On a gusty afternoon in early spring, I find myself on a New Jersey beach sitting in a tandem buggy reminiscent of the plastic Mattel trikes I loved to spin out as a kid. In front of me in this contraption is a man holding a kite explaining the intricacies of "lift" and "drag." Before I have time to wrap my mind around the aerodynamics, the wind catches the kite, and we zip down the beach after it.
As we skim over the ground, details whoosh by: strolling people, seashells, dunes. Then, when I'm not expecting it, we make a turn near the waterline. Tires kick up a spray of sand, ocean mist dampens my face. Cool. We pick up more speed, make a fast turn, then another. Except for the wind's rush and the grainy sound of tires against the sand, it's completely silent.
QUIET FUN. Imagine the thrill of a dune buggy without the guilt. Calling their new sport "traction kiting," enthusiasts use large kites and wind to power everything from buggies and boats to water skis and snow skis, ice skates and in-line skates. That way, thrill-seekers can enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, and jet-skis without tearing up the environment or creating lots of noise and pollution. "When you're going 40 miles per hour and three inches off the ground, you think you're in a Porsche 911," says Fran Gramkowski, whose Haddonfield (N.J.) company, High Fly Kites, imports buggies and kites from New Zealand.
The idea of hitching a ride on a kite has been around for ages. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin skated across the frozen Delaware River wind-powered by a kite, and in the 19th century, a few eccentrics used kites to pull their carriages. But because kites were hard to control, the concept never caught on, and most wind-powered vehicles remained either awkward or erratic.
Gradually, kite fans addressed these problems. In the 1940s, the military developed "soft-ram air kites" that don't have the usual stick supports. Looking instead like air mattresses with one side cut open, soft kites forgive all but the worst mistakes. They're easy to launch but not to crash. Best of all, they fly in the lightest breeze.
The addition of four rig lines in the 1980s, rather than the single one used by Ben Franklin, enabled flyers to direct a kite with precision: not only right and left but up and down and back and forth. As a result, even a klutz can control a soft kite. The real turning point for traction kiting came in the late 1980s, when New Zealander Peter Lynn invented a bantamweight kite buggy. Before long, hobbyists began replacing the buggy's wheels with pontoons for water and blades or skis for frozen surfaces.
FESTIVAL. Fans gather in the great open spaces: beaches, athletic fields, lakes, and snow fields. (Some, such as national parks, require permits.) They come for the speed, but also for the challenge of harnessing the ever-changing wind. The sport has become almost mainstream in Europe, especially Germany. It's growing steadily in the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia. Over the Memorial Day weekend, thousands of traction kiters will gather at the sport's largest U.S. event: the Wildwood International Kite Festival in New Jersey. Call the American Kitefliers Assn. (800 252-2550) for sites of other festivals and information on ordering its $5 Traction Kiting Manual. Kite stores usually have schedules for local events.
The sport has a lot to recommend it. Most vehicles can be assembled in half an hour and dismantled for storage under a bed or in a closet; when not in use, kites can be stuffed into a day pack. A buggy can morph into an iceboat, a catamaran, even a snowmobile. Kites that unfold to 50 square feet in light breezes have panels that can be zipped away to make a smaller kite for stronger winds. And one more thing to consider: After an initial investment of $650 to $1,500 for a kite and something to ride, you don't have to pay for a lift ticket, marina berth, or engine maintenance.
Of course, tearing around tethered to the wind can be dangerous. An errant gust can pull a kiter right into the stratosphere. It's not life-threatening, though. If things start to get out of control, you can just let go of the kite as soon as you can. And because traction-kiting vehicles have low centers of gravity, they're relatively stable. The happy result: You can almost fly like the wind, but still avoid the spills during the thrills.