Kiteboarding — it's like a drug. Once hooked, an addict's life spirals out of control into one 360 after another. Some may leave their jobs, and others may burn through their savings. After all, who wouldn't want to "free their mind" for days on end?
"It was either fix my car or buy a kite," says Dale Slear, already a five-year user at age 23. "I had an opportunity to buy a kite for $400. The car could wait."
"It's a release," says Elea Faucheron, who works on the supply end at her store, Air, in Mt. Pleasant. "You just leave your mental crap on the beach and go out and have a good time."
For the roughly 100 regular kiteboarders in Charleston, how the wind's blowing one morning can dictate what they do the rest of the day. Chances are, if gusts are pushing 15 knots or more, you can walk out to Station 28½ on Sullivan's Island or to the third block on Isle of Palms and see dozens of twirling kites out on the horizon.
"If you're really addicted, you have to be an opportunist," says Slear, who lives in a winter rental house on Sullivan's directly at the 28½ beach access point. "It's something that you go to when it's good. Right now, I'm working from my house, looking out at the ocean. There's not much wind right now, so I'm going to do some more work."
Slear works for a company called Socci Sport, whose two other employees in town are also kiters. Many others are in real estate or sales; some own their own businesses. And when nature calls, they respond.
Fortunately, there are about as many windy days as still days along the Lowcountry coast. Some days are better than others — that's a given — but good days for kiteboarding far outnumber the good days for surfers — which number a mere few dozen or so in any given year. And for that very reason, Charleston has become a kiting destination.
Heck, one of the sport's best, pro rider Davey "Chucktown" Blair, learned the craft here. Blair is known by kiters around the world by his nickname and the apparel company he founded.
As a result, kiting-savvy real estate agents now tout Isle of Palms and Sullivan's as travel destinations for riders, while two East Cooper stores specialize in the sport. Which leads us to wonder, if it's a buzz today, could a craze be just around the corner?
Dragging Your Freckles Off
For most kiters, their addiction begins with a moment of introspection, something along the lines of, "I have to do that." Many were surfers first, others windsurfers or sailors. But for almost everyone, once the kite's in the air, it's a permanent part of their lives.
That's how it worked out for Stu Shuck, who with his friend Steve Wiggs took a trip to Cape Hatteras in October 1999 to take professional lessons. Shuck returned with a kite and a bag of new skills to hone. He then taught his brother, Brian, how to kite. The Shuck brothers, who co-own Charleston Aquatic Nurseries on Johns Island, and Wiggs literally introduced Charleston to the sport.
"Those first kites weren't very user-friendly," says Stu Shuck. "It was pretty dangerous and hardcore."
To most onlookers, it still looks that way when a kiter comes ripping across the water at a breakneck speed, lifts off over a cresting wave, and then turns a double somersault 20 feet in the air before landing on the water and zipping away across the sea.
But in less than a decade's time, the technology behind the sport has been revolutionized.
When Stu Shuck took off to Hatteras, the Legaignoux brothers of France, who built the first kiteboarding kite in the mid-'80s, were still perfecting the inflatable tube design used today. But as kiting gained popularity, a few high profile deaths, including one during a live televised competition, threatened to ground the sport. Thankfully, 2005 brought two much-needed innovations — a "bow" kite design that pulls less violently and a quick-release mechanism that allows riders to detach from the kite. Overnight, the industry was saved.
"It was a bad scene. People were getting killed — a guy in Texas, someone in California, some European stuff. It looked like anybody who did this had a death wish," says Dan Floyd, the owner of the newly opened OliNah watersports store on Isle of Palms. "But you shouldn't have to pay the ultimate price for a sport. Companies that didn't keep up with the safety improvements lost a share of the market."
Floyd tried out kiteboarding in 1999. "I pretty much dragged my freckles off," he says of his first few times kiteboarding.
Fortunately, Floyd had plenty of time to learn — thanks to the prime kiteboarding weather along the South Carolina coast. "I never got more than 52 days in surfing, and 82 windsurfing, but with kiting, I got 140 days last year," the kiter says. "And that's with two kids and a full-time job. Mother Ocean is my boss."
Oddly enough, Floyd's passion for kiting — and his love of adventure — hasn't limited him to jumping on a board.
"I once rode a giant flip-flop," says Floyd. "You basically can ride your kite with anything you've ever put your feet in. It's a matter of displacement. I've ridden a snow saucer, skim boards, a stand-up paddleboard, a cooler, and a lid."
Steady as She Goes
As Floyd says, learning to ride a kiteboard isn't easy. Keeping a kite with a 10-foot wingspan in the air isn't the same as holding onto that paper-thin plastic Gayla Baby Bat kite you flew when you were a three-year-old kid wearing Superman Underoos. It wants to dive, it wants to twirl, it wants to hit the ground, and it wants to take you with it.
Rookies start with a trainer kite, learning the feel of maneuvers and 360s before they get their toes wet. Once in the water, they practice "body drags" without a board, getting the feel of tacking upwind and dragging in the "power zone" — just above the water and directly in line with the wind. After a new rider successfully stands up on a board, where they go next is entirely up to them.
For Gretta Kruesi, the drive is to perfect tricks and land them effortlessly. Although she began kiteboarding just two years ago, Kruesi recently secured a partnership with Naish, one of the industry's most established kite-makers,
"I have the nickname 'Steady Grettie,' because for the longest time I just did the same things," says the Isle of Palms native. "Now that I'm starting to try unhooked tricks (unattaching the kite from the harness), it opens the door to a whole new realm of things I can do."
She adds, "I feel like I'm a beginner again."
Currently, Kruesi is mastering her "raileys," a move where she unhooks and pops her body out parallel to the water. Naish plans to fly her to Hawaii and other kiting hotspots for expos and photo shoots. With any luck, a full-time career as a pro just might be ahead of her.
Sullivan's rider Dale Slear is one of several area kiters who can land professional-caliber moves like the "double front roll with a grab."
"You go up in the air, take the kite, and loop it in front of you — basically a 360, which increases the amount of power and pulls you at Mach 1 forward," he explains. "If you do it right, you can land super soft, and do various grabs or 360s on the way down."
Many of the folks in front of Slear's house at Station 28½, however, are just riding back and forth across the inlet, catching 10 foot jumps off of waves. They often crash and then maneuver their kites back into the air. It's an ideal place to learn — the offshore sandbar creates an almost quarter-mile stretch of water that varies from shin- to shoulder-deep throughout.
For those looking to try out kiting, there are ample opportunities through Air, OliNah, and riders like Slear who offer private instruction.
Amy Decola is a 52-year-old employee of the Department of Education. She grew up sailing and was intrigued by the graceful maneuvers of the kiters she watched on the beach, so last spring she signed up for lessons with Elea Faucheron, who runs Air with her fiancée, store founder Adam Von Ins.
"The first thing I said to her was, 'Okay, honestly, give me a reality check here, and if I'm out of my mind, I'm not going to get my feelings hurt,'" Decola recalls.
After a few months of lessons, she's now standing up and riding. "It's really been a physical and mental discipline, like a little path I'm on. It's sort of spiritual — the water, the wind, the waves, the whole deal," Decola says. "I feel dynamite."
Last year, Faucheron started the Air Club for Girls, a group that gathers to share tips, progress, and establish buddies to kite with. "If you don't know much about the sport, there's a misconception that you have to be this strong dude to be able to do it," says Faucheron.
She adds, "It's a sport that involves a lot of community as far as making sure people are educated and doing what they should be doing."
That spirit is evident on the beach, where the riders eagerly help each other launch their kites and discuss tricks. It's a refreshing change from the "stay off my wave" vibe that is sometimes seen in the surfing community.
And it keeps people safe — riders often stop to help re-aloft downed kites while experienced kiters spread the message that swimmers deserve their space in the water too.
Because Charleston is consistently windy (unlike Florida, where the winds die down in the summer), and relatively warm (unlike the Outer Banks, which are downright chilly in the winter), our popularity as a kiting destination will likely only grow. And while the waters may be getting more crowded, the riding communities on Folly, Sullivan's, and Isle of Palms seem open enough to extend a helping hand toward the noobs.
After all, who wants to get high all alone?