X-TREME: Kite marks

Some people cannot fly kites - it's a genetic thing! They will run across thousands of yards of beach or common in a doomed attempt to launch one. But others stand around effortlessly flying a kite. Some enthusuasts even choose to hook their kites up to buggies and carts and race across the ground at speeds of around 30mph.

Kite-buggies have been appearing on Britain's beaches with increasing regularity over the past few years, but a trip to Wormwood Scrubs (the common as opposed to Her Majesty's prison) on a Tuesday evening reveals another gathering of enthusiasts.

"When I was a student, I used to go to Richmond Park with friends and fly the biggest stack kite that we could hold onto," says 28-year-old Ben Jackson. "It was a couple of years ago, around the time that buggies first started to appear in this country. I remember watching a video of some guys doing amazing things on these kite-buggies, and it sort of whetted the appetite."

In addition to regularly attending the Tuesday-evening sessions, Jackson races kite-buggies. Race rules are similar to those of windsurfing, though sailing in opposition (two riders negotiating the course at the same time) is something unique to the British scene.

"When you're sailing across the wind at 20-30mph with another guy heading towards you, it can be a hair-raising experience - especially with the kite strings getting in each other's way," says Jackson.

Andy Preston used to own a skateboard shop and ride BMX bikes, but, after repeated injuries, he started looking for an activity he could try while recuperating. Kite-buggying fitted the bill. He now works for Flexifoil International, which designs and manufactures kites.

"Steering the buggy is all about learning to harness the wind and finding out where the power in the kite window is," he says. "There's a 180-degree arc in front of you and a 93-degree arc above your head - a kite will fly anywhere in this area, but you get greater power the further downwind you go.

"You have to steer towards the power source. If you're steering in the right direction, then the wind won't pull you out of the buggy. If you accelerate directly downwind, the wind disappears because the buggy is moving at the same speed.

"When that happens, you turn across the wind to maintain momentum. It's called "tacking" back into the wind, and it's based on the same principles as those used in sailing."

Buggies start at around pounds 200, but they can cost as much as pounds 750. Kites vary in size from 15 to 100 square feet, which is as large as some reserve shutes used for parachuting. While riding on beaches, riders can use large kites and long strings, as the wind is usually constant.

Using a similar set-up on common land, where the wind can be gusty and unpredictable, is considerably more risky - but much more fun.

"To my mind, the connection with the wind is incredible," says Jackson. "In other wind sports, like windsurfing, you have a bar that acts as a mast catching the wind. When you ride kite-buggies, the power of the wind comes through the kite line and through your body.

"Your body becomes a mast, and the sensation of the cart's speed and the wind's power is pretty hard to beat."

For retail information on kite- buggies, contact The London Beach Store, 178 Portobello Road, W11 (0171-243 2772). Additional information on kite design and kite-buggies is available from Flexifoil International (01353- 723131)

Photographs by Neville Elder

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