Stepping into the World of Professional Kitesurfing with Stephan Zaat
15 Jul 2020
IKO met up with Stephan Zaat, IKO Examiner and owner of IKO Center Kitesafe to discuss how kitesurfing changed his life and whether COVID-19 has had a large impact on his business. Read all about it:
How did you get into kitesurfing?
Stephan: In 2001, a good friend of mine who was a windsurfer was in Scheveningen, the Netherlands and he saw some people kitesurfing. He said “Oh my God, Stephan, we have to do this!” It then took us about a year to get a lesson, on the right day with the exact right conditions but, we started. It then took us about a year to go upwind and do our first jumps but we were stoked! We were on the beach every day, every weekend, driving back and forth to the beach. Even with no wind, you know how it goes, and it was great. I’ve been kiting ever since.
When did you decide to start pursuing kiteboarding professionally?
Stephan: After kiting for about a year, I thought it would be interesting to teach some lessons, just on the side as I also had a normal office job. I then went on holiday to the Dutch Caribbean, to Curacao and Bonaire. On Bonaire we met a school owner and I told him “hey, this is where I want to be.” So then I went back home, cancelled my job and six months later I was back there teaching! This was in 2004.
At this point I was just teaching for the school. Or well, at this point in time you’d have a leaking boat, 3 kites and you could call it a school. From there onwards, we started doing things more professionally. We did our IKO courses and started hiring people. We got more boats, more kites and so the school started to grow. I was there for about 3 years, living the life in the Caribbean!
And then you returned to the Netherlands and started your own school?
Stephan: Yes, in 2008 I returned to the Netherlands and started Kitesafe. I based the school around Amsterdam, teaching from a van so it would be a mobile school. In 2008 I also started teaching the IKO Instructor Level 1 course as an Examiner and I have been doing that ever since then for almost 12 years now.
Did you experience any issues when you were setting up your school or getting your Examiner’s license?
Stephan: From a school point of view in the Netherlands it’s quite easy to set up because there are no licenses necessary. Although it is becoming much more professional now, from a government point of view, anyone could really start his own school. In the Dutch Antilles it was a different story as there were many issues with the local nature parks and windsurfing schools so we really had to get a license to be able to teach there.
As for becoming an Examiner, I was on a fast track. I did my IKO Instructor Level 1 course in 2005 and then attained my Examiner’s license in 2007 which was exactly within the 2 years that was required at the time. I did all my hours, taught all the students required and there were forms to fill out by hand instead of online like nowadays but I made it and within 2 years I was an Examiner!
How has this affected your life?
Stephan: I think the biggest change was when I started teaching. Going from an office job to a beach job, that completely changed my life around. In the Netherlands, it’s not possible to do this on a full-time basis but if you have places where it’s always windy such as Brazil or in the Caribbean, you can really make a full-time job out of this quite easily. When you’re an Examiner, you’re on a different level because you can run these courses. This can even be done on the edges of the seasons or you can go abroad and do these courses in other places.
It made me look at kiteboarding from a different perspective. In some ways, I would say even a little bit negative because when you go to another place, you’re always looking at how the instructors are teaching and whether they’re doing it according to the IKO Standards. So even on holiday, you’re still working, your brain doesn’t turn off.
Have you been affected by COVID-19?
Stephan: Yes, so in March, we normally start the IKO courses here. Unfortunately, the day after the lockdown started, we had a course planned. So we had to cancel everything for the first month. But luckily in the Netherlands, they've been quite lenient and coming back to somewhat regular life relatively quickly. So, within about five weeks, we were able to start up and doing IKO courses again. We did our first Assistant course the day after the lockdown opened up and we’ve had a lot of people asking for the courses. We’re in the lucky position that we are an outside sports organization and we can operate as the inside sports schools are still closed.
Are there any implications for your school or any special measures that you're taking?
Stephan: Yes, we started out with a protocol for all kitesurfers coming for classes where we made sure the students were healthy, we had a waiver that all students had to sign and we were teaching with special leashes in the back on the student to the Instructor (with safety leash to kite on the front) to keep some more distance. Especially social distancing is important, it looks like kiteboarding classes in small groups are becoming more acceptable again now but we still keep our distance. It’s also good that some research has been done already. In kiteboarding, we are also generally working with younger people who are not in the risk group which is also an advantage. Overall, I think the kiteboarding business in the Netherlands is relatively unscathed compared to businesses to do with larger groups and crowds.
Do you have any advice for your colleagues?
Stephan: I don’t think we are doing things that differently but one of the main things is that we should examine the way outsiders look at us. Whether it’s government officials or just people passing by who are still in lockdown or at least not allowed to visit certain family members. We also need to show them that social distancing is something we can do and that we are serious about doing so and don’t fall back into our old habits easily.