Wind power to put you in a spin

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The Independent Online
Fancy being pulled along at 50mph, 18in from the ground, by a mad kite with a will of its own? Try parakarting. Eric Kendall checks it out.

As you hurtle across a field, with mud flying, the ground rushes by just inches beneath you as the wind powers your buggy with extraordinary force. Parakarting - being towed in a three-wheel buggy by a power kite - is fast, exhilarating and demanding. Pull the wrong string and you'll be wearing the scenery.

It all seems so unlikely. Kites used to be nice, approachable, easy-going types of things. But, like Rottweilers, some have more bite than others. What's really impressive when you first get on the commercial end of a power kite is that with one sharp pull on the lines, the thing leaps from the ground and pulls even more sharply back, at wind speeds that don't even ruffle your feathers. There's something going on that doesn't quite meet the eye; no wonder someone decided they'd be good for locomotion.

The trick is that once "inflated" by the breeze, power kites form an aerofoil shape - the same profile as a plane's wing. Without a fuselage, luggage, 300 people and the duty free, these particular wings have only themselves to lift, which they do with abandon, dragging you for a ride. Once you get on wheels, you can stop struggling and start having fun.

In fact, there's a bit more to it than that. Just flying these four-line kites is a challenge that you have to combine with controlling the kart by footwork alone. It's a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy simultaneously.

The way to learn is in two stages: flying the kite while on your feet, mimicking the control and the moves required when karting, and then learning to steer the kart itself, without a kite - like go-karting, only more grown-up. Put the two skills together and you get pulled flat on your face, but that's only the start.

Though the complexity of a four-line kite is daunting, it gives the greatest potential for control and for avoiding involuntarily kart exits. In the right hands it's a highly manoeuvrable, precise bit of gear. In the wrong hands the possibilities are endless: it can vary from damp squib to shoulder- wrenching mad thing in the blink of an eye, and can drag a would-be kite flier across a beach at astonishing speed, leaving impressive furrows big enough for small children to play in.

The lines are arranged with the two on the left leading from one handle and the two on the right from the other. The handles allow pressure to be applied to each line individually, so that the kite can be spun, turned, accelerated and braked by means of cunning movements that are even harder to do than they would be to describe.

Learning to use the "wind window", the roughly triangular area (downwind of the kite flier) in which it's possible to fly the kite, is the other major factor in kite control; a good feel for the window gives optimum scope for manoeuvring once on wheels.

The karts are as simple as the kites are complex. The front wheel has foot pegs sticking out from either side, by which the wheel can be turned to steer the kart. The two back wheels are spread wide apart and to the rear of the bucket seat in which you recline.

The whole set-up is so low-slung that its handling is phenomenal, and a brisk turn of the front wheel at speed will spin the kart to a halt rather than tipping it - to do that, you need to add the pull of the kite in the wrong direction.

Putting the two together for the first time is the hardest part. With your kite flying, you have to jump into your kart, but a gust at the wrong moment can have you 10 yards downwind of it before you know what's happened. Once aboard, with a steady wind and a wide open expanse to aim across, you're away.

The sensation of speed, about 18 inches from the ground, is phenomenal. Exciting it may be, but until you master cornering and stopping, it's full steam ahead. As in all the best sports, there are no brakes, but in this case the "accelerator" is also jammed in the "on" position: all that talk of 50mph with the wind behind you is starting to look conservative.

Where and how to learn

Parakarting is very new. The UK now has a grand total of nine Parakart Association (PKA) approved instructors who can offer training courses and advice on buying equipment.

A basic set up includes: buggy (pounds 199 upwards), 3-4 metre power kite (pounds 200 upwards), harness (pounds 45), protective pads, helmet and goggles. Waterproof clothing is useful. The minimum viable area for karting is about the size of two football pitches. Beaches and large playing fields are ideal, preferably free of other users.

Anyone with reasonable co-ordination can parakart. Kite size can be tailored to user weight and strength. Once you are beyond the novice stage, a harness is used into which the kite is clipped for power transmission, reducing stress on the arms and upper body.

This is a good idea, with an official speed record of 54mph, and over 60mph claimed unofficially.

Just trundling round in circles for the fun of it is enough for many, but there is also an aggressive racing scene (competitively trundling round in circles for the fun of it) in which Brits excel.

Contacts

Parakart Association: send sae to Jayne Suckling, 31 Oakdale, Crown Wood, Bracknell, Berks RG12 0TG;

Ben or Dante at The London Beach Shop, Portobello Road (0171-243 2772);

Dominic at UFO Active Leisure, Weston-super-Mare (01934 644988);

Cunning Stunts (01722 410588) offers the UK's most comprehensive training set-up, with three instructors based in Salisbury. Their one-day, all- inclusive starter courses cost pounds 40, and wind permitting should have you successfully performing the basics by the end of the day. The first three readers to write to them at 45-47 Fisherton Street, Salisbury, Wilts SP2 7SU, will receive a free training course at their Salisbury base on 8 February 1998.

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