Issue 70: South Padre Island Kite Festival

Going to some kite festivals is a bit difficult and “pricey” at times… So I’ve kinda avoided the hefty travel costs of going to some of the more distant, out-of-the-way fests, preferring to stick closer to home instead. Still, John Barresi (our Kitelife Publisher, and iQuad Captain) has been telling me for years and years:

“Geezer, you just GOTTA go to the South Padre Island Festival! Thousands of old codgers, just like you… Great weather… Beautiful, smooth winds… An amazing display of big ‘Show’ kites… Excellent, lovely, even exquisite people to fly with… Loads and LOADS of Fun!”

Well, it was the “weather and fun” part I was interested in – so I bit down hard on my prior objections, ponied up the necessary cash to make the trip, and went! Oh, a part of the reason was the draw of any festival that I simply haven’t attended before. Then there’s the idea of a whole field full of retirees looking at kites altogether at one time. Add in the real possibility of HEAT (as in, temperatures) and FUN (actually flying kites) and throw in the rather “mediocre” festival season I’ve witnessed and participated in over the last several months, and it all just sounded pretty good to me. Okay – I’ll just up and DO it! I’ll go…

Jeez… This “planning” business is a bore. I’m used to just throwing my kites, cameras, and clothes into the kite-van and heading off down the road. But there were plane and hotel and car-rental reservations to make… And I needed to ship my kites down ahead of time… And the off-again – on-again discussions with all those various provider-folks to make certain all the reservations would fit together somehow. Gosh – is that all too much effort? NAhhhh… Just my imagination, right? Besides – I got it all handled somehow, so what’s the big difference? None… just another, different, way of traveling to fests, I guess.

So I climbed on a plane in Portland on Wednesday, the 27th of January – headed to Brownsville Texas – in three separate plane flights. Yup – it took most of a day, and I didn’t arrive until late in the evening… and my “ride” to the motel was missing for some reason. Yuk! But it turns out the plane was actually early in arriving, and my pick-up folks (a couple of lovely young ladies – in a Mustang Convertible) were a bit later than expected. And then, almost before I knew it, I was actually down in South Padre Island, TX. Amazing! I quickly checked into the Howard Johnson’s, and went out and bought a drink or two for my two nice “savior” ladies, and then returned for a good night’s sleep, and I was ready to tackle the world!

Thursday was a “work” day – involving my getting the so-called “lay of the land.” Bill and Susie Doan, the primary sponsors of the annual SPI Kite Festival, are most gracious hosts – and they even arranged to get me back to the airport, which is about a 40 minute trip, in order to rent a car. Okay – now I had wheels. So I could cruise South Padre Island and figure out just where everything was. And – come sundown, we fliers all ended up at the “Brew Pub” on Thursday evening, where the incoming kite-pilots were invited to congregate for a “meet and greet.” Old friends and new abound in the Kiting world, and it was nice to run into folks like Gayle Woodul from Texas, Ben D’Antonio from Southern California, Denis Smith from New Jersey, and Chris Shultz from North Carolina – as well as my old pals from iQuad, of course! Yep, we all wrapped ourselves around some excellent food, and had a beer or two, of course. What a great way to start this annual event!

I spent a fair amount of Friday tinkering with setting up a new laptop, and also in finishing up on another Kitelife writing assignment – all followed by a late breakfast with Dennis Smith and “Cassie Shook” from New Tech. They’re really nice folks, and I’ve enjoyed Dennis every time our paths have crossed. Then it was back to tinker with the laptop a bit more. But I was also fortunate enough to run Phil and Barb Burks and Doug and Linda LaRock late in the afternoon – two “couples” of excellent “Big Kite” fliers, and they were kind enough to introduce me to one of the true wonders of this Island… Captain Roy’s Mexican Seafood Restaurant, “THE” Place for Shrimp Tacos and Charo Beans on South Padre. What a lovely establishment. I wanted to try and convince the proprietor that he should move to Vancouver, WA, or at least his cook should consider it, but he just kept coming by our table to yak with us and to recite some of his poetry instead. Yep – POETRY! A fine, gentle, and gracious host – and a marvelous restaurant, too!

Anyway, Cap’n Roy fed us a super-fine meal – and then we headed off to the “Indoor” event at the local Boys and Girls Club across the causeway in Port Isabel. Indoor flies are lots of fun, of course, and this evening we saw some “Amazing” flying… most specifically from Jeff and Donna McCown from Harlingen, TX who most assuredly know how to fly a Focus “Skate,” with stunning effect. Yes, at least four iQuad pilots flew indoor routines, and so did Phil Burks, Chris Shultz, and a number of others too – including some pretty darned good local pilots too – like Bill Doan! It was a fine evening, and it was well-enjoyed by all who attended.

Following these festivities, I broke out the Focus “Manta,” added the indoor weight to it, and let Jeff and Donna play with the Manta in the Boys and Girls Club gym a little. They kinda seemed to enjoy that kite quite a bit! But the flights were cut short to let the janitorial folks start cleaning up, so we packed our gear and I headed out for the Quarterdeck Bar at the Isla Grande Hotel back on SPI where iQuad was staying. Nice bar, and a good band (in from Chicago) and a willing bartender – all kept us enjoying ourselves until the wee hours. Yup – I’d been on South Padre Island more than two days now, and I still hadn’t even flown a kite yet…

Saturday broke bright and clear… at least to start with! But it was also a mite cold (maybe in the upper 40s or low 50s) and awfully windy (over 20 mph at least, with gusts well above)… But, the festival was a definite “GO” regardless.

So I headed north to “The Flats” up the Island a couple of miles. The Flats is just that – a flat sandy beach-area on the Laguna Madre (the “Mother Lagoon”). The lagoon stretches North for miles and miles in the “inland” side of the Island… And the “flats” is a lowland area right off the lagoon, and a strong wind from the North will push that water down the lagoon and it’ll consume about half of the “flats” in the process – which I guess is why they’re still flat, rather than built up as the rest of the Island seems to be… Anyhow – it’s a GREAT place for a kite festival, with generally clear winds and only a few obstructions. The Eastern half of the flats is the designated the “Big Kite” field, with the Northwestern quarter being the “demo” field, and the remaining Southwestern quarter used as the event parking lot. And it’s a BIG area – maybe 900 feet by 700 feet…???

So the first stop is out on the “Big Kite” field – looking for my friend, Gayle Woodul. Nope – she has someone flying in, so she’s in Brownsville at the airport awaiting the friend’s arrival. Well, okay – I immediately start running into people I know anyway. The first one is Steven Ploof for Austin, whom I’ve not seen since we met at the Zilker Fest in Austin several years ago. Then my own “Big Kite Four” of Doug and Linda LaRock and Phil and Barb Burks. All right – I’ll hang around with you folks for a while… and maybe shoot a few photos while I’m out here. But soon, I’m off again, camera and all, gone off to see what else I can find… including Ben D’Antinio from Revolution kites, and I run into Rob Cembalest of NewTek Kites and also Chris Shultz of HQ kites too – along with the iQuad mob and Dennis Smith (the “Voice of The Eastern League”) who is practicing with his Rev for his demos. Chris has three lovely parafoils flying near his rental-car in the Northwest Corner of the flats, up behind the Demo field and is readying all of his Power Kite “buggying” gear… and Ben D’Antonio is doing his usual job, teaching people how to fly Revs. And iQuad is busy polishing their very newest routine, flown to John Williams’ “Radiers March” from Indiana Jones. And everywhere I go, I run into some folks that I know – or I end up back in some more heavy Winter Texan congestion, and then I just have to work my way through it!

At first it seems odd or funny, but there must be at least 3 or 4 thousand “Winter Texans” out there on the flats – all with their warm jackets and lawn-chairs and some with lap-blankets, laughing and talking, or eating hot dogs from the concession-stands, or buying trinkets and souvenirs from vendors for the grand-kids… Yeah – on a rather cold and blustery day, so many of these folks have come out to see what’s going on. Still – it’s nice to see them all there. After all – this “show” is for them as much as anyone else. I hope they’re all enjoying it A LOT – because it’s very nice to see so many of ‘em out there, and to hear such a nice, appreciative, round of applause after each demonstration flight. For my money – Kiting can use a whole LOT MORE of that kind of interaction with the general public. So – BLESS YOU, Bill and Susie! Your “B & S Kites” company has started something very fine, here on SPI!

Eventually, I find my way back to the “Big Kite” field again, just in time to watch Rob Cembalest launch a quite interesting “show kite” consisting of a large parafoil with a light blue “wave” on it, surrounded by a dozen or so “clown fish” (a la “Nemo”), all trailed by a couple of inflatable “sharks.” It’s an interesting enough show-piece that I try to get a satisfactory photo of it, and when I can’t seem to accomplish that I begin to question the mechanics and electronics of my camera. I’d had some trouble getting good indoor photos the previous evening too, but I just put it down to bad lighting, but maybe… Oh well, I didn’t bring another camera, and I’m not going home to get another one. We’ll just have to work with what we’ve brought. (For what it’s worth, that camera and lens will both go in for a cleaning and thorough check-out within a few days.)

Anyway, the wind seems to have dropped a bit below 20 mph, and MAYBE I could get one of my own kites aloft and actually contribute something to this festival. I’d brought mostly light-to-medium wind-range kites to fly at SPI – kites I’m used to flying on the beaches at home. So I pulled out and set up Rob Brasington’s “Kindness of Strangers” kite and gave it a go. No such luck – the wind was still too high for it to fly with any kind of decent stability, so I finally gave it up after 5-10 minutes of adjusting and relaunching. It was about time to end the day anyway. We had a banquet to attend tonight, and a “Kite Auction,” and a bit more “fun and frivolity” to share. So I finally packed everything away, and headed back to the Howard Johnson’s for a warm (though only so-so) cup of coffee, a quick wash, a change of clothes, and a short trip back over to the Isla Grande for the Banquet.

Now, if I’ve sounded like I think Bill and Susie Doan have done a good job of organizing this kite festival, I can only say at this point – I have understated my appreciation for those two fine folks by a factor of at least two, and maybe as much as three or four. “The Banquet” is the way the sponsors ensure there’s enough money to “seed” next year’s festival, and especially the “Auction” part of the banquet. Well, Bill and Susie did extremely well. They picked a Hotel that did a VERY good meal for the kiters. I’ve been to other Banquets and Auctions where the food wasn’t necessarily anything you really wanted or particularly enjoyed. But the Doans went the other way, instead. Pleasant surroundings, excellent food (All-you-can-eat beef or chicken Fajitas, with all the trimmings – including lovely Chocolate Mousse for dessert!), and plenty of good, worthwhile, auction items too. I’ve no idea what the final financial “take” on the evening was, but I’ll bet it goes a long way toward the “seeding” of next year’s festival. However, I do remember that the “big” auction item – a pristine, brand-new, handmade, Delta Conyne – brought in over $500.00 toward that goal. Everyone I talked with acknowledged that the Banquet and Auction were certainly well worthwhile, and something they certainly enjoyed, too. I’ve been to other Banquet/Auctions where that’s not necessarily been the case. So, a hearty “WELL DONE,” to those Doan folks!

Then it was across the hall to the Quarterdeck Bar for a drink or two before heading back to Ho-Jos for another evening’s slumber. I was tired, but heartened by Bill Doan’s nice promise that there’d be “NO winds above 10 mph” on Sunday. Well… the only way to tell that for certain is to show up at the flats and fly tomorrow – so that was my plan as I climbed into bed, with a 7:30 wake-up call already pre-programmed at the front desk..

And the front desk did their part and called at 7:30 am. I grabbed a quick shower, and went downstairs for a banana or two and a hard-boiled egg off Ho-Jo’s “continental breakfast” (Uh… excuse me sir, but exactly what “continent” is this breakfast from?), and headed off to the flats again. I already knew Bill’s earlier promises were doomed for failure, since it was already blowing above 20 mph before I even pulled out of the parking lot. Still – a fest is a fest, and I didn’t come all this way to whine over “unfortunate” winds. And, when I arrived at the flats again – the crowd was about half what it had been on Saturday, which was also quite unfortunate. But, on the “up” side – the kites would still go aloft again on Sunday, just as they had on Saturday! And that’s what happened, too.

Today was my day to get those “opportunity” shots… A chance to get a lens on some individuals – like Gayle Woodul (who’d finally showed up at the Banquet Saturday night, with her boyfriend in tow, he who’d missed a flight – so had delayed her attendance on Saturday). Maybe a photo of iQuad at South Padre, even though I already have a ton of ‘em taken elsewhere. I also tried for one of Chris Shultz, but only got quick “grab” shots of his black “Warbird” kites – all of ‘em blurred by the quick movement of those lovely kites. Oh, well… maybe another photo of Ben D’Antonio, since he’s a real gentleman, and a special pal. Hey – how about a shot of the whole festival, taken from one corner of the flats? Etcetera!

So I wandered and shot photos. I bought a mediocre cup of coffee and a pretty decent pulled-pork sandwich from one of the vendors. I watched and helped Rob Cembalist assemble and launch his “show-wave” parafoil with a dozen or so clown-fishes. That thing is complex enough that I’ll guess that a half dozen folks got involved in the assembly process. Still – it was finally accomplished. And I kind of shared my time afterwards between the “demo” field and the “big Kite” field. I watched Dennis Smith fly again, and was pleased to see him fly well. I watched Teams SPI and “Austin – End Of The Line” and iQuad fly again. All three are quality kite teams and put on a fine show!

And I wandered over and complimented Doug LaRock on his beautiful, huge, spinning “Barrel” creation – hanging below his pretty Sutton. When I say “huge,” I mean this thing is probably close to 30 feet in diameter and at least 40 feet long… Boy, does it fly like a dream, too – seriously! I saw the Sutton get cross-wise to the wind, and come streaming down to the sand in a heap – then looked back and was quite amazed to find the “barrel” it had been holding aloft was STILL FLYING (and still slowly spinning) about 3-4 feet off the ground. Incredible, and a testimony to Doug’s design work and craftsmanship too.

Still, after a while, it was really time to call it a festival. I turned around about 3:00 pm (just about the time the first few drops of rain hit the field), and there was virtually nobody left on the field besides a few kite-fliers. No audience. No Ground-Crew. No Vendors. Very few pilots. I guess we didn’t get the memo, eh? So I helped the Burks’ and the LaRocks pull down Suttons, and pack up Barrels, and take the wind out of reluctant inflatables, and stuff things into compressor-sacks. Half an hour of labor saw all the gear down on the ground, packed up, and stowed into the vehicles again.

I’m not quite certain where I ate Sunday night, though I know I managed to say “Hi” and “G’Bye” to Team iQuad before they headed back to the Pacific Northwest on Monday morning. And, little by little, the flyer population that came to town – slowly disappeared. There were just a few of we flyers that hung around on Monday, and the LaRocks and I weren’t heading out until early Tuesday afternoon. But – for some reason – I earlier just “knew” that I left late on Tuesday morning instead, so I’d said goodbye to everyone on Monday night. Therefore I actually had already begun working on this report before I left South Padre Island too.

Come Tuesday morning, I checked myself out of the Howard Johnson’s a couple of hours before noon. Then I returned the car to the rental agency at the airport. And I climbed onto three separate airplanes between Brownsville Texas and Portland Oregon. Back in familiar territory before 9:00 pm (except my body was still on Texas time – so it assured me that it was really 11:00 pm…)

Ollie-ollie-in-FREE! Home, with a night’s sleep under my belt. And – since I’m writing now rather than resting – I’ll be okay again about the time this finally gets published in Kitelife.

Yeah… That South Padre Island Kite Festival is GREAT! Bill and Susie Doan and their “cast of thousands” sure put on quite a show. A lovely time for everyone – including myself. So, I’ll do my level best to be back in SPI at the end of January next year.

What? Well, worth going back for? Yep – It Certainly IS! Want to join me down there next year?

Fair Winds and Good Friends –