I am a land-based mammal. I swim just enough to keep from drowning. I do not float in water.
So when my editor Stephanie Barna forwarded me an email about Flyboarding, the newest, most physically improbable-looking watersport to hit Charleston, my first thought went something like this: It looks like a fun way to die. "You should do this!" Stephanie suggested cheerfully. "So scary."
A week later, against my better judgment, I found myself aboard a floating tiki hut moored in the Ashley River, a staging ground set up by local company Hydrofly Watersports for Flyboard expeditions. As a reporter, I was getting a free ride that would cost most consumers $95, so I suppose I should have been more grateful. But as I watched co-owner Sam Pannier strap his feet into the Flyboard's built-in boots, I couldn't help thinking it looked like the sort of contraption that nature uses to clean up the gene pool. I laughed nervously. "Sweet," I said, doing my best impression of a chillaxed extreme sports enthusiast.
The Flyboard represents the cutting edge of watersport technology. French company Zapata Racing began developing prototypes in 2011, finally arriving at a market product that looks like a tiny wakeboard on the end of a fire hose. A 55-foot tube is attached to the business end of a high-powered jet ski — in Hydrofly's case, a 180-horsepower Waverunner FX Cruiser High Output —and all of that pressurized water gets pumped through the hose and out the bottom of the board in two gushing streams. One person sits on the jet ski and controls the water pressure while a second person harnesses all that power to perform superhuman stunts.
Before signing up to test my fate in the water, I did a little research. I watched some YouTube videos that showed spiky-haired men gyrating and flipping 20 feet in the air. They splashed bikini-clad girls who watched adoringly from atop a floating surfboard. Over a throbbing dubstep-lite soundtrack, the suntanned sea gods high-fived in midair and swooped in and out of the water with the muscular grace of dolphins. I felt like I needed a testosterone injection.
Then I comforted myself by reading the official Flyboard safety guide, available for download as a PDF on the Hydrofly Watersports website. "If you go deeper than 8 feet and you do not pressurize your ears, you can rupture your ear drums," the guide informed me. Another note: "Powering the throttle before the hose is fully extended could seriously cause injury to the Flyboard user." Oh, and this one: "The penetration of water through the orifices of the body during a fall may cause serious injuries."
Swallowing my self-preservation instinct, I called Hydrofly Watersports co-owner James Stegall to set up a trial run. "So," I said, as nonchalantly as possible, "it looks fun but also kind of ... dangerous."
"It kind of comes across as that," Stegall answered over the phone, "but it's basically a two-person operation, so you always have an instructor on the jet ski, which provides all the power. So if, at any point in time, it starts to look like you're headed into a gray area, we just let you down and you go right into the water." Stegall said he had seen about 100 people take Flyboard lessons so far, and none of them had gotten injured.
Later, Pannier offered me these comforting words: "It's taken a little bit of time for people to realize it's not some crazy death sport."
Whew. I felt better already.
We agreed to meet on a Monday afternoon at Bristol Marina, a public dock on Lockwood Boulevard next to Brittlebank Park. Stegall shuttled me out on a motorboat to Hydrofly's floating platform, moored in the river behind the RiverDogs stadium, where I sat in a folding chair and watched as Pannier demonstrated the finer points of the Flyboard for me. Rising vertically from the river's surface like Iron Man, back rigid and arms at his side, he shot two stories into the air and executed several deft spin moves, angling the spray and flitting in and out of the water like some jet-powered river otter.
Back on the raft, Pannier helped me pick out a life vest, adjust the helmet, and lash the board to my feet with velcro straps. "You want it as tight as possible on your feet," he said, explaining that I would be controlling the thing entirely by shifting my balance.
"It's all in your toes," added Stegall, who had been cranking the jet ski engine for Pannier. "If you lean back on your heels too much, you'll fall in."
Pannier hopped on the jet ski, and I plunged into the river, lying on my stomach as the buoyant board lifted my feet near the surface. Pannier gently nudged the throttle and instructed me to try weaving around in an S pattern to get the feel of the jets.
Even this part felt unnatural. I was scooting along against the river current, towing a jet ski behind me and occasionally catching a mouthful of brine as the wind blew choppy waves in my face. Unsure what to do with my arms, I held them out in front of me like some lesser-known aquatic superhero.
After a few minutes of this, Pannier decided I was ready to try the real thing. "Arch your back to get the board underneath you," he shouted, then cranked the engine as I felt the twin jets driving me up out of the water. Panicking, I bent at the knees and flailed with my arms, rising a few feet before arching backward into the water and feeling the jets push me deeper and deeper. Pannier cut the power, and when I rose to the surface, he instructed me to lock my knees the next time.
Like the early space program, I had a lot of failed launches: bellyflops, cannonballs, headlong swan dives. One time I would put too much weight on my toes, and the next time I would overcompensate and put too much weight on my heels. Finally, Pannier told me not to focus on balancing, but instead to focus on steering the board in midair loops around the jet ski.
It worked. The steering was intuitive, and within 10 minutes after entering the water, I was soaring in lazy laps. I, whose most impressive aquatic feat to date had been catching a two-foot wave on a styrofoam boogie board and whose closest contact to extreme-sports machinery was on his uncle's riding lawnmower, was levitating on two supercharged columns of water.
"How high did I get?" I asked when I came down. "It felt like maybe 15 feet."
"Eh, more like eight," Pannier replied. "But still, you got it."
I went for another few laps around the jet ski, this time staying aloft for several minutes. Up there, away from the putter of the engine, all was quiet except for the rush of the cascades beneath my feet. I didn't feel like a hotshot, and suddenly this ride didn't feel like an extreme sport at all. There was no dubstep. I felt a breeze coming in from the harbor, leaned into it, and watched the cars darting silently over the Ashley River Memorial Bridges. The wind bristled the spartina grass along the far west bank. As a single dark cloud blew in over the horizon, I closed my eyes, said a little prayer, and dropped into the river.
Hydrofly Watersports offers Flyboard lessons in Charleston and Myrtle Beach. Riders must be at least 12 years old and weigh at least 95 pounds, and all riders under age 16 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
PRICE: $95 for an individual lesson, including charter boat ride, time in the floating tiki hut and on paddleboards, and a 20-minute lesson with a certified instructor. Discounted group rates are available.
WHEN: Seven days a week.
WHERE: Riders embark from Bristol Marina, 145 Lockwood Blvd., Charleston.
TO REGISTER: Call (843) 284-6290 in Charleston, call (843) 900-1-FLY in Myrtle Beach, or sign up at hydroflynow.com.