"The rumour around town was that I was going to jump out of a helicopter. That wasn't exactly right." Despite using the kind of propeller that spins under water rather than spinning through the air, Maui-based kiteboarder Jesse Richman managed to soar up to almost 250m – a kiteboarding world record – above the Columbia River. How? A "tow-up" from BASE-jumper friend Jon Malmberg, using his wakeboard boat.
"We've wanted to do this for years," says Richman, who won the Red Bull King of the Air in February on Maui. "I started experimenting last summer with a reinforced bar, and extra kite lines. But we never got to the point where we felt safe enough to go really high."
"At one point, I was moving at 57mph airspeed," said Jesse. Richman's speed, height, acceleration and other three-dimensional data were recorded using a handy new iPhone app + device called the Xensr case, which measures movement in mere millimetres.
How did Richman stay safe? His driver and stunt coordinator Jon Malmberg chimes in. "Jesse used my speed flying harness, which has a front-mounted reserve parachute," says Jon. "We attached it to the quick-release of his kite so that as soon as he released the kite, it would also pull the reserve chute, and let him safely come down to the water."
Despite Richman's years of experience jumping with his kite rig, this was something new entirely. "When I let go of the rope, I wanted to soar and see what would happen. But when I did that, the kite fell backwards quickly, and I freaked out and started looping it. Once I started looping it, I had to keep going. It was a three-dimensional airspace I'd never experienced before, and it was confusing. The whole goal was not to have it fall out of the sky!"
There was a very risky hundred feet where Richman would be too low to pull the chute, but high enough to suffer serious injuries or worse. "The chute needs 180 feet to safely deploy and arrest a fall," says Malmberg. Fortunately, the chute wasn't needed and not only did Richman come safely to down to earth – err, water – he landed on his board and kited away as if he had just landed a run-of-the-mill, normal jump.
So can the average kiteboarder attach a 500m of rope to any dinghy with an outboard motor and tow up to sky-diving height? Not really. "Towing up to over 150 - 200ft is putting yourself high enough that a failure will result in a fall to your death," says Malmberg. "You need to make sure you have the necessary steps taken into account for a gear failure. Ordinary inflatable kites are not designed for the stress that are put on them when towing to altitude. They will break. Jesse's gear was custom-built specifically for this stunt."
That said, after one successful mission, will Richman be going for another mega-towup? Actually, yes. "At first, I thought this was the stupidest, most dangerous idea ever," says Richman. "But we did it safely once – and we'll do it again!"