When Elea Faucheron started working for Air & Earth nine years ago, she was a kiteboard novice. She had grown up in the mountains of North Carolina and was hardly acquainted with the kind of water action sports that the Mt. Pleasant shop champions. That said, she was fascinated by the kiteboarders who harnessed the power of the wind, cruising the Atlantic ocean and pulling off acrobatic aerial stunts.
"I was definitely not awesome when I started," Faucheron says of her days as a kiteboarding newbie. "I was kind of like the worst of the worst. I made all of the classic mistakes."
Fortunately, she kept working at it. Today Faucheron, along with Adam Von Ins, is co-owner at the Mt. Pleasant store, which offers equipment and lessons for skateboarding, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and kiteboarding.
A big part of Air & Earth's philosophy is making water action sports accessible to laymen and novices. Their ethos is also decidedly family-friendly. You won't find skulls, scantily clad women, or drug references on the boards they sell. "We wanted to promote action sports in a really fun, funky, positive, crazy way," Faucheron says, "not in a lot-of-attitude way that you'll sometimes see." It's the sort of surf shop where it's OK to take your mom.
Von Ins says most newcomers who aren't familiar with watersports will probably want to try a simpler board sport before attempting to kiteboard. Not only is it the most expensive of the watersports to get into — he says the initial cost of gear and lessons will set you back around $2,400 — it's got a long learning curve that combines disciplines as disparate as snowboarding, surfing, kite flying, and sailing.
For someone who wants to get out on the water for the first time, Von Ins recommends that newbies give stand-up paddleboarding a try. With a wider base than a surfboard and no strenuous chest paddling required, the sport that goes by the dude-friendly acronym SUP can have you out cruising Shem Creek or riding waves in 15 minutes or less.
From there, he says, paddleboarders can try ditching the paddle and using the board like a surfboard, taking advantage of its wider base to get a hang of the basics of balance. After graduating to a surfboard, some choose to move on to the extreme thrills of kiteboarding — but Von Ins warns that it's a big upfront time investment to learn to do it right.
In the curriculum offered through Air & Earth's own action sports school, the first hour-and-a-half class is conducted entirely on land. Called Kite Zen, the class focuses on the basics of kite control. Some people are disappointed to find out they won't be out on the water immediately, but Faucheron says the class is a must for beginners. "Let's pretend you want to drive this big, red, shiny Ferrari over here, but you've never set foot in a car before," Faucheron says. "Instead of putting you into 100 percent horsepower, we're going to put you in a go-kart first. You're going to learn how to go right, go left, step on the gas, use the brakes."
Next comes a three-and-a-half-hour course on kiteboarding safety. Von Ins says much of this course is about crash control, since going down hard is an inescapable part of the sport. "You are going to smack the water. You are going to get your sinuses power washed by the Altlantic Ocean," Von Ins says. "There are certain things that you need to do to keep that crash from becoming an accident." Finally, with the safety lesson finished, the instructor shows pupils how to set up their rigs and get moving on the water.
For beginners, Air & Earth offers a non-judgmental environment that stresses safety and fun. But Von Ins is also well aware of the biggest complaint from Charleston's veteran surfers: The waves around here are puny. Due to wind patterns and the lengthy continental shelf on the East Coast, Folly Beach waves rarely rival the glassy, shoulder-high behemoths seen in California or Hawaii. That's why Von Ins got interested in designing an East Coast surfboard. In fact, he has spent the last two years developing a new brand, Palm Head Boards, that are thicker, wider, and more stable than regular surfboards. He says they're perfect for Charleston waves, and he plans to have them stocked in the shop by May. They'll also be a good deal cheaper than other boards in the store, and he says they work well for "the normal rider that has a day job."
Still, he says, paddleboarding is a great option for experienced surfers on those days when there's no wind and no waves.