Evan Netsch’s Ultimate Guide to Cape Hatteras Kitesurfing and Wing Foiling
with pro rider Evan Netsch / photos by Nicol Lalben
Need to Know:
Airport Code: ORF
Average Wind Strength: Frontal winds / Summer Thermals (15-30 knots)
Best Months: April-November
Local pros: Evan Netsch, Reider Decker
Where to Stay: Watermen’s Retreat watermenretreat.com
Cape Hatteras: where the raw force of nature meets the passion of adventure. It’s a place like no other on the East Coast, an enigma wrapped in the heartbeats of crashing waves and the whispering gusts of the wind. Local pro rider Evan Netsch, accompanied by the evocative imagery of Nicol Lalben, delve deep into this haven of extreme sports.
For Evan, the allure of Cape Hatteras is more than just about the sport – it’s about the indomitable spirit shaped by the wind, surf, and ever-changing weather. As a young enthusiast, little did he know that the playful waves and formidable gusts of this unique terrain would shape his destiny.
Today, the reputation of Cape Hatteras precedes itself. Recognized globally as a hub for kitesurfing, and the emerging sport of wing foiling, it holds a special place in the hearts of many, yet remains the cherished home to a selective few. Let Evan Netsch guide you through the mesmerizing world of Cape Hatteras.
The Outer Banks is a pretty unique place compared to the rest of the East Coast. It’s a small community that explodes with tourism in the summer, but can be very quiet in the winter. For many people it’s too quiet and too removed from mainstream America. It’s exposed to the natural elements and my life has always revolved around these elements; the wind, the surf and the weather. Without a doubt, the conditions that the outer banks offer are what have moulded me today. During those years growing up enjoying the wind and the waves, I had no idea how a sport that seemingly had no career path would shape my life.
At this point, it’s pretty much common knowledge that Cape Hatteras is one of the most iconic riding places in the US. It has made its mark on the world stage of windsurfing, kiting and now winging. Hatteras is a destination for many, but home to few. It’s a pretty hard place to spend a full 12 months of the year, but at times the conditions just can’t be beat.
Graveyard of the Atlantic
Cape Hatteras reaches far out into the Atlantic; it is one of the closest points to the continental shelf, brutally exposed to the elements. The island is not much more than a thin sandbar that is shaped by wind and currents. Many people rightfully question how responsible it is to even inhabit such a place. Hurricanes have carved new inlets in the island in the last ten years alone. Keeping the roads and access to the island open is a constant battle, but not a new challenge. Navigating to and from this island has always been an endeavour. The Outer Banks hold a rich history dating back to the first English settlements in the modern United States. The first explorers battled the same weather and shifting landscape that we face today.
At the easternmost tip, Diamond Shoals divides the north and south Atlantic extending off of Cape Point. With Cape Hatteras being so far from the mainland and hugged by the warm Gulf Stream, this brings warmer water but also storms, wind, waves and constantly shifting sandbars and shoals. Coined the Graveyard of the Atlantic, this region started taking down ships over 400 years ago with no end in sight; modern ships still fall victim to the constant weather changes and shallow sandbars along the coast.
With a shallow and protected sound on the west side of the island and a coastline exposed to the Atlantic swells and wind on the East Coast, these two options offer nearly opposite riding conditions just a minute’s walk from the other. There are many great kiting destinations around the world and frankly many may be more consistent for waves or wind, but few offer such variety. World class riding in so many different disciplines with the ability to pick and choose between what you ride on the same day. This versatility Cape Hatteras offers is truly what makes it unique and stands out as one of the best places to ride in the world.
The conditions are no secret though, especially in the spring and fall. As the northern hemisphere is just starting to heat up for the season Hatteras is one of those first places to turn on. The Gulf Stream helps keep the temperatures in check even in the coldest winter months. With Hatteras being one of the first places to warm up and last places to cool off on the east coast in the fall, this only adds to the appeal, offering an extension to your riding season. Many people make the drive from their nearby home states, especially in the early and late seasons.
From Pirates to Modern Sailing
Windsurfers and kiters are not the first people to be drawn to Hatteras for the wind. In 1903 the Wright Brothers, famous for inventing the airplane, came to the Outer Banks to make their dream a reality. With the assistance of the sand dunes, open areas, and of course the consistent wind conditions, they were able to achieve flight. Prior to the Wright Brothers, pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries used the island and its treacherous conditions as a hideout and lured merchant ships to wreck on the shallow shoals to pillage their valuables. Blackbeard, the most famous English pirate, called this place home and was finally caught in Pamlico South and killed on his stolen ship the Queens Anne’s Revenge. This history is part of the 2,000 shipwrecks that now litter North Carolina’s coastline and legitimize its name the graveyard of the Atlantic.
What was a hazard in the past is an attraction today, putting Hatteras on the map for surfing and wind sports. Without a doubt, I was incredibly lucky to grow up here. Still, after 20 years of kiting, it can be hard to leave knowing that nearly every day the island offers some sort of riding condition. While I have travelled to places that might have better waves or more consistent wind, I have yet to find a place that offers such a variety, on any given day. This is what keeps me coming home every year; nearly every day can be different, and have me torn between different riding disciplines. From surfing and windsurfing as a little kid, my garage now continues to fill up with more options every year. Foils have taken things a step further down the rabbit hole. Without a doubt, this variety of condition has shaped my riding.
Around the world foils have expanded the range of fun conditions everywhere and Hatteras is no exception. The beauty in winging and foiling is that it works out to be the perfect backup plan as subpar conditions all of a sudden turn epic. We usually get pretty good consistent surf in the spring and fall but the summer can turn a bit flat. Pair what was previously a fairly unexciting 1-to-2 foot wave with the SW trade winds and you’ve some pretty ideal side-off wing days. The island is so narrow in most places that even side-offshore wind is fairly unobstructed and totally rideable.
When to Visit
While Hatteras is famous for crazy weather patterns and quickly changing conditions, there are a few typical wind patterns. SW wind is ideally what you want for flatwater riding and is the most common wind direction, especially in the late spring and summer. This direction also works for riding waves in side-off conditions or side-on at the south end of the island. Usually starting out pretty light in the morning and by sunset, it can be in the mid-30s. In the non-summer months, we also get a lot of NE wind which generally lends itself better to oceanside riding and will quickly generate a wind swell. NE unusually comes in for a few days at a time and if we are lucky on the backside of the NE wind pattern we will get a NW wind which is generally pretty light leaving us with some fun surf as the remaining swell from the NE wind slowly fades away. South or Southeast is more of a rare wind direction but still brings its unique fun. In a straight south wind, the northern part of the Outer Banks tends to get a bit better as the island bends just a little bit and funnels the wind between Roanoke Island and Nags Head making these the better days up north. As the wind keeps shifting more SE this generally brings some rain but gives a nice opportunity for side-onshore wave riding, which is otherwise only found all the way down in Frisco in the summer time SW. I can’t complain about the NE side-onshore wave riding options either, but being a regular footer the opportunity to ride to the right and be front side is an opportunity that I try not to miss.
While we get the rare NE days in the summer, most of the shots you see here are on classic SW wind days. Most summer days for me start by trying to get out for a morning surf or foil if there is any swell. Back in my younger days, I was eager to get out for the 6 a.m. kite session before work, but as time has passed or I have become spoiled, I tend to save my kite energy for later in the day. At about 2 p.m. the wind will kick in. This is when the decisions have to be made. If there is a wave for kiting in the ocean this is the go-to choice. If the waves are small then I will default to a wing session, but if the wind is nuking, this is when some of the famous sound side downwinders such as the Planet of the Apes really light up.
On the windiest SW days, the wind will push a few extra inches of water against the shoreline. The sound is tidal, but can be far less impacted by the tide than the wind. The side-on wind will literally blow the water to one side of the sound and pile it up on the shoreline. With just an extra 6-to-8 inches of water sometimes whole new areas will expose themselves to ride through. Exploring by kite, jumping over points of land and marsh is something that I still have just as much fun doing today as I did at 12 years old.
Now if this all sounds too good to be true, it kind of is. I’m all about honesty and Hatteras comes with its downsides as well. Besides being pretty far out of the way to get to (which can help keep the crowds down) the main drawback for myself is the lack of a proper point break, with the exception of a rare sandbar that might come and go within a season or a week. There is not any solid landmass to hold a permanent break, so for nearly every swell it is always a bit of a hunt. This lack of a solid landmass also makes the island fragile and susceptible to storms. This spring alone two houses washed into the ocean as the sand got eroded out from under them during a week of strong NE wind. Hopefully you like beach breaks, because if you are looking for that perfect peeling point break wave, you are going to be disappointed. While we are not South Africa status sharky, the water still has a lot of life in it, and we can just leave it at that. You also might want to keep an eye out while kiting for fishermen or that one guy who somehow has an especially long cast from the shore. The fisherman don’t appreciate kiters getting wrapped in their lines and no one wants to find the hook at the end of a line either. Besides that, the place really can be a dreamland, well, except for hurricane season.
As you drive onto Hatteras Island you will come over the Oregon Inlet bridge on the famous HWY 12 and the sand swept road looks like it could just disappear and that is because it can. It does, usually a few times a year. There are often bulldozers permanently parked on the side to clear the sand off, especially in the fall as the constant NE winds batter the shoreline shifting the sand around. The occasional storm may take enough beach and sand to bring a house or two down. This erosion isn’t abnormal for a barrier island, it is naturally meant to erode on the ocean side and replenish itself on the sound side, slowly migrating from east to west. But with homes, roads, and property lines that people do not want to see disappear, it is a constant battle that is slowly being lost.
For me what makes Hatteras so special is all of this. If it were too perfect it would become boring. The constantly changing/challenging conditions keep each day and session unique. That mystery of what tomorrow will bring keeps me around. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want that perfect wave or conditions, but knowing something different or possibly better is just around the bend in the forecast… some might call it FOMO, but it is really just the daily search that keeps the excitement alive.
5 Best Cape Hatteras Kitesurfing Launch Spots
1. Planet of the Apes: Famous launch point between Salvo and Avon for sound side downwinders. Epic flatwater. Best in SW wind.
2. The Lighthouse: The only quasi-point break on Hatteras. Fun left-hand wave in N-NE wind.
3. Isabel’s: This parking area is for sound side access or ocean side in Frisco. The sound side access faces north, making it one of the few places to find onshore wind in the sound in NE wind. Or the ocean side access for side-onshore ocean riding in SW wind. This is also a common place to ride side-off in the ocean during N-NE wind as the island is narrow and the wind remains fairly clean still in side-off conditions.
4: Ferry Docks: Launch point for ocean side downwinders in SW winds. (Watch out for fisherman here!)
5: Kite Point/Canadian or Wing Hole: Kite point is about a quarter of a mile south of Canadian Hole. This is a common flatwater riding spot for NE wind. Kites stay at Kite Point and windsurfers and now wingers stay to the north at Canadian Hole, which has been recently dubbed Wing Hole as it is one of the deeper sound side areas that works well for winging.
6: Almost anywhere: It’s just too hard to sum up Hatteras in five locations, that’s the beauty of Hatteras Island. There are so many options for any wind direction. All of the ocean side ramps are where you can drive onto the beach, along with tons of private and public sound side access. Pretty much anywhere besides Pea Island, which is the area south of Rodanthe to Oregon Inlet where kiting has been banned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Be sure to check out Kitesurfing Magazine’s Cape Hatteras Downwinder Guide.