach on Margarita Island, Venezuela. Well, not really. Technically, I am sailing. Wait a minute, now. It feels more like waterskiing. But then again, I am actually flying a kite.

Although these may sound like the delusions of a water-sport schizophrenic, the truth is I've just learned to kitesurf.

Riding a modified surfboard, and pulled by an inflated kite attached by four lines to a body harness, kitesurfers can travel across the water's surface at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour -- as fast as a fully-throttled JetSki.

The adrenaline rush is unbelievable. So are the wipeouts.

Instructor Murray Sampson of Margarita Xtreme Kite School believes El Yaque Beach is the best place in the world to learn kitesurfing. "The conditions are perfect for beginners," says the Scottish expatriate. "The winds are a constant 12 to 20 knots, the water is always warm, and you can walk offshore through waist-deep surf for more than 250 yards."

Murray lectures me on kitesurfing safety and technique. What sticks in my mind most is the bit about the quick-release strap. Should I lose control of the kite and go flying toward the face of a mid-rise hotel, simply pull the quick-release. It acts as an ejector seat, detaching the kitesurfer from his wayward kite and preventing a possible disaster in the process.

After the briefing, Murray unrolls the four lines from the control bar so that the lines are stretched out evenly along the beach. He attaches one end of each line to a corner of the giant kite. The opposite ends merge into the control bar, which the Scotsman attaches to his own harness.

As he eases into the shallow water, I follow far behind, holding the kite sideways above the surf. When he gives a thumbs-up, I release the kite. Snatched by El Yaque's steady winds, the kite soars nearly 100 feet into a denim-blue sky. Murray then guides the kite to the "neutral position" (directly above his head) and waits for me to join him.

An expert windsurfer, sailor, snowboarder and kitesurfer, Murray believes the ability to fly a kite is the single most important attribute for a novice kitesurfer. "If you can fly a kite, you can kitesurf."

I watch Murray tilt left on the control bar. The kite moves left. He tilts the control bar to the right. The kite reacts accordingly. He pushes up on the control bar to "de-power," and the kite begins a feathery descent. He pulls down on the control bar. The kite catches "full power" and climbs back to the neutral position.

Now it's my turn. Murray unhooks the control bar from his harness and attaches it to mine. I tilt the bar left, too far left. The kite nose dives toward the sea. "Pull right, right!" he shouts. I follow his directions, but overcompensate. "Pull left, left!"

Soon, I find a rhythm and am moving the kite comfortably from the 10 o'clock position to the 2 o'clock position. Time for the "dragging" lesson.

Stretched out on the water in the "Superman" position, I'm told to move the kite from 10 to 2. This time, forcefully. With one quick turn of the kite then, I am dragged through the water like a fallen water-skier who refuses to let go of the tow rope.

"De-power!" Murray shouts, from what seems like a mile away. "De-power!!"

I manage to push up on the control bar, thus collapsing the kite and ending the skid. "Full power," the instructor shouts, realizing the kite is sinking. Spitting out water (he never told me to close my mouth during the dragging lesson), I pull down on the control bar, turn left, and am snatched once more across the water's surface.

"Good, good," Murray says. Now, I'm ready for the modified surfboard.

Holding the control bar with one hand, my kite hovers in the 2 o'clock position. I sit in the water and use my other hand to help ease my feet into the surfboard's footholds. In order to stand up on the board, I dip the kite rapidly to 10 o'clock and back to 2. The sudden surge of power yanks me forward and up onto the board.

I am surfing! I am sailing! I am ... "Ahhhhhhh!"

Thank God for the quick-release strap.

If you go

Margarita Island lies 25 miles off the Venezuelan coast in the Caribbean Sea. American Airlines flies non- stop from New York, Dallas and Miami to Caracas. From there you can connect to Porlamar, Margarita Island, via one of 20 daily flights on national carriers such as Aeropostal, Laser and Aserca.

For kitesurfing lessons, contact Murray Sampson at Margarita Xtreme Kite School, Windsurf Paradise Hotel, El Yaque, Margarita Island, Venezuela. Office telephone: 001-58-295-263-9635. Mobile telephone: 001-58-416-896-6607. Web site: www.worldkiteboarding.com.

E-mail: megoglobal hotmail.com; follow Hester's travels at www.elliotthester.com

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