Introduction and History
While the idea of kite-powered land vehicles dates back a couple of centuries, a patent was issued in 1823 to George Pocock of Bristol, England for his “char volante” (wind chariot), recent advances in kite designs and the efforts of Peter Lynn, a brilliant New Zealand kite and buggy designer, have created a whole new land sailing sport.
Kite Buggy Design
The kite buggy is a three wheeled landsailer. Rather than a mast and sail the pilot uses power kites. The most common buggy designs are from Peter Lynn and Flexifoil International. Common design characteristics include stainless steel tube frame (less than 20 lbs. w/o wheels), low center of gravity (for stability), excellent center of balance (for quick maneuverability) and they can be quickly disassembled for easy transport. Costs run in the $450 – $1000 range for a new buggy depending on model, but the investment pays off over an almost unlimited lifespan.
Kite Buggy Engines: The Power Kite
Modern power kites are based on the original design work of Dom Jalbert who created the ram-air inflated wing in the 1960’s. Ram-air parafoil wings differ from sails in that the parafoil uses wind pressure to inflate the wing, creating a 3-dimensional airfoil.
Airfoil wings create lift using the differential between higher pressure on the bottom and less pressure on the top of the wing. Sails offer resistance to the wind and are more limited in their efficiency. The most efficient sails are those that most resemble an airfoil.
Ram-air foils have no rigid frame, relying on air pressure and multiple bridles to hold the shape while in flight. There is less weight because of the lack of a frame, but the multiple bridles add to the drag.
“Quad foils” have 4 control lines running to the flyer. The four control lines add drag so “quads” are often flown on lines 50-100 feet in length. The shorter lines quicken steering response but limit the wind range. It is a trade-off each flyer takes into account.
Beginners should choose a moderate size kite, despite the temptation to get the biggest most powerful kite available. A good 3 or 4 meter size kite will fly in a wide wind range and won’t overpower the novice flyer in moderate winds. As your experience and kite collection grows, that first kite you bought will still probably be your go to kite on most days.
Best Places to Buggy
Buggies favor large open spaces and smooth winds for the best sailing, but their small size and easy maneuverability allows experienced buggy pilots access to areas unsuitable to more traditional land yachts.
The more space you have the easier and safer it will be. Clear areas downwind are also important if and when you have to release the kite. Urban buggy riders use soccer fields (when there is no game) and other large open areas. Beach buggy riding is best done away from sunbathers, strollers and other beach users. Be responsible and safe! Go Buggy!
Grass and sand require more power than hard-pack or pavement, but they are favored because of the balance between grip and drag. Pavement and hard-pack can be very fast, but the incredible side grip in a tight turn can flip the unwary rider. Hard-packed sand is perhaps the best surface to buggy on, with grassy lawns in second place. Hard sand provides great traction and better control in a slide.
Riding the Buggy
The biggest secret to successful buggy riding is to develop skills before you develop speed. The image of cruising at speed is the result of basic skills and control. Injury is usually the result of foolishness, not the buggy.
- Wind: Smooth, medium winds of 10 to 20 mph are the best for learning. On dry lakes and pavement, the rolling resistance is much less and lighter winds may be enough.
- First: Use the smallest kite that will work and medium winds. Work the kite to gain speed. When you stop working the kite, speed should drop off. Never let another person (or your self) talk you into more than you can handle.
- Starting: Get comfortable with the kite and controls before jumping on a buggy. If the kite crashes, get off the buggy and re-launch. Then remount the buggy. Remember to point the buggy a bit downwind before starting off again. Many pilots leave the buggy pointed where they want to go, and so run the risk of getting popped out sideways when they power up.
- Going: Start with the kite overhead and drop it into the wind in the direction of travel to gain speed. Work the kite back and forth to increase power and speed. The faster the kite goes, the faster you can go.
- Stopping: While the kite buggy lacks mechanical brakes, there are very effective braking systems for kite buggy sailors. Mechanical brakes would be ineffective because the buggy is already so light, brakes would lock the wheels, loosing steering ability. The pilot’s hands steer the kite while their feet steer the buggy, and that is the solution. Putting the kite overhead reduces the kite’s pull and the buggy slows. Dropping the kite behind the line of travel for a moment and then bringing it back overhead slows the buggy more quickly. Steering the buggy upwind also reduces speed. Because of the buggy’s low center of gravity and excellent center of balance, spinning the buggy in a 180 degree circle is both a very effective way to stop with great control and the sensation while spinning is also a whopping good time. Don’t worry, the buggy is very stable and will not (usually) overturn.