“It’s getting hard to walk, but with a kite, I can fly”. North Ambassador, Ryan Levinson is a true seeker. His passion for the ocean and commitment to the sport is unprecedented, which is why we jumped at the opportunity of having Ryan join the North team. We caught up with Ryan to share more about his background and the incredible life he lives at sea.
In 2014 Ryan and his wife Nicole began an open-ended full-time sailing expedition seeking, and finding, steady wind, smooth water, and perfect empty waves. They have now sailed over 20,000 miles through the Pacific Ocean, exploring uncharted waters, discovering pristine wild places filled with vibrant life, untouched sand beaches, thriving coral reefs, and consistent tropical wind.
This is where they kite…
Ryan does this despite his body being ravaged by a genetic disease called Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) that causes muscles throughout his body to weaken continuously. Ryan can no longer hold his arms over shoulder high, stand on his toes, or do a single sit-up or push-up. He lives with the passion of someone who loves what they do but is rapidly losing the ability to do it. Ryan says, “I have to innovate new ways to do the things I love constantly, but that’s part of the adventure. It’s getting hard to walk, but with a kite, I can fly!”
Before sailing away from his hometown of San Diego, California Ryan enjoyed success in a variety of ocean and wind sports including a national championship victory in sailing, competing as a member of the US Sailing Team, captaining a luxury superyacht, and leading the Emergency Medical/Rescue team for the Big Wave World Tour. Ryan’s passion for helping people deepen their love of the ocean through sports led him to become a PASA and IKO certified kiteboarding instructor in addition to SCUBA diving, windsurfing, sailing, surfing, and expedition kayaking. He started a kiteboarding school that grew to be the largest in California at the time with locations in San Francisco, San Diego, and Mexico before he sold it and began a series that led to the voyage he’s currently on.
Ryan’s unbridled passion for adventure, coupled with his love of kiteboarding, his innovative spirit, and dedication to helping others makes him a perfect fit for North.
As Ryan puts it, “North Kiteboarding is a family of the most committed mad genius frothing kiters I’ve ever met. the attention to detail and performance is truly next level. I trust North completely when I strap in and connect to the wild winds and waters I find out here over the horizon and beyond my dreams.”
Ryan Levinson | Q&A with North Sails
When did you learn to kite? Who taught you?
Around 2000 or 2001. When the first kites came on the market, I was working as a windsurfing and sailing instructor, and I convinced my supervisors to get a kite and see if it was something we wanted to pursue.
Back then, we were all self-taught because there were no instructors. I had a super basic “how-to” video, and a patient girlfriend willing to follow me around in a small boat as the kite dragged me out of control all over the bay. There were no safety systems, nor any way to de-power the kite. It was super dangerous and pretty much the worst way to learn, but it was the only option available at the time.
Where have you kited?
I’ve kited all over, including California, Florida, Hawaii, Baja Mexico, Mainland Mexico, Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Taha’a, and a bunch of the atolls in the Tuamotus.
It’s possible to have fun just about anywhere there are water and wind. I’ve had some great sessions in bays, lakes, the open ocean, lagoons, surf zones, and even the snow!
What kiteboarding products do you have? (Board, harness, kite, etc.)
I have different kites and boards for different styles of riding, all made by North Kiteboarding. My harness and wetsuits are made by Mystic (a company also owned by North Actionsports Group.)
For free-riding, which is everything from just cruising around to doing big jumps and tricks, I use a quiver of Orbit kites sized 12, 9, and 7m with an Atmos hybrid twin-tip board. This is a great all-around set up that will work well for most people in a wide range of conditions.
When I’m riding surfboards, I use Carve kites sized 11, 9, and 7m. For riding waves, I use the Charge, and for strapless freestyle, I love the Comp.
I use a Mystic Majestic harness because I think it has a perfect balance of support and flexibility. Sometimes I wear a Mystic Block impact vest and a Gath surf-convertible helmet for more extreme conditions.
What’s happening in Tahiti?
Tahiti is a tropical paradise that is kind of like Hawaii but with far fewer people and a more traditional less-developed feel. Tahiti has a barrier reef surrounding it that creates a protected flat water lagoon with a variety of good anchorages and spots for kiteboarding.
Many of the barrier reef passes have fun surf with powerful waves breaking over shallow coral reefs. But Tahiti is a small part of French Polynesia, and we spend most of our time exploring the more remote islands and atolls in the region.
There are 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia stretching over 1,000 nautical miles. Many of the places we visit are uninhabited and uncharted. They are pristine vibrant gems waiting to be explored if you’re willing to embrace the challenge and adventure involved in voyaging in these isolated areas.
How has kiting opened more doors given your condition?
For those who don’t know, I have a genetic disease called FSHD that causes my muscles throughout my body to weaken continuously. When I was diagnosed, there was nothing available to read except depressing stuff like clinical descriptions of symptoms, so I’ve always strived to be a public example of one possible approach to living with the disease…
Kiteboarding empowers me to move and express myself with a freedom far beyond anything else possible given the effects of my disease.
I once described it as feeling “like a dance across water and through the air to the rhythm set by the waves!”
It’s hard to explain how much that means to someone like me whose life has always been very physical and based around my relationship with the ocean. As my disease progressed, I lost the ability to paddle a surfboard, but with a kite, I can ride waves. It’s now getting hard to walk, but with a kite, I can fly!
“There are moments in kiting when your mind shuts off and you feel like the kite and board are extensions of your body”
In those moments, you glide through the water and air with effortless freedom that transcends what is otherwise physically possible. It’s an ecstatic feeling that usually happens when you’re challenging yourself to ride at a level that brings a focused mind frame without being overwhelming.
What are your personal goals with the new kiteboarding hobby?
In some ways, the continuous muscle loss from my disease sets goals for me because I have to learn new ways to do the same tricks continually. When I succeed, it feels kind of like hearing a good remake of an old favourite song. It’s a good feeling. I don’t know…I could list some immediate goals like improving my strapless surfing or learning a specific trick, and I’m intensely focused on achieving those things. Still, to me, it’s more about how fully I immerse myself in the process rather than any measured outcome.
“If I come off the water with a smile, I’ve achieved my goal!”
What made you buy North kite products?
Until recently, I was happily using kiteboarding gear from another manufacturer. Then two things happened… First, the entire product design team from the other company moved to North Kiteboarding en masse.
Second, Hugh Pinfold (Director of Design and Engineering at North Kiteboarding) randomly showed up at a beach in Moorea where I was kiteboarding. He was on vacation but was super excited to show me the new North Kites and boards. It was like looking at much-improved future generations of the gear I was already using, mixed in with some innovative new designs. Hugh explained that the North kiteboarding designers were given full access to North Sail’s expertise and technology and were given carte blanche permission to make the best equipment possible. My mind was blown imagining the results of having kiteboarding’s most talented design team working with the world’s leading sailmaker! Of course, I switched to North!
On another level my former teammates and I won a national championship using North Sails, we used North Sails when I was on the national team, and over the past five years, North Sails drove my boat over 20,000 nautical miles through the Pacific Ocean. Now I’m also on North kites and boards. I’m grateful to support such an incredible group of people and products.
What is something you consider a long-term goal for kiteboarding?
I’d like to see kiteboarding and sailing equipment from all manufacturers made in a more environmentally sensitive way…I was encouraged to hear North is taking steps in that direction.
What was the hardest thing about learning to kite?
The hardest thing for me was the lack of information available when I learned. We had to figure it out mostly by trial and error, a horrible way to learn to kite!
These days I think the hardest thing for people is having the patience to dial in their kite skills before trying to ride a board. This includes at a minimum knowing how to use the safety systems, self-rescue, re-launch, and body-drag upwind. I’ve taught hundreds of people how to kite, and it’s amazing how quickly people progress when they perfect those basic skills… and how much they struggle when they don’t.
Thanks to Ryan Levinson and North Sails.
By Jen TylerItalian/Egyptian Jen Tyler grew up on the sandy beaches of the Red Sea and has been on the IKSURFMAG & Tonic Mag team since 2017.