Indoor kite flyers indulge in high life

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This is not an elaborate joke. Apologies for the caveat, but just about everyone I've spoken to thinks indoor kite flying is impossible, as ridiculous as rowing races on the M6 or table tennis with a basketball. Don't believe me either? Then pop along to the London Arena in Docklands on Sunday and watch the British (though it could be the European or maybe even the world) indoor championships.

Sorry to be a bit vague about it. But indoor kite flying is so new that even experts are still learning how to do it. Though Dave Brittain, the American who has kept a kite flying indoors for more than four hours, will be competing in Sunday's event, the sport hasn't quite got round to formalities like a proper championship structure yet.

You're in for a surprise if you still think that kite flying is for lonely anoraks pulling a string to keep a diamond-shaped piece of cloth aloft. Today's kite can perform more aerobatics than a swallow chasing mayflies. It can fly indoors, outdoors, in my lady's chamber, lift a flier off the ground, pull a buggy or dazzle home-going commuters (of which more later).

It can be any shape you want (one New Zealander has a 100ft turtle with a piranha nipping its tail) but the top boys all use delta-wings. These look like multi-coloured Stealth fighters and can perform aerobatics that even a swallow would admire. "They have done for kite flying what mountain bikes did for cycling," says Jeremy Boyce, who runs his own shop, High as a Kite, in Stoke Newington, north London.

He is one of the four-man Airkraft formation team that have been runner- ups in the world championships for the past two years. But even Boyce, at the leading edge of kitecraft, was stunned when he first discovered that wind is an optional extra. "I was at a festival in Le Touquet and the prize-giving took place in a large leisure hall with a swimming pool. A Frenchman, Pierre Marzin, brought along a kite and to our amazement, stood in the shallow end and flew it. I discovered later that he went to basketball matches to give demonstrations, and finished by dunking his kite in the net. I was knocked out. I thought: 'This is the cutting edge.'"

Boyce quickly bought a pounds 250 indoor kite. Superficially it is similar to the outdoor model, but though it's 8ft across, it weighs just a few ounces. You don't need open windows or giant fans to make it fly, either. "That would cause turbulence and for kite flying, you need smoothness," says Boyce. Outdoors, the wind does the work. Indoors, it's all done with a swerve of the hips, a flick of the wrist or actually running backwards. This is enough to send the kite soaring and dipping like a bird celebrating springtime.

Kitees love it, because it allows them to create 3-D manoeuvres that are impossible outdoors, such as dragging one wing along the ground in a complete circle. Traditional kite flying is dependent upon wind direction; indoors, there are no limits. "You are flying the kite, rather than the kite flying itself," says Boyce. But it's much harder work. "You have to keep moving to create your own wind," says kite-maker Chris Matheson, who set a world two-line indoor record of 2hr 2min last year. "At the end of that record, my legs were like jelly. You don't walk backwards in normal life. The next day, it was agony just to move around."

The cynical may say that, new-tech kites or not, it's still not a sport worthy of adults. But wait a minute... China's passion for kites is well documented. India has a national kite flying day, and even Bristol's annual festival attracts 50,000 spectators. The world championships, near Melbourne next month, will attract up to 250,000. Still, Olympic dreams may be a little premature. "I phoned the Sports Council about getting some grant aid and discovered that we were so far down the list that even spear fishing was in front of us," Boyce said.

Even explaining the appeal of kite flying embarrasses its leading exponents. Matheson says: "When I am flying my kite, and there is just me, the kite and a nice wind, I forget about everything else. I don't think about moving the kite around with my hands, I feel what the kite is doing. I am that kite." He laughs self-consciously. "Really sad, isn't it."

Ah, those old Calvinistic genes still stubbornly condemning anything that looks suspiciously like fun. But kite flying is developing as fast as any sport. Matheson's indoor record, for example, looks certain to be broken on Sunday. There will also be attempts on the four-line and single-line record, though the individual competition (compulsory and freestyle manoeuvres) will be better to watch. Meanwhile, indoor flying has spawned an even more spectacular offshoot, called barfing (bridge and roof flying) by its participants.

"It all started when we were going to Bristol kite festival and crossing Clifton suspension bridge," Matheson recalls. "We were complaining what a bummer it was that we kept hitting the ground when flying. Suddenly it hit us that if we flew off the bridge, we didn't have to worry about that any more. We stopped the van, got out our kites - and it was fantastic. We were doing things that were impossible on the ground, because we could actually fly down as well as up."

Word spread. Others tried it and were stunned by barfing's possibilities. Matheson and several friends have now flown most of the main London bridges and a few buildings too. "Yes, it's slightly anarchic but it's harmless and doesn't cause any damage," Boyce says. "We get moved on by the police but when we do it in the early evening, commuters seem to enjoy it. Tower Bridge is wonderful at night because it's lit from underneath." The sport has already reached the United States and Australia, where barfers have flown Sydney Bridge. Matheson's dream is to fly the London stations such as Euston, with their huge vaulted ceilings. "I would have to do it about 3 am,'' he said in a voice that hints it's more than an idle dream..

The funny thing is that the real stars of kiting are not the puppet masters. Airkraft, Britain's No 1 formation team, give exhibitions all over the country but perform in black because they don't want to distract attention from the kites. "Nobody notices us," says Boyce. "It's a sport for bashful show-offs."

n Indoor Kite Festival at London Arena, Limeharbour, Docklands, from 10am Sunday 8 October.