A simple pleasure that has swooped through countless centuries, nothing beats the exhilaration of watching your kite take flight. Hayley Lawrence charts the history and appeal of this pastime that grips children and adults alike, from ancient cave paintings in Indonesia to the early heart of the UK kitesurfing scene at Watergate Bay.
It doesn’t take Mary Poppins to ignite the magic of harnessing the power of the wind in a kite; the tug on the strings as gusts pull it higher and higher towards the clouds or sun. Colourful canvasses dancing across the sky in the breeze. Kite flying is a timeless joy for children and adults alike. So it’s apt to be sitting in an armchair at Watergate Bay Hotel, watching a handful of power kites jive above the waves, as I write this.
While kitesurfing scudded onto the UK’s beaches as a fast-growing extreme sport in the late 1990s, the basic art of kite flying has been entrenched in global culture for centuries. It was Marco Polo who first brought stories of kite flying to Europe from Asia in the 13th century. China lays claims to inventing the first kites in 5th century BC; yet a cave painting from the Mesolithic period depicts the Muna people of Sulawesi, Indonesia, using a kite made of kolope leaf with bamboo skin as the frame, and twisted forest pineapple fibre as the strings. It’s thought that the Muna people flew kites to try to reach God. Undoubtedly a pastime with its veins deep in Asian culture, many of us may recall scenes of kite fighting in Kabul in the 1960s and 1970s, from the blockbuster book and movie, The Kiterunner.
The ability of kites to pull people and vehicles upwind and downwind, using the same principles as sailing craft, fast cued the invention of kite buggying and kitesurfing. And far from Asia and the roots of kiting, Watergate Bay’s vast stretch of sand is one of Cornwall’s popular locations for these disciplines. The Bay’s Extreme Academy is run by passionate kitesurfer Carl Coombes, who leads traction kiting, kite buggying and kitesurfing courses as part of the centre’s wide watersports offer. “Kiting is like the magic ticket to being able to make the most of the whole range of conditions at Watergate Bay,” Carl enthuses. “If the wind is offshore you can surf. If it’s onshore you can kitesurf. And if it’s flat you can paddleboard.”
Watergate Bay was at the heart of the earliest kitesurfing scene in the UK in the late 1990s, after Henry Ashworth’s interest in the sport was piqued following a trip to South Africa. Henry invited TV’s Gladiators champion turned professional kitesurfer, Dreya Wharry (now Bennett), to try kitesurfing at Watergate Bay, which resulted in the pair opening Big Air kitesurf school in 1999 (now the Extreme Academy).
“When I first tried kitesurfing I was launched three metres across the shorebreak at high tide, attached to a kite – and was utterly hooked,” remembers Dreya, who is now a stained glass artist. “The early ambassadors of the sport were a tight-knit crew who would meet at Watergate Bay and The Bluff at Hayle,” she says. Dreya went on to break world records by kitesurfing the 70 miles from the Isles of Scilly to Watergate Bay, and the 135-mile crossing from Watergate to Ireland.
Kiting is like the magic ticket to being able to make the most of the whole range of conditions at Watergate Bay. If the wind is offshore you can surf. If it’s onshore you can kitesurf. And if it’s flat you can paddleboard.
As the addiction to kitesurfing swept the globe, technology quickly advanced to make it safer to find your wings and fly 30 feet into the air strapped to a power kite. Now users have the ability to depower kites quickly and safely, to re-launch them in the ocean (thanks to the introduction of inflatable bladders), and to choose kites of all sizes for different conditions. From Spain’s Tarifa and South Africa’s Cape Town, to Brazil’s Cumboco and Egypt’s El Gouna, between 2005 and 2010, kitesurfing was recognised as one of the fastest-growing watersports in the world.
Celine Bennet started out making and flying kites with her father in Silvaplana, the epicentre of kitesurfing in the Swiss Alps, before travelling the globe on the World Kitesurfing Tour (crowned European freestyle champion in 2010) and finally making Watergate Bay her home. “I started flying kites with my dad and brother when I was five years-old,” she says. “We used to buy the latest stunt kite model in the little kite shop in Silvaplana, and, with the help of my mum’s sewing skills, we’d make our own kites. When I was 14, I saw one of the first kitesurfers on Lake Silvaplana and I knew straight away that was what I wanted to do. Travelling the world on tour I met my husband, Will – four times British kitesurfing champion – and now we live in Cornwall teaching our children to fly kites at Watergate Bay.”
Firmly established on the global kitesurfing map, Watergate was the first UK venue to host the PKRA (Professional Kiteboarding Riders Assocation) World Kitesurfing Tour, and is still a regular stop for the BKSA (British Kite Sports Association) kitesurfing series. “The conditions here can be challenging,” admits Carl. “But there’s a step-by-step process to learning, ensuring safety and control at all levels.”
The first step is simply flying a power kite on land, learning about the wind arc and doing a little bit of sliding in the sand. Once you’ve got the hang of the basic techniques, it's time to launch a larger inflatable kite. When you’re confident using that on land, then it’s time to do some ‘body dragging’ downwind in the water. Only once you have full control and basic skills, is the kiteboard introduced – then it’s time to hit the water.
You don’t even have to step-up to kitesurfing to feel exhilarated and embrace the elements, though. “At low tide you can bomb along Watergate Bay for two miles on a kite buggy,” says Elaine Uff, one of the first female kitesurfing instructors at the kite school, who witnessed the rise of power kiting at Watergate Bay. From her office at The Beach Hut, Elaine was lured from her desk-job as a PA into the emerging kitesurfing scene in 1990s. She was immediately hooked on the fact that she could ride waves for longer than on her surfboard, and, like Carl, had found the ‘magic ticket’ to enjoying the waves when the wind was howling onshore.
Anyone can launch a kite and be mesmerised by it swooping and diving to the soundtrack of the wind and waves.
Watching the kitesurfers doing aerial manoeuvres and zipping along the white caps on a windy day is enough to make any spectator want to harness the elements and join in. And whether you have a day or a week, all disciplines of power kiting are available at the Extreme Academy – from complete beginners to those wanting to hone their skills.
However, you don’t need any tuition to enjoy the simple art of flying a kite on the beach, and be mesmerised watching it swoop and dive to the soundtrack of the wind and waves. You can pick up an old-fashioned diamond kite or entry-level foil kite from The Shop on the Beach. So, with your feet on the sand, and the waves insight, let’s go fly a kite…
The most recognisable and popular kites, these are perfect for children and beginners to mess around with on the beach. You can even make your own diamond kite with carbon-fibre tubing and rip-stop canvas.
Also known as sport kites, these are known for their ability to perform impressive manoeuvres and kite tricks. They come in a wide variety of shapes, but the triangular delta kite is the most popular.
The defining factor of these kites is that they do not have a frame. This makes them much less likely to break on impact, even when they crash against hard surfaces. These are the perfect kites for beginners and people wanting to get into traction kitesports.
Also known as power kites, these are large kites designed to provide significant pull, making them perfect for traction sports, in conjunction with a vehicle or a board. Vital for kitesurfing, kite buggying, and snowkiting, traction kites can be foil kites or inflatable kites.