The first time I took on a power kite, I was left in no doubt as to who won. I was standing in a gusty, damp playing field with the kite overhead and my feet on the ground. Suddenly the rushing air grabbed the kite and pulled me face down into the grass, dragged me along before giving me a mouthful of turf for my trouble. “Round one to the kite,” I thought. “But perhaps wheels will make it easier…” And so here I am, now aboard a low-slung trike on a Cornish beach, spitting out sand instead of soil. The beach in hand is Perranporth, just west of Newquay on the St Ives Heritage Coast and one of the many coastal meccas for fans of the wet and the windy. My instructor is the effortlessly languid Tim Ovens, but his laid-back demeanour belies the clear logic of his teaching and, thankfully, an uncompromising attitude to safety.
The lesson begins without a buggy, flying a 2.5sq m Flexifoil kite. It looks like a modern parachute rather than the traditional diamond or arrowhead kite, looking deceptively manageable as it floats high above my head.
I’m holding a 50cm plastic rod with strings tied to either end. These are the power lines leading to the front edge of the kite, while the brake lines – linked to the kite’s bottom edge – are attached to my wrist.
Standing with my back to the wind, I’m told to gently draw in the power lines and the kite will lift from the sand. To steer you must pull one end of the bar and push the other. The frequent mistake is trying to turn the bar as if you’re steering a car or bike, but it’s more like paddling a canoe – bend one arm and extend the other.
Even with this small kite pulling me, the power is amazing. The wind isn’t particularly strong yet all 13 stone of me is foot-surfing along the beach with ease. The trick to attaining high speed is knowing where the wind is strongest (in front of you at a 45° elevation) and where it’s weaker (either side and directly above your head) and how to get the kite there.
Once I’d learnt to keep the kite airborne for a few minutes, it was time for the buggy. It’s beautifully simple – three rubber tyres, some aluminium tubing and a small sack of a seat. The idea is to travel across the wind, at 90˚ to the direction in which it’s blowing. To do this, you must fly the kite at 10 o’clock or two o’clock in relation to the direction of the buggy. It must then be piloted in a series of vertical figure of eights – no easy task. To steer the buggy, you push a bar either side of the front wheel with your feet. The knack is to turn downwind to get going then, when you have momentum, steer back to the crosswind line.
Two problems arise if you just follow the wind. First, you tend to catch up with the kite, leading to slack strings and no pull; secondly, it’s unsustainable as you soon run out of beach and you can’t go upwind.
In the zone
By now I’ve moved up to a larger 3.5sq m kite that’s steadier but stronger. Gripping the kite bar, I lower myself into the seat, place my feet on the rests either side of the front wheel and concentrate as I try to guide the kite into the power zone.
I’m off, the wheels are turning and sand is zipping by at, oooh, 3mph. Suddenly the kite swerves into the power zone, my arms are pulled over my head and all I can do is let go of the bar and watch the brake lines collapse the kite. The long-suffering Tim sets me up again and this time I go further, but the complexity of flying the kite and steering the buggy defeats me. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your tummy: reading the changing sands and feeling the flowing wind is rewarding, but extremely difficult to master.
Kite buggying has gained enormous popularity over the last 10 years. Its stronghold is France, where racers reach speeds of 90mph, but the UK, with our big beaches and blustery winds, is perfectly suited to the sport. With a coastline usually too chilly for sun worship, it’s well worth following the wind for some exhilarating kite buggying, and although it can be difficult find suitable places to do it inland. Some old airstrips and wide sports fields could provide you with your fix. But is it only for active 20- to 50-year-olds? “Absolutely not”, insists Tim. “It’s about skill, not strength. I have regular pupils aged 12 and others in their 70s.” They’ve even designed a buggy for a paraplegic friend who can now enjoy some freedom of movement once again.
Harness the power
As I rest and refuel for a moment, Tim takes the reins and looks like someone who has been kite buggying all his life. The kite still fights for freedom but he just harnesses the power, achieving frightening speed, dramatic power slides and cruising along on just two wheels. At one point he even lies back and flies the kite with his feet. Inspired once more, I’m back in the saddle.
Control is conquering chaos and we have motion. I dive the kite down and it hooks into the wind, but this time the lurch takes me forward. I hold on through the wrenching acceleration – what a feeling! Speeding across the corrugated sand, propelled by a tenuous grip on an elemental force, there is a great sense of getting something for nothing. It’s propulsion without pollution, a victory of ingenuity and skill over brutish internal combustion. Did I say skill? My deluded reverie is rudely interrupted by a lateral cartwheel (also known as a crash), with the buggy on top of me, the kite descending and yet another mouthful of sand. Time for another go. Speeding, sliding and tumbling, I plough on until finally my arms go limp and the tide comes in. I’m a slave to the wind.