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Balboa Park Will Be a Site for Soar Eyes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was the hint of a breeze off the ocean that brought the conversation to an abrupt end.

“We’d love to sit around and talk with you,” George Primm of Santa Barbara said as he and a friend quickly scrambled from their lawn chairs, “but when the winds come up, the winds come up.”

Every Saturday and Sunday, kite fliers converge on Balboa Park, a small square of green near the base of the Balboa Pier. And every time the breeze picks up, as it typically does in the afternoon, it stirs the fliers into a flurry of action.

Up go the single-line kites, variations on the old-fashioned box kites that these days come in amazingly complex geometric configurations. Up go the stunt kites, swooping low to the ground at speeds that produce a sound of rippling nylon that could be mistaken for a model airplane engine.

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And, when the wind gets strong enough, up goes Big Mo, a huge parafoil kite that can be seen for miles around, tethered to a tree on 1,700-pound-test rope.

Long gone are the days of penny kites, the fragile constructions of paper, paste and balsa that Charlie Brown inevitably lost to the kite-eating tree. Kites have not only been revolutionized by more modern materials--fiberglass, carbon fiber, Dacron, Ripstop nylon--but by a seemingly simple technical innovation.

The advent of double-line kites makes possible, with a little practice and a decent breeze, astonishing control of the kite, and now there are four-line kites that enable even more accuracy. Stunt kites, as the two- and four-line kites are called, can turn a series of tight loops or zoom a few feet from the ground at speeds that sometimes top 100 m.p.h.

On the stunt kites, one line is held in each hand and controls the turning direction. Walking forward a few steps brings the kite down toward the ground, backing up takes it skyward. “Once you get good at it, you can make it do pretty much anything you want it to,” Tim Smith said as he brought his delta-winged stunt kite down for a gentle two-point landing.

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The accuracy and control afforded by these newfangled kites have brought competition to the once-prosaic world of kite-flying. There are even team events, some set to music, where fliers put their kites through an intricately choreographed series of maneuvers, from follow-the-leader loops to tricky crossing patterns.

“Kiting has turned into more of a sport,” says veteran flier Steve Kent of Newport Beach. But, he adds, “that’s not to say that you can’t just fly for your own relaxation, because that’s what most people do.”

Kent, owner of a kite shop (Kites, Etc.) on the Balboa Peninsula, is the organizer of this weekend’s kiting festival at Balboa Park. The festival will bring in professional and amateur competitive kite fliers for demonstrations and competitions, along with free lessons and prize giveaways for beginners.

Kent started flying stunt kites seven years ago, and opened his shop five years ago. While stunt kites have been available commercially since the early ‘70s, it is in the past few years that the sport has really taken off. There are several parks and beaches in Orange County where kite fliers converge, although Balboa is probably the most popular.

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Sometimes, stunt kites are “stacked” in arrays of five or more. Kiting can be a strenuous activity: In a stiff wind, large kites or stacked kites can have enough pull to drag a man by his heels across the field.

State-of-the-art kites are not cheap. While stunt kites start at about $12, they can cost as much as $500. Smith paid about $150 for his, a competition-quality delta-wing stunt kite made by the San Diego-based Action Kite Co.

That may sound like a lot of money for a kite, but Smith isn’t complaining: “The nice thing is, one you’ve bought it, all you need is the wind.”

Smith has been flying kites for about two years, six months seriously. He and his wife, Tamra, compete together on Kent’s amateur team, the Balboa Breeze, which recently took fifth place for precision team flying and fourth for team ballet at a national competition in Berkeley.

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Primm is serious about his stunt-kite skills but prefers to fly solo. “I feel best when I’m alone with my kite,” he says. “It’s kind of a Zen activity.”

Despite all the high-tech advances in kite-making, he says, “you still need a poet’s soul to do it.”

He prefers the challenges of stunt kite flying to single-line kites. “It’s like a big video game in the sky,” Primm says. “With single-line kites, you put them up, you take them down, that’s about it.”

Single-line devotees would probably beg to differ. While stunt kites have been getting a lot of the recent attention, single-line kites have been going through their own revolution, albeit a quieter one.

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Advances in materials and construction techniques have allowed the building of ever-more complex designs. Some fliers buy the commercially available models (which can cost upward of $200), others prefer to design their own.

“They’re flying works of art,” says Kent. Of course, any kite is still dependent on one ingredient only nature can provide: wind. At Balboa Park, which sits at the edge of the sand, the fliers have come up with their own contingency plan for days the breezes don’t blow.

“When there’s no wind,” says Primm, “we turn our chairs around and watch girls.”

The third annual Newport SeaFest Kite Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Balboa Park, south of the Balboa Pier (at the end of Main Street off Balboa Boulevard). Admission is free; entry in the Kites Etc. Control Challenge contest is $15 (including T-shirt). Information: (714) 673-0450.

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