Friday morning found me catching a Continental flight from PDX to Houston where I transferred to the much smaller plane that would take me to the Brownsville airport, about 15 minutes from South Padre Island (SPI)… Admiring the beautiful view on the way in, we encountered some pretty hefty wind shear which required us to come around for a second approach on the landing, as we touched down the plane’s wings wavered quite a bit, making for an exciting ride to say the least.
As I stepped out of the gate I immediately saw Jeff McCown (yes, the airport is that small) who along with wife Donna, took me directly to the Radisson Resort where I would be staying on SPI. As I stepped out into the parking lot, I immediately felt the 20-25 mph winds that gave us so much trouble on the landing… I’d heard about the extreme winds here, but if I only knew what I would be getting into before the weekend was finished.
Getting cleaned up and settled in, the McCowns came back to pick me up at the hotel and we headed to the Padre Island Brewing Company (local flier’s favorite hangout on SPI) to meet up with some of the other attendees over dinner and drinks… Just to name a few of the people who came in, Chris and Katy Shultz, Steven and Dyana Ploof, Richard Hawkins, Gayle Woodul, Bill and Susie Doan (the event sponsors), Guy Blatnik and Claudia Steen, along with a dozen or so others. I hadn’t been to a kite event in Texas since the 1992 AKA Grand Nationals in Lubbock, and while many of the faces I knew from back then were no longer active, it was good to touch base and meet the folks from this part of the Central Conference.
Full of beer and good grubs, I found myself back at the room and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a good WiFi connection… So, I checked the forums, answered some of my email and tucked myself in for a good night’s rest accompanied by the sound of 20-25mph winds whipping in from the Gulf.
A little after 7am I found myself at the Grapevine Cafe near B&S Kites having breakfast with some of the Texas locals… After proper fortification, we made our way out to the flats where the fields and sound tent were already being set up.
The festival organizers were kind enough to provide me with a designated field where I was able to set up a variety of kites without worrying about spectators tripping up on my lines With the array of wind speeds that came throughout the day, this worked out to my advantage – already having light, medium and high wind kites set up… Not too bad, considering what I was seeing when I went to bed the night before.
As I rolled my first kite (Sea Devil Light), the winds were a clean and ideal 6-8 mph out of the flats… Also, my Sea Devil Light & UL, a Rev I, and an Acrobatx.
Within a short time my old friend Troy Gunn rolled up with the rest of his group from Team TKO, Chris Shultz and Jerry Hershey, who also used the demo field to get a little practice/demonstration in for the audience a few times throughout the day.
Up the way from me, other fliers started in with an impressive single line display in their own separate field. Heading up this group were Jim Cosca, Chris Shultz, Rob Cembalest, Gayle Woodul, Steven & Dyana Ploof, Michael & Deontae Boswell, Lori Moore & Leslye, Richard Hawkins, John Fitz, the Gray Family, as well as Doug and Linda LaRock from Washington who dazzled the crowd with their 28 and 40-foot deltas and 90-foot spin sock that Doug designed and made himself.
I managed to get in a dual line demo while the winds were still reasonable, but just before midday they started to drop significantly and it left a good number of the attending pilots below their comfortable wind range… Not being one to pass up an opportunity, I started in again with my Bugs Bunny quad line demo and kept going from there, delivering three or four more dual line ballet routines in the 0-2 mph breeze, running my usual 360s and peppering the field with slack line tricks.
At one point, right at midday, I was standing on the demo field with about 1 mph on the face of my kite… Walking the kite around 180 degrees to face the other way, I then had about 1 mph on the face of the kite again in the other direction! This marked a change in the winds, and they slowly built back up throughout the day, opposite to the way it was blowing when I first arrived.
The announcer (Tom Chaffee) kept the audience entertained and informed, even in the down time when there was not a puff of wind to be had… Having seen a lot of announcers throughout the USA, I have to tip my hat to Tom, as he did a wonderful job of spinning gold from straw and giving the audience food for thought over the whole weekend regardless of weather conditions.
Speaking of audience, what GREAT crowds, tons of people lining the fields with folding chairs and cars… SPI hosts an older demographic than many other events in the USA, Winter Texans (Texas’ version of the Florida Snowbirds) call this place home for part of the winter, many of whom came out to spend the day watching the show.
Again, reversing the morning trend, winds started to build out of the opposite direction (from the Gulf), ending the day with nearly the same wind speed we started with… About now, the spectators got to see the single-line field in action, moving all their gear and anchors to the opposite side of the field, and in record time.
Bill Doan of B&S Kites, brought out 200 feet of Kevlar line and flew a dual line Zilla kite through a dogstake, demonstrating some truly classic skills and surprising the heck out of me… Catching the kite, then the tail, great crowd response all around.
Lamar May also made his debut performance by combining his two favorite hobbies – he flew a kite routine to square dancing music, complete with calls… At one point, he had more than a few people up and dancing along with him.
Windjunkies sport kite team, a.k.a. the McCowns, tried something a little different… They put on costumes, donning a mask and wig, set up a tent, and put on a kite production of Phantom of the Opera complete with themed kites (including a Thor’s Hammer – nearly 13 feet across), and even added a little magic at the end by having the Phantom disappear back into the tent.
Lori Moore and her sister Leslye came all the way down from Austin with fighter kites… Not to be outdone by the sport kite fliers, they even did a demonstration at one point flying their kites to music.
Team SPI (composed of the McCowns, Blatnik and Steen) had a contest for the audience… They flew routines to old TV themes and had the audience guess the names of the music. The winners became the award-winning “couch potatoes”.
Saturday evening found us back at the Grapevine Cafe for dinner and an auction. Each attendee received a raffle ticket as they walked in, which were later drawn for various prizes including roughly a dozen stained glass kite decorations made by Duane Beard and Ben Moran… A BYOB affair, these Texans had a hootin’ hollerin’ good time bidding on some choice items donated by several individuals and manufacturers… Particularly humorous to me, was Jeff McCown, slightly soused, working the crowd to bid on some kites that he had donated for the auction – most of which got nearly retail value!
Meeting again at the Grapevine Cafe around 7:30am, the McCowns, Gayle Woodul, the Ploofs, Guy Blatnik and myself got together to discuss sport kite competition in Texas… As the AKA Sport Kite Chair, I wanted to take some time with them to answer any questions they might have and do my best to impart some key focus items from the upcoming “competition in a box” project that we’ll be working on over the next year or so. That morning we also found an article covering the SPI Festival in the free local newspaper (Island Breeze), complete with photos!
As we hit the beach a little later, winds were already blowing in excess of 20mph, prompting me to pull out my Mirage stack which handles extreme winds quite well, especially with a 15 foot tail on the back kite… Relatively new to most of the fliers who were in attendance, my 3-pack got passed around quite a bit. Before long, winds were growing into the 30+ range, and at one point I actually blew out vertical 4-wrap on my Rev I vented… Unheard of! Like a gunshot, it snapped clean in half and sent a piece sailing 50 feet or so downwind (avoiding any fleshy bodies – fortunately).
Another relatively new flier, Bill Seward, came out to test the conditions flying a (vented) Illusion… Surprisingly, the kite withstood the ballistic winds and he finished his routine – much to the delight of the audience.
Team SPI flew again with their vented Tramontanas, but even so, the lightest team member (Claudia Steen) bailed out as she started sliding down the field behind her kite… The remaining members (Donna McCown, Jeff McCown and Guy Blatnik) finished the routine, despite the challenging conditions.
Crowds were a little thinner on Sunday, but were still appreciative, honking their approval from the relative safety of their cars… Too darned funny, 1/2 the audience clapping in the wind and the other half tooting their joy out across the field in comfort.
Troy Gunn also stood up to the extreme conditions, turning out his two-kite performance several times, as well as a couple of traditional dual line performances… It’s a really astounding sight to see Troy in over 30 mph, attached to TWO vented North Shore Radicals, which are not small kites… Even with one on his hips, he put out a respectable show.
Chris Shultz came out with a power foil to do some power jumping, but ended up blowing out a bridle line in the extreme conditions… I followed behind him with a foil about 1/2 the size, and managed to dig some furrows in the sand, getting off a few small jumps of my own… After 10 minutes or so though, my arms were starting to cramp up and there was just no way I could hold on any longer so I gratefully returned the kite to it’s owner.
Bill Doan came out again with the same lines he had on Saturday (minus the dog stake), but winds were so ballistic that both of his lines snapped, sending his kite (a Zilla) sailing about 1/2 mile away – here’s how it went:
THUMP! (Bill’s rear end hitting the sand)
Man, Bill’s kite must have been in the air for a good 45-60 seconds before it hit the ground, and after the lines snapped… Unfortunate, but it made for good entertainment – especially when his staff from B&S Kites went scurrying down the beach after his kite.
Chris Shultz and I both flew 5-6 demos each in the 30-35 mph winds throughout the day, with registered gusts as high as 45 mph… Both flying Mirages, we flew to a variety of classic artists like Prince, James Brown and others, eventually ending up on just a single Mirage, dropping the back two, and turning it into one of the fastest kites I’ve ever flown in a demonstration.
Linda LaRock flew stack of Trlby diamonds for a spell, and later on, Randy Ashley used himself as a sand anchor and sat on the ground to fly the stack… Even so, it was still giving him a mighty good tug.
Near the end of the day, some of the single line folks set up a 120′ windsock, tethered to a pole… After a few brief seconds of spinning wildly, the line snapped with a gunshot-like sound, and it went sailing down the field, marking the end of a fun but very challenging day of flying and performance
As the tent canopies began to tear in the wind, and were being broken down one by one, it came time to close the festivities for another year and go and watch the Super Bowl… Bill and Susie Doan invited me back to their home for this along with a few friends, treating us to sandwiches, drinks and even fresh baked cookies (thanks Susie!).
The next morning I strolled out onto the beach outside my hotel to take in the (now calm) Gulf breeze, and was stopped by two different people who said “hey, weren’t you part of the kite show?“… Ah, it seems we did our job out there on the field and made an impression on the spectators. I really enjoyed this trip back to Texas, and have the SPI Festival solidly marked for a return next February. Thanks to all who made it possible, I’m looking forward to doing it all over again… Great flying, great people, great hospitality.
**Report supplemented by Donna McCown**