When I meet 65-year-old Larry Owens on the Isle of Palms, he's flying 12 kites at once. Each one is attached to another, forming a long chain. Owens looks back over his shoulder and says, "Every kid has a kite. It's the one toy you can find anywhere in the world, and everybody knows what it is. They've been around so long that they're everywhere."
About 20 years ago, Owens spotted a stack of three kites flying through the air. Intrigued, he bought his own kite trio — the plastic variety — totaling $6.99. They didn't last, so Owens went looking for a more durable kite. He found one at what has become his mecca, Kites Fly'N High, a downtown store specializing in kites of all shapes and sizes for 25 years.
"We moved to this location just in time for Hugo," owner Bruce McFarland says. For a quarter century, he and his wife have run their business out of this location. They don't have any other employees, and they don't use computers.
McFarland first caught the kite-flying bug years ago on a rare off day from his all-consuming job in the hotel industry. He was on Seabrook Island, and he noticed someone flying a kite on the beach. It was a eureka moment.
"I realized that Charleston didn't have a place to get a good kite," McFarland says. "You could find the Superman stuff, but it was just cheap." (On a side note, this writer's first kite had Superman emblazoned across its flimsy plastic front. The traumatic moment that it left his hands and sailed out across the Gulf of Mexico, never to return, required days of loving parental therapy).
The walls of McFarland's shop are a fantasyland of colorful and creative kites. In the $20 range, customers can walk out with a three-dimensional pig, dog, or shark that will soar high over the crowds on the beach. Those willing to plunk down several hundred dollars can even score a giant rattlesnake with a 20-foot tail or an imposing 9-foot-wide Delta Classic. In between, there are various cubes and airplanes ready to take flight on the next breezy beach day.
Dylan Raymond, a James Island paint and wallpaper specialist, bought his stunt kite, a Prism Quantum, at Fly'N High in 2009. "It's amazing how such a small kite can pull a grown 200-pound man down the beach," Raymond says. "That's the thrill of it."
When the weather turns cool in the fall, Raymond varies his beach days on Folly from lounging with a beer to flying his kite (also with beer). "Winter has better wind and less crowds on the beach," he explains. Because of his preference for gusty days, Raymond has had to find replacement parts after a few crash landings, a service that Fly'N High provides as well.
Although Raymond's kiting is solely a hobby, Owens has made a career out it. After McFarland at Fly'N High turned him onto Dyna Kites, he upgraded from the cheap plastic models to the ripstop nylon ones. In 2006, Owen and his wife bought Dyna Kite and moved the entire operation to North Charleston. A "retirement plan" by design, Owens now works 70-hour weeks, squeezing in time to fly at the beach on weekends.
Currently, he holds several unofficial world records, including one for flying 111 two-line kites simultaneously in 2003. "You can stack any kind of kite," says Owens, trailing a dozen 100-foot tails over a crowd of onlookers at the IOP pier on Easter Sunday. "The ideal wind speed is six to 12 miles per hour. You can perform in up to 35 mph, but it ain't no fun."
For beginners, Owens recommends starting with a simple two-line kite. The second line allows the user to manipulate the kite's flight plan, turning loops and big arcs across the sky. Once that skill is mastered (teachable in about 20 minutes, Owens says), stepping up to three, six, or 12 stacked kites works just the same, factoring in the added resistance from the extra surface area.
Launch a dozen kites into the air, however, and be prepared to have a skyward-looking crowd form around you.
"There's actually a warning on our Dyna Kite website that says, 'If you want to go to the beach and be left alone, you bought the wrong kite,'" Owens says with a laugh.
Charleston's vast options for kite-flying locales may actually contribute to the lack of a kiting community. In cities like Newport, R.I., kiters converge on a single state park, trading tips and new designs. But as a result of Charleston's vast stretches of perfect kite-flying shoreline, a tight-knit kite-flying community has not emerged.
McFarland says. "If you do something on IOP, you miss your Folly and Kiawah crowd, and vice versa."
Years ago, McFarland hosted kite flies during Piccolo Spoleto and organized stunt kite contests at Brittlebank and James Island County parks, but nothing ever caught on.
Even though they now devote full workweeks to kites, both Owen and McFarland still like to fill their leisure hours with kite flying.
"I can leave the beach so tired that I can barely walk, but mentally, I'm so calmed down and relaxed," Owens says. "Flying gives my mind a break."