Tell Billy Jones to "go fly a kite" and he takes you seriously. He has traveled to California, Florida and Hawaii just to fly his kite.
This weekend, however, Mr. Jones, who is among the top 10 stunt-kite fliers in the country, doesn't have to go any farther than his own back yard -- the beaches of Ocean City -- where the third annual Mid-Atlantic Stunt Kite Championships continue today.
Starting at 10 a.m., more than 100 colorful kites will soar above the beach near Caroline Street, performing the sort of acrobatic feats usually associated with the Navy's Blue Angels. Whether the kites, which are piloted with two or more lines, are flying in formation, looping, diving, or performing individual dances in the sky carefully choreographed to music, stunt-kite flying is one of the most beautiful performances of this Springfest weekend.
Competitors come from as far away as California, Canada and Miami for the event, which is part of the Eastern Stunt Kite League. The Ocean City championship is the sixth event in the league's 1992 circuit and competitors earn points toward league standings.
The competition, which began yesterday, is sure to draw newcomers to the sport when they see that there is a whole lot more to kite flying these days than hanging onto a single line like a rock anchoring a sail in the sky.
One competitor is expected to launch four kites and work all eight lines himself, using his feet and his hips, as well as his hands, says Mr. Jones, of the Kite Loft of America of Ocean City, which is sponsoring the event with Sky Festivals and the Worcester County Department of Tourism.
Another competitor plans to create a train of up to 30 kites, depending on the strength of the wind, that will lift him 20 feet off the ground, a dangerous act that shouldn't be tried by novices, Mr. Jones warns. But most amazing is how the kite fliers control and maneuver the kites, landing and relaunching without touching the kite itself, putting it in a dive and turning it sharply just before it crashes, or sailing the kite only inches off the ground.
"It's the sport of the '90s," according to Mr. Jones, who says the popularity of kite flying seems to double each year. The partner in the Kite Loft, the largest kite retailer in the country with three stores in Ocean City, may be a little prejudiced, but there's no doubt the sport has taken a turn skyward.
Retail sales in this country have increased about 20 percent each year in the past decade, he estimates.
Surprisingly, only in recent years has this old and enjoyable pastime become a bona fide competitive sport. Ocean City played host to the first stunt kite championship in the country in 1978, then the sport seemed to die until Roger Chewning of Sky Festivals sponsored a show in New Jersey in 1986. Today, more than three dozen competitions are scheduled all over the United States.
Part of the stunt-kite flying's attraction is that it isn't as difficult as it looks, says Mr. Jones.
"It's a sport anybody can do. You can sit in a chair and maneuver a kite. If you're handicapped, you can sit in a wheelchair. And it only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to learn to fly one," Mr. Jones says, although he does concede that a person has to work at it several hours to become proficient.
And despite its dependency on wind, kite flying can be an all-season sport. The better kites will fly in a half-knot of wind or 50 knots of wind, Mr. Jones says. Only gale force wind or a heavy shower will stop a competition, he says.
And it's no wonder stunt-kite flying has taken off in these environmentally conscious, economically tight times. It's a lot of fun, it doesn't damage the environment, and its cheap.
For just $20, you can buy a decent fiberglass kite, tail, handles, and even pay your sales tax, Mr. Jones said. But if you want a state-of-the-art kite, it's still hard to spend more than $300, which will buy a rib-stop nylon sail over a carbon-fiber or graphite frame, he said.
However, some experts like Mr. Jones carry as much as $3,000 worth of kites to competitions so they can pick their kite according to the wind conditions.
Stunt kites, or dual-control kites, originated during World War II as Navy target kites, Mr. Jones said. A man named Paul Garber added an extra line to a kite so it could be maneuvered and used as practice target for navy pilots.
It was only about 20 years ago that the first sport-stunt kite was developed and sold by Englishman Peter Powell. He marketed a popular diamond-shaped, dual-control kite with a 100-foot-long tubular tail that quickly gained popularity in the United States.
Then in 1985, California-based Top of the Line Kites created a big dual-control Delta kite with an 8-foot wing span, named Hawaiian, and the sport took off. It was so big that kite fliers enjoyed flying them in formation.
Today's stunt kites can have two or four lines to control their movement and come in several basic styles: diamond shape; delta; triangular shape; a flexible foil sail; or a four-line, box tie-shaped kite. They are generally flown from inches off the ground to 65 feet in the air.
Up until the mid-1980s, there were only about five companies that manufactured dual-control kites. Today, there are about 125 companies making them.
"It's really relaxing," said Brian Linzey of Ocean City, who got snagged on the sport when he bought his girlfriend a kite two years ago.
"There's nothing like putting on your head phones, going out on the beach and flying a kite," said Mr. Linzey, who is competing for the second time in the championships at Ocean City. "You can get lost for a couple hours."