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Flexible Flyers


So, how does it feel to take $140 worth of nylon fabric and string and a few plastic sticks all ingeniously bound together by a design wizard somewhere and toss it into the whim of the wind?

"Wonderful!" says Bill Harville, as he stands in the sand near Huntington Beach Pier, learning--for the second time in a lifetime--how to fly a kite.

This time around, though, the Tustin resident is among those folks discovering the beauty, art and challenge of contemporary kite flying. Those diamond-shaped paper jobs of childhood may be classics, but the neon-colored nylon hot shots decorating beach skies on breezy afternoons, or the traction kites harnessed to speeding beach buggies, are far faster and more entertaining for fliers and observers alike.

"It's the closest thing to flying without leaving the ground," says Ron Despojado, the Southern California regional director for the American Kitefliers Assn. and a three-time winner of the Grand National Sport Kite Competition.


Kite flying has its extreme forms--but then, what doesn't these days? At one end, there are traction kites, large powerful kites harnessed to single-passenger sand buggies, surfboards or desert carts, that can reach speeds upward of 55 mph. Dry desert lake beds and the wide deserted beaches of winter are their optimal locales.

At the other end of the spectrum is the sport of indoor kite flying. Delicate kites weighing but a few ounces catch the whispery-soft drafts that occur naturally in large enclosed spaces. Indoor kite flying is becoming a popular pregame and half-time demonstration at various arena events, Despojado says.

But the majority of kite fliers are right where Harville was recently--feet planted in beach sand and eyes lifted skyward toward a darting sport kite.

"The sport kites are very popular kites. It's an addicting sport," says Dave Shenkman, owner of The Kite Connection on the Huntington Beach Pier and in the Irvine Spectrum.

A sport kite is any kite with at least two lines and dual handles. Unlike the single-line kites that stay mostly static in the sky and have little, if any, maneuverability, sport kites require some practice to learn all their maneuvers.

Imagine a strong-willed marionette puppet crossed with a remote-control race car and you've got an idea of how the first few minutes of sport kite flying feels. But it's not hard to soon get the hang of the dual controls, Shenkman says. And no one, from child to senior citizen, should be scared off by all those strings.

"There's no rocket science involved," says Shenkman, who, like most beach-side kite retailers, gives free lessons.


Actually, there is plenty of science, but it has been done by designers and manufacturers who have spun rip-stop nylon, sturdy but light fiberglass sticks and ultra-strong nylon string into aerodynamic wonders that are fairly easy for the rest of us to fly. They are pricier than the toy store specials, which serious kite fliers variously refer to as "junk" or, more kindly, "kite-for-a-day."

You can spend $400 on a sport kite, but most retailers say about $40 will get you a high-quality sport kite and string that will last a long time and let you try plenty of stunts. Even $20 can get you started with a basic sport kite that can take beach wind, says Randy Weston, owner of Up, Up and Away kite shop in Seal Beach.

"They're all fun," Weston says.


Fun was exactly what Harville had in mind as he tested the black and cobalt blue sport kite he eventually bought at The Kite Connection. Within 10 minutes, he managed to send it on a horizontal glide, pull it back up, reverse its flight and land it in the sand.

Then Shenkman showed Harville his future. The same kite in Shenkman's hands spun several 360-degree turns, reversed to unwind the string, tip-toed across the sand on the tips of its wings, rolled, tossed, landed on its tips, took off again, got handed off to an observer, pulled out of a dive, landed, took off and started over again.

Yes, that takes practice. But Harville was planning to share the fun with his two grandsons, who are looking forward to getting in on Grandpa's new hobby. "I think we're going to have fun," Harville said. "That was exciting."

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