The sun was shining for the first time all week during this year’s Cooper River Bridge Run. It was high noon and I, unlike the rest of Charleston, was not enjoying the post-race festivities of beer drinking, bacon eating and band listening. Instead, I was sitting on the beach at Third Avenue on the Isle of Palms, waiting for Dr. Joe Gillespie to give me a kiteboarding lesson.
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“They call it the new golf course,” Gillespie said with a cynical grin and a nod to the heavens. Puzzled, but trying to keep pace with the quick-witted dentist, I responded with a semi-heartfelt “Oh, yeah.”
“You know, like where professionals go to conduct business – somewhere outside of the office,” he responded as he took off on his board.
I was left standing on the beach, preoccupied by an image of two suited businessmen trying to finalize a deal while hurtling about the Isle of Palms shallows on their kiteboards.
My pointless pondering was soon replaced by awe. The 38-year-old dentist, who had been swapping near-death skiing and snowboarding stories with me, was now gliding out over the ocean’s silken surface. Within a minute of his telling me about his first time snowboarding experience – he called it snow-kiting – the adrenaline junkie was brandishing a barrage of big-air jumps 200 yards from the IOP shoreline.
The gusting wind whipped up a few grains of sand that found a landing spot in my gawking mouth. I choked, shut my trap and tried to act cool.
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I first fell in love with the surf culture while living at the beach in Ocean City, Maryland, the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. I loved the 6 a.m. treks to the ocean after long nights of partying. I loved not having to wash my hair, insisting that “I take a bath in the ocean every day.” I loved spewing foreign phrases like “ripping nar’” and “shredding pipe.” I loved the locals, who, for some reason, let this country kid on a boogie board challenge the same waves they challenged on their surfboards.
Skip forward a few years to when Editor Denise K. James offered me the cover story about kiteboarding for the May/June issue of Mount Pleasant Magazine. I was interested. When I was told I would be taking a lesson so I could get a first-person perspective on the sport, my interest grew to fascination.
Knowing little about the subject, I began researching and found that kiteboarding is considered to be an extreme sport that combines aspects of wakeboarding, windsurfing, paragliding and surfing.
It sounded dangerous, and, without the proper training, it certainly is. And the sport has taken great strides to ensure the safety of its athletes.
“During the first four years I was kiteboarding in Charleston – 1999 to 2003 – it was really dangerous, but, more recently the sport has become a lot safer with the bow kite – a safer version of the C-kite, which describes the kite’s shape – and other innovations,” said kiteboarding instructor Dan Floyd. “These days, I don’t mind teaching my family how to kiteboard.”
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In the late 1990s, a few Lowcountry watersport enthusiasts discovered that a surfer could use a kite to harness the power of the wind, allowing him to rip across the water at high speeds on his surfboard. Thus a new sport – kiteboarding – was born. Floyd, who owns Olinah on the Isle of Palms, stands out as a pioneering kiteboarder in the Charleston area.
“Dan is a kiteboarding guru. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you kite in Charleston you know who Dan Floyd is,” said 43-year-old Dr. Todd Purves, an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Floyd was windsurfing in Hawaii in 1998 when he encountered kiteboarding for the first time; he saw it as “the next new thing” in extreme sports. With a keen understanding of the winds at Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms, he recognized that the sport had the potential to take off in the Charleston area.
Floyd and a fellow employee at Half-Moon Outfitters, where he worked at the time, spent the winter of 1998-99 perfecting the sport. By the turn of the millennium, a kiteboarding buzz was growing up and down the East Coast, and Floyd was officially teaching people how to kiteboard.
“In 2002, Air & Earth opened and the owner, Adam Von Ins, and I took it upon ourselves to ensure the development of kiteboarding in Charleston,” said Floyd.
In 2007, Floyd opened his own local kiteboarding shop and is still giving lessons today. Thus goes the history of kiteboarding in Charleston.
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Learning to kiteboard properly is a process not to be completed with a single lesson. On my day of kiteboarding, I didn’t even make it into the water, much less bust the big-air nose grabs that I had been anticipating.
“Technique is so important,” said Gillespie. “Once you get the hang of it, the kiteboard becomes easier to control, and therefore you are less susceptible to injury and wear and tear on your knees.”
Gillespie pointed out that many of the people he kites with are his age or older.
“We have a couple of guys who are in their 60s, and people will look at them like ‘are they really going to do this’ and then are stunned when they pull 20-foot jumps,” he said. “But it’s because they put many hours in learning the proper way to kite.”
Indeed, before I took my lesson with Gillespie, I thought surfboard plus kite equaled kiteboarding. I was wrong. It turns out that kiteboarders are particular about the intricacies of their equipment. Chris Baum, 28, a senior tax associate and a Mount Pleasant native, rides a 134 CC twin tip – made by Liquid Force – board that suits his freestyle/big-air kiteboarding technique.
“Kiteboarding is a little pricey on the front end, typically $2,000 to $4,000 for a complete setup that includes board, harness and kite, but it’s what I enjoy doing most,” said Baum.
“The people are great – it’s a happy, healthy lifestyle,” he added with a laugh, seemingly trying to justify the money he spends on the sport.
Gillespie told me about the nine boards, six kites and multiple harnesses he has in his garage but asked that I refrain from writing how much money he has spent. He said that might cause problems with his spouse.
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Baum, too, has noticed the maturation of kiteboarding in Charleston.
“When I moved to Charleston six years ago, there were around 50 guys who kited on a regular basis. Now there are over 200 of us,” he said.
“When people go to Colorado, they ski. When people go to Charleston, they kiteboard,” added Purves.
Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms are quintessential kiteboarding destinations because of the shallow waters – which minimize waves – the northwestern winds in the winter and spring and the wide beaches with packed sand.
“Charleston sits right behind the Outer Banks as the best kiteboarding on the East Coast,” said Gillespie.
As a result, a top priority for the Charleston kiteboarding community is to uphold the respect and admiration of fellow beach-goers. Hence the beads of nervous sweat forming on Gillespie’s forehead while I was recklessly attempting to fly my trainer kite as the beach crowd looked on.
It seemed like an eternity as we waited for the beach walkers to clear my kite danger zone. Every time a group of people passed, oblivious to the fact that we were waiting on them, Gillespie greeted them as if it were the best day of his life.
Finally, there was a break in the crowd.
I released the break line and my trainer kite – only about 2.5 meters long – took its C shape as it jumped from the beach. I was stunned by the wind’s power that almost lifted me off my feet. The kite zoomed above my head, to the right, to the left and then crash-landed, narrowly missing a group of young walkers. They didn’t notice, but Gillespie certainly did.
“That’s the only thing we worry about,” he said as his fun-loving voice turned stern. “Having someone complain about us because some inexperienced kiter hurts someone, and we get our [Sullivan’s Island] kiting privileges revoked.”
After that, I was much more careful with my trainer kite.
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I was somewhat surprised by my kiteboarding experience. I was not the Evel Knievel daredevil I had been summers ago on my boogie board, but I learned something about the culture and the enjoyment the sport brings to its participants. Every person I interviewed rambled enthusiastically about the elation kiteboarding brings them. They spoke giddily about chasing and capturing the perfect winds, and the freedom that they felt skimming across the water.
Purves said kiteboarding makes him healthy both physically and mentally.
“As a doctor, I’m always having to tell my patients to be healthy by refraining from doing what they like – drinking beer and eating burgers. Now I finally get to recommend something that is healthy and is also enjoyable.”
Enjoyable it is.
By Cullen Murray-Kemp