–Story and Most Photos By Ron Despojado
For the second time in four years I was asked to be a judge at the World Sport Kite Championship (WSKC) in Berck-Sur-Mer France. The championship is held every two years at the Berck Kite Festival. The WSKC was founded by David Gomberg in 2002 as a forum for international teams to challenge for a world championship in kiting. At the time, the World Cup had ceased to exist. The original effort involved the AKA from the USA, STACK from Europe, & AJSKA from Japan, however their roles have declined over the years. Gomberg proposed Berck as the location to host the championship to Gerard Clement and the rest- as they say, is history. Gerard Clement of Paris has been the long time organizer and driving force behind the event’s growth and success. France is logistically the prime venue where the travel budget makes economic sense as far as bringing in the competing teams. Location-wise the beach and the promenade make for a perfect stage.
I arrived in Paris and boarded a bus bound for Berck with several others. Though I had to adjust to the time difference I did my best to function within the local time zone. My first dinner was with the Flying Squad Kite Team from England and fellow USA judge Lisa Willoughby. I ordered one of the local specialties “moules” which is steamed mussels. When my meal arrived I picked-up the foil packet with the picture of the lemon on it and tore it open over my moules and squeezed out the lemon juice. Hmm…. That didn’t add too much to the taste. A few minutes later I noticed the others at the table open their lemon juice packet, take out the towelette and wiped their fingers clean. Yes, I thought my towelette was lemon juice so I disinfected my moules prior to eating them.
For the first three days I casually enjoyed the festival, knowing that I would be experiencing an intense judging schedule for the following three straight consecutive days. There were 14 teams vying for the World Champion crown, with an additional two teams for display or Concours de L’Avenir. The roster consisted of two teams representing the AKA (AirZone Flight Team, and Evidence), one each from China, Colombia, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, and Russia; two from the United Kingdom; and four from France. The Concours de l’Avenir teams from Colombia and France would bring the total to 16 teams that I would have to judge, both precision in the morning session and ballet in the afternoon session. That would be 96 separate judging assignments. As I saw it, when each team when took to the field they had to be “at their best” for between five and ten minutes as they flew either their precision or ballet performance. The judges had to be “at their best” for between five and ten minutes for a total of 32 times in a day. This was definitely going to be a judging marathon, not only in physical endurance but in concentration and objectivity.
Lisa Willoughby was the head judge for the first day and announced at the pre-flight meeting the precision figures and relevant announcements. On day one the teams seemed to not totally be “game ready” when they took to the field. Some appeared apprehensive, nervous, or just not concentrating. During the precision session one of the pilots from Team Silat of Malaysia fell while executing a figure. He stayed down and was very slow to respond. First aid was summoned and he was taken off the field. Their figure was considered incomplete. This was the first we experienced and had to make a decision regarding the continuation of their allotted slot. An on-the-field exception was granted for them to continue their precision after the rest of the teams finished the order. His injury was a recurrence of an existing condition. When they continued their precision they flew the same figure and afterwards asked the judges if they could fly it again. Without a valid reason, they were denied. During the afternoon ballet teams seemed a little more relaxed and we sensed they were getting into the game. It was clear who the cream of the crop could be.
I was head judge of day two. At the pre-flight meeting I announced the precision figures, and had to explain they were not in numerical order as many European teams are used to. All figures are assigned a number for reference and are typically flown numerically, but there was no requirement to do so at this event. The judges also felt the previous day’s figures we less than satisfactory as a whole, and one of the figures was repeated. Before they took to the field I reminded them that the final scores will be the two best of their three performances, therefore any team- no matter their first day’s performance- could still win it all. The winds were very light and the teams struggled but persevered. A number of wind recesses were called and therefore the precision session ran very long. During the ballet session, the winds never increased and almost all teams setup on the field to accommodate having to back-up and create their own wind. I did see one of the teams not setup on a good location on the field, and knew they would run into problems, but as a judge I could not say anything and was surprised they didn’t see their situation. In addition, one of the teams had an issue during their precision session and mentioned to me their problem. I relayed the message to my fellow judges, and there indeed there was a procedure to address this. Unfortunately the team did not fully follow protocol and their request went unaddressed.
Later that evening I was casually talking to one of the competitors and we spoke about the wind conditions. He hoped day three would bring “Goldilocks winds”. After a brief discussion I realized he was wishing for winds that are “just right.”
The third and final day of the competition arrived and I sensed the teams were ready to go. Pascal Martel of France was head judge of the day. “Goldilocks” had visited the venue and the winds were smooth, moderate, and consistent as can be requested. Temperatures were cool but not uncomfortably cold. This was the day the team had to “leave it all on the field”, there was literally “no tomorrow”, “the competitive juices were flowing,” the teams had to “challenge themselves”, and if I can think of more relevant sports clichés I would. The teams without exception upped their performances and this was refreshing to see. In the late afternoon the last ballet was flown and competition was over. There was a mixed feeling of relief & relaxation among the teams and judges as far as the competition component.
Judging the teams was not an easy task. Though we could point and analyze precision figures since they are predefined, ballet was extremely difficult. There were all styles of music and all styles of flying. The music varied from pop songs, to overtures, opera, show tunes, movies themes, and techno. It was like the proverbial apples and oranges comparison, with mangos, bananas, and pineapples thrown in the selection. Likewise with their demeanor and character the teams ranged from casual weekend attitude to machine-like military precision. The entire spectrum was there.
The next few days consisted of full days of demo’s with the competing teams as well as the recognized display teams. The first day of demos saw increased winds surpassing 20 mph. The tide also came in and encroached onto the field. Some display kites were eventually anchored in the water due to the incoming tide. The speakers that pumped the music onto the field were in danger of damage. In addition, the sound system failed for a period of time, so the kiters flew to “The Sounds of Silence’ performed by Marcel Marceau. Still, the show continued. The evening was the Gala Banquet complete with dignitaries, live band, and of course- the crowning of the World Champions. To probably no one’s surprise the Scratch Bunnies from the UK claimed their third consecutive title, with Start’Air from France placing second, and Cerf Volante Folies also from France rounding out the top three.
The WSKC portion of the Berck festival is held between the weekends to help bolster the attendance. With the start of the weekend, attendance would increase and the display kites and kite ballets intensified.
The following day the teams were presented in their ranking to the public. In addition, us judges and other staff were also introduced. There we were- the 2014 Edition of the World Sport Kite Championship, perhaps for the last time sharing the same arena. The PA blared “We Are The Champions” by Queen. Immediately after the presentation a mega-fly was on tap, with all the competition teams. Thereafter demo’s again on the schedule.
The last day started out somewhat foreshadowing. The sky was gray with slight drizzle and no wind. It struck me this would be my last day with my kite friends for a long time. We gathered in the tent and were told there would be a parade through town. A lot of us were puzzled- did they really want a parade to happen even though it was a gray and wet morning? Well, most of us gathered with kites and banners, and were accompanied by a marching band with baton twirlers. In an instant the drizzle didn’t matter to us anymore and we were proudly walking through the streets making noise, showing off, and having too much fun! It was all smiles with the band playing, the sidewalks full of spectators and people waving from balconies. Of course there would be a parade today! It was also announced there would be sun and wind in the afternoon…and they were right. Final demo’s were performed and posing for pictures with new and old friends was the order of the late afternoon.
My time at Berck was over. Thinking back on my experience I had to remember I was asked to judge the competition. I felt this was a major responsibility, as well as an extremely high honor. I got the best seat in the house to see the best sport kite teams in the world vie for the World Championship. It was a hard job, but I told someone who asked about my commitment as a judge, “It is the probably the hardest job you’ll love.”
My sincerest thanks to Chief Judge Andy Taylor from the UK, fellow judges Lisa Willoughby, Giancarlo Galli, and Pascal Martel; scorekeeper Susie Jo Skinner from the USA, and Field Director Mary Ann Parker from the UK, and of course- David Gomberg- Chairman and Founder of the WSKC; and Gerard Clement- Chairman of the Berck Kite Festival.
Au revoir Berck.