Three experts weigh in on kite flying in advance of the Washington State International Kite Festival coming up in Long Beach on Aug. 18.
I know better now, but before I got educated, a kite was nothing more than frustration on a string, robotically attracted to telephone lines, treetops and nightmarish nosedives into the ground.
With a little knowledge, even I can go tako kichi — Japanese for “kite crazy.” Next week, you’ll see a lot of tako kichi-ness at the 27th annual Washington State International Kite Festival, which runs Monday through Aug. 24 in Long Beach, on the Washington coast. Kite fliers from all over the world converge on the windy shore to launch a mind-boggling array of colorful kites.
To learn about the deep subject of kiting, I talked with three experts:
• Ali Fujino runs a Seattle-based nonprofit called the Drachen Foundation, which uses kites to educate on science, culture and more. (Drachen means “kite” or “dragon” in German.)
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• In Tacoma, Marla Miller took up the sport after a man flying a kite asked if she and her husband would like to give it a go. That was 1991. Now, her titles include regional director of the American Kitefliers Association (AKA).
• David Gomberg, owner of Gomberg Kite Productions in Oregon, won the Albert Einstein Junior High School Kite Flying competition in the 1960s, then went on to serve 10 terms as president of the AKA.
Q: Let’s take a whirlwind tour of kite history with Ali. Who had kites first?
A.F.: It’s controversial, but we can say the Chinese were among the first. There’s a theory that the Polynesians go back further using kites for sailing and fishing. The missing link may be a cave painting in Indonesia that could be carbon dated. There’s even a researcher in Mexico trying to trace kites to the Aztecs. The world’s oldest existing kite is sitting in my office, a Dutch kite from 1735 made of paper with spars from a bush.
Q: Amazing. So kites aren’t just toys?
A.F.: There’s an expression, “from kites to Kitty Hawk,” because all the aviators, including the Wright brothers, worked with kites before airplanes. Meteorological research began with tethered kites.
Q: Starting with Ben Franklin?
A.F.: There’s no proof he actually performed the experiment, other than his own scientific journals. I like to think he did it. Kites have also been used in war for centuries, in surveillance, for propaganda-letter drops, signaling and perhaps bombing.
Q: What about current uses?
A.F.: There’s research on using parafoils to pull tankers across oceans, and kite windmills to generate electricity.
Q: So, we put them to work but, Marla, kites are primarily fun, yes? Including those diamond-shaped kites that tormented me in my youth.
M.M.: Those are “Eddy” kites, and there are many others — different kites for different winds and different effects. A kite train is long, with maybe 150 kites on a line. There are arched kites, box kites and fighter kites.
Q: Fighter kites?
M.M.: That’s one of the most ancient. In India, they coated the lines with ground glass, and the person who cut all the other kites out of the sky was the winner. Nowadays, it’s a skilled competition; the fliers play a sophisticated game of sky tag.
Q: I hear you don’t need wind to fly a kite. Isn’t it all about running around in windy weather?
M.M.: (laughing) Kite fliers do not run. There’s a “window of wind” that flows around you. With the wind at your back, if you put your hands and arms out in a kind of cone shape, you can feel where the wind starts and stops. It doesn’t take much if you have the right kite for the conditions. And then there’s indoor kite flying.
Q: No big fans blowing inside?
M.M.: No fans. We use lightweight kites and perform to music. It’s awesome. Some are miniatures. I have a kite no bigger than the nail on your little finger.
Q: Unbelievable. And then they get really big, right David?
D.G.: Really big. One of my specialties is manufacturing show kites, the kind that turn heads. If you go to my Web site [www.gombergkites.com], you can see photos, like a 90-foot inflatable gecko and an American flag kite that’s 10,000 square feet.
Q: Not for beginners?
D.G.: No, but we have introductory kites, too, like the Eddy and Delta designs. They’re simple and easily assembled, but they’re not the balsa-wood and plastic kites you remember from childhood. In the last 20 years, kiting changed. We use lightweight fabrics like nylon, and fiberglass for spars. Even the string is high-tech. All this makes them more durable, stronger and able to handle a wider range of wind. And with modern materials, we can create amazing shapes!
Q: Do kite purists agree?
D.G.: That’s the wonderful thing about kiting — it offers something for everyone. I sell beautiful paper kites to collectors, but on my Web site you can also download plans for a kite made out of a paper bag and tape. You can go as simple or as complex as you want.
Q: How do beginners get started?
D.G.: You’ll have more success with a good-quality kite from a kite shop that costs 20 to 30 bucks. Check out a kite-flying club or festival. It’s a great community. People always ask me, how many kite fliers are there in the world and I say, everyone is either a past kite flier or potential kite flier. It’s like being a kid again, only better.
Freelancer Connie McDougall of Seattle is a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org.