After work on Mondays and Wednesdays, Tom Allen and three of his buddies head out to Playa del Rey to fly kites. But these are not lazy afternoons, and these are not cheap toy-store kites.
The four men make up what they call Team BOHICA Kite Squadron, apparently the only stunt kite-flying team in the Los Angeles area competing under the auspices of the American Kitefliers Assn. The association, which is based in Rockville, Md., and has about 2,000 members, promotes competitive and recreational kite flying.
The four men have been practicing together for only about a year, yet placed first as novices in a local contest in San Bernardino in April, and finished second as intermediates in a regional contest in San Diego last month.
The team hopes to participate in a national contest in San Francisco in September in the open, or experienced, category, and at the American Kitefliers Assn. convention in Hawaii in October.
The men are modest about how quickly they have become competitive at making their $150 specialized kites dance in the sky.
"It's such a new sport that everyone moves up fast," Allen said.
Indeed, while kite flying has been around for centuries, competitive stunt kite flying has only been around about four years, according to Jim Miller, president of the American Kitefliers Assn.
In a telephone interview, Miller said he was surprised to hear that there was a team in Los Angeles. He said most of the teams are in San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area, the Midwest and the East Coast.
Miller said some cash and prizes have been awarded to contest winners, but stunt kite fliers are still far from becoming highly paid professionals.
"This is strictly an amateur sport," he said. "So far, most competitors are individuals who are footing the bills themselves."
Team expenses include about $2,000 for equipment and $10,000 to $15,000 a year for traveling to competitions.
Miller said the future of the sport will depend on sponsorship of the events, similar to what is happening in professional beach volleyball, where beer and liquor companies provide prize money in exchange for the publicity.
"We don't really know how much spectator interest there is," he said. "When we perform at a beach, we generally gather a small crowd. But a commercial sponsor is going to want to see a big crowd."
Until that happens, competitors such as Team BOHICA (a semi-bawdy acronym) will have to pay their own expenses or try to find a sponsor.
"That's what we are trying to do now," Allen said at a recent Monday afternoon practice. "We have all our equipment now, but we'd like someone to sponsor us and pay our expenses to the competitions. We're hoping for individual donations or a major sponsor who wants its name on our team shirts."
The four men said they have no illusions of quitting their jobs and someday making a living flying kites. They are in it, they say, for the fun.
"It gets the adrenaline flowing," said a smiling Jorge Plasencia, one of the team members.
Three of the four men, Allen, Plasencia and Ralph Pieplenbos, work together at Citicorp TTI in Marina del Rey. The fourth member, Bill Crandell, is a carpenter and a boyhood friend of Pieplenbos.
In team competition, the four men stand side by side, synchronizing the movement of their kites with dual lines. The lead kite has a line about 135 feet long, with each adjoining kite line five feet shorter. The shortest line, about 120 feet long, is the fastest, usually the most difficult to control, and usually experiences the most crashes.
The kites are made of rip-proof nylon on a frame of graphite. Shaped like a bat, each kite has a wingspan of six to eight feet. On a windy day, a kite is large enough to lift a small child.
Stunt kite-flying competition resembles ice skating or gymnastics in that specific routines must be performed and points are awarded based on difficulty and accuracy.
"The competition and potential prize money is one thing, but we're all doing this for fun," Allen said. "If you don't have fun, then it's not worth doing."