ST. PETERSBURG — When the wind kicks up and seas get rough, most people stay off the water. But Aaron McClearnon looks forward to those breezy forecasts.
McClearnon, 30, owns Elite Watersports in St. Petersburg and is an avid kiteboarder. When the conditions are right, usually between October and May, it's a good bet that McClearnon is set up on the tiny spit of land on the south side of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. That's where kiteboarders flock to speed along the shallow grass flats.
"Sometimes I'm here from sunup to sundown," McClearnon said.
McClearnon, who grew up in Madeira Beach and attended Boca Ciega High, discovered kiteboarding in 2002. By 2007, he devoted all his time to the sport. He was on the water for hours. He became a lead instructor, teaching others how to kiteboard. He eventually opened up his store with his wife, Vanessa, in April.
"It's the freedom," McClearnon said. "You're the driver and the rider. You get to go as fast as you want, where you want to go, as high as you want to go. Nobody is holding you back. It's just you and the wind and waves."
What exactly is kiteboarding?
There are three main components to kiteboarding. It starts, of course, with the kite.
Most kites are made from polyester and can range from 10-17 meters (about 33-56 feet). The average kite is 12 meters (39 feet) in length. The more wind there is, the less kite riders need.
"It's kind of like having different cars," McClearnon said. "There are sports cars, family SUVs, and then you've got that truck. We typically start people out with an all-around kite."
The kite is connected to ropes that are tied to a control bar. The lines are 23 meters (about 75 feet) from the control bar to the kite. More competitive kiteboarders might use shorter ropes. The control bar, used to steer, is connected to the harness, which fits around a rider's waist.
Then comes the board. They come in different shapes and sizes. The bigger the board, the faster riders get up and plane on the water. The average board is about 4 or 5 feet. Big boards are for lighter winds, smaller boards for heavy winds. There are slots to secure the feet.
For those who want to try kiteboarding for the first time, it is possible to rent equipment. A decent set of used equipment is about $800, according to McClearnon. The average price of a new set is about $1,500, and high-end equipment is about $3,000. Kites should last about three years.
"Unless you land it in a tree or something," McClearnon said.
How hard is it to kiteboard?
Kurt Roberts, 56, has been on the water just about all his life. But it wasn't until a few years ago that he started to notice kiteboarding.
Last week, he took his first lesson. He has a grand total of four hours on the water, but he already can hoist the sail and board across the waves.
"I've been wanting to do this for a few years, kind of a bucket list thing," said Roberts, who lives in Tierra Verde. "The hardest thing is the finesse of flying the kite. I've been a water skier and a wakeboarder all my life, but the whole thing is learning how to control that kite. You just have to keep practicing.
"It'll come together. I just need a few more hours of work."
McClearnon said Roberts is typical of his students.
Usually, the first hour is spent on land learning to hold the kite. The next hour is spent in the water to get a feel for the kite and the harness. Then comes the board and skimming on the water.
"Typically, a person who has a wakeboarding or skiing background and a person with no experience at all are going to take about the same time to learn," McClearnon said. "Kiteboarding has become so easy in the last five or six years to teach that we're getting people up and riding in three hours. And then successfully self sufficient in about seven hours."
It takes a little bit longer to learn jumps. Experts can get as high as 50-55 feet.
Why do so many people kiteboard near the Skyway?
The area south of Skyway channel is just about ideal for kiteboarding, which is why there are so many sails in the air on a breezy, sunny day. Because the area is a peninsula, winds come in from all directions. If there is an onshore wind on the east side, then that's where kiteboarders will be. The east side has shallow water, which makes it easier to get started.
If the onshore wind shifts to the west side, riders can pack their gear, move to the west side and ride in the deeper waters.
"We have wind from just about every direction," said Ryan Druyor, 33, who works for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and helps instruct kiteboarders. "On the east coast (of Florida) you can only ride on easterly winds. You need the winds to be coming onto the shore. If you have winds going away from the shore you can get pulled out there and not get back in.
"Here, if the winds change and come out of the west then we can pack our stuff, drive under the overpass and still ride those waves. You don't have to drive all the way out to the beach."
Realistically, kiteboarders can go anywhere up and down the coast as long as they are not inside the swimming buoys at beaches. But the Skyway area has the biggest group of riders. Novices and experts all share the same water and help each other out.
"It's a very tight community," McClearnon said.