By Amanda N. Wegner | Photo courtesy Lester Crisman
Charlie Vogel loves to fly, on and off the water.
Local residents may recognize Vogel from a distance — he’s a regular on Geneva Lake, dancing and flying on the water with his kite and board. Now a corporate pilot and professional kiteboarder, the Lake Geneva area is where Vogel developed his love for the outdoors.
“I was raised in southern Wisconsin, which has cultivated my love for the outdoors, especially water and wind,” says Vogel. “I was fortunate enough to grow up with Lake Geneva as my backyard playground. It was here I learned how to sail, windsurf and live life outside of the ‘comfort zone.’”
STEERING BY THE WIND
Kiteboarding is an action sport where the sailor uses a controllable kite to harness the energy of the wind to ride the water on a board. “I always tell people to envision wakeboarding or waterskiing behind a helicopter,” says Vogel. “That always raises an eyebrow.”
Although the sport is relatively new, its basis is rooted in ancient technology: it is believed that kites were first invented by two Chinese philosophers in the 5th century B.C. Through the ages, kite design advanced, with kites eventually being used to help propel carts and small watercraft. It wasn’t until 1977, however, that kitesurfing was first patented as a water sport, and it didn’t immediately gain widespread interest. In the following years, however, a pair of French brothers developed the first sport-specific kites, and through the 1980s and ’90s, pioneers of the sport developed and refined kites to optimize speed and maneuverability. Kiteboarding initially gained traction in Hawaii, and the first competition was held in 1998.
Vogel came to the sport via windsurfing after discovering it with his brother Hans. “We were die-hard windsurfers,” Vogel explains. “One day, we went to the windsurf store in Kenosha and the owner was playing a VHS tape of these guys catching huge air with kites while riding surfboards. My brother looked over at me and said, ‘We need that!’”
The brothers initially tried to teach themselves how to kiteboard, which Vogel says, “led to our mom having to pick us up on every shoreline of Lake Geneva” before they learned to control the direction of the board. Ultimately, they signed up for a few lessons in Florida, which helped them learn kiting basics and gave them the foundational skills needed to kite in the Midwest.
In the intervening years, kiteboarding has become an important part of Vogel’s life. He’s been featured in “The Kiteboarder Magazine” and is a team affiliate for Duotone Kiteboarding, which he has represented at promotional events and competitions, providing media content for their advertising efforts. He explains that his attraction to the sport is twofold: “You don’t think about anything else when you are kiteboarding,” he says. “It’s a mind cleanse. Also, how you can use Mother Nature as your playground — it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Kiteboarding has taken Vogel around the globe; he’s harnessed the wind and hit the waves in Turks and Caicos, Greece, the Middle East and off the California coast. “That’s the beautiful part about kiteboarding,” says Vogel. “It takes me to places in the world I never knew about. However, riding in my backyard of Lake Geneva is my favorite spot.” There are two popular places for kiteboarding in the area: the Fontana Beach and Lake Geneva’s Riviera Beach, though Vogel says it’s important to note that sometimes kiteboarding from the beach is restricted as it’s a popular and crowded destination in the summer.
The best place, he reports, depends on wind direction for the day. Fontana is the better choice if it’s a northeasterly wind, as Vogel notes the winds have a good “fetch” and are more organized. Lake Geneva is good if the winds are southwesterly. In the summer, launching from a boat in the middle of the lake is an option.
In 2012, Vogel graduated from high school and took his passion for the outdoors and sport to Park City, Utah, where he worked in mountain operations and taught skiing at Deer Valley Ski Resort. Utah is also where he built his skills and gained experience in other forms of flying.
“My goal was to become a helicopter pilot and aerial photographer,” says Vogel. “I started flying fixed-wing airplanes and tapped back into my love of flight. Because I love to teach, I worked toward my flight instructor certificate and started instructing college students to help them earn their wings.”
By 2018, Vogel had accrued 1,000 hours of flight time and accepted a First Officer position flying an Embraer E-175 airliner for American Eagle Airlines, based out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which brought him back to his Midwest roots. “It’s been a tough but beautiful journey that has shown me that anything is possible,” he says.
What Vogel loves about being a pilot is that it connects his passions. “I love being in the outdoors — being a pilot, sailing, kiteboarding. With all of it, you have to understand the weather, the wind and how those elements line up,” says Vogel. “There are no two flights that have ever been the same. It’s the same with kiteboarding. It’s always a new adventure, a new experience.”
Vogel says that working as a pilot and pursuing kiteboarding opportunities are complementary activities. Thanks to kiteboarding design that includes inflatable kites and a board that folds in half, he can fit everything he needs to hit the waves in a single backpack. “Recently, I had a flight to California with just my backpack and everything I needed in it: my board, my kite, lines and a wetsuit. It’s better than any other type of wind sport because you don’t have to transport a bunch of stuff.”
While Vogel embraces his primary job of piloting commercial airliners, he also loves tapping into his creative side by photographing action sports — mostly sailors, kiteboarders and skiers. “This is my niche, as I’ve been on both sides of the camera and know how to capture the beauty of each action sport,” he explains. “Balancing everything is tricky, but when you are truly passionate about work, hobby or sport, you make it happen. I love sharing my passion and the adventure of life with others. I’m on a constant grind to better myself and the communities I embody.”
RIDING THE WAVES
From leisurely sailing to more thrill-seeking windsurfing and kiteboarding, the Lake Geneva area is a prime destination for watersports. “Geneva Lake can be a beautiful place to kiteboard with the right winds and experience level,” says Vogel. “We get amazing northeasterly and westerly winds that make for steady wind, which is great for kiting. The spring and fall are especially iconic times to kiteboard with the seasonal winds and the leaves changing colors.” Fall and spring are also good times for kiteboarding — often better than summer — because they are windier times in southern Wisconsin, reports Vogel. “It’s windy four to five times per week in the spring and fall. You can almost ride every day of the week if you’re willing to freeze,” he laughs. Last year, Vogel himself kiteboarded into January when the lake finally froze.
He says that good candidates for kiteboarding have two important skills. The first is experience with board sports, whether on the water or snow. The second is some knowledge and experience of sailing, especially working with and manipulating the wind. “When you can combine those two aspects — sailing and board sports, that’s where people find success,” says Vogel.
Persistence is also required to be a kiteboarder. “There is a learning curve, but I always tell people to embrace being a newbie at this sport,” says Vogel. “If you can look at it in that regard, you can watch yourself evolve and grow.” You also need to be a go-getter. “When the conditions line up, you almost have to drop everything you’re doing and be willing to go out and pursue kiteboarding,” he adds.
Vogel recommends that aspiring kiteboarders start by learning some basics of the sport — just as he and his brother did — before hitting the big lake. And since it’s best to learn in shallow waters, Vogel suggests connecting with Bob Cook of Kite Riders, LLC in the Madison area, who has been teaching the sport since the early days of kiteboarding. “It is important to be able to stand [in the water] while learning to control a kite,” he explains. “There are a few shallow lakes in the Madison area, which are ideal to learn on. Iron out the basics and then come back to the Lake Geneva area to explore our stunning lake!”
Asked for advice, Vogel encourages aspiring kiteboarders to explore all sailing opportunities on local lakes to help new learners build a solid foundation in wind sports. “While the barrier to entry and learning curve might seem steep, there are local camps, clubs and sailing schools that provide strong programs to get people out on the water. We live in a hidden gem of the world,” he says. “I love helping people get into the sport, as it is new and upcoming, and I want to help grow it here in southern Wisconsin.”