Tradition hovers close around the graceful curves of a canoe, nestling amongst those defiantly popular canvas bags, or adding lustre to a cherry-wood paddle. But as the kite shot rippling into the air, and the old prospector swung hard to port before surging forward, spray lifting high at the bow, tradition ducked, and then ran for cover.
Steve and I had first considered harnessing the impressive pulling potential of his stunt kite a couple of summers ago. Although neither of us has tried a purpose-built sail, we’ve both played with the usual groundsheet or jacket models. We even have a game (read hard-fought competition) in the family in which we paddle to a distant beach, heading deliberately into the wind, before racing back, but using only beach-combed materials for mast and rigging. The kite struck us as a worthwhile experiment.
Our first attempt proved encouraging, a touch alarming, and very amusing. With a good strong breeze squeezed between the wondrous mountain flanks of Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland, we tried first, with impressive failure, to launch the stunt kite from a small rocky island. It has to be admitted the sides were a bit cliff-like. How Steve managed to land in the canoe as he arrived backwards, at speed, across the stupidly steep weed covered rocks I don’t know. Flat on his back behind the bow seat, feet and arms in the air, I struggled as much to control my laughter as I did to balance and steer the canoe. It was probably fortunate, with Steve still unable to get off his back and control the bucking kite at the same time, that it dived fast for the third or fourth time and hit the water. We’d moved about twenty metres.
Launching from a nearby, and flat, beach a quarter of an hour later was a much better plan, especially as Hayley, long-suffering daughter (and Steve’s partner) was now able to hold the fabric end of the setup until lift-off. We were away, and travelling far faster than I’d considered likely with a kite of this size. A healthy wave surged at the bow, and each fresh gust lifted Steve from his seat. I had my work cut out just keeping the canoe straight and level.
Perhaps half a mile down the loch, and aware that the more kite fun we had the longer the paddle all the way back against the wind to mission control, we were saved any decision when the kite took an even wilder dive than the last couple and hit the water.
At about the same time we were beginning to congratulate ourselves on the success of our inaugural flight, things changed quite quickly, and not really for the better. It was at this moment we discovered that as effectively as a kite can catch the wind and climb, it could also catch the water (the canoe was being pushed fast downwind) and dive! The next few moments were a little too interesting for comfort, with Steve fighting taught nylon lines, and me struggling to bring the bow up into the wind, my eyes caught by the broad wave bubbling close to the edge of the tilting gunwale. If my face looked as concerned as Steve’s, and I’m sure it did, we would have made amusing viewing for the those of a more sadistic turn of mind.
Flight number three was much more successful, helped no doubt by a diminishing breeze. The trick, as the kite ditched again, was to paddle hard in its direction, the bow/kiteman winding in line frantically. Even with these tactics, the end of each run was by far the least pleasant part of the whole experience. On the whole, a large stunt kite hitting the water in a stiff breeze can be likened to something else hitting the fan.
But we already had a cunning plan to counteract this problem – a floating kite, designed for use in kite-surfing.
Good news – the kite wouldn’t sink. Bad news (possibly) – the kite was huge. If Steve’s stunt version, with an area of about 2m², could pull as along at somewhere between 5 and 10 knots (very hard to tell) what could a 10 m² kite manage? Our next flight was going to be fun, and quick.
Or would have been, if the wind hadn’t dropped the next day, and then returned to blast down the loch at about gale force 7 the next, and the next.
So to Devon.
There was a less than kind story doing the rounds in the 1920s about J-class yachts – those vast and extremely beautiful rich man’s racing toys. It was said that the skipper would place a lit candle on the boom in the evening. If it was still burning in the morning the air was too still to sail, if out it was too windy to race. Well, it felt a bit like that trying to find suitable weather that corresponded with the infrequent days when all team members were free to hit water (perhaps not the best phrase).
And then that day came – a surprisingly sunny Sunday in late November – with a strong northerly wind predicted to ease.
We’d decided that northerly was good. If we picked our usual spot on the Taw-Torridge estuary, this would push us upstream, away from the foaming surf lunacy of Bideford Bar at the river mouth. This sand dune flanked expanse of water would also give us a fair bit of space. We felt that space would be a good thing. We were right.
Grey Sand Hill at the northern end of Northam Burrows, with its expanse of undulating dunes has a slightly lunar feel. It’s also quite a long way from the car park to the water’s edge. We decided we needed a command module. NASA probably spent millions on any one of theirs. Our wheel-barrow was a bit cheaper, but possibly just as useful as Steve and I carried the canoe and Susannah set off with a teetering load of camera bags, tripod, lunch, paddles and pfds. The barrow even held a set of spare clothes… for Steve. I’d left mine behind. A search of the van produced a day-glo vest. Perhaps best not to fall in then.
Not prepared to be outdone, Steve had forgotten his climbing harness. Undaunted by this slight setback we stepped seamlessly into boy-scout mode, and soon had a new one knocked up from a climbing quick-draw and bit of old rope plucked from the beach.
It was just after putting the final touches to this masterpiece of kite-canoeing kit (enquiries from manufacturers welcome) that we noticed it was still quite windy. OK, it was still very windy, with a stiff breeze strong enough to lift the sand off the beach to flow in beautiful sinuous streams that whipped away across the yellow surface.
Thankfully, one of the neat design features of kite-surfing kites is their ability to catch very little wind when held directly overhead. Without this vital characteristic, a launch would probably have been impossible. Mind you, these kites catch the wind pretty well at all points between lift-off and sitting calmly directly overhead, and Steve seemed to cover about 10 yards (they’re like age shrivelled metres) in one hop as the kite first took flight. The estuary suddenly looked a little grey, cold and uninviting. I pondered again on that bundle of spare clothing sat on the floordrobe at home.
No time for chilly contemplation though. The kite was up. Susannah waited, camera ready on the steep sand beach. I was poised at the waters edge, with one foot over the side to hold position, as Steve was edging carefully over the stones at the bottom of the sandbank. His eyes were fixed on the acres of red and white rip-stop nylon pulsating gently about three miles overhead.
With a paddle braced ready to steer, and a final sweeping glance to ensure that the estuary really was still empty, I watched Steve’s arrival with mixed feelings. Eyes still skyward, Steve, felt for the gunwale with his left leg, steadied himself, and lifted it carefully up and in. Then, with impressive poise, he stepped aboard gently, kneeling behind the bow seat. Very neat, if not very funny.
We started to creep forward. Hey, this was pretty calm.
Like a fool I suggested this to Steve.
‘I’ll catch some wind.’ called Steve over his shoulder, easing back slightly with his left hand.
Having owned a couple of fairly quick motorbikes over the years I like to think I’m used to acceleration. You expect it with two-wheeled Italian road sculptures of course. You expect it in sleek wafer-thin racing dinghies. You don’t tend to expect it in a canoe.
Steve obviously wasn’t ready for sudden increase in velocity either, and has two slightly raw knees and a pair of bruised thighs to show for it. Shooting forward, his legs jammed, quite usefully as it turned out, under the seat.
In truth our first flight was exhilarating, but short, the kite collapsing in front of us after only about 200 very swiftly covered yards/metres (see, a little closer to modernity).
Our second flight was much longer, and even faster. We soon realised that a rapidly accelerating canoe, with little friction to slow it up, can catch up with the kite pretty easily. As soon as this happens the tension in the tether and control cords disappears, the wind falls out of the kite, and it drops in sad folds onto the water. The answer was either to keep the kite off to one side, or, if the breeze is directly astern, to keep it swinging from one side to the other. This results in blistering bursts of acceleration, accompanied by a cloud-seeking bow that lifts and pulls towards the kite amidst some impressive banks of spray. Hmm…this works.
We ran fast along the estuary edge, hoping that Susannah could keep track with the cameras, and heading, perhaps appropriately, towards the moored orange bulk of Appledore’s lifeboat. Our run ended near the southern edge of Skern Bay. It has to be admitted that we were quite pleased with the experiment. With what must have been a fairly rich blood/adrenalin ratio we didn’t even notice the long pull back into the wind for the next go.
Steve pulled out the stops on this one. Is there Guinness world canoe speed record? On landing at the end of this one I found my right arm soaked to the shoulder from the bow wave spray!
So there we have it – our experiment to date.
It needs to be stressed at this point that this isn’t intended as a how-to piece, not least because we don’t really know what we’re up to ourselves yet. But considering how much fun we’ve had so far, we didn’t feel that it was fair to keep the experiences to ourselves.
And we can offer a few suggestions to anyone considering giving it a go, not least the obvious fact that you’ll need plenty of space.
At this point I’d like to apologise to the angler whose line we encountered (wiped out) at the end of our last run.
We had seen him, stood at the northern point of the bay, and guessed correctly that he had a line in the water. We even managed to drop the kite at what we thought was a sensible distance before reaching him. But this is where I can pass on perhaps the most useful lesson learnt so far, first encountered with the stunt kite up in Scotland. The run doesn’t end when the kite touches down, or at least not if it comes down on the water. A floating kite may float, but it does…, well, float, which means that it retains all the ability to catches wind on the water that it did in the air. We were on the poor chap’s brightly coloured monofilament before he’d even started to reel in. We were almost on the navigation buoy in the middle of the estuary before we ‘d broken free, pulled the kite alongside the canoe, deflated it and pulled it aboard. An interesting few moments that had me be thinking quite a lot about spare clothing again. Kite flight space is good. Landing space can be just as useful.
So there we have it.
Is all this new? No, I’m aware that plenty of paddlers have given a kite a go, although usually with kayaks it seems. As early as the 1930s, in his book ‘The Canoe Boys’, author Alastair Dunnet described the experiments made in the Firth of Forth by someone called John Marshall, who was tying a box kit to the bow of his Kayak. Is it worthwhile? Well it’s certainly fun. I’ll leave you to decide.
Will kite-canoeing take over from my paddling? Not a chance. My love of travelling very slowly in a canoe is too strong. And remember that tradition bit I mentioned at the beginning. I don’t want to frighten it off. It’s all just too pleasant, reassuring and dependable. I’m certainly not giving up on that.
So, will we be trying it again? Definitely. Another little piece of icing on the canoeing cake I think, and two good things make for double the fun in my book.
Our current aspiration… a controlled kite up landing. After that, making a decent turn at the end of a reach. Perhaps tacking into the wind might be possible
Well we don’t expect the International Olympic Committee to adopt our new sport immediately. Their resistance to change is recognised, and I can imagine things might be a bit tight for this summer. But 2016? We’re not settling for less than gold!
(This article, or something pretty close to it, was first published in the May 2012 issue of the much missed Canoe and Kayak UK. As you may have noticed, Steve and I failed to represent GB in Rio. But there’s still 2020! Perhaps we ought to start training.)