Go Fly a Kite
By Eileen Mattei HIGH OVER SOUTH PADRE ISLAND’S BAY-SIDE SAND flats, a 30-foot-long frog kite floats next to an octopus kite drifting on the mild February breeze. The annual SPI Kite Fest (February 4-5, 2006) fills the sky with looping and fluttering kites, enticing novices and old hands alike to play with the wind.
The hard-packed sand directly north of SPI’s Convention Center has no kite-eating trees or power lines, making it the perfect setting for the kite fest’s bring-your-own-chair-cooler-and-kite informality. These days, though, kite-flying can be as simple or as sophisticated as you want it to be.
As seagulls squabble overhead, traditional kites known as floaters strain at their tethers. But it’s the delta-shaped sports or stunt kites, maneuvered by two or four separate lines, that draw the most attention. When the deltas zip overhead, buzzing like a swarm of bees, everyone gazes skyward.
Bill Doan, owner of B&S Kites, which sponsors the festival, gives free impromptu lessons. “Just walk backwards,” he says, “and the kite will automatically go up for you.” Bill and other kite fans gladly show folks the ropes on the multi-line fliers, too, some borrowed, some new. “Hold the strings like you’re reading a newspaper,” he instructs a novice who has a natural—but wrong—tendency to hold his hands too high. “Move one hand at time, gently. Follow the kite with your whole body.” When the lines get tangled, as they always do, and the kite crashes, as expected, Bill laughs. “It takes about 15 minutes to train your brain on the basics,” he says.
A quartet of red, white, and blue stunt kites sail in formation over the flying field, which is ringed by spectators and flapping nylon banners. Swooping and weaving in maneuvers the Blue Angels would envy, the kites alight upright, momentarily balanced on their tips by tension on their lines. At a slight tug, they leap skyward, converge, and then burst apart like fireworks.
While stunt kites perform about 100 to 150 feet up, the single-line kites hang out between 500 and 1,000 feet aloft. A kite floating that high on 1,100-pound test line is nearly impossible to pull down, so the secret is to ‘walk the kite down,’ bit by bit. The twirling windsocks and spinners attached to the traditional kite lines are called laundry, and are tied on with a larks-head knot or a half hitch to prevent them from sliding up the line.
As the wind fades and many kites drift down briefly, Terry Bass, a Harlingen retiree and kite enthusiast, explains what’s happening. “A lot depends on the kite and its shape, but it takes about a seven-mile-per-hour wind to get most kites to fly.”
Kite Fest has no set schedule, so when individuals, pairs, or teams feel ready to show off their skills, they bring their kites onto the flying field and wait for the announcer to cue the music they’ve chosen, which might be a dramatic movie theme or a Jimmy Buffett beach tune. Then the kites lift off, gliding overhead like synchronized ice skaters, their colors rippling across the sky. Down below, the handlers move back and forth, following the kites’ lead. When a stronger wind catches the big kites, their pilots lean back like they have dogs tugging on their leashes.
A kite-flying troupe known as Team SPI struts its stuff with precision aerial movements called the octagon, the circle over diamond, and the split figure-eights. The four members—Guy Blatnik, Claudia Steen, and Jeff and Donna McCown—have been flying together for eight years, and they wear two-way radio headsets to communicate during their kites’ aerial ballets. The team, which competed in France two years ago, now ranks in the masters division of the American Kite Association.
Team SPI’s kites move like a school of graceful angelfish, zooming effortlessly to the right, then flipping to the left. Guy, who owns Wind-chasers kite shop on the island, says the team looks for music slow enough to fly to, but with character and spirit.
A few years ago, Guy Blatnik, Terry Bass, Bill Doan, and other area kite-flying devotees formed a club called SPIKE, or South Padre Island Kite Enthusiasts. The group meets on the first Saturday of every month to fly kites at the festival site, and it’s free (and fun) to join them. The club’s motto is “Just a group of friends who get together to fly kites,” which serves the loosely knit congregation well. “Oh, it’s just an excuse to have fun,” says Terry. “And,” says Bill, “an excuse to act like a kid again. During the winter, we sometimes have 60 people on the beach. Winter Texans love to fly kites.”
Kites sometimes set the stage for romance. One of Irma Gonzalez and Randy Ramirez’s first dates was a kite-flying session on a Corpus Christi beach. “I never thought it’d turn into this,” Irma says with a grin, as the couple and her sons Joshua and Jonathan tend several floaters that have lots of laundry whirling and flapping overhead. Irma and Randy now put on kite demos for Corpus Christi schools. “We try to tell kids it’s art, art in the sky. We get their imagination involved, get them thinking about science, engineering, and how a kite flies,” says Irma, an elementary-school teacher. “You don’t see wind, yet you can see wind’s effects.”
The family even attaches battery packs and tiny lights to kites for night flights. “It doesn’t really take much money. It’s all about being with the boys. There are so many nice people from all walks of life flying kites,” Randy adds.
He means people like septuagenarian Roger Horn, who got into kite-flying only four years ago and now owns 75 kites. “When there’s a strong wind and I have to work at it, it makes for a better flight,” he says. Roger even bought himself a sewing machine and has been turning out kites of rip-stop nylon and polyester. It takes him from one to three days to cut and sew a kite, depending on its shape, complexity, and number of tails. “Kite-flying is like driving a race car,” Roger adds. “You can’t look away.”
But, for a moment, look away from the kites hanging in the sky like giant gulls. Watch the kite-fliers dancing across the sands, connected to their airborne partners by nearly invisible lines.
Remember that the next time you tell someone to go fly a kite—meaning it in the nicest way possible, of course.
SPI Kite Fest takes place on the “Flats,” the area north of the South Padre Island Convention Center (7355 Padre Blvd.) on Feb. 4-5, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. There is no set schedule and no fee to attend or to fly a kite. The festival’s sponsor, B & S Kites, is at 2812 Padre Blvd. Call 956/761-1248; www.bskites.com.
Windchasers, a kite shop at 102 E. Swordfish, is the home of Team SPI. Call 956/761-7028; www.kiteshop.com.
The kite club SPIKE (South Padre Island Kite Enthusiasts) meets at the “Flats” on the first Sat. of every month, 10-4. It’s free to join the club.
For information about lodging, dining, and attractions, call the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800/SOPADRE; www.sopadre.com .
From the February 2006 issue.