By Emily J. Minor
These days, news travels fast — even when you’re a bohemian sort like Billy Blackman — and that’s how Blackman found out a man died while kitesurfing up in Martin County.
Fast, and right to the point.
“I got a text,” Blackman said. “I was actually giving a (kitesurfing) lesson, and a friend of mine texted me.”
Blackman, 46, likes it on the edge. A Boynton Beach native who now lives in the county pocket, he’s been surfing since he was 13. He started kitesurfing in 1999 after he took a trip to Hawaii and saw a guy on this odd board, skimming across the water, a billowing kite zipping him along.
“I flew back home and bought a kite on the Internet from Maui,” he said. “I taught myself — no video, no instructions, no nothing. It took me about a year to figure it out.”
He has a day job, sure. He runs a tree-trimming business.
But if the wind is kicking up, even just a little, Blackman’s on the water.
Of course, when your playground is the ocean, things happen and what happened recently was this: Stephen Howard Schafer, 38, himself a bit of a bohemian sort, was attacked by sharks Feb. 3 while kitesurfing off Stuart Beach. He died after a lifeguard pulled him to shore.
“We were in the water at the very same time that happened,” said Blackman, also an inventor who was giving a lesson to local Internet entrepreneur John Ferber at the time. “That part was pretty weird.”
Blackman said the day after the accident, he took his 81-year-old mom to the grocery story and steered her clear of her usual stop at the newspaper rack. He didn’t want her reading about Schafer.
“She heard about it anyway on TV,” he said.
Ferber, 36, admits the timing left him a bit unsettled. “You’re always … you’re thinking. ‘I hope there’s not a shark out there.’” But he’d been watching folks like Blackman kitesurf for years and had finally decided he “just couldn’t handle it anymore.” He was going to learn.
Ferber went to Costa Rica for seven days, but the weather was too calm to get any surf time in. When he got back, he hired Blackman as an instructor.
“There is so much pent-up desire for me to do this, I’m not going to be deterred,” said Ferber, who said he was surprised by the difficulty of kitesurfing.
“I’m still working on the fundamentals,” he said. “It requires a lot of training.”
And that’s why guys like Blackman and another local kitesurfer, Tyrone Halfhill, 38, of Briny Breezes, go out as often as they can. “It’s a heck of a rush,” said Halfhill, who said he’s had only one skittish moment while kitesurfing. Back in 2005, he was off Boynton Beach and saw that he was in the water with some migrating sharks. He got out and walked home.
“That just got to me,” he said.
Blackman said the way they’re positioned — up on the board, skimming the surface, legs not dangling in the ocean — he feels it’s safer than surfing, shark-wise.
But of course — as we learned from the recent Olympics — for every daredevil kid, there’s a supportive parent.
Mikee Rulli, Tyrone Halfhill’s mother, said she’s whispered a lot of prayers through the years.
“I have four sons,” Rulli said. “And every one of them has told me, ‘Mama, if anything ever happens to me, I’ll die doing what I love doing.’
“That young man up in Stuart, he died doing what he loved best.”