For those who think of kites as the simple diamond-shaped menaces that caused eternal frustration for cartoon character Charlie Brown, kite flying took on a new meaning at the Berkeley Marina last weekend. For the leagues of professionals that competed there, kite flying was more than just a day in the sun. It was fierce competition.
Thousands of sun-kissed and wind-blown kite flyers and their fans came to the Berkeley Marina Saturday and Sunday for the 17th annual Berkeley Kite Festival. Sitting under pitched windbreaks and spread out on ground blankets, the crowd of flyers and onlookers ranged from kids piloting the wind for the first time to yahoos on kite buggies to the serious stunt “kiters.”
The serious “kiters” faced three types of competition – ballet “kiting,” which compares to ice skating in the air; hot tricks, which values aerial sparring; and precision, which awards ability to fly along a pre-determined flight path.
Except during the serious precision competition, music blasted through the main “kiting” field at the marina – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, punk from the Ramones, Wyclef Jean’s disco hip-hop and heavy metal. There was also classical and traditional Chinese music.
The fundamental pleasure of watching shapes at play in the wind – akin to staring hypnotized into a campfire or a fascination with crashing surf – was a magnet for photographers.
The festival was laden with camera bags bulging with telescope lenses. The brilliantly colored kite designs floating on a blue sky is shutterbug heaven. Kite festivals may be second only to San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade for rainbow colors flapping in the wind.
Red, white and blue were also popular colors. A world-record attempt to fly 250 stacked kites went into the air like a pillar of patriotism. Champion multiple-flyer Ray Bethel dazzled the crowd with his three-kite gymnastics, controlling a trio of red-white-and-blue bird kites with his hands and hips. The 77-year-old Canadian and a favorite on the international kite festival circuit said he can fly up to seven kites at once using his shoulders, ankles, knees and a helmet. “Every time I do that a barman comes over with a few beers,” he said.
At a different marina location were lazier, standing kites on an enormous scale. The people lining up for hot dogs and kettle corn could watch a wind-filled teddy bear, cat, penguin and a huge caterpillar floating in the air like windsocks.
On the other side of the hill, facing the bay were amateur flyers with no tricks up their sleeves who just wanted to put something up in the sky, like little birds, a shark and even an old-fashioned box kite.
“If you have a problem, then go and fly a kite,” said Ray Bethel. “It won’t solve the problem, but you might live with it.” Bethel is deaf, and flies with his back to the crowd. While oblivious to the sound of music and applause, he stands, like a Beethoven, carving designs into the wind.
“Last year I flew to over 4 million people around the world. This year I have 33 full-sponsor trips around the world, and they don’t do that for nothing,” said Bethel, who is an excellent lip-reader.
“They need you, and you need to see the world. So everything’s cool,” he said.