I first met Polly Crathorne at about 9 pm when she came around to a friend’s flat for a cuppa. (For you non British readers, this translates to a cup of tea). That’s jet lag for you I guess.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Crathorne is her big smile. After that you’ll probably notice the ease of the conversation and her general easy-going attitude. You may even take note of her affinity for funky patterned fabrics. What you probably won’t pick up on is that sitting across from you is the first woman and youngest person to kite across the English Channel. Crathorne is a professional kite surfer who currently holds four kiting world records. She has travelled to 25 different countries and is attending university as a full time student.
And she is only 21 years old.
So I sat down with Crathorne to get to the bottom of just how she manages to do it all*. What did I find? Everything from buying into the raw food craze to vandalism of Argentinian glaciers, as well as a few handy tips on how to squeeze 50 kilograms of kite gear through airports in Hong Kong.
(*I should note that I “sat down” in front of my laptop because catching Crathorne face to face long enough for an interview can be as tricky as catching a good wind.)
Ok. Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is kitesurfing?
Kitesurfing needs wind and water. Basically, you use a kite to harness the wind and a surfboard to ride on top of the water.
How did you get into the sport?
Kitesurfing is a bit of a family thing. My older sister and father picked it up first. Whilst they were out on the water I used to practice on the beach with a trainer kite. When I turned twelve I had my first lesson on the island of Coche in Venezuela… and the rest is history.
How are you finding New Zealand? Have you been able to do a lot of kiting amidst your studies?
Man, it’s been so good. Especially for the kiting. The water is warmer compared to Edinburgh and there’s a broader range of spots all around the city. You only have to drive an hour or so to reach some cracking spots out of town like Shakespeare or Munwai. Getting a car has made a huge difference. I share Charlene, that’s our a rather steezy Mushibishi Chariot, with a friend. Luckily, he kites. So we are often headed to the same place after lectures. Or during if the wind is particularly good.
So how does New Zealand compare to other places you’ve kited?
It’s similar to the UK in terms of the variability of the weather conditions. New Zealand as a country has a whole range of really different kite spots. There is this really cool tidal lagoon an hour and a bit away from Auckland that is more reminiscent of Brazil than anywhere else!
I am currently in Southland, at the very southern tip of the South Island, and to be honest it’s quite like Scotland. The lakes I was at last week, Pukaki and Tekapo, were similar to some lakes I have kited in Patagonia. Same backdrop, same freezing water, and those familiar gusty inland winds.
Does kiting allow you to travel often?
Here in New Zealand it is such a good excuse to get out and visit some of the more random locations that people don’t always venture to. Now since it’s summer I get to do that more. For the past month I have been driving around chasing the wind sleeping in the car. My sister and friend have been with me as we’ve checked out a lot of the lacks in the center of the South Island. And now we are on to the coast.
Competitions and trainings have meant that I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some awesome kite destinations around the world and kited in over 25 countries.
You’ve been to so many places! What’s been your favorite kiting spot so far?
Oh boy! That’s a tricky question. There are so many cool kiting spots. I love Dahkla in the Western Sahara. It’s a lagoon on the edge of the desert and it’s really windy. When we first went there in 2002 there wasn’t much infrastructure; We stayed in tents with mattresses on the sand and ate super simple foods like dry cereal. I really liked the simple living.
Is dry cereal your favorite post-kiting snack then?
Well my older sister has got me into the whole raw food craze. She makes these delicious energy balls with dates, nuts, and cacao. You can add goji berries and chia seeds if you’re feeling really jazzy. Can’t go wrong with a good banana though.
What has been your most memorable kiting experience?
Kiting amongst the icebergs at the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina has got to be up there. It was a bit of a mission to get on the lake because you had to hike a bit with all of the gear and I’m not sure it was strictly “allowed”… It was absolutely freezing but those icebergs were pretty cool up close. I had to land on one too while I was out there. But, this didn’t end up going very well as it broke into hundreds of pieces moments later. I’m sure that was vandalism or something. I’m not sure I should be telling you this.
Moving on from your brief history as a vandal … Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
I really enjoy kiting competitions; Riding in high pressure situations like that can sometimes surprise me with what I am capable of. I wouldn’t say that I am competitive though, I like checking out what the other girls can do at the comps. I find it inspiring. Last week in Christchurch I was competing with my sister which is always fun.
My family are all great kiters. It’s always cool to go on kiting adventures with them. They all have been hugely supportive in terms of competition. For three years in a row I competed on the British Freestyle Competition Circuit. This involved a bit of skipping school and a lot driving around in our “kite RV” to spots scattered around the UK coast.
As a young professional athlete, what would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career?
Baggage allowance. I’m not kidding! At one point while I was competing on the Kiteboard Tour Asia. I was traveling with 50 kg of gear – two boards and too many kites. No less than four times I found myself in tears at the excess baggage counter at Hong Kong airport in order to avoid paying those hefty fines. I’m ashamed to say that the tears worked, apart from the Philippines. But to be fair, I was boarding a really tiny plane that time.
You seem to lead a very active life, how do you keep yourself healthy?
Water. I drink loads of it. I feel very lucky that we have access to so much clean tap water. And I love fruits and veggies. I have to get my fix. This was a problem on a recent kiting trip to Tajikistan. (The lake) lies at 12,000 feet (in) altitude in a mountainous region where it is almost impossible to grow any vegetables. (Vegetables) have to be brought in from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Which is a five hour difficult drive away. Crazy huh? The people who live here are incredibly tough!
Being outside is pretty important too I reckon. Kitesurfing’s good for that – getting outside whatever the weather.
You’re managing to juggle a professional kite surfing career while traveling the world and still are attending university fulltime. That’s really impressive. How do you manage to stay balanced?
It’s hard balancing a sport like kitesurfing and studying, but I think I just about get away with it. The difficulty and the beauty of kiting is that it depends on the wind. So you can’t just allocate a few training days a week, you have to go when it’s windy enough. So sometimes lectures get skipped if I think it’s worthwhile. I find airplanes excellent places to write essays! Cruising at 36,000 feet can be inspiring.
How do you think kiting has benefited you as a person?
I think it’s helped teach me how to make the best of hard situations. Not every session goes to plan; the wind might drop, you might be struggling to land a trick, or you might break some gear. But you learn that any time on the water is good experience and it’s important for progression. Yesterday we were kiting in 35 knots and rain, the painful sideways sort (of rain). It definitely wasn’t my most beautiful performance on the water, but it was cool to be able to make the most out of the bad conditions.
Do you think kite surfing is a sport that anyone can pick up?
Yes! I really do. It’s a common myth that you have to be strong. It’s actually more about kite skills that anything else. Once you have that sorted, adding the board is easy. A secondhand kit* is easy to pick up on eBay. Lessons will set you back a little, but it’s worth getting a few with someone qualified to begin with. Most people only take a few days to pick it up before they can get out on the water solo!
*Kit: Set of gear