Michael Schneider

Dancing with the wind

Creations of whimsy, imagination and hope, kites have long fascinated us earthbound humans. They allow us, their fliers, to vicariously escape the burdens of gravity—even life—as they soar through the heavens. And with lightweight modern materials, almost anything can be made to fly—even a 12-metre dolphin!

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On the third whistle, don’t think, just let go and run backwards 20 me­tres. Then sit down. You’ll be famous this afternoon!”

For a second time the instructions blared out. The pasty-skinned Dutchman in baggy shorts with socks and sandals seemed to be pointing his megaphone right at me.

I glanced around at my fellow ring-ins. None looked promising candidates for 15 minutes of fame. There must have been more than 40 of us, each hanging on to a rope around the edge of what appeared to be a partly collapsed marquee. Sev­eral were elderly women—shoppers from the nearby mall?—looking just as surprised as I was to be there. A dozen solid ropes anchored the bloated bag to a huge tractor on which perched a cameraman.

A whistle blew, and the first group of assistants dropped their ropes and  from 2500 metres of ripstop nylon) with fins beneath. Ten minutes of teetering flight later, the team brought it back to earth. A flock of preschoolers scattered as the sky fell towards them.

I was visiting the 1995 World Kite Festival, held over four days at Napier’s Anderson Park. In the cal­endar of serious kite fliers, this was one of the biggest events of the year, attracting a hundred or so fliers from 15 countries, and another hundred ran; 15 seconds later came the second blast, then the third, and my group galloped away as the whole monstros­ity lurched into the sky. The world’s largest kite was making its maiden flight in Aotearoan air, nursed by eight or nine Dutch handlers hauling on various ropes in a sterling attempt to compensate for the paucity of breeze.

Not the most aesthetic of kites, it resembled a vast striped air mattress (covering 553 square metres, sewn from around New Zealand.

Until Napier, my own acquaint­ance with kites had been both mini­mal and typical. As a ten-year-old I’d been given a conventional diamond-shaped kite—a piece of plastic stretched over a dowel frame, featur­ing a picture of Sputnik. It gave me many enjoyable hours of flying, and I had it for several years. At some unremembered point I grew out of it—weren’t kites just for kids?—and thought nothing more about the subject until my own kids reached kite-flying age.

Their first kites were nylon, flimsy, strangely shaped (a tangled orange octopus still lurks in my daughter’s wardrobe) and often un­stable in flight. Far inferior to the Sputnik of my youth. To be cata­pulted from this anaemic background to helping launch the world’s largest kite was a paradigm shift indeed!

All about me were fluttering crea­tions of beauty and whimsy repre­senting every figment of mind and nature. In this colouful heaven, any shape—and size—appeared capable of flight. A broad ribbon kite in the form of a filmstrip of Disney cartoon characters arched across the sky, vy­ing for attention with pterosaurs, a sailing ship, hexagons, an 80-metre­long snake with an Egyptian head, a cockroach, elaborate stacks of boxes, aerofoils, giant octopi, dolphins the size of whales, traditional Japanese and Thai kites, bird kites, jogging legs, zinging stunt kites, a castle, ser­pents, even a pair of less than flatter­ing faces titled “the in-laws.”

David Chandler, who describes himself as an “old-age pensioner,” was keeping an anxious eye on sev­eral large kites termed flowforms, somewhat akin to giant Port-a-loos, to my mind. From the hefty lines restraining the kites fluttered an ar­ray of what kite fliers call “line junk”—items which provide decora­tion, but no lift. One of David’s at­tachments was a huge flag proclaim­ing “Proud to be Tasmanian.”

Like most serious kite fliers, David designs and makes his own kites, “on a 30-year-old Singer sewing machine at home.” Kite flying has taken him around the world several times in the 15 years that he has been in the sport. But the kites have exacted a toll, too. His wrist was strapped, following a recent run-in with a large kite; he’s shy of a knuckle after it was frag­mented in another accident, and has suffered neck and shoulder injuries.

Like other fliers I spoke to, when David has kites aloft his mind is only half with you. Over the next few days I saw his slightly hunched form scurrying busily all over the park, but if anything went amiss with one of his several kites being flown by assistants, within seconds he was there, as if the kite line were an umbilical cord extending from his own soul.

At the opposite end of the construction spectrum was James Au, president of the Hong Kong Kite Association. None of his kites was larger than a metre, and some could fit inside a child’s mouth. All were constructed from silk stretched around slivers of bamboo, and bore intricate, exquisitely painted traditional Chi­nese designs such as birds and flying insects. The smallest were controlled by lines fine as cotton thread.

Kites are thought to have originated with the Chinese perhaps 3000 years ago, constructed from the same materials that James Au uses today. Between 500 and 1000 A.D., kites appeared in other parts of Asia, including Japan, Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia, and from there spread into Melanesia and Polynesia. Kite flying became enormously popular throughout much of south-east Asia as a pastime, and found military application as well.

In the late 1600s, when King Phra Phetracha of Thailand was unable to capture a rebel city by conventional warfare, pots of gunpowder with long fuses were carried by kites over the walls, setting fire to houses within. During the ensuing commotion, the king’s soldiers were able to enter and subdue the city.

Royal kites were often flown at night, illuminated with lanterns, and a gold coin might be tied to the kite to reward anyone who returned it in case of loss.

At Napier a group from Thailand demonstrated traditional Chula and Pakpao kite combats. During the contest the larger Chula kite, representing the male, attempts to snare or cut down the smaller, more nim­ble female Pakpao kite, while she tries to do something similar to him. The Chula has bamboo barbs on its line for snagging the female, and she has a loop of string and a long tail with which to entangle him.

Each side in the battle has numerous kites, of which only one or two can be in the air at a time, and the winning team is the one which has downed the greatest number of opposition kites in 45 minutes.

Kite fighting is also popular in India and Japan. Usually the kites are small, squarish, and highly manoeu­vrable. They are made from thin pa­per and bamboo, and flown on lines impregnated with grains of glass. Occasionally, entire communities in Japan fabricate huge kites (weighing several tons) and wage friendly war on neighbouring communities during week-long festivals.

Since 1983, the Japanese Rokkaku style of kite fighting has been adopted with enthusiasm by the western kite-flying fraternity. Rokkakus are siz­able (more than two metres high), and, like most of the fighters, are sin­gle line kites, but that doesn’t imply that they are not manoeuvrable. With a tight line, they travel in whatever direction the main vertical spar is pointing. To change direction, you feed out a little line, allowing the kite to flutter downwards, then tighten it when the spine points in the desired direction. The rules are pretty sim­ple: no intentional physical contact between teams on the ground, and the last kite in the sky is the winner.

Although glassed lines are not permitted, even normal lines rubbing together can cut. Swoop below an opponent, then rise quickly, and the rising kite’s fast running line will sever the other’s line in just a few seconds. Wallowing from side to side, the loosed kite floats to the ground, while the victorious team, yelling “Katsuru!” charges off in search of other victims.

A common tactic—familiar, no doubt, to viewers of America’s Cup yachting—entails stealing another kite’s air by flying just upwind (with kites this can be mere centimetres away), and thereby forcing the opponent down.

As I gaze into a sky spangled with shimmering colour and alive with graceful movement, I can appreciate why many kite enthusiasts would claim a metaphysical dimension to their craft. “Through an upraised hand holding a single length of string, we experience the joining of heaven and earth,” writes the Japanese kite master Tsutomu Hiroi. Kites are an extension of ourselves, he says. When we fly them, it as as though we ourselves were flying.

There certainly is something miraculous about a kite in motion. Resting on the ground it is just another object, a piece of the furniture. But leash it to the breeze and it becomes a living thing, dancing with the clouds, zig-zagging across the boundless blue vault of heaven.

[Chapter Break]

Though Kite Flight may be captivating, kite diversity can be bewildering to a novice. The most basic distinction is be tween single and multiple line kites. All decorative kites have a single control line, but they are not all alike. Some, such as box kites, have frames, while most of the more fanciful forms—and all the really large models—lack frames and are called soft kites, inflated to their elaborate forms by the wind blowing into them. For a kite to perform aerobatics, two or four control lines are required, and these kites are usually supported by tough frames. Some stunt kites reach speeds of over 150 kilometres per hour.

One of only a handful of New Zealanders who are making an original contribution to kite design, Yvonne de Mille of Christchurch spe­cialises in large frame kites with bold but complex designs. Two striking examples she has at Napier depict women’s heads, one hand-dyed on to silk. “Silk is traditional, but really, it’s terrible stuff,” she confides. “Last year I made a silk banner that was five feet long, but after a day or two in the wind it was reduced to a quarter that length. Although it is quite a bit lighter than nylon, the colours don’t come out as bright, and I won’t use it again.”

As the wind freshens, she launches a larger nylon face surrounded by a spider web. “Very few women are ac­tive in kite flying,” she tells me. “My theory is that men have more leisure and are better at self promotion. Women are more likely to be in a support role, or doing the sewing, although the man will still usually claim to have made the kite.” She grins wryly. “It’s taken me ten years to achieve any recognition.”

One or two of Yvonne’s special kites have been sold to discerning overseas buyers, but none in New Zealand. “Locally, nobody has the money to pay what they are really worth. Taking account of time and materials, this should be worth $4000. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be able to get more than $2000 for it, here or abroad.”

Yvonne’s husband Des Pitfield has a penchant for box kites. “I love their three-dimensionality, and the play of light through the different layers and angles of the fabric,” he tells me. To my uninformed eye, box kites look as aerodynamic as chests of drawers. Des explains: “Every horizontal sur­face provides lift, and every vertical surface gives stability. If they’re nei­ther vertical nor horizontal, they con­tribute a bit of both.”

Box kites are nothing new. Mod­ern development is attributed to Lawrence Hargrave, an Englishman who emigrated to Australia in his teens, and invented the box kite there in 1893. Its superior lifting power and stability were soon recognised. Samuel Cody, a Texan cowboy who was a friend of (but not related to) Buffalo Bill, modi­fied the Hargraves kite by adding wings to it, and the design remains a popular kite to this day.

Cody was convinced that his kite (which he patented in 1901), had great practical potential. To publicise its pulling power, he crossed the English channel in 1903 in a kite-powered dinghy. During extensive trials over the next two years, he showed that a system using several of his kites could lift men safely and effectively. A soldier was lifted to 800 metres by Cody’s device, and the War Office adopted the system for army observation in 1906.

Cody went on to become the first man in Britain to build and fly an aircraft (in October 1908), and the term “kite” as slang for an aeroplane is thought to have come from this era when flying machines were little more than powered box kites. Cody also became Britain’s first aircraft fatality, when one of his planes disintegrated in August 1913.

Arguably history’s most famous kite flier, Benjamin Franklin tapped electricity from thunderclouds via a wet kite string in 1752, and charged a primitive battery with it. This rather foolhardy experiment made Franklin something of an international celebrity, and it has been suggested that had it not been for his reputation in France, the French would not have assisted America in bringing the War of Independence to a successful conclusion. Franklin’s kite may have recast world history!

So much for kites in science and politics; what about art?

Some have termed kite flying “the celestial art,” and, indeed, one can imagine kites as aerial paintbrushes, dabbing colour here, streaking it there, decorating the sky. And if Cristo can wrap a coastline with fabric and call it sculpture, how much more can the pirouette of a kite be said to harmonise and humanise the space above our heads.

On more than one occasion, kites have served as an actual art gallery. In the late 1980s, Paul Eubel invited some hundred international artists to submit works on traditional Japanese washi paper to be exhibited as kites constructed and flown by Japanese masters. The collection has been flown in Japan, France and Australia, but has been seen in more conventional indoor settings in more than 20 other places.

Practical Kiwis harness kites to more prosaic uses from time to time. Self-launching scarecrow kites have been used by orchardists to protect their crops, and fishing enthusiasts sometimes use kites to get their hooks out beyond the breakers where the really big ones lurk.

Kites also represent an inexpensive, although somewhat erratic, route to aerial photography. In the subantarctic, where light planes and landing strips are scarce, such photography has been used in taking censuses of seals and penguins. During World War II, small kites hoisted radio aerials from liferafts, an application Marconi pioneered with the first international radio broadcast in 1901, from England to Nova Scotia.

Modern materials—improved ripstop nylons and carbon fibre spars—make most contemporary kites lighter and stronger than their predecessors. For the flier, these gains translate into an ability to fly faster and in gentler breezes. Indeed, it is possible to fly kites indoors merely by walking slowly backwards. The world record for indoor flight is four hours, four minutes and four seconds. (A spectator described the record attempt as “one of the most boring things I have ever seen.”)

Watching Ray Bethell in action was far from boring. He was out on the field in Napier in any wind, controlling not one stunt kite but three simultaneously, leaning back into the wind, twisting, running forward, straightening up—total concentration. Sometimes the kites swooped in unison about the sky, other times one would be hurtling up while its partners on either side were screaming down. Literally screaming—these kites make a terrific noise. Always they were in a choreographed routine.

Ray, a resident of Vancouver, is 68—hardly the age to be doing daily battle with kites that can pull even the strongest off balance, you might think. But shake hands with him and it’s like getting your hand caught in a rock crusher.

Each kite has two control lines. Ray manages one kite with his right hand, another with his left and the third from his hips. He has flown five at a time, and reckons he could control as many as seven at once, by attaching them also to his ankles, knees, chest, and head. To me, that’s like playing seven chess games at once. Blindfolded.

“I’ve been doing this since 1980,” he tells me, “since my wife and I saw some of the early stunt kites in Hawaii. I try and fly 10 hours a day, seven days a week in a Vancouver park.

Its very therapeutic. We have doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, dentists, computer operators roll up at the park with their kites and growl about what a lousy day it is. After just 15 minutes—that’s all it takes—they’re transformed. ‘Great to see you, Ray!’ they shout. Got a problem? Kite flying won’t get rid of it, but it will sure help you deal with it.”

Stunt fliers like a good breeze, but when the wind gets too strong, fliers of big kites get nervous, because their kites can exert an astonishing pull.

On the second day of the Napier festival, two large soft kites dragged a van to which they were tethered across the ground, knocking over a girl who was in its path. Although she was not seriously injured, the incident served as a reminder of the hazards of kite flying.

The most common cause of accidents is people becoming entangled in the lines of a large kite and being lifted off the ground. Steve Edeiken, a well-known Californian kite maker, died when a large kite in which he had become snared released him 80 metres above Long Beach.

Civil Aviation considers kites to be a potential hazard to aircraft, and attempts to regulate their activities. Anne Whitehead, who, with husband Peter, produces the newsletter of the New Zealand Kitefliers As­sociation and edits an international kite fly­ing magazine, tells me that model airplanes are allowed to fly to 500 feet, whereas kites are restricted to 250 feet. “At Napier we se­cured a special dispen­sation to fly to 500 ft, but were forbidden to fly after 5.30 in the evening, which was a shame because night flying is half the fun,” Anne laments. “You can attach fireworks, Different coloured lights to each side, humming devices, use lasers and spotlights, do all sorts of things to make kites spectacular in the night sky. Next year Wellington is to have a wind festival, and at night the airport will close to allow night kite flying there. Clos­ing an international airport for kite flying will be a world first, we think.”

Anne and Peter met on a kite field, and both are committed kite makers and fliers. Several rooms of their Wellington house are given over to kites. In the work room rolls of ripstop nylon jostle for space with lengths of fibreglass, carbon fibre, fishing rod blanks, connectors for joining rods, and reels of line and braid. Under the glass-topped cut­ting table are piles of kites folded away into bags-200 of them, Anne thinks.

Nylon is cut with a hot wire that seals the edge and causes it to adhere gently to the glass. Stitching happens in a separate sewing room. “In a good year we manage to make three or four new kites,” says Anne.

International festivals loom large in the lives of serious kite fliers. The Whiteheads try to get to one each year. “There are fewer than a hun­dred makers of large [six-metres-plus] kites worldwide, so we are really a small international fraternity that meets at festivals. There we see what everyone else is producing, and get inspired with fresh ideas as to what is possible,” Anne explains. “In New Zealand, apart from ourselves, only Peter Lynn and Yvonne de Mille make large kites.”

Peter Lynn of Ashburton—eru­dite, opinionated—is the undisputed doyen of New Zealand kite designers and fliers. Some say he is the fore­most exponent of kites worldwide, and his lifestyle lends some credence to the claim. Last year he was out of the country for seven months, attend­ing 37 kite festivals in all parts of the globe.

In recent years, he has become known for his kite-powered buggies and, more latterly, boats.

Lynn initiated the current interest in kite-powered vehicles when asked to do something different for a 1990 kite festival in Thailand. He designed a compact three-wheeled stainless steel sport buggy. In these low-slung racers, terra firma is only 10 cm dis­tant from the backsides of riders as they hurtle about at speeds approach­ing 70 kilometres per hour in favour­able conditions. The power comes from a two- or four-line steerable kite held by the rider, who steers the buggy by pressure on the extended front wheel axle, which also serves as a foot rest. There are no brakes.

Kite-powered boats have proved more problematic. “They just don’t perform as well as windsurfers, and we are competing for the same buy­ers. A lot of the problem is in our kites versus sails. Yacht sails have a lift to drag ratio of about nine, but our traction kites can’t get above five. None of the other manufacturers have been able to get beyond five either. We can make kites with a lift to drag ratio of 20, but you can’t fly them. They swing so far around the side of the wind window that the wind starts blowing on their tops, and before you know it they are blowing towards you, collapsed and out of control.

“Over a triangular course, a buggy can more or less keep up with a land yacht, because the buggy is more ma­noeuvrable, although not as fast. On ice with ski runners, we are really fast, but in the water we are only half as fast as windsurfers, and we have to do better. That’s why over the last few years I’ve been es­pecially interested in hydrodynamics, trying to reduce boat drag through the water, be­cause I’m not sure that it will prove possible to improve kites suffi­ciently.”

The concept of har­nessing kite power is not new. English teacher George Pocock gained notoriety in 1826 by attaching two arch-top kites to the front of his carriage, so avoiding paying street tax, which could only be levied on horse-drawn vehicles. His grandson, the famous cricketer W. G. Grace, was among 16 lads thus ferried to a cricket match, and the Char-Volant was claimed to be capable of speeds of 42 kph in strong winds.

Per year, Lynn’s company makes some 2000 buggies and maybe 50 boats, plus the traction kites that pull them, but almost all are exported, the majority to Europe where there is a long tradition of kite flying.

The company also makes chil­dren’s kites, and the huge soft kites that Peter has become renowned for, and is invited to travel the world to show. Gargantuan, gaudy octopi, dol­phins, frogs, rays, centipedes, puffer-fish, trilobites and geckos inhabit his nylon menagerie. “Apart from making them fly well, the trick is to get their movements mimicking the real creature,” Peter tells me. Sure enough, the gecko’s legs and feet really do pad about the sky.

As a result of displays at kite festivals, Peter gets a trickle of orders for these creatures, which are created by his factory staff for between $4000 and $10,000 apiece.

At a park near the Lynn estate, Peter and his factory manager Philip McConnachie are tinkering with a large trilobite. Anywhere else but in Ashburton crowds would flock to gaze at this creation, but here Lynn kites have been commonplace for close to two decades. “I’ve spent hours, weeks, years testing. I’d love to have a predictive theory of why kites fly or don’t, but at the moment I’ve got no more than 10 or 20 per­cent of it,” Peter tells me ruefully as he climbs inside the inflated body of the trilobite to adjust the length of strings connecting the back and belly. Adjust­ments made, he settles back on the grass to as­sess the antics of the animal waving above. A drogue in the form of a fish with gaping jaws (giving an evolu­tionary hurry-up) flies from the trilobite’s tail. “That alteration has improved the stability of the rear, but the head is still verging on instability, and if the wind speed doubled the forces tending to instability would in­crease fourfold.” More fiddling.

Instability is the reason that, even in a steady breeze, this or any kite may have pe­riodic fits, and for no apparent reason start to swoop around er­ratically, at times div­ing into the ground. “If you are handling the line, you can make corrections to keep it flying, no problem, but we want it to be stable even if it is tethered. I hope to sell quite a few of this design.”

In just the last few months Peter’s team have finished an even larger trilobite, the Megabite, at 60 metres long and 20 metres wide the new “world’s largest kite.” Peter and Philip have just returned from flying it in Disneyworld, Florida.

A twice-life-size blue whale will possibly be the next Lynn leviathan.

October 8, 1995, was “One World, One Sky,” day, when kites were flown around the world as banners for peace. I mingled with 20 or 30 fliers in Hagley Park, Christchurch, on a day when the sky mostly held its breath. Colin Douthwaite, a retired Englishman, watched nervously while a big dog leapt up barking towards his weakly fluttering kite. The dog’s owner looked on indulgently.

“She’ll never hurt it,” she reas­sured.

Cohn was unconvinced. “I hate dogs,” he muttered. “They think kites are birds, and chase them. Eventually they figure out that you are controlling it, and rush you. You drop the kite, and the dog smashes it as it reaches the ground. I know. It happened to me re­cently on Brighton Beach.” He pulled a patched kite out of his bag. “It was one of my best, and now it will hardly fly at all.”

He struggles to get a new stunt kite into the almost nonexistent breeze. “You get a bit of useful exercise—run­ning and line pulling—in light conditions. It’s the challenge of kite flying I like. You’ve al­ways got a chance of getting something up there. Just one more try and you might do it.”

The uncertainty fuels the addiction, I decide.

[Chapter Break]

Kites Are a billion-dollar industry. There are over 500 kite shops in Germany alone,” Peter Lynn tells me.

Not so in New Zealand. I watch the clientele in the Kiteworks shop in Auckland, one of just a handful of specialised kite shops in the country. A young woman wants a bigger stunt kite. Very brisk. Mothers seeking kites for kids. Meditative, careful. A guy with an American accent. Picks up a few accessories. Young photo­grapher, needs a new carbon fibre spar for his stunt kite. Claims a rela­tive smashed it. What do I want? A kite, of course, but which sort? The calm exaltation of a decorative single line type, or the excitement of a stunter? Suited young male with cell phone enters, his car parked on the footpath directly outside. He is, I gather, a buggier, one for whom kites are a route to speed and adrenalin, a “Mountain Dew On The Edge” rush.

I pick up the odd phrase: “Real gnarly ride, man . . . he was really punching the mince when he smudged.” (Translation: “He was travelling at a high speed when he crashed and was dragged along the sand.”)

I’ve settled upon a two-line stunt kite. In a neighbour’s paddock the kids and I assemble it, splendid in blue, black and white nylon stretched over a skeleton of car­bon rods. As the wind locks on, it rockets up, a blue flame against the clouds, on high-tech reins thin as thread, tough as sinew. A con­trolled pull to the right, it wheels over and hur­tles into the ground, shedding spars with the impact.

Over the next few evenings the neighbour turns up for a go, and our skills improve. We marvel at the kite’s power and speed across the face of the sky, its responsiveness to a modest tug on a line, its simple beauty, the force with which it drags us when a hard gust strikes.

We’re part of the fraternity of the sky, and it’s nice to think we’re in the company of Cody, Franklin, the Wright brothers, Mar­coni and countless Asian emperors.

Maybe even Charles Dickens. In David Copperfield, one of his characters, the eccentric Mr Dick, regularly flies a large kite. When flying, “he never looked so serene … it lifted his mind out of its confusion and bore it . . . to the skies. As he wound the string in and it came lower and lower down out of the beautiful light … he seemed to wake gradually out of a dream .. . as if they had both come down together.”

Only a kite flier could have captured so well the euphoria felt by all who have rejoiced in the tug of a kite on a taut line, and danced with the wind in the heavens.

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