Tutorials : So you want to buggy?
by Iain Drummond
This document contains my ramblings/observations on the learning process of buggying in general - all opinions and anecdotes relate entirely to the author (Iain Drummond) and are not commercially biased. A biased version can be provided for sufficient inducement. I have taken pains to comment only on the things I have experienced directly and equipment I have actually used - those who know me will realise how difficult this has been. Any inaccuracies are therefore entirely my fault.
Here we go…
Find a mentor.
Some times you just can't work out what you are doing wrong and want to have a little tantrum on the beach. Someone who can a) explain and b) demonstrate will drastically cut down your learning time. There’s nothing wrong with paying for it, but I have found over the years that the kiting fraternity is one of the friendliest around, so don’t be afraid to ask someone.
Sense of humour.
Absolutely mandatory. Having a laugh "just to see what happens" is often the fastest way to learn but does come at the price of being occasionally painful. Watching someone learning to buggy will often induce stomach cramps in spectators.
Assuming that it's like sailing/windsurfing/paragliding/etc.
It's not. Major differences in the reflexes you build up doing other things will have to be "unlearned". After about 2.5 hrs wondering why the [insert expletive] I could only ever seem to gybe one way - a kind gent called Paul pulled up beside me and stated "you must be a sailor then". Somewhat nonplussed, I agreed that I did race dinghies. He laughed maniacally as he thundered off shouting "idiot - you're on a slope..." Sometimes you will concentrating on the wrong things and assume you are failing somewhere, when you really just haven't noticed something that greatly affects what you are trying to do.
Thinking about it.
Don't. As with the point above, you will inevitably try and rationalise "what will happen if..." without having the benefit of experience. This is virtually impossible and occasionally utterly wrong. Just get on with it. It soon becomes obvious what goes wrong.
Fly smaller kites.
DO NOT start on big kites. Learn to buggy on a small power kite first. This will help build your control reflexes and give you a good idea of power delivery whilst under way (one thing you can only get on the buggy). Heavier people will need bigger kites than light people. The important point is to remain "underpowered" - experienced buggiers will often be lofting something 2 or 3 times the size of something a beginner might be using. If you park over your head and notice any more than a small amount of vertical lift, it might be a bit too big to learn on – you want to generate a moderate amount of pull, not cartwheel the buggy or sail over the horizon.
Some of the reflexes can only be gained with practice. Compensating for sideways skid on an upwind leg is a good example - you will be kicking the steering about and leaning backwards and forwards rather a lot. This can only be gained through experience. Knowing what you have to do certainly helps, but your brain becoming involved in the process slows it down too much to be really useful.
Wear protective gear.
Helmet, gloves, elbow and kneepads are (in my opinion) mandatory. Even if you don't think you will be going fast. So far I managed to completely write off a cycling helmet and have a set of very battle-scarred pads. I've seen people not really believing how strong an itsy bitsy kite can be - funniest one was using a 1m kite (in 40mph winds). Most of the impacts tend to be on your hands, elbows, knees, shoulders and hips. You may occasionally look like you have been assaulted by a baseball bat – do not panic, this is perfectly normal.
Don’t start with a harness/strap.
You will definitely want to use one eventually – pretty much all buggy pilots will be wearing them - however, I would not recommend using a harness or strap the first couple of times you get on the buggy - the ability to dump the lot is well worth the pain in your forearms. Once you think you know what's going on, then try a strap/harness, but be aware that this introduces some differences as well - you won't be able to wave your arms about as much and your centre of gravity/effort will change. Harnesses/straps are not inherently dangerous unless you get overpowered (too big a kite, gusting wind, etc) or I suppose, you get the kite snagged (kites are expensive - you learn not to do this very quickly!). Having enough buggy time logged to be able to tell when you might have a wind-strength problem, and then react appropriately, is highly recommended. If you have a choice, try and pick something that lets you dump it quickly. Ironically, most of the quick release arrangements I have ever seen (weak links, various adapted climbing/sailing crabs, etc) are far from 100% reliable – I think is actually more dangerous than not having one at all, since you may be relying on it in a time of crisis. Most harnesses may claim to offer an "easy out" option, but all this usually means is that the bottom of the hook/roller/pulley is open, so the line can fall or be pulled out when it’s not under pressure. It does not take a genius to work out that the line will almost always be under pressure when you are under way, and even more so when you are having a small gust incident. It is a good idea to practice dumping the kite, but in the great tradition of irony, you will row more and more reluctant to do this as you get more experienced-especially if you are determined to keep the kite dry. I have been dragged for 100’s of yards on my back fighting to keep the kite in the air after an abduction.
Don't give up.
It's not a very easy thing to learn, especially when you are new to controlling the kite as well. If possible, get your hands on the kiting equivalent of a detuned ford escort - (the following list is not means as any kind of slur!) Sky tigers and Sands quads are absolutely ideal. Don't start with a high performance competition sort of thing - they are just a bit too quick and need direct input a lot of the time to prevent overflying and/or collapsing - this is hard to do when you are learning the dynamics of the buggy and kite combination at the same time. This is one of the things most difficult to tell people about buggying. Basically, even if you can fly the kite competently (e.g. converting from flying a Rev or somesuch), you will have been doing so from a stationary position. Complete mastery of the kite before getting in the buggy will definitely help, but perhaps not as much as you might think. Putting yourself on wheels, let alone ones you have to steer with your feet, introduces some very strange concepts. The standard learning curve goes like this:
You will inevitably start off heading directly downwind, start to overhaul the kite, which then slackens the lines (no control input and falls out of sky like bag of washing), run over the whole sodding lot and then wonder what you did wrong. Attempts to start at 90deg to the wind will end up in either a) the kite hitting the edge of the window and collapsing just as your bum gets into the seat or b) you being hauled straight out sideways. Then you try at maybe 15-30deg downwind and off you go, for a short while at least... You have to keep a constant pressure on the flying lines to control the kite, so sometimes you are trying to steer away from the kite, which seems a bit odd at first. Other times you will just get dragged mercilessly sideways. When learning you will tend to veer towards the kite in a rather uncontrolled manner. This is all quite normal! And you have to deal with the fact that you need to tell your feet what to do with the front wheel, keep looking where you are going and keep the kite both flying and pointing where you want, as well as adjusting your weight forwards and backwards to prevent spinning out. You really just have to get out there and get on with it. That might all sound depressing, but the individual points are not hard to learn - putting them all together at the same time needs patience. If it was that hard, I wouldn't be able to do it!
Learn to pack your kite away properly.
Nothing is more irritating than having to spend 1/2hr+ untangling the lines. Buy a fig 8 winder - they are well worth the couple of quid – or use one of the other recommended methods of packing. It's a very personal sort of thing. The main point is to be consistent and beware the friendly packer - better to do it yourself rather than spend the next day cursing them! It is a very good idea to get a separate set of lines and handles for each of your kites. Purists may howl about having to be able to adjust the line lengths for different winds, but you don't really want to introduce yet another decision into your kiting day at this stage.
Go at your own pace.
Controlling the kite can be learned in 15 mins (turn left, turn right, launch, kill, reverse launch, gauge flying window). You have to be familiar with at least that lot. A lot of this changes dramatically once you get in the buggy - the principles are the same but the timing required and the co-ordination with the steering means you almost have to start again. A traditional adrenaline junkie "go for it" attitude will result in a steeper and more painful learning curve than a considered approach.
Learning to buggy will need lots of it. Any very large flat area is suitable and you want to be somewhere the flow of the wind is not going to get interrupted – onshore beach breezes are often best for consistency. Trees, buildings, hills, etc can have nasty effects on the wind. As a general rule, try not to get within 5x their height as a horizontal distance. Beaches are by far the best bet, although several types of buggy and most kites are definitely not salt water friendly, so try and keep them dry. You will also learn that there are at least 15 different types of sand, most of which the buggy doesn’t like. Large fields are OK, but beware of ANY type of obstacles and the psychological affliction known as "fixation" (you see the only visible obstacle from miles away and still manage to hit it). Remember that if you hit a big bump with the front wheel, your arse is next in line.
Judging the wind.
Just in case it’s not obvious, lighter winds need bigger kites. Remember that winds change all the time, both in terms of speed and direction. They also get gusty/thermic. When you are learning, make sure the kite you are flying is not overpowered in any large gusts. Always be prepared to dump the kite (i.e. let go or kill it). Some winds are just not good for learning in. Wind meters can be very useful to gauge exactly how strong the wind is, temperature in particular can make this deceptively difficult. Once you know "the 3m was great for a XXmph wind" then you can build up a picture of which sizes of kites are best in which wind ranges. Alternatively, launch away and see how it feels, but be prepared to swap it if it does not feel right. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.