Barney's story of the darker side of kitesurfing has reached almost folklore status in the south west of England. Head Chef and part owner of The Seafood Cafe in St.Ives, and otherwise known to no one as Ken Humphries, Barney is no stranger to the fabulous kiting beaches around Cornwall. At forty two years-old and having kited for five years on both land and sea, he has notched up some serious hours of experience. The term 'gung ho' seems to fit the bill for his style nicely. I remember seeing Barney kite a couple of years ago and was well impressed by his daring; boosting big with the odd release of a back loop kite loop.
April 2005 saw a chain of events leading to a long and trying test of Barney's passion for kiting. Although familiar with the various versions of his ordeal floating around the beaches, I was pleased when Barney agreed to give me his story first hand over a coffee at the local surf cafe. It was low tide and just two kites were out at Mount's Bay at Marazion on Cornwall's south coast. A 12m Vegas on only its second outing was living up to expectations, and Barney cruised in a 15 knot dead on-shore breeze.
Marazion has a sloping sand and pebble beach that rises to meet a solid stone wall that runs parallel to a busy road. Beyond, the road is a swampy marsh, a haven of clustered power lines. Barney casts his mind back, delivering his story in his familiar straight-up tone. Ensuring my attention and in trademark Barney manner, he begins every other sentence declaring my name. 'Cheryl, squalls came through and I just ode them out. After quite a strong one the sun came out and this really light wispy cloud appeared about 50 - 100 feet off the water and was moving really fast. That's when I decided to come in. I didn't like the look of it.' Just as Barney got to the water's edge, he reached to pull his quick-release and self-land the kite. 'Before I knew it I felt the wind loft, air rushed and whistled past my helmet as I went up about fifty feet.' Barney gesticulates; his hands imitate the wind and his body rises up out of the café chair, emphasizing to me just how vivid it still is in his mind. 'By then it just wasn't worth pulling the quick-release. If I had?' He pauses. 'I would just be meat on the beach!' The kite lunged forward and back before gaining tremendous height again, sending Barney swinging like a crazed metronome below.
|Two hundred metres down the beach and parallel with the road, the nightmare continued, carrying him over the sand dunes and then across the traffic, threatening a course into the web of power lines. By this time, having let go of the bar and hanging only by his chicken-loop, Barney admits he was screaming with fear.
'It was all mad. I remember screaming, you know? all the time. 'WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING!' I was so scared I thought I was going to pass out.' At this point I'm sipping on my coffee and coughing it back up at the spectacle. Barney's actions are beginning to speak louder than his words. Both hands are now above his head and grasping for the imaginary bar. Many of the café's patrons have got half an ear on our conversation when he stops for another dramatic pause and a look of exasperation.
'I crashed down onto my heel? and aarghh!' He contorts behind his latte, holding an ankle to illustrate the point of impact. 'I just grabbed my bar to try and pull the quick-release, but as I did that a gust pulled the kite from 9 o'clock up to 12.'
Round two, and Barney is wrenched vertically into the air once again. 'By the time the catch slid open I was thirty feet off the beach and that was it!' I'm hooked and up there with him, cringing with his every expression. I urge him to continue. 'Well, I didn't want to land on my back, 'cos I'd break it!' Barney shrugs and the story pauses in mid-air as he mentally runs through his options. '?and not on my head or on my front because of the chicken-loop hook. So I just thought to land on my hip as it is where the most padding was. I tried to angle myself ?and bang! I skidded into the sand and my head hit the beach. My helmet spun around and sliced off my eyelid, my eyeball came out and there was blood pissing out everywhere. My eye was just sitting in the palm of my hand. I lay there totally out of breath, I didn't even know what the kite was doing.
A woman came over and asked if I was all right. And I just yelled, 'DON'T TOUCH ME! DON'T TOUCH ME!' I was afraid she'd make it worse.' This is when Barney's luck changed. An ambulance crew was parked up at the sea wall enjoying their lunch. I have an image of these guys about to munch into their pasties just as Barney was catapulted out of their field of view. He was up there so long that they were at the ready by the time he began his fall. At the hospital, the dislodged eye and a very deep cut to his chin (from his helmet strap) were the first priorities. 'Because the cut was quite deep they'd been trying to clean it out with a toothbrush.' Barney tugs at his chin revealing the scar whilst demonstrating his best toothbrush action. 'I went to get off the bed and I couldn't stand up properly.
|I started to spin out and they just said, 'Wait, you've broken your back.' I just lay there for the next two days unable to move, thinking, 'What have I done?'' The final injury tally also included two fractured spinal processes, damaged core muscles and severe soft tissue damage to one heel. 'I was lucky because I had a business that supported me in a way, but I thought I might never be able to work again if I couldn't stand up. So I started thinking about what I might be able to do instead. But on day two the specialist said the swellings were going down and I should be OK.' I asked Barney what Sarah, his partner, thinks about kiting. Barney replied with a smirk, 'She thinks it's dangerous.
When I had the accident, she said I could never do it again. She was probably just as anxious as me when I first started going back out.' Eleven weeks later Barney was down at the beach rigging up. 'One of the boys gave me a launch, I was sweating my tits off. There was a really nice 15mph wind though and I just went up and down the beach. That was good.' Sitting opposite Barney and listening to the events of that day unfold, I could see in his face, even now, the toll it has taken on him.
This column is in issue #24