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Vol. 18, No. 1: Welcome to Stiltsville

Located in the middle of nowhere, Stiltsville has always been a unique spot, an opportunity for freedom just beyond the reach of Miami’s oppressive skyline. A shallow water haven of lonely buildings perched atop wood and concrete piers, Stiltsville isn’t so much of a place but a labyrinth of sandbars that have long been thought of as a nautical escape from the constraints of the mainland. Also known as the Flats, I began kiting this area six years ago when I first moved to Miami. Having started teaching lessons for Melissa Mejah’s South Florida Kiteboarding, I spent most of my days motoring beginner kiteboarders out to the sandbars, coaching them through their first rides and sometimes exploring the distant structures. Back then, jibbing off pilings or boosting over low-lying docks was fair game. Like some undiscovered frontier, the shallow sandbars and haunting structures were a getaway from the beginning of Miami’s crowded kiteboarding spots. 

The history of Stiltsville goes back to the 1920s era of prohibition, a time when there was sufficient backlash in America against alcohol and enough consensus to amend the constitution and do something about it. The shallow stretch of water known as Stiltsville is created by a tidal movement that pushes sand southerly along the eastern seaboard until it terminates just after Miami’s chain of offshore islands. Having brushed past Miami Beach, Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, the sand comes to rest in their shadow, depositing itself in a tapering stream along the eastern edge of Biscayne Bay. At some point in the late 1920s, a few ramshackle structures were erected to hawk bait, cold beer and crawfish chowder to the local fishermen, but these early haunts soon morphed into prohibition-inspired clubs that ferried Miami’s party elite a mile offshore to elevated buildings, largely operating as safe havens for gambling and drinking. Without a causeway or significant real estate development, Stiltsville thrived as an exclusive enclave for the Miami party scene for another three decades after the repeal of prohibition. 

This A-frame house is probably one of the most recognized structures in Stiltsville, made famous to kiteboarders by Dimitri Marmenides while filming a promo for an extreme energy drink. Dimitri attempted to jump the structure while loaded with 20 pounds of POV camera gear and came up short, slamming into the pilings above the roof, splitting his board in half and sustaining injuries. // Photo Christian Diaz

Once counting 27 structures, subsequent hurricanes thinned the herd while the state of Florida issued owners ”˜campsite’ leases that would eventually expire. By the late 1960s, the state barred any new construction and prevented repairs of those that existed. After a series of hurricanes and long-fought battles, the seven structures that remained became a part of the Biscayne National Park and are managed by a trust for non-commercial community purposes. 

A mixture of personal residences and social clubs, Stiltsville was once an eclectic community accessible only by boat. At its height in the 1950s, there were 27 structures in Stiltsville, but multiple hurricane hits and expiring leases have whittled that number down to seven. // Photo Christian Diaz

Much like the days of prohibition, Stiltsville continues to remain far removed and full of freedom when contrasted against the mainland. The Miami area is potentially one of the most regulated kiteboarding destinations in the world. The combination of heavily-trafficked sunbathing beaches and a long history of kiteboarders poaching swim areas has reduced the number of openly accessible beaches to a handful. What few concessions that remain open to kiteboarding typically require permit fees, proof of IKO certification and official streamers affixed to kites to demonstrate conformance with the above. 

Stiltsville’s days of jib hits and grinding railings are long gone. Seldomly used, the buildings are now a part of the Biscayne National Park and trespassing by kiteboarders is taken very seriously. // Photo Carlos Mesa

For locals, these hurdles are manageable, but for visiting kiteboarders, it’s a massive hassle. Mainly for that reason, Stiltsville has become my most frequented kite spot. Having recently started a kite school with my girlfriend Sarah Dunick, we spend our days hovering over the shallow sandbars teaching riders of all levels. Often referred to as a ”˜one percent kite spot’ by my friend and Miami local Charl Wessels, the wide-open flats combine calm water with a perfect teaching location and plenty of room for everyone to spread out. There’s a shallow section for those first hours of kite handling and basic waterstarts, along with deeper channels that are great for foilboarding or boosting big airs. The structures are off in the distance, so there are no obstructions in the riding area unless you choose to tour around the stilt homes and explore the southern end of the bar. 

Bobryk boots up on his Zodiac; the freedom of the Flats is only available by boat. // Photo Carlos Mesa

My favorite perk about Stiltsville is the fact that it is kiteable in any wind direction. As a sandbar conveniently located on the edge of an ocean, you can head out there on almost any day and be guaranteed a good day of riding. This is crucial for the progression of students, and it’s also key to the long-term success of a career kiteboarding school. When students get back-to-back days on a kite, they build skills way faster, plus no one likes sitting on the beach waiting for the wind to clock around. Sarah and I spend most of our winter days either chasing down students with the boat or kiting alongside with them while checking out the eagle rays, turtles, starfish, conch and sharks that also call Stiltsville home.

The years have not been kind to Stiltsville’s real estate. Deemed insufficiently old to merit historic protection, the land beneath the structures has been deeded to the Biscayne National Park and private ownership phased out. With maintenance and usage in the hands of a trust, the future of Stiltsville remains uncharted. Bobryk airs out amongst the scenery. // Photo Carlos Mesa

Back in the early 2000s, regulations around kiteboarding near the Stiltsville structures were far different from what they are today. As you could imagine, kiters, including myself, saw the docks, rails and pylons as the closest thing to a kite park, and you can still find plenty of epic photos from the early days when professional riders would grind the docks or get creative with jib hits. If you’ve seen Dimitri Maramenides’ reality TV segment ”˜Destroyed in Seconds,’ you can understand why today the structures are heavily posted with no trespassing signs, and the local kiteboarders look unkindly on breaking those rules. So much of Miami’s kiteboarding has been spoiled by bad decisions, yet much of the community’s efforts have kept Stiltsville’s part of the Biscayne National Park open to kiteboarding. With three authorized kite schools shuttling riders into the flats, Stiltsville remains one of the most accessible riding spots in the Miami area. Much like its speakeasy days during prohibition, Stiltsville continues to be a breath of freedom and an iconic area to explore on a kite.

This article was featured in our spring 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 1. Want more like this? Subscribe to The Kiteboarder Magazine.