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Dieppe 2010 North End Beach
Dieppe 2010
North End Beach

It's almost universal practice at single line kite festivals for kite fliers to be separated off from the public they're there to entertain by barriers, usually backed by official badges or tags of some sort to enable policing of the right to be an insider.
But is this always necessary?
The rationale always advanced is "safety".
But I question whether it really is always safer- and barriers reduce public involvement and enjoyment- and therefore make festivals less successful than they could be.

Kite flying is a benign activity, although there are associated risks, as there are for every human activity- and lack of, in the case of exercise.

The main safety concerns with kites are of either getting hit by a diving kite (especially if it has rigid struts or sharp corners), getting lifted and dropped (by larger kites when the wind is strong), and getting caught and dragged by large kites that have dragged or escaped their anchors.
None of these are much if at all reduced by safety barriers, as kites are almost always flown at a height such that they will be outside the fenced area should they crash - and safety barriers cannot be substantial enough to stop a dragged anchor for even a mid-sized kite in a strong wind. In fact safety barriers (and particularly the sharpened steel stakes they're often rigged to) can themselves can be a hazard when they're picked up by wayward kites and thrown into the crowd, as I've seen on some occasions (at Bristol two years ago for example).

A minor risk is tripping over or walking into lines. I recall a Miami event some years ago at which any kite line left lying on the ground was immediately marked off with hazard tape by an army of "safety" volunteers. I'm not sure what they expected the line to do- suddenly leap up like a snake and strangle someone perhaps? (There was no wind at all and no kites flying.) At that moment I truly did understand that the US had begun it's decline and fall. But sure, a line sloping up into the sky from an anchor can be hard to see, especially if it's so thin as to be almost invisible, but neither is walking into it likely to be a fatal experience except for the very old and infirm- who like very young children need to be attended and supervised anyway. Kite fliers often tie ribbons to the first few metres of such lines- and this is sensible, whether the public have access to the kite field or not. They should also mark their ground stakes.

A Corner of the Andalo Kite Festival June 2011.
A Corner of the Andalo Kite Festival
June 2011

Why do we have these barriers at kite festivals then?
So that our kites and accessories and personal effects don't get nicked maybe? Personally I keep all small nick-ables on me at all times, and leave everything else in a big mess while it's on the ground. This is by the theory that stealing is about packaging. A strung-out line attached to a kite never gets stolen- but does when separated and neatly wound up. Kites lying in a big tangled heap are safe everywhere, overnight even if they're big enough, but when bagged they can mysteriously disappear.

Another legitimate reason is so that precious and fragile kites don't get trampled and broken by blundering spectators. But this isn't a problem when they're up in the sky where they should be, and for soft kites (an ever increasing proportion of kites at most kite festivals) there isn't a problem when they're on the ground either. I don't at all mind my kites being walked on- except when they get punctured by stiletto heels (which only ever happens in Italy, where such shoes are regarded as suitable beach wear).

A less legitimate reason is that maybe some kite fliers enjoy the status and elitism of special treatment- a sort of on-field frequent flier lounge from which the rabble's excluded. I've never met any who'll admit to this though, but the spurious "safety" concerns advanced by some make me suspicious that this is a factor.

But perhaps the main reason is that with the rampant (self defeating I believe) safety industry in places like the UK and Australia, kite fliers and kite event organisers are no longer trusted to assess and protect the public from the inherent risks:- this must now be done by paid "experts" who quite obviously aren't, as far as kite flying is concerned anyway. A perverse outcome from this trend is that now these "professionals" have taken over the job of risk assessment, we never call to their notice the main risks, like the three big ones above, and they usually miss them completely. Instead we praise their acumen for self importantly identifying trivial and irrelevant ones- so that they'll go away and leave us alone. And nor is this unsafe on our part either- because the record from thousands of kite festivals is that, left for kite fliers to control, they are outstandingly safe.

Two festival experiences have convinced me that we really can storm the barricades - and return kite events to the people- and that we should.

At Dieppe, for more than 10 years now I've been flying out on the beach amongst the people rather than in any of the fenced and controlled-entry fields provided. More recently I've been joined out there by an increasing number of other fliers. The rewards are great; no kite destroying "safety" fences to contend with, more room, better wind, and we get to interact with the public directly rather than through the intermediaries of a formal program and the public address system. During the 50 or more days I've flown out there, I've had just one potentially dangerous incident; when a father held his very young son above his head and persistently encouraged him to grab onto a large kite as it swooped past (and the wind was strong that day). I did intervene to stop this (and was abused for it), but only in deference to the trouble the organisers would otherwise have had to deal with- I truly feel that genes such as these should be drained from the pool.
How is it that the large (and supposedly most dangerous ) kites are being flown safely in an uncontrolled area while kites that couldn't pull the cone off an ice cream have to be in a fenced and access controlled area, for "safety" reasons?

And at Andalo two weeks ago, we arrived to find that the usual field was unavailable because of a construction project and that the replacement field (fenced off by the locals in preparation) was unusable because of position and size (tiny). After some consultation, the decision was taken to remove all the fences and allow the kite fliers and public to mingle. It was a delight, rather than watching from behind barriers at a distances, our public were right there with us, having their questions answered and quite often usefully hanging onto lines and holding kites for launching (not always the right way up, but this is just a detail)! After nine days flying I don't know of a single kite flier there who doesn't now prefer this to the old apartheid system.

But of course there will be exceptions;
Sports kite fliers are one: they just can't do their thing above the public- or even over other kite fliers.
Rev fliers (who make a hugely entertaining contribution): I'm not so sure about- they have good enough control to fly safely in the midst of a crowd, but for all our sakes they need to get over the habit of leaving their kites propped up on the ground with lines stretched out at knee level while away taking breaks.
And a justifiable exception is the dedicated performance arenas that some larger events use so successfully; where successive choreographed and commentated shows are bought on at 15 to 20 minute intervals.

But otherwise, I reckon us kite fliers need to drop the fences, stop being so precious and get in amongst them (the public).

Peter Lynn
Ashburton NZ, June 30 '11

Peter Lynn Kites Ltd
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