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Ventura County Weekend : OUTDOORS : Stunt Kites' Popularity on the Rise : The light, maneuverable crafts are dipping, diving and spinning their way into a recreation boom.


"If you can ride a bike, you can fly a stunt kite," says John Shara.

Shara pulls one hand in toward his body and thrusts the other hand out. This juxtaposition of the two strands of Kevlar string climbing from his hands into the sky produces an immediate effect on the stunt kite overhead. The kite is called an Air Ballet--Shara designed it himself--and in a blink it is chasing itself in precise, tight loops.

"Just general spins," says Shara.

This is one of stunt kiting's most basic maneuvers, so Shara, who designs and builds kites for his company, Tight Lines, isn't overly jazzed. Spins cause Shara, 35, of Ventura, to react in the same manner you or I might respond to a demonstration of a coin-operated washing machine.

Over the next 20 minutes Shara proceeds far beyond spins, demonstrating an array of maneuvers you would never associate with kiting, especially if the last kite you put in the air was made of paper and wood and skewered itself on a tree limb.

Shara makes the stunt kite stand on the ground on one wing tip (a "coin toss"). In midair, he turns it flat to the ground, where it spins like the rotor of a helicopter (an "axle"). He lays an axle between a series of spins (a "somersault"). He sends the kite around and around in a perfect square, snapping each turn at a precise 90-degree angle ("snap turns").

"This one you'll like," says Shara.

The kite streaks for the ground. At the last second Shara thrusts both hands out and runs forward as if greeting an old friend at the airport.

The kite flips smartly on its side and settles to the ground as gently as dandelion fluff.

Apparently this is a maneuver beginners perform a lot, only they leave off the last part.

"When you first start flying a stunt kite, you crash about 15 times in the first 15 minutes," says Shara. "It does take a little time to get this right."

Kite flying in general and stunt kites in particular are experiencing something of a boom.

"The new materials that are making kites better and less expensive have really encouraged a booming growth," says Mel Hickman, executive director of the American Kitefliers Assn. "It's one of the fastest growing forms of recreation today. And stunt kites are the fastest growing part of kite flying right now. They're faster, lighter, quicker and more maneuverable than other kites, and that appeals to a lot of people."


Granted, part of this sudden growth might be attributed to the fact that the kite industry is young; one survey found that 80% of kite sellers had been in business less than 12 years. Nonetheless, the Rockville, Md.-based American Kitefliers Assn. has doubled its membership in the last five years to 5,300. Weekend and weeklong festivals such as the Washington State International Kite Festival (Long Beach, Wash.) and the Berkeley Kite Festival attract thousands. In Europe, says Hickman, 250,000 people might attend a one-day kite festival.

Stunt kites are even appearing in unexpected places. A stunt kite currently stars in the movie "Nine Months," whopping actor Hugh Grant in the head. Though uncommon, such beanings aren't unusual, either, explaining why membership in the association also buys you $100,000 in secondary liability insurance.

Lucky for us, Southern California's beaches offer terrific kite flying conditions: wide open spaces blessed with lots of consistent wind.


How good is it here?

"Some of the best conditions in the world exist right here," says the association's regional director, Walter Thompson, whose jurisdiction includes Southern California and Hawaii. "This is a great place for flying."

Conditions in Ventura County are particularly favorable. Ken Price, whose Village Kite & Toy Store serves as a hub for county kiters, researched winds along the entire California coast before deciding to open his store at the Ventura Harbor.

Ventura County doesn't have any formal kite clubs, so Village Kite acts as an informal one. Fliers call the store for wind conditions and gather on a grassy spot at the harbor to fly. The store also hosts a contest each year on the Sunday before Memorial Day. Santa Barbara hosts a kite festival too. Held on the third Sunday of March at Shoreline Park, Santa Barbara's kite flying extravaganza invokes an atmosphere of, shall we say, casual competition.

"It's not a real serious competition," says Terry Arnold, co-owner of Come Fly A Kite in Santa Barbara. "Mainly you have to know the judges to win."

Because flying a stunt kite is not easily mastered from the get-go, what stunt kite newcomers need to remember is simple: Invest about $20--enough to buy a kite with a solid fiberglass frame and plastic body that can take a beating--but no more.

"Stunt kites crash," says Karen Lesh. "Beginners just beat the heck out of a kite, so you want something that can take it."


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