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Catching a wave on Lake Erie

We all recognize the power of chicken wings, grain elevators and the rolling thunder of Niagara Falls to draw visitors to Buffalo Niagara.

But since when did our lakeshore communities become popular with surfers?

“It’s almost a ‘Who would have thunk?’ ” said Maureen Pinkel, who operates Urban Leisure and Luxury in the Elmwood Village. “We sell SUPs (stand-up paddle boards) in the shop, and people every day come in and think we’re crazy.

“ ‘You can surf on Lake Erie?’ they ask. ‘Sure you can,’ we tell them. ‘You just have to watch the wind, the waves and the weather.’ ”

That is just what Pinkel’s husband, Ward, was doing early Wednesday afternoon. And it wasn’t the first time the three Ws of kiteboarding have left Maureen Pinkel a wind widow.

“Every summer is different because it’s not always the conditions,” Pinkel said. “As Ward gets better, the pickier he is. He prefers a lot of waves. Some (surfers) like calm waters because they can go faster. Every surfer has their little happy place. It truly depends on the weather. He can go out a couple of times a week. It’s really a little club.”

Certainly Michael Churchill is a member.

The entrepreneur sold his home in Toronto and moved to the Lake Erie shoreline in 2012 so he could kiteboard.

“There’s a limited amount of beaches on Lake Ontario and some of the lakes north of Toronto,” said Churchill. “The beaches are crowded. Here you have much better wind, much better waves. The ideal scenario on the Great Lakes is right here. You get more windy days than almost anywhere.”

In kiteboarding, surfers harness the power of the wind using an oversized controllable kite and are propelled across the water on boards similar to small surfboards, with or without foot straps or bindings.

In 2012, the number of kitesurfers worldwide was estimated by the International Sailing Federation and the International Kiteboarding Association at 1.5 million people, who spent $321 million on gear, according to a business report in June 2013 in the New Zealand Herald.

Kris Kinn, 35, a freestyle competitive kiteboarder, started to kiteboard 10 years ago and has since traveled the world searching for sustained winds of 15 knots. She is ranked fifth among women in the country.

Kinn, who was born in the Town of Evans, started Lake Erie Kiteboarding four years ago and conducts classes at Bennett Beach from May to October. A minimum of six two-hour classes should be enough for a beginner to hit the waves, she said.

“Grandview Bay is like a little gem,” Kinn said. “It’s like a secret spot. Grandview has sandy-bottomed beaches. There are not many spots that have sand. There are cliffs and rocky beaches.

“Sunset Bay is very good also, but it’s busy. You can go down to Dunkirk, but many people think it’s too far to drive,” she said.

For the most part, the fine sand beaches of Grandview Bay in Angola are not public, but they are accessible to residents through a series of walkways, according to Ben Little, who met his wife, Karen, on one of those beaches 56 years ago, when he was 16.

“For the most part they are decent beaches,” Little said. “Bennett Beach is a mile outside Grandview, which is one of a number of beaches along the lake. There’s Wendt Beach, Wide Beach, Evangola State Park, Sunset. There’s a lot of activity.”

Little is president of the Grandview Bay Community Association and lives there from June through October. His father-in-law, Guy Berner, built a summer home in the Grandview Bay community in 1930. It remains in the family today.

“If I weren’t 72 years old, I’d be out on a kiteboard too,” said Little, a former windsurfer who splits his time between Grandview Bay and Colorado.

Many members of the local kiteboarding community are former windsurfers who evolved into kite-boarders, Kinn said.

“Windsurfing is easier to learn than kiteboarding,” she said, “but it’s very difficult to progress. Kiteboarding is more difficult to learn but once you have it, you’ll progress faster.

“It’s actually a female-friendly sport because it does not require extreme upper-body strength because we wear an air harness,” Kinn said. “Women also learn a lot faster than men because we tend to have a little more finesse. We listen and apply, as opposed to guys, who grab on and muscle their way through it.”

Kinn described kiteboarding as the “fastest growing water sport in the world right now.”

Ironically, it was slotted to replace windsurfing in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, but an active windsurfing community voted it down.

“Apparently there was not enough medals in the sailing class to allow for both,” Kinn said.

Kinn takes her school on the road to Mexico and the southern tip of Baha, Calif., during the fall and winter before heading to South Padre Island, Texas in the spring. She also operates camps in Outer Banks, N.C.

“I’m pretty full with lessons all summer,” she said. “A handful of students are from Canada, and I’m starting to get people from Ohio and Pennsylvania. There are a lot better places in the U.S. to kiteboard, but for me this is my hometown, and this is where I learned how to do it. The conditions are good.”

The topography of the lakeshore figures favorably for kiteboarders, said Kinn. “The longer the distance wind travels over a clean surface (water), the stronger the wind will be,” she said. “So if you can imagine Lake Erie running southwest to northeast, with the wind following the path of least resistance (the lake).

“As you get closer to Buffalo, the lake narrows and the wind gets stronger. That’s why Hamburg is such a great place to board. Lake Ontario’s wind is not consistent and the quality is not as good,” she said.

“Another factor is that we have big sandy beaches,” Kinn continued. “We need a lot of space on the beach to set up our equipment to launch and land. Our lines are about 20 meters (60 to 65 feet) long.”

Make no mistake, Kinn cautioned. Hamburg beach is for experienced kiteboarders. Its small beach includes a rock wall downwind, she said. By comparison, Grandview is a like bunny hill that forgives the inexperienced.

Churchill, 50, still maintains a condo in Toronto, where Lake Ontario is crowded with “hundreds and hundreds of kiteboarders. In the Buffalo area, I would say it’s less than 25. That’s why I’m down here.”

“I’m an entrepreneur, not a high-profile kind of guy,” Churchill said. “I love the sport. It’s a passion, something like almost an obsession. It’s an adrenalin-driven sport that keeps you in good shape. So for me, it’s one of my favorite things to do in life. I like the community here. Everybody knows everybody. It’s the best-kept secret, and we prefer it not get crowded, you know?”