WingMaker

Not many people in the windsurfing industry can say they really know Bill Hansen.

ARGUABLY, Hansen can be credited as one of the lesser heralded pioneers of the sport. True to the Berkeley counter-culture movement, Hansen has frequently bucked the commercialized games of the windsurfing system. His focus has always been on performance, and those who know the difference have followed his lead. He was the first to experiment with and produce high aspect full batten sails, first to develop the “truncated tip” which later became known as “chop tops,” or “sheer tip” versions of the top part of the sail. He was the first to incorporate the reduced diameter mast (RDM) into his sails while other designers chuckled over the concept. “Bill is always ahead of the times.” Remarked Rick Keller, one of Hansen’s many protegees from his Berkeley days.

With a completely new arsenal of innovations under his belt, Hansen now looks to the future with a smile. With his built in 3D twist incorporated into his latest sails, and the many novel kite designs currently packed into his Macintosh Powerbook, Bill Hansen is clearly one versatile and prolific WINGMAKER living in our times.

He has always been an enigma. Not many people in the windsurfing industry can say they really know Bill Hansen. The reason might be that Bill Hansen doesn’t really care what people think about Bill Hansen. The same can be said about his Windwing sail brand. He’s the kind of man who, one could say, “leaves the talking to his actions.” And, in the case of his products, he lets his sails do the talking. Considering that the brand over the years has gained near-cult status despite how little Bill Hansen speaks of or markets his products, the notoriety is a good testimony to the man’s legacy for quality and performance.

Having said this, we were pleasantly surprised how fluid and eloquent Hansen spoke once the tape recorder rolled on. Still, in this short interview, Hansen didn’t do justice to the accomplishments of his innovative spirit. Since we conducted this interview at the airport in Kaushung, Taiwan, we found a few more notables and compiled this short list:Beginning as a 7th grader, Hansen won the top award at the Illinois State high school Science Fair for his project “Facts of Flight” in which a scale model airplane could be flown inside a wind tunnel. As a high school student, he earned his pilot’s license at the minimum age. As an undergraduate in physics/math, he studied under J. Allen Hynek, chief UFO investigator for the US Air Force.

Hansen once developed a complete flight path analysis for the complex aero-mechanical dynamics of boomerangs. As an applied physics graduate student, he studied the electromagnetic properties of returned lunar samples (moon rocks) for NASA’s Apollo Lunar Sounder command module mapping system.

During graduate school, Hansen designed and built a wing-sail hydrofoil-stabilized planing sailboat for a world speed record attempt—and nearly lost his life during testing.

As a research fellow at UC Berkeley, he was Exxon’s project manager for a $5 million privately funded research project entitled “A Superconducting Airborne Prospecting Device.”

A well-known SF Bay area sailor, Hansen has raced sailboats for 35 years and won numerous season championships in several highly competitive one-design classes, as well as three-peat singlehanded championships.

For 12 years Hansen lived aboard a classic 49′ Alden ketch and raced it frequently in the re-renowned Master Mariner’s regatta. He has owned his own airplane, was an active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and developed a composite ‘H’ platform canard design for airborne geophysical exploration.

Hansen holds a US patent for a double surface reconfigurable wing sail which doubles it’s area for downwind sailing. His latest patent application entitled “Aero-Elastic Wing” involves the use of strategically located compliant panels to produce a reactive sail which adjusts it’s shaping according to dynamic loading.

He is currently working on an energy-saving, patentable “architectural aerodynamics” system for structures and large transport vehicles, as well as next-generation kitesurfing designs.

Bill is not only a designer and innovator but also an athlete/adventurer. He has played competitive hockey and tennis, kayaked the Colorado, autocross sports cars, worked ski patrol at several well-known Utah resorts, skydived, entered numerous 500m windsurfing speed trials and frequented the world’s best wave riding venues for nearly 20 years. His latest passion is long-board surfing.

Bill and his company Windwing have often been credited with many “firsts,” such as full-battens, cam systems, convertible sails, tube battens, RDM-specific sails, 1/4 meter sizing, and truncated tips. He designed a “breakthrough” elliptical planform stunt kite in the mid-eighties, and his latest foil kite designs are among the most successful in today’s market.

Yet, despite all of this, he sees himself as only a contributor to these concepts rather than the inventor.

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AMERICAN WINDSURFER: So how would you like us to start the interview? Do you have a direction you think our readers would be interested in following?

BILL HANSEN: I think most people think sail designers are just windsurfers who are interested in making sails and have no other life. But actually, I think most of us, or, at least, a lot of us, have other lives that are interesting outside of windsurfing.

AW: I know you like to fly and that your grade school science project of a wind tunnel airplane was copied and placed in the science museum in Chicago. I remember playing with that when I was a kid.

BH: There are many things that I’ve done that are not related to windsurfing that I think are rather interesting. I studied moon rocks from the Apollo missions as a graduate student in Utah. I was a pseudo-ski bum for a while. Skied the most difficult deep powder runs, including the Baldy Chutes. Led cross country ski trips, did lots of mountaineering both summer and winter, sky diving, white water kayaking, I played competitive hockey, those are all athletic endeavors—but have nothing to do with windsurfing.

AW: Did any of the sports contribute to your involvement with windsurfing?

BH: A combination of a lot of things. Like going up in an airplane, making kites, boomerangs, uh, anything that had to do with flying. I’ve always had an interest in flying. It’s something that is in my blood. When I was a kid, I made model airplanes and sailboats. For the sails, I used my mother’s sewing machine when she wasn’t looking, ‘cause she was very sensitive on anyone using it. Then I got caught, but when she saw that I was capable, mechanically inclined and wasn’t going to wreck it, she was okay with it.

The windsurfing sail making came about almost by default. I had an interest in sailing all my life as well, and had my first sailboat that I owned 100% when I was in college—and of course, the sails were a key factor. The sails were always one of those things that wear out and is something that you feel like you can do something about. It is something that you could improve on, something that can improve your experience. I also lived in places where there was no access to sailmakers or sails in general. So this forced me into making my own sails, repairing them or recutting them. It was also partly due to a lack of affluence. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and as a student I wasn’t wealthy, and with a young family, I certainly wasn’t wealthy. So anything that had to do with sailing was pretty much a luxury item. So making my own sails was the only way I could improve my sailing.

I had a long list of small boats, all the way up to a large 49-foot ketch that I lived on, and in each case, I pretty much made, repaired, recut and modified my own sails.

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AW: So your professional background was far from your interests in flying and sailing.

BH: I had an inclination for science or a talent for science as a student. I was able to get an academic scholarship and pursued the academic world. My interest was originally pre-med, but in school I found that I had more of an interest in physics and astronomy—so I switched my studies and graduated with a degree in physics and math.

I then went to the University of Utah as a graduate student. There I started out in theoretical physics…

AW: What is theoretical physics?

BH: Well in those days, this would have been in the late 60’s early 70’s, it was mostly small particle physics and uh…

AW: Like time travel and all that?

BH: [laughing] No, no, it was more quantum theory and small particle physics… I quickly, uh, like most graduate students with a new family, supplemented my income by teaching labs and working at Litton Guidance and Controls at night, as a test technician on F-111 guidance systems. My interest in aviation kind of helped me there, but eventually, I switched departments, as many students do, to improve my income. I switched to the Geophysics department which had a large contract to develop the NASA Lunar Sounder Project, which was part of the Apollo missions. The astronauts in the command module that goes ‘round the moon I guess needed something to do while the other guys were down on the surface, so one of the things they did was run various mapping experiments on the moon. One of the experiments involved using a so-called “side looking” radar that would scan the surface of the moon. Because it’s very dry, the radar would penetrate the surface and look into the sub-surface, hopefully detecting mineral content, or water. My role as a physicist with a lot of electro-magnetic backgrounds was to study moon rocks, that is the di-electric and electro-magnetic properties of moon rocks. This is basically what funded my education. It also stretched my graduate education out for many years, but I found it very interesting, and while I was doing that I was of course skiing, doing ski patrol, and played competitive hockey in what was called the “Industrial League.” We were sponsored by Coca-Cola, which was considered one of the better sponsors. I was the high scorer in the league one year, but the next year I got beat up and injured a lot because of that.

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One of the instructors in the department was into white-water kayaking, and this was very early in the stages of whitewater kayaking, so you pretty much had to make your own kayak. So I proceeded to take that up, and we ended up running a lot of the major rivers in the Western US, which was pretty exciting.

One of the other things we did—I had a friend that I happened to grow up with in the Midwest who was in the army during the Vietnam days and was stationed near Salt Lake. Well, one day he showed up and said, “We’re going to take up sky-diving.” He had some sort of deal going with the Army that let him take skydiving lessons to get out of some other duties. As a pilot, all my life I thought of sky-diving as something I wasn’t really interested in, but the next thing I knew we were hanging out at the airport waiting for the wind to die so we could go jump. With the parachutes in those days, you couldn’t have much wind. My skydiving career was pretty short—I did a handful of jumps, and then one day we were riding up and I thought, “Gee, this is a perfectly good airplane, the engines are running great, the pilot’s really good, and here we’re going to go and jump out.” As a pilot, there was just something about the juxtaposition of flying and jumping out that were pretty contradictory, so I kinda lost interest in that. One of the other things that put me off about it was all the time spent waiting around for the wind to die, which is kind of interesting now that I spend a lot of time waiting for the wind to come up.

AW: How did you get into windsurfing?

BH: Um, windsurfing came about basically out of boredom with competitive sailing. I raced small sailboats as a graduate student, mostly crewing on high-performance dinghies like Flying Dutchman, and a couple other small boats. Then when I moved to the Bay and began working at U.C. Berkeley I became a very, very serious sailboat racer for many years. Being a competitive sort, I took the racing quite seriously, and we got pretty good at it and started winning some season championships after a while. It sounds boastful, but I guess in a way sailboat racing became too easy to stay interesting. I tried branching out to a couple other classes, I was semi-hired to skipper on a couple of boats just for steering—that didn’t seem quite right to me because I was sort of a self-doer sort of person, and stepping on a boat and ordering people around while sailing through the course, then getting off and leaving all the work for other people didn’t seem too appealing to me. Basically, I got tired of all the hassles associated with keel-boat racing—the haul outs, the crew hassles, scrubbing the bottom, protest hearings, and yacht club politics—a lot of work and expense go into racing in the Bay Area where conditions are tough and the classes are very competitive.

One day I was living on my big Alden ketch at the Marina, and I was walking along the shoreline as I used to do, and I saw a lone windsurfer—going fast and catching air…

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AW: What year was this?

BH: This was 1982, spring of ‘82. And I was looking at this sailor, who was obviously very, very good, and had a unique gear that wasn’t your standard Windsurfer—I’d seen windsurfing before and didn’t think it was all that great—it looked like people basically trying to drown themselves with all sort of antiquated sailing gear. It wasn’t performance sailing to me, and I was into performance sailing. Even in a big, heavy keel boat, I tuned my boats and sails and crew and sailing performance to the last degree—and a standard Windsurfer to me looked like the farthest thing from something that was finely tuned and performance oriented. But when I saw this lone sailor on some interesting, unusual gear, probably some of it custom-made or home made, jumping, and planing most of the time, I immediately saw it as the purest form of sailing.

As a physicist with an engineering kind of “build your own stuff” background, I looked at it and thought, “I love to sail, and this looks like the best form of sailing that could ever exist.” At that moment, I decided that I would take up windsurfing, and give up racing sailboats. It occurred to me that if I wanted to enjoy sailing in it’s purest form, I had to become a windsurfer.

AW: How did you go through the process of learning? Did you have to go through the whole drowning yourself with an antiquated board, or did you just jump right into high-performance sailing?

BH: Well, that’s a good question. In those days Berkeley was a bit of a hotbed of development—there were guys like Kevin Mitchell, Jim “JD” Davis, Steve Sylvester and Bard Chrisman making their own short boards. Steve was working with Kame Richards at Pineapple sails, Bard was a very well-known yachtsman and sailor, and most of these guys were all hang-gliding as well. So there was a lot of interest in developing the equipment there. I certainly had an interest in it, but I didn’t own a windsurfer, I had never windsurfed. So I went down to Windsurfing Berkeley, which was the only place you could buy windsurfing gear, and went in the door and told the nice fellow there that I wanted to buy a windsurfer. He proceeded to show me what they had for sale, which was all Windsurfer one-design boards. They had “A, B, and C condition” hulls. They were all polyethylene molded boards, and if they had a molding defect, the price was set on the extent of the defect. So I picked out a Windsurfer Rocket 12, which had two mast positions, some footstrap anchors, and you could potentially have two fins instead of one. I picked out a “C condition” hull, and when the question of rigs came around, I looked at what they had for rigs and just said, “Oh, this isn’t going to work for me, this is ridiculous.” I just knew the standard Windsurfer rig wasn’t going to do it, so I blatantly told the gentleman at the shop that I wanted a mast and a boom, but I didn’t want a sail. He just kinda looked at me with a weird look on his face, and I’m sure he was thinking, “Well, that guy will be back tomorrow looking for a sail.”

So I bought the basic equipment and hardgoods, and I had an industrial sewing machine that I used for my boat sails, and I had a little sail loft that I had made strictly for my hobby purposes in the back of one of the buildings at the Richmond Field Station where we had our research project—which I moved to a building in Berkeley later on. I went straight to my shop, and pulled out some laminated Dacron and Mylar material and proceeded to make a sail, which had a six-foot boom instead of an eight or nine-foot boom as they had in those days, and it had a 14 foot carbon-fiber mast which was called a Concept II, which was a very stiff mast which was basically the oar shaft for a rowing shell…

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AW: Wait, you made the mast?

BH: No, I bought the mast, bought the tube, basic tube. And I designed a fully battened elliptical planform sail with a six-foot boom and six battens. One batten below the boom, actually it went through the boom.

I took this sail and my board and put it on my sailboat and sailed it up the Delta to Fig Island, which is on the San Joaquin River, near Sacramento. I anchored the boat, took out several hundred meters of heavy fishing line, tied it to the Windsurfer board, tied the other end to the back of the boat, and got on this contraption and tried to uphaul. I sailed around and fell in repeatedly, as people did in those days. But after a little while I kinda got the hang of it, and I started sailing around a little bit, and as soon as I was confident that I could let all of the fishing line out downwind, and sail back upwind to the boat, in control, then I would get rid of the fishing line. So I did that, and a couple days later I was planing part of the time and sailing nicely on my Rocket 12 in the Delta.

So I proceeded to sail my boat back to the Berkeley Marina, and the next chance I had I got my board, got my sail, which attracted some attention since no one had seen a sail like that before, launched where the windsurfers did at the marina and sailed off into the Bay. Being a sailor, especially a racing sailor, my whole intent was to go upwind. So I sailed basically out to the end of the Berkeley pier, which is a couple of miles into the bay, and it was a typical Bay day, 15 to 25 with a pretty good swell running, but that didn’t really bother me as long as I was going upwind. But as soon as I turned downwind, to go home, which I thought would be exceedingly easy, I discovered that sailing a 12-foot Windsurfer downwind was really a difficult thing to do. It probably took me three or four hours of practically drowning to get back. I pretty much had to throw my daggerboard away to get back, so the first thing I did the next day was to make myself a high-wind daggerboard so I could kind of comfortably sail downwind.

AW: Was this something that you knew existed, or did you just figure out that the regular daggerboard was too big to go downwind?

BH: Well, the Rocket 12 came with sort of a high-wind daggerboard, but in those conditions it was still too big, so I made another one which was about half that size, with more sweep and a nicer foil shape, though I guess that could be disputed. The sail, of course, I’d never seen anything like it—it was basically a catamaran sail—nothing truly inventive on my part—other than the fact that the booms were quite short and it had full battens. The battens, by the way, were round tent pole rods, similar to what most sails have now, to some extent.

The Rocket 12 didn’t really serve me very well for too long, it was just too big. So the next thing I did was start sniffing around the Marina there, and Kevin Mitchell was a surfer who had taken up windsurfing and was making some custom boards. He had a 10-foot glass board with a square tail and some footstraps, no daggerboard. So I bought that from Kevin, it was kind of ugly, dark red and covered with a lot of resin blobs all over it, but I started sailing that around the Bay for about a month, learned to waterstart—I kind of watched Steve Sylvester, who was one of the best windsurfers around, and actually who still is one of the best windsurfers around, and he had this new water starting technique that the guys had found out about from Hawaii. So I taught myself to water start by watching Steve. Once I learned to water start the sport was totally different to me. I could go anywhere and was confident I could get back.

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So I proceeded to go to Maui. I went to Maui within just a few months of making my first sail, and I’d been making sails all along, so I thought that I should go to Maui because I’d heard that that was where the sport was really taking off. I went with a couple of friends who weren’t sailors, but had some interest in going to Maui, and I bought a used board from Jimmy Lewis. It was a 9’6’’ tri-fin kinda winger pin-tail, kind of looked like a surfboard with a mast base. And I sailed that in Maui for a week or so, at Kanaha and Kihei, the typical places, got pretty good on that, and took it back to San Francisco. I started taking it to Waddell Creek where Kevin Mitchell, who might have been the first guy to sail there, was going quite a bit, and I got very interested in wave sailing.

So my career as a participant blossomed pretty quickly—within six months I was riding short boards and going in the surf.

I was still making prototype sails all along. I had made probably 20 or so different versions of my original sail, doing the typical things you would do as a sail designer—changing the luff curve, changing the shaping, moving the battens around, making a couple different sizes of sails. I made a nice 45 square-foot sail, which would be a 4.1, that had about a four and a half foot boom that seemed to work really well on the short boards, especially in the surf, and these sails started catching the attention of the local sailors there, and they started approaching me about the possibility that maybe I would make them a sail.

AW: Is that what prompted you to start Windwing?

BH: In a sense, yeah. Basically my hobby kind of turned into a business.

AW: Funny how that happens…

BH: Well, the research project I was working on at Berkeley was, well, the price of copper went down and there was little need for new and expensive mineral exploration equipment, and so I was looking around for maybe another career-type position in physics. I interviewed in Seattle at the University of Washington on a superconducting linear accelerator project, but the windsurfing thing just kind of turned into… well, I did start making a few sails for people. They were always called Windwings from day one because I felt that was really what I was making. I didn’t particularly like the name, the bird logo was from the seagulls that were always flying around the marina. I think they’re kind of flying rats and obnoxious birds, but they happen to be blessed with some really nice aerodynamics. I thought the bird logo was just for fun, it wasn’t meant to be any kind of marketing thing. All the one-design boats I sailed on had some kind of logo on the sail, so I thought it was appropriate to put something up there.

So I started making a few more sails for people, it turned into sort of a job—I could make about a sail a day. I was still changing them a lot, but the guys buying the sails didn’t seem to mind that they were in sort of a state of development. That’s still true today, actually. Eventually, more and more people asked for the sails. I rented a little more space in the warehouse I was in, and another friend who I knew from boat racing was also interested in no longer being an employee for someone else. So we threw in, and I got some of our family and local sailors to invest in us, and then started a corporation and that started Windwing Designs in early 1983. In three years we had nearly 20 people working for us and we were making a hundred sails a week. So In the early days of windsurfing, we were blessed with some success.

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AW: Twenty years later now Bill, what are your observations of the sport?

BH: Actually, I don’t think it’s changed much at all. Um, the equipment is still in quite a heavy state of flux, sails are changing rapidly, boards are changing rapidly, the equipment is still being developed. The industry certainly has suffered. It’s not ever going to be the size of skiing, as was predicted in the ‘80s, and I think these predictions caused a lot of business people to become involved in the sport and they tried to drive it beyond what it really is, which is the reason I got into it—it’s the purest form of sailing. To me, that hasn’t changed, as a designer or a participant. So, everything has changed, but to me, the basic rudiment of the sport is that nothing has changed.

AW: If you were to ask somebody else, they would say that development has slowed down, but you still visualize things in terms of quantum leaps as far as sail design is concerned?

BH: Well, yeah, basically. It’s funny, people used to come up to me on the beach in the middle of summer and say, “what are you going to change now? Should I wait ‘til next year to buy a sail?” And of course, I would always say, “The sails have never been as good as they are now if you need a sail you should buy one because I don’t really know what I’m going to do next.” I don’t ever know what I’m going to do next. If any designer or innovator knew what he was going to do next, he would have already done it. So, I can’t predict how the changes are going to come about, but I would predict that we’ll see more and more performance, more and more ease of handling, hopefully, lighter weight—these are all materials driven facets of equipment. The wide boards have certainly changed the way people view sailing, how they view the wind window, the way they sail—sailing upwind has never been better, so you don’t have to worry about a flood tide at Crissy Field for instance. You can sail more, you can sail in light wind. Fins have come a long way, sails are certainly more high-tech looking now with truncated tips.

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For me, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know it’s going to get better. It certainly won’t get worse, and I think there’s a lot of things that were tried in the past that were rejected for one reason or another, be it cost, material problems—I still think that the foil-shaped mast has a future. I think on-the-fly tuneable sails have a future. None of these things are being done right now, really. The technology in sail design is really, for me at least, in developing the shape of the sail—optimizing the shape and making it so that that shape is not highly dependent on the user who might not be knowledgeable to generate the right shape using his rigging tensions. Certainly if I had a big R&D budget and unlimited time, I would be working on something other than a pole mast with a fabric sleeve. I had a patent application three or four years ago for a sail that had flexible panels in various places that allowed the sail to elastically adjust to the benefit of the sailor, rather than deform to the disadvantage of the sailor. This is something I tried, I had a few prototypes, but I couldn’t really build these sails because there were no materials available at the time, and there still aren’t, that would make this sail be really durable or last very long. That’s a project I still have a great deal of interest in.

There’s certainly hydrofoil boards which are still a possibility, but I think the theoretical limitations will probably never allow them to be as good as a planing surface. But there’s a combination of some of the kite technology into windsurfing, the use of inflatable structures, a wing that’s not directly attached to the board via a mast step, the realm of development that hasn’t been really approached yet. There’re a million things before us to still learn to do and build and try. It’s no different than the first day I set out to build a fully battened high-aspect sail for myself to learn how to windsurf. The purity of this form of sailing will make it interesting to me probably for as long as I live, and it will make it interesting to me enough that I’ll want to always somehow be dreaming of how some day to make it better.

Right now I’m just not sure where I’m going to go with it, but I have some ideas that I want to work on, and I bet that there are a bunch of other designers right now sitting in the same chair—they’re saying, “Gee, we’re pretty good at what we’re doing now, but there are some problems—the problem of expense, the problem of weight, the problems of materials, batten technology is really not that sophisticated…

AW: You’re designing kites now. Do the two directions mesh?

BH: Kitesurfing, like windsurfing, has the high performance, the exhibitionism, the stunts, the jumping, all of these aspects of kitesurfing—the excitement part of it—are just like windsurfing in the early days. Like when people were learning to do duck-jibes, and learning to do bottom turns, and trying to do loops, jumping higher and farther—this is what drives the sport in the beginning. But the underlying current of all these things is performance. So the underlying current to me between windsurfing and kitesurfing is that you have a person interested in using the elements to propel themselves, whether it’s land or water or whatever, they’re using the natural energy in the universe to propel themselves. It’s a means of transportation, and they derive enjoyment from this transportation, and as a designer I see the two things coming together, down the road they could converge into one sport. And they could neither look like they do now. Certainly kites won’t look like they do now. There probably will always be some sort of pole-mast-boom device, but that contraption might not be the leader of where the purest form of the sport is.

Years and years ago I read an article in Scientific American called “Sailing Without a Hull.” And basically, it involved a kite and a thing called a “HAPA.”

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AW: A what?

BH: HAPA, it’s an acronym for a steerable hydrofoil device that went under the water, and a kite that went above the water, and the sailor was in between. He was neither in the water nor totally in the air. When I first read this article I thought, “Well that’s a very interesting and visionary way of looking at the physics of sailing,” but I didn’t see it as something I should go out and start building tomorrow. But right now I think that whoever wrote that article was actually a very astute individual and highly respected, at least by me, for what has become reality, 20 or 30 years later. So I see kitesurfing definitely headed that way. And in a sense, I see the latest wide Formula boards headed that way because you are no longer looking at water lines as a chief performance indicator. Anyone who rides a modern formula board realizes that once the board is planing it is really on a very, very small, high aspect planing surface. The fins are basically becoming hydrofoils. They’re vertical hydrofoils, but I don’t think it’s going to be long before someone starts messing around with the fin on a Formula board, and making the planing surface even much less. And at some point, that board and sailor are going to be flying, in close proximity to the water, but over it, if you could imagine some kind of inflatable or semi-inflatable structure, a wing, perhaps that the sailor is hanging on to that is not particularly attached directly to the board by a mast step, I think you might start realizing that the two sports are coming together. I think that perhaps someone should take a Formula board out, and take a kite on some short lines and see what they can do. Tom Magruder with his WindWeapon was an interesting idea, the Skimbat is an interesting idea, kitesurfing, these are all kind of heading down the same path. So I don’t see them as being divergent, to answer your question.

So I see kitesurfing definitely headed that way. And in a sense, I see the latest wide Formula boards headed that way because you are no longer looking at water lines as a chief performance indicator. Anyone who rides a modern formula board realizes that once the board is planing it is really on a very, very small, high aspect planing surface. The fins are basically becoming hydrofoils. They’re vertical hydrofoils, but I don’t think it’s going to be long before someone starts messing around with the fin on a Formula board, and making the planing surface even much less. And at some point, that board and sailor are going to be flying, in close proximity to the water, but over it, if you could imagine some kind of inflatable or semi-inflatable structure, a wing, perhaps that the sailor is hanging on to that is not particularly attached directly to the board by a mast step, I think you might start realizing that the two sports are coming together. I think that perhaps someone should take a Formula board out, and take a kite on some short lines and see what they can do. Tom Magruder with his WindWeapon was an interesting idea, the Skimbat is an interesting idea, kitesurfing, these are all kind of heading down the same path. So I don’t see them as being divergent, to answer your question.

AW: It sounds to me like your vision of the future is the eventual fade out of the current sail design concept.

BH: That may be some kind of blasphemy, I don’t know. Fade out? I don’t see it as a fade out, more of a fade in. Certainly if you took a Formula board and a modern sail, and plopped it down in the middle of a Wednesday night International Windsurfer One-Design race in Berkeley in the early 80s, most of the sailors there would say it wouldn’t work. It’s so different. Now it’s standard issue equipment. And so, I guess “morphing” might be a good word for it, but basically I think the direction the equipment is taking is really exciting.

Anyone who is left in the sport, or anyone who cares to take up windsurfing, is going to be very much rewarded with the ease of the equipment to use, the rapid development they can make with their skill level. It’s by far the least expensive form of performance sailing—if you went and bought or tried to build one of these 60-foot ocean racing trimarans or catamarans, or an America’s Cup boat, you’re talking millions and millions of dollars. And a Formula board will pretty much sail circles around these things, and it costs just a few thousand dollars. So, the development has been there, and it’s paying for itself to the individual sailor.

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AW: Recently you were caught up in some controversy on the internet with another designer. Do you want to comment on that, and on where the market has come to?

BH: Well, it’s very competitive. Unfortunately for me, as an innovator—and I like to think of myself as an innovator—a small company, without any affiliation with other companies, in Berkeley, what we did for years never hit the mainstream. Wasn’t covered by the magazines, we were just kind of on our own track. For me, as an engineering/scientist personality, not a marketing/business personality, I felt over the years that the consumer wasn’t necessarily getting serviced by the marketing hype and the directions the industry was headed. Or by the game playing between companies, the trade organization, and the magazines—some magazines more than others—kind of pushing particular products into the eyes of the consumer based on various aspects of their business relationships. And so, when I see something out there that runs contrary to my basic intuition as an innovator, and someone who is interested in the performance aspect of the sport, and the purity of it, when I see it being used, in a sense, not necessarily in the consumer’s best interest, or when I see things being very subjective, then I start having a problem.

And I participated in rec.windsurfing for many years, and my participation has been by design directed at the physics of sailing, trying to inform people on the internet and through clinics and articles, of the velocity squared relationship with the wind and so on, and the real rudimentary physics of sailing. And I’ve done that in a way that I thought was informing people who were ill-informed, educating people so they could make proper decisions on their equipment, or even how they rigged their equipment, or how they used it. Over the last year I’ve seen rec.windsurfing become highly commercialized—well at least more commercialized than I think it should be as an internet newsgroup—and I think basically as a person when I see this happen I get to a point where I can’t really stand it any more. I think it’s wrong, and I’m not afraid to stand up and say something about it. There’s been a lot of controversy over the years about cams and no cams, a lot of people would think that I’m a cam supporter because I defend cams, but in fact, I’ve probably made a lot more no-cam sails over the years than cam sails. I think there are certain true innovations that have happened in the last few years. One of them is the truncated tip, one is the range of sails, and these are things on which I work very hard on a day to day basis. I do it for myself as a sailor, I do it for my customers, such as they are.

The recent controversy on rec.windsurfing is basically my fault, because I started it in a sense that I replied to a consumer who happened to be using my product—I usually don’t reply to rec.windsurfing unless it concerns my product—was inquiring about his sails that he was happy with, that he’s had many years of good use. And he was questioning the newsgroup whether he should buy a new version of my sail or another very popular sail—that is highly promoted on the newsgroup in a commercial sense, is my way of looking at it—and the first comment he got was from a dealer, who didn’t identify himself as a dealer, who recommended a product that he supports because he sells it. And it’s a good product, but I think that the consumer was asking for a comparison of nuts and bolts, and no one was doing this—they were just promoting another product based on a lack of information as much as understanding.

Certainly all products have their strong and weak points, but I thought that this particular person was asking a serious question, and he deserved a serious answer. And I didn’t see that answer coming, so I stepped up and gave my opinion, which is definitely a biased opinion, it’s impossible for me to be unbiased on the subject. I think there are basic improvements in this type of sail that I’ve worked on now for several years, and I think that these improvements are being overlooked. And when another popular product, that is highly supported on the newsgroup, adopts the innovations that I’ve worked very hard to make, and the adoption of these ideas are used in their advertising materials and on their website to promote their new version of their product, I pointed out that I didn’t think there was much of a comparison between the two products, and it created quite a string of somewhat vehement replies, which I think are now dying down.

But the point is that as designers we really take this stuff seriously. We’re not getting rich off it, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s something that’s in our blood, it’s in our hearts, and it’s on our minds constantly, and we can’t just sit there and not be emotional about it. And if the newsgroup is better for it—I think a lot of the comments show people joking about it—but it’s now better informed, they’re more educated, it’s brought up other questions about sail shaping, about truncated tips, all kinds of design questions, and it points out the level of intensity that myself and this other designer have about our products. And I think this is important for the consumer to see, because of the commercialism in windsurfing over the last few years, this kind of passion isn’t known. You take a large company, the largest sailmaker in the world, how many designers have they had in the last few years? How can the passion be the same as someone who’s been working for close to 20 years, or in my case over 20 years, on the same problem? We’ve been working in a dedicated fashion without much compensation for many years, and so we have to be emotional about it.

We can’t just sit there and not care.

article and photos by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines

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