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Flights of Fancy
Kites dance to the music of the wind

by Scott Driscoll

 Originally published by Horizon Air The roar of the surf accents the appreciative aaahs of the 2,000 to 3,000 spectators gathered on the beach. Eyes heavenward, they watch three dual-line Kestrel kites - sleek stunt kites designed to imitate their raptor namesake -soar gracefully through loop-the-loops, then nose-dive, pulling out mere inches above the sand.

The mesmerized crowd has all but forgotten the lone man at the controls. Sun-tanned, shirtless-by his own admission "three day's older than Santa Claus" - Ray Bethell stands alone in the flight field, managing two kites with his hands, the third with lines attached to fittings at his hips. So stirring ar his kite ballets, the world-renowned special invitee to Long Beach's annual Washington State International Kite Festival - WSIFK - once inspired the mayor of Narbonne-Plage, France, to exclaim, "He moved us to tears."

Bethell, from Vancouver, British Columbia, is but one performer among a talented field of fliers invited from places as far-flung as Berlin, Barcelona and Jakarta to participate in the weeklong beach extravaganza voted by Kite Trade International in 1999 as "the best kite festival in the world."

Says Evonne Miller, chairwoman of beach activities, trying to be humble, "At the very least, WSKIF (pronounced "Whiskiff") is the largest kite festival in North America." Adds David Gomberg, president of the American Kitefliers Association, "Long Beach is the closest thing we have in America to the big European festivals."

Begun in 1981 with a few local enthusiasts taking advantage of the predictable late-August sun and steady offshore winds that hold in the optimal range between six and 12 knots, the Long Beach-based kite festival has since grown to include approximately 700 registered fliers. As for spectators, approximately 150,000 of them will flock to this otherwise quiet little beach town on the southwestern Washington coast for the weeklong event. They will then proceed past carnival-style booths, the salt smell of the sea mingling with the aroma of buttered corn and grilled salmon. At the base of the dunes - part of 28 miles of unbroken sand that makes up the Long Beach Peninsula - they will set up umbrellas and tents to escape the sun and wind without having to leave the beach.

There is simply too much to see to leave. Filling the sky above the Large Kite area is a phantasmagoria of flowing octopuses and bizarre shapes reminiscent of an undersea world thrown heavenward. Roped-off fields host judged events and competitions that on any given day might include the Junior Dual Control Competitions or the Wind Art or the crowded Mass Ascensions, which permit up to 240 designers of a particular kite style to fly together. The perennial crowd favorites, however, are the feisty Fighter Kites and the raucous Rokkaku Challenges.

Fighter Kites, the single-line sport variety, are precise little flying machines capable of brilliant aerial acrobatics, but they are most known for "dogfighting" with other kites. Winning requires outfinessing competitors by tagging their lines without allowing your own to touch sand. Even more rough and tumble is the Rokkaku Challenge. Six-sided "Rok" kites patterned with Japanese designs are flown by as many as 15 teams, each with up to a dozen members - all running and hollering directions as they seek to avoid pursuit or to attack, the goal being to knock the opposing teams' kites out of the air. Occasionally a line snaps, and the kite descends to the delighted whoops of the children who give chase over the dunes.

The challenge of these festivals, says Kay Buesing, director of Long Beach's World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame, "is to take the public consciousness regarding kites past the simple diamond shape. People will then remember that kites are more than a child's toy."

"Since the invention? of the airplane," explains Clive Hart in his definitive text Kites, An Historical Survey, "adult interest in the kite has almost vanished." This despite a venerable history. While the origin of kites is still a matter of debate, most accounts place it in China. General Han Hsin is said to have made one of the earliest use of a kite. Legend has it that around 200 B.C. he flew a kite over an enemy's palace to measure the length of the tunnel his troops would have to dig from their encampment in order to come up inside the palace walls.

However, Tal Streeter of New York, who's written two books on the subject of kites, speculates that the more likely but undocumented origin was not as an instrument of surveillance but as a tool for fishing. Even today, in the tiny Indonesian islands off Sumatra and Java, village fishermen seek gar by playing out a line from a bamboo pole to a kite that hovers about 30 feet above the water. The lure dangling on the surface dances and jiggles with each twitch of the hand holding the pole.

For possibly thousands of years, says Streeter, the fishermen used loco-loco, dried leaves of the moon orchid, to make their kites. "Given the evidence emerging from Indonesia," writes Streeter, "doesn't it seem a promising proposition that the first kites were 'natural kites'?"

Natural or otherwise, kites have long been taken very seriously. In Polynesia, according to Hart, kites were used to pull canoes and were thought of as the "external soul" of the boat's owner.

Korean and Japanese kites, originally flown for ceremonial purposes over sacrificial altars to help send offerings to the heavens, became popularized in a not-so-sporting version of kite fighting that utilised string coated in ground glass to gut the opponent's kite out of the air, Hart writes.

He notes that Merlin the magician, whom legend places in the early Middle Ages, may have put a lighted torch in the mouth of "draco - or dragon kite - bedazzling his audiences when the dragon emitted, in the words of one legend writer, "flames of fire from its mouth so that the air was quite reddened?"

Such shenanigans were a prelude to some of the kite's more utilitarian applications. In June of 1752 in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, as you may recall, flew a kite - made with a large silk handderchief and two cross-sticks --- into the teeth of a thunderstorm, whereupon, according to an account written several years later by Joseph Priestly, "he presented his knuckle to the key and? he perceived a very evident electric spark." Priestley included this comment: "Let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment."

How would that pleasure have compared with the trepidation and excitement felt by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903 near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? After all, The Flyer, the first successful manned flying machine, was little more than a motorized kite that drew on the models of Sir George Cayley - who in the early 1800s used a kite to build the first glider - as well as the discoveries of Lawrence Hargrave, who invented the box kite near the end of the 19th century.

Culminating the competitions at Long Beach is the Parade of Colors - in which a long line of brilliant-hued banners is marched across the beach to represent kite clubs from the world over and to honor the stars of the festival, the Featured Fliers.

The Featured Fliers are selected and sponsored to come to the festival on the strength of their unique designs and ongoing dedication to proving that kites never will be reduced to mere playground toys.

A glimpse of last year's stars provides an idea of what marvels to expect this year. Josep Nieto and Ana Saltiveri, from Barcelona, Spain, spent 100 hours building the crowd-pleasing "Star Trek," a wheel-shaped, multicolored cell kite that in flight resembles a giant kaleidoscope, but that Nieto describes a "a snowflake that lifts off like a spaceship."

Berlin photographer Peter Schittek's "Coffin" kite, a flying sarcophagus modeled after that in Tutankhamen's tomb, won first place for visual appeal at a Muncie, Indiana, kite festival.

Glen and Tanya Haynes of Pennsylvania have twice been named National Kite Making Champions for their Japanese designs. And we mustn't forget the team of eight from Indonesia - home of traditional fishing kites - who in Long Beach fly winged dragons and 15-foot Sulawesi leaf kites that required entire communities to construct.

While Ray Bethell is technically not a Featured Flier, since he doesn't build his own kites, the annual special guest is far and away the crowd's favorite performer. He'll only talk when he's not practicing. Which is seldom. The reired millwright, a native of Salisbury, England, who left shool in the fifth grade to help support the family when his father died, practices 12 hours a day. He practices because he loves what he does, he says, but flying three dual-line stunt kites without crashing requires this kind of dedication.

According to Miller, the beach activities chairwoman, Bethell is one of only a few fliers the world over who've mastered the art of solo three-kite ballet.

"I know by feel how many times to unwrap so the lines don't tangle," says Bethell, claiming he invented the three-kite-ballet techinque back in 1986, just a few years after attending his first kite festival in Hawaii and falling in love with the highly maneuverable stunt kites.

When asked how he keeps it up, the nearly deaf, craggily handsome flier in his 70s, who reads lips and whose passion has been scarcely diminished by age, says: "I feel at peace when I fly. I do everything gently. I treat the kite like a over, nothing aggressive.

The globe-trotter will go on to fly in New Zealand, Australia and then Fiji before returning home to Vancouver. He owns eight world records, including his proudest accomplishment, a continuous solo flight of 12 hours and 12 minutes. "I could have gone longer, but I stopped because everyone with me had been there since early morning and needed to eat."

Last year at the Long Beach festival, he set another world record by flying three stacks of seven kites - a total of 21 kites.

As he takes a rare break on the beach, Bethell is surrounded by admirers who if asked would no doubt second the pronouncement of the Narbonne-Plage mayor: "You are now part of the echoes of the wind in this country of the wind."

At Long Beach, spectators experience the echoes perhaps even more vividly than in Europe. Schittek, the Berliner known for his Egyptian designs, says the huge crowds that pack European festivals such as those at Dieppe, France, or Damp, Germany (near Denmark), and The Hague, The Netherlands, "are impressive, but the Long Beach festival is more intimate." For instance, at Damp, an annual festival that typically attracts about 200,000 spectators, the crowd is fenced off at a distance away from the fliers.

Schittek, who began flying stunt kites in 1991 to relieve the stress of work switched to single-line kites in 1997 so that he could build his own designs. He won't sell his big ones. They're too much work. "My vulture required 60 hours, and that was just the sewing."

To make their kites, Barcelona's Nieto and Saltiveri, parners for 20 years, push aside the furniture in their dining room and start with spinnaker cloth, carbon rods and nylon stretch strings.

They say the roughly 20-feet-around snowflake spaceship "Star Trek" is their favorite, but the spectators shifting through the sand at the Long Beach festival seem to be craning their necks to admire the Cody kites (box kites with wings) built in life-size shapes they recognize. They can be heard exclaiming over Charlie Chaplin, a telephone booth and Groucho Marx.

"I have one theme," says Nieto. "Everything can fly."

The kite designer says he has a special fondness for Long Beach. "Here the beach is longer. You have space to fly. They let fliers mix with onlookers. And they let everone come. It's not by invitation only, like in Europe. At Long Beach the people treat you right."

As the wind drops and the small breakers loll over the sand, and evening slips into twilight, thousands of visitors drift back from the food stalls for a special treat.

Despite purple clouds threatening a late shower, the crowd throws down blankets on the dunes above the beach, waiting for the Lighted Night Fly. Snugly wrapped against the chill, youngsters watch with rapt attention as kites festooned with strings of lights jigger like a swarm of lightning bugs. But the ooohs and aaahs escalate when two fliers perform a duet with transparent kites. Invisible against the black sky save for the trim of red lights, the kites hover teasingly above the spectators, then flutter off like a pair of playful butterflies.

The volume of the cheers that erupt is matched only the bursts of the fireworks that follow, filling the sky with a flow that would more than rival Merlin's flame-breathing "draco."

"The same sky has been available to mankind since he evolved," muses Buesing, director of the World Kite Museum.

Rarely does that sky put on a show as good as this.

Scott Driscoll is a Seattle freelance writer.

This article has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
© 2001 Scott Driscoll. Do not reproduce without author's permission.


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