Kite Tails from A Broad

First International TransPacific Kitemaking Competition

Fantasy is wonderful, and living out a lifetime fantasy is the ultimate dream come true. But sometimes the fantasy does not quite live up to the reality. I found this out when I spent two months sailing on a square rigged brigantine Tall Ship called the Soren Larsen.

For over thirty years I have nursed a fantasy that has also captured the hearts of many other ‘wind’ people – that of sailing around the world. My imagination speculated about the excitement of sailing, the quiet times at sea and the adventures in various ports of call. This year I had an opportunity to participate in an adventure that at least partially fulfilled the fantasy.

Elain on deck
I boarded the Soren Larsen in Curaçao, off the coast of Venezuela and sailed from Curaçao to Easter Island. The voyage took me from the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Panama Canal. There were stops at various islands, including the Cocos Islands. These isolated islands belong to Costa Rica and are better known as the locale for filming Jurassic Park. From there we sailed to the Galapagos for a week of island hopping and exploration. On leaving there, three weeks of open ocean sailing until we reached Easter Island. I left the boat on Easter Island, returning via Chile, Bolivia and Peru. The ship continued to Pitcairn Island, the Marquesas and Tahiti, eventually arriving back in Auckland, its home port, sometime in the fall.

Last year the Soren Larsen left Auckland on a year 2000 Odyssey. She sailed across the Pacific to join Tall Ship celebrations on the east coast of the USA, and then raced from Halifax to Amsterdam before spending time in England undergoing a refit in preparation for her return to New Zealand. This is referred to as a ‘world trip’, and is undertaken every five or six years. I figured that in five or six years I would be older, more decrepit, or maybe even dead, so I went to the bank, took out a HUGE loan, and joined the crew!

The Soren Larsen has a regular crew of 13, and has room for what they call 22 ‘Voyage Crew’ (VC) members. VC’s are paying passengers who are willing to pay a considerable amount to learn how to sail the ship, participating in the everyday operation of this 125 foot, all wood, square rigged brigantine. We were encouraged to participate in every part of the ship’s operation, from navigation, climbing the rigs, hauling on lines, furling the sails, baking bread, swabbing decks, polishing brass, and learning various shipboard skills.

Elain on a beach
Accommodations were basic, and very space limited. Since I planned to backpack after leaving the ship I had to be very stringent with what I brought on board in my backpack, but of course had to pack some kites (and bubbles) in my pack. Along with all my other life essentials, I managed to pack a small dual line kite, a small ‘Pan’ kite (parafoil), a handful of my own pocket sled foils, and at the last minute, a small delta. I was determined to fly on as many beaches, islands, and countries as I could manage. I make small ripstop ‘foil’ pocket kites by the dozen, and find them the best travelers. I fly them and give them away to kids and they fit into a day pack with ease. They found homes with children in the San Blas Islands (Panama), on Isabella Island in the Galapagos, on Easter Island, and on a reed island on Lake Titicaca in Peru!

Monica's kite
My fellow travelers were fascinated by my obsession. They booed me when my stunt kite flying scared the sea lions and confused the Blue Footed Boobies (birds) on a Galapagos beach but they cheered as I flew my delta as we crossed the equator. So it was no surprise when first mate Sally approached me about a week after we left the Galapagos to suggest a kite making competition. It was going to be a LOOOOOONG three-week stint at sea between the Galapagos and Easter Island, and time could grow heavy on our hands. While we kept busy maintaining and sailing the ship, the crew was always looking for ways to liven things up.

So I initiated the First International TransPacific Kitemaking Competition. Terry, the Purser, arranged to lay out such materials as she had available and I agreed to give a ‘lecture’ on basic kite building techniques. VC’s and regular crew members were enthusiastic, and after a short lecture, accompanied by pictures of kites that I had brought with me, they went to work. There were problems finding spars, but the kitchen kicked in with some bamboo ‘sate’ sticks, and I taught them how to roll spars out of paper. We also had problems finding light enough string, but fortunately I had brought several lines of different weights that could be used for bridles and for flying.

A kite building frenzy took over the ship. Tables were covered with tissue paper, lines, glue sticks, and some very strange things began to emerge!!! I was to be the final judge, but I was also the only consultant, so I was kept pretty busy. The contestants had one week to complete the project, but unfortunately while there was wind on the day we were to fly them, it was coming in the wrong direction – meaning the Mainsail’s boom was in the way, so we couldn’t get the kites up. A few more days meant a few more kites were completed. Finally, on March 14, in the middle of the Pacific, at 11° 32′ S, 96° 07′ W, sailing at 5.65 knots (roughly 35 mph), we all crowded on deck and one by one the kites were launched!!

edith's kite
It was an incredible event, mainly because some the creations were a little bizarre! There were ten participants, and ten winners. Raff, a 73 year old retired pediatric surgeon from Chicago, won ‘Best Flyer’ (and oldest) with a small but efficient plastic eddy. Edith, a costume designer from Switzerland, won the ‘Largest Kite’ (and perhaps the most bizarre) using an accordion pleated sleeping mat sandwiched and sewn between green garbage bags to simulate a flowform. She had seen pictures of my flowform, and formulated something that weighed about five pounds, but she was determined it would fly. Well it did, sort of like a play sail!!!
Polly's kite
The ‘Most Outrageous Kite’ was built by Polly, from New Zealand, who used her brightly colored Balinese batiked pants. Using wire (donated by the engineer) threaded through the waistband and flown with a three point bridle, it struggled to fly. We finally reclassified it as a windsock.

Irish Geoff, a mathematician, won for the ‘Smallest Kite’, a paper and plastic creation with an image of the Soren Larsen on it. ‘Prettiest Kite’ awards (paper) went to Laila, a Danish journalist, for a newspaper kite that incorporated the picture of the Danish Prime Minister, and Monica (plastic), a U.S.A corporate trainer, who found some rainbow colored plastic and could be found ecstatically flying her first ever kite at all hours. Ken, an English demographer, won for the Most Unique Kite, as he constructed a wonderful kite that echoed the sails of the Soren Larsen!
Ken's kite
Sneakily working below deck, Terry, who is from New Zealand, appeared at the last minute with a perfect miniature box kite, and so won in the Cellular Division. Then there was a Boson’s Special Prize to Jimma (Australia) for the use of outrageously inappropriate material. (A boson or boatswain is responsible for the sails, rigging etc.) He was the ‘baggy wrinkle’ expert on board and insisted on incorporating baggy wrinkle remnants on the tail of his small pirate kite. The poor thing was too heavy and never really flew.

Laila's kite
‘Baggy wrinkles’ are fuzzy oval balls created out of old hemp line, and attached to lines as a buffer so they won’t rub against the sails. That’s as close as I can get to an explanation. Making baggy wrinkles was one of the jobs I rather liked doing on board. It was better than some of the other daily chores, like swabbing the decks, polishing ALL the brass, doing dishes, climbing the rig, etc., etc. This was a working ship, and we all did four-hour watches on with eight hours off round the clock. Each watch was responsible for doing one of the daily chores.

The three weeks at sea were the most difficult time of the whole trip for me. Some of the VC got involved in learning celestial navigation, but it was beyond my understanding.
Elain on Easter Island
I learned that time at sea locked up with 32 people you have never met before can become a bit tedious and redundant. How many times can you listen to the same story…. or find yourself TELLING the same story!! I was happy when we finally arrived at Easter Island. We were there for a week, and we stayed in hotels, which was great. I had MY OWN BATHROOM, and as many showers as I wanted!! And HOT WATER! I got to fly my kites with various Moais all over the island – you know – those GIANT HEADS.

Five of us VC’s left the boat on Easter Island, and five more people came to join. I flew to Santiago, Chile, and immediately flew north to the mining town of Calama, then by bus to a small adobe village called San Pedro de Altacama. After several days hiking, flying kites, etc., and mainly acclimatizing to the high altitude, I joined six others in a Landcruiser heading into the mountain deserts of Bolivia. For the most part we traveled at about 4,500 meters (over 12,000 feet!) It was probably the most incredible landscape I have ever seen in my lifetime of travels. I was determined to fly higher than Richard Synergy’s recent record, and while I don’t have the verification that he has, I am pretty sure my wonderful little pan kite made it at least as high as he did several times.

It was not without a struggle, though. While there was wind enough, and certainly no trees, the altitude was a killer. We all suffered from altitude sickness to some degree. We drank ‘cocoa leaf’ tea, and chewed the damn leaves, and while it helped a bit, it eventually did me in. I made it as far as Cuzco before caving in and seeking medical help for what was becoming increasing fatigue and weakness. My last three days in South America were unfortunately spent in hospital attached to various machines – including oxygen! In addition, I probably had been walking around with pneumonia for several days. So I didn’t fulfill the fantasy of flying my kites in Machu Picchu. In fact, I saw nothing of Peru at all, and on doctor’s advice flew home a week early. However, my lungs reinflated upon landing in Vancouver and all has been well since arriving home.

So, fantasies fulfilled?

Well, I know that two months at sea is more than enough, and I’ll pass on the round world trip. I am sure I DID fly at least as high as the recent record. I got to fly kites with kids on islands all over the Pacific and Caribbean. I learned that once an ‘islomaniac’ always an islomaniac, and my newest fantasy is to visit and fly kites on as many islands as I can in this too short a lifetime.

For those of you who are curious about the Soren Larsen, and the voyage, I recommend two sites: and which is authored by two of my shipmates who maintained a webpage diary, complete with pictures in Dutch and English.

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