IN THE BEGINNING…
…and we’re talking right at the very beginning, around 1997, when a French windsurfing speed sailor called Manu Bertin brought a few samples of an early Wipika inflatable kite to Maui. Manu was sure that there was a sport about to explode, but he had issues with the kite’s lack of basic accessories.
Manu was sponsored for his windsurfing booms by a brand called Hawaiian Pro Line, a Maui based outfit that specialised in the development of custom and production built windsurfing booms, run by Keith and Karen Baxter. Manu approached Keith explaining his basic accessory needs; and it’s with them that this Airush journey really begins.
Keith and Karen met in 1984 at a trade show. Karen was a professional windsurfer based in the Florida Keys and was there representing her windsurfing board sponsor, Wayler, while Keith was there demoing his boom brand, Fleetwood. They were introduced by Karen’s sponsor who proposed that Keith also sponsor her with booms. Cutting to the chase: a couple of years later they both decided to move together as a couple to Maui – Keith had grown up as Kailua boy on Oahu anyway, and Karen had always dreamt of windsurfing on Maui.
Keith sold his share in Fleetwood but remained as the distributor for the brand in Hawaii and the pair set up Hawaiian Pro Line, a service company for Fleetwood and other boom brands in Hawaii, such as Neil Pryde and Windsurfing Hawaii. As well as having a huge talent with his hands for developing parts for windsurfing, Keith had also built up 12 years of invaluable experience in dealing with production factories and setting up the tooling processes in Taiwan and China. He also had one of the best, if not the only, fully tooled-up specialist work shop with huge lathes and all the equipment necessary to make a range of prototype items on Maui.
Keith was fascinated by watching Manu with his kites, and he and Karen quickly came to share Manu’s belief in the potential of kitesurfing very early on. Keith and Karen set about getting hold of more kites.
“In about 1998 we started looking into how to get hold of them, but only the Wipika ones. We didn’t want any others; only those with the inflatable bladders that we’d seen through Manu Bertin. They were the special ones.” remembers Karen.
When they finally managed to track some down, their first shipment was of ten kites. “We could hardly give them away, though!” She exclaims. “No one seemed to understand it, nobody wanted them and I was like, ‘What have we got ourselves into?’ So we thought about it and thought of all the influential windsurfers that we were giving booms to and decided to literally give these kites away to those guys, too; guys like Mike Waltz, Robby Naish, Rush Randall and Pete Cabrinha.”
The Wipikas were only provided with handles, which seems ludicrous now as they weren’t ideal for use with harnesses. Keith and Karen had been operating their Hawaiian Pro Line workshop for 15 years or so, and Keith set about making up at least some kind of a bar to give to people; items which Karen claims to be some of the products that they are most proud of from that time as they were crucial to the sport’s development.
“Those bars were simple, but they were unreal. We had all the aluminium we needed in the shop and we had the parts moulded quickly. The windsurfing moulds that Keith had been working on for years were actually way more complicated compared to these first bits of the Airush bar, but they really worked.”
Around the same time a company had shown interest in buying Keith and Karen out of Hawaiian Pro Line, they decided to sell and Hawaiian Pro Line had such deep roots in windsurfing anyway, so it was only right that they came up with something fresh and more fitting for their new kiteboarding brand. Karen and her friends sat down and brainstormed for two days.
“I still have the pieces of paper that I wrote a million things down on and if you could see how we got to Airush you’d crack up. But the name Airush kept coming up as the best one and I just really liked it.”
Although bemused by the lack of belief in kiteboarding shown by others on Maui, Keith and Karen persisted with a second shipment of 15 Wipikas, followed up by another of 25. By the time that third shipment had arrived they had only just started selling some.
Keith and Karen as Airush began to assemble a riding team, the early members being Lou Wainman, Elliot Leboe and Rush Randall. Mauricio Abreu joined not long after.
“Put it this way: never mind being close to perfect, at that time the kites really weren’t anywhere near to being acceptable.” Explains Mauricio. “So while 90% of brands were focusing on making a decent kite, Airush began developing decent accessories. They helped the industry maintain the levels of development of everything below the kite – the bars, the bindings, the foot straps, boards and fins. This parallel development of accessories alongside other companies’ work on the kites really helped speed up the evolution of the sport.”
Keith and Karen set up The Power Zone as their new distribution company name, but confusion with it being something to do with the muscle business saw them switch that to their corporation name and start yet another company, Sky Hi USA, which ran all their distribution interests, such as Wipika and Starboard. The Sky Hi / Airush machine shop became an experimental design lab and the door was always open to anyone that they were working with at the time, leading to a fusion of ideas each day, or more accurately, each night after a day on the water.
“When we started really working on it, it was dangerous.” Confesses Karen. Lou, Elliot, Rush and then Mauricio started working on things as well as Jeff Howard, who now owns Pro Kitesurf in Texas. “We flew Jeff over and he was integral in terms of helping design and test products. Some of the first safety gear was… well… it wouldn’t be described as adequate in today’s market, but back then it was an improvement on safety for the two lines kites at the time. We were putting kites in people’s hands and going, ‘oh there’s no safety’, so that wasn’t good. Keith came up with all these little quick releases for the lines and moulded pieces on the ends of the bars that would quickrelease, which were all considered good until the four lines really started to take over, which then needed different systems.”
Mauricio remembers of those early days, “We would experiment by retro-fitting kitesurfing parts with bits and pieces we took from other items in the Home Depot store. The Baxters had all the tools we needed and they knew how to use them. That was how the Airush lab was back then, it was pretty cool.”
That lab is also where the chicken-loop was first developed. Manu Bertin and Don Montague had started using horn-shaped bicycle bars and had the idea for depowerable four line kites using these bars. “Elliot was in the shop one day when they came in.” recalls Mauricio. “He took a press drill, drilled a hole through the bar and said, ‘Dude, just do it through here.’ Lots of people started talking about depower, but Lou, Elliot and I were like, ‘Man, we don’t need depower, we ride full power. That’s for chickens.’ So it was from messing around in the ‘Airush lab’ that things like the ‘chickenloop’ came in to being.”
Mauricio was also one of many riders that spent time living with the Baxters. “We’ve just always had an open house.” enthuses Karen. “At one point there were even three beds in our garage. It was early days, people were young and they didn’t have a place to stay. Guys like Chuck Patterson actually still stay with us when they’re on Maui – he was here just a few weeks ago!”
“I was a bit like their son for a while!” confesses Mauricio. I lived in their home for about six months, in their garage actually, which they had retrofitted to basically become like a sewing loft / crash pad for lots of people. So many people came and went.”
The top windsurfers, tow surfers and of course, kiters, stayed at the Baxters. Facilitated and encouraged by Keith and Karen, all these people hanging together created an amazing atmosphere where problems were figured out in the open. Airush was about progress, development and fun.
They didn’t just welcome people into their lab, but their home, too. These were the heydays of kiteboarding and Keith and Karen were right at the centre of it, gelling it all together.
Over the next couple of years kiteboarding exploded off the back of images and videos of all these dashing and daring individuals in Maui, selling the dream of a true adrenaline sport and capturing the imagination of people all over the world. It quickly became the fastest growing watersport on the planet and while Keith continued to develop vital accessories demanded by both riders and other kite brands, Lou, Elliot, Rush and Mauricio were doing the job of putting Airush on the kiting map.
So much so that they had caught the attention of Hollywood, more accurately the people behind Star Trek. One morning the Baxters found a letter on the mat rather choicely worded with allegations of copyright infringement due the Airush logo at the time being a little too close to that of the sci-fi phenomenon. In no uncertain terms they were asked to rework their design.
They may have lost the halo in their logo, but kitesurfing wasn’t made up of angels anyway. It was raw, powerful, exciting and, at the time, quite dangerous, which is why all the initial riding devotees got such a kick out of it, but in order for it to be suitable for more mass participation, there was way more work to be done. Everything was still so new and exciting and there was lots of scope for quickly creating a new product that was a big improvement on what had gone before.
The Baxters continued to work tirelessly to help push the sport, but theirs was a roller-coaster ride. Bruno Legaignoux who owned the inflatable kite patent that was in such demand by all the brands that were keen for a slice of the kiteboarding production pie, had also started Wipika and sold that company on. By 1999 Keith and Karen had managed to sell 2,000 Wipika kites and had done such a good job that the new owners of Wipika didn’t renew their contract and instead took the North American distribution over themselves.
“I guess we’d just done too good a job with the kites!” recounts Karen, who took this as a real punch to the guts at the time. “So that’s when we decided to make our own kites.”
Sky Hi were also distributing Starboard at the time, a windsurfing brand run by a Norwegian called Svein Rasmussen, based in Thailand. Going from making the accessories which the Maui workshop team really had the knack for, to throwing themselves into the world of kite making as a global brand was quite a step, and they began to think about taking assistance.
“We made a few prototype kites and sent them over to Starboard, whether they helped or not I’m not sure, but we realized it was time for us to get out. Starboard really stepped up to the plate as far as taking over the R&D of all the kites. Keith and I had Airush trademarked worldwide and when we did sell it we only sold the worldwide trademark, we kept Airush in the USA until 2007.”
By that time their hearts had gone back into windsurfing, their first love. The game from the golden days had lost its magic for Keith and Karen and their work in getting kiteboarding to Maui and then to help develop the sport in its infancy had been done. They are used to the excitement of the heyday development, having been through it in windsurfing, kitesurfing and now through SUP as their son Connor has become one of the brightest stars in the latest hot new watersport. Karen has her garage back and it has been reverted back into a sail loft. Her original background was as a sewer as she’d once been part of Calvert sails back in Florida with her first husband, David. She now runs six machines up there on a huge table, making everything from kite and sail repairs to wedding tents, awnings, boat covers… “I pretty much sew anything and everything!” she laughs.
But it’s the management of her son Connor’s career that takes the most time now, way more than she ever expected and the Baxters also still retain the distribution of Starboard in the Hawaiian Islands.
Keith’s main roles are still very much water borne, overseeing the rental of their boat and jetski to film crews and photographers.
“So we’re always in the water somehow.” says Karen with a smile. “But those kiteboarding heydays are a time and a journey that we will always cherish.”
The First Chicken Loop
Mauricio Abreu on building bars and the first chicken-loop:
“Back in ’96 when I started riding and working with Keith and Karen Baxter, Wipika had finally managed to build over 100 kites and so we actually had to build the first hundred bars. We were cutting the straight piece out of windsurfing booms, which is of course around an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter, so it’s a big thing and then gripping it half blue and half red. We’d then tie the strings with no release or anything. Then we’d make a hole and attach something like a kitchen knob – they were the winders – something that people probably can’t imaging being an issue.
“Then Keith came up with this idea similar to the end of a windsurf boom that had this little clip you could adjust. He thought maybe we could put those in the ends and wrap the lines around them. Then we put this little Ronstan quick release in one line so that you’d be left flying the kite on just one line (as these were just two line kites back then).
“A few months after that Elliot Leboe, Lou Wainman and I were in the Airush lab working on some things as we did. Don Montague and Menu Bertin came in saying they had this idea for four line kites using bicycle bars that you could hold sideways and push the bar out for depower. We were like, ‘Man, we don’t need depower’ but Elliot took a press drill, drilled a hole through the bar and said, ‘Dude, just do it through here.” And that is what’s called the chicken-loop today.”
The Start of Accessories
“Prior to this and at a time that kites were nowhere near – I won’t even say perfect – Airush helped the industry keep up with all sorts of below the kite technology.” reckons ex-team rider Mauricio Abreu.
Mauricio has had a huge career in the sport and been very influential in the wakestyle scene. He now manages the pro team at Slingshot but says of Airush at the time, “90% of brands were focusing on making a decent kite, so Airush had focused on making decent accessories that sped up the evolution of the sport in other areas. Bars, bindings, foot straps, wakeskates and surfboards – we went way back.”
Mauricio explains some of the challenges and breakthroughs at the time:
“I was already living with the Baxters who were doing the distribution for Wipika and the accessories. I jumped in and helped with boots and bars and it grew all the way to when the boards became popular. The Baxters took it from a little R&D project to a global business.
“I lived in their home for about six months in the garage which they had retrofitted to basically be like a sewing loft/crash pad for everyone. I lived there, Chuck Patterson, Fadi Issa and so many others came and went, too. Back then everything was new and exciting and it was really easy to create a new product that was an improvement. Keith and Karen had such a big knowledge of manufacturing as well as components in windsurfing and skiing so were quickly able share ideas and development for kitesurfing.
“A lot of Wipika distributors would come through needing foot straps or bits that did this or that and there was always a lot of input. Rush Randall was heavily involved too, including in the foil board development.
THE LONGEST RUNNING BOARD MODEL IN KITEBOARDING HISTORY
“The way that Colin McCulloch understood how boards worked, the rocker lines and elements like that, was exceptional.” states Mike Birt, something that is evident in the Switch, Airush’s superb entry level and beyond board that has enjoyed 12 years of success.
The combined talents of both Colin McCulloch and previously of Jimmy Lewis in the Switch development means it’s not difficult to see why that board set Airush on such a strong course of board building acclaim.
The Switch Classic was released in 2001 and continued with only minor modification into 2002 as it had been such a success. The secret was having managed to combine the versatility and ease-of-use of a twin-tip but with the comfort and handling of a biased rocker, making it a directional twin-tip. The straps could be set up in twin-tip or directional layouts – essentially it was the first mutant and allowed for early planing, loads of grip and superb handling in gusty conditions.
The Switch was released in 2002 alongside the continuing Classic model, but pushed further down the wakeboarding route. Blessed with wake grip but twin-tip ease they benefitted from wakeboard shaped rails, yet with added volume in the middle section and the stepped-up ends made them more forgiving than wakeboards, delivering a sure footed but radical feel with Jimmy’s rocker and smaller fins.
In 2003 the Switch returned as a more refined all-rounder with increased wind range and ease-of-use for everyone from beginner to advanced riders and was joined in the line-up by the new Switch Pro. Designed by Colin McCulloch it represented the ultimate in twin-tip grip and performance with a narrower width so that both your heels and toes could influence the rails, promoting a faster and more aggressive style of riding with exceptional edging capabilities, essential for boosting big airs and general control.
In 2004 the Switch outline looked more like the conventional twin-tips of today, far shorter and wider than before, it used a segmented rocker profile for increased wind range and early planing and the sectional rail uplift allowed for a slightly sharper rail for even more bite and edge control. It featured six fins but had begun its progression as the most adaptable twin-tip line that Airush has ever made, perfect for entry-level riders looking for ease-of-use and efficiency and could still entertain expert riders as its overall handling characteristics were so vast, smooth and stable.
In 2014 it still just feels right from your very first run and has allowed Airush designers the freedom to develop a much more specialised range of boards as the Switch has always covered the kitesurfing basics so very well
Starboard, The Future and Beyond
“I met Keith and Karen in the mid eighties” explains Svein Rasmussen, Norwegian owner of Starboard. Like all the other pro windsurfers at the time he was attracted to the quality of their workmanship. “I’d visit Keith and Karen’s shop in Hawaii to get the best booms available. They’d custom make them for me with my sail number on and all sorts of cool colours.”
As Keith moved his development over to Thailand where he could improve his booms more easily with carbon technology, he and Svein got to hang out more. Keith was really interested in the windsurfing boards that Svein and his team were developing and took on the US distribution for Starboard and, together with Karen, grew the brand’s market share by close to 40%.
Svein’s first introduction to kitesurfing had been when speed sailor Erik Beale came out to visit him in Thailand in the late nineties and brought some Wipika kites with him. “We got going on an over-sized windsurfing board and it was a lot of fun. I was really excited about the potential but hesitant to continue myself until the safety systems improved.” he confesses.
Svein watched Airush take-off as a successful kiteboarding accessory brand while he worked with Keith and Karen on Starboard. As had happened with Hawaiian Pro Line, soon all the best riders were using Airush products.
Starboard was already very successful in the windsurfing industry operating through Svein’s HQ and factory in Thailand. Keith eventually approached him about producing kite boards.
“I was already walking our factory floor every day, so it was easy to transfer the construction methods.” explains Svein, also indicating that Airush built a solid name for quality early on. “We went straight for high-quality PVC sandwich construction while the market in general offered PU boards and we launched the first twin-tips with quadruple carbon layers as we had no idea how strong we needed to build them. As a result we basically had no warranty issues and Airush boards became really popular.”
The following year Karen asked Svein if he would also help them to produce kites. Svein went a step further and took Airush on completely, embedded it into his collection of brands and helped it to grow more easily, benefitting from his expertise in the watersports manufacturing world.
Up to then Airush had only produced accessories and boards, so kites were the next challenge. Svein looked within his own ranks turned to friend and mathematician, Australian Ben Severne, who was already designing sails for the Severne Sails brand.
“The Lift kite he created quickly became the benchmark kite in the market and suddenly we had a full portfolio of products, from accessories to boards and kites. We were trend setting and innovative. It was a lot of fun!” remembers Svein, proudly.
Mike Birt was one of the earliest pro kiters in the UK from 2000 and became distributor for Airush in the UK. He remembers the Lift kite.
“We hit the ground running with that kite in 2002. They were very good indeed and at that point better than Naish’s offerings, which was really surprising as they ruled the market. The 9.4 (in aspect ratio as kites were measured then; 11.5m squared in today’s terms) was a very efficient, tight handling machine. Ben was all about the physical capability of products; their handling and how he perceived the sport and where he thought it was going, rather than focusing too heavily on sales and numbers.”
Today, designers need half an eye on their own achievements in board meetings with regard to sales targets while the other eye maintains focus on pure top end performance. In 2001 however everything was still so new in kitesurfing. The rule books weren’t yet written and products that allowed riders to just really push their performance proved the most popular.
Kyle Flower moved to Maui in 2003, one of the many riders who made themselves at home at Keith and Karen’s place. He went on to work for Sky Hi and is now the Airush US agent, still based on Maui, and in 2003 was riding the Lift.
“It was amazing because it had top end! Back then you used to see people getting yarded by their C kites every five minutes; people were literally struggling to live behind those things. The Lift offered new levels of performance to riders that knew what they were doing and wanted to push the levels.”
Svein had created a Starboard / Airush alliance and in the early boards you can see the Airush and Starboard logos, plus on occasion the Jimmy Lewis logo who was helping shape boards – all on one product! When it came to kites though ‘Starboard kites’ didn’t sound right, and with a name like Airush already in operation that was so evocative as to the exciting nature of kitesurfing, the alliance was dropped, the brand streamlined and allowed to stand on its own.
“Today Airush feels a little like a grown up kid that has moved away from home but stays in good contact with daily positive engagement.” reflects Svein. “Our product line is clean with an excellent track record of bringing very cool kite and board innovations to market every year.”
Absolutely key to the progression of Airush in the last several years in really solidifying the growing reputation in the public’s eyes as truly innovative manufacturer was the appointment in 2004 of now Brand Manager and board shaper, Clinton Filen. Svein used to race with the South African on the pro windsurf tour and always liked his straight-up attitude and vision for the future.
“I remember sitting on the roof of my Thai beach house, calling him in South Africa and asking if he’d like to join the Airush design team that had relocated to Perth, Australia.” says Svein, who knew in Clinton he’d found another big piece of the Airush jigsaw. “His broad vision, management skills, pleasant nature, deep interest in technology and brand building are totally unique. He’s now a partner in the company and we’re building more bridges into the future on a group level.”
Clinton set about building his own team and moved the design lab once more to his hometown of Cape Town, to the southern suburb of Muizenberg, which also happens to be one of the first areas that surfing made its mark in South Africa and is now also home to an abundance of artists and eclectic minds. Inspiration is never far away, in the water or on land.
Mark Pattison came onboard as assistant designer to Ben Severne in 2004 and took over as lead designer in 2008. His input has been massive and the traits in the superb performance of today’s Airush kites and industry innovations are down to him. More from the Australian developer when we look at products more deeply.
Finishing off the core team of visionaries at Airush is marketing and team manager, Marc Schmid. Still only in his mid-twenties, Marc brought a totally fresh approach to marketing a kiteboarding brand that is fully focused on looking to the future and constantly strives for new ways to communicate the true spirit of Airush.
“In terms of the future, kiteboarders are athletes and always want the best stuff, even if it costs more.” explains Svein. “We must push the technology envelope and direct as many resources as possible in that direction, while never forgetting the entry level products that will secure the growth of the sport.”
Eternal discussions surround broadening the model line or making a smaller offering for simplicity. Distributors want fewer products, but riders want more. Airush try to balance the two, but always prioritize the needs of the rider.
As such Airush is currently the fastest growing kite brand in the market, having doubled their sales in the last two years and with 2013 figures growing at an even quicker rate.
“We’ve maintained this position for 12 years in a row in windsurfing and three years in a row in paddle boarding.” states Svein, and explains the ethos running through his brands. “The whole crew out in SA do a wonderful job. It’s the people in a brand that create the strength and the longer people stay with the brand the better it becomes. Even when people leave the company it’s a personal wish of mine that we remain friends. Business is just one aspect of our operation. The respect and appreciation of what people do to help us move forward is more important.”
How would Svein describe Airush as it currently operates?
“Imagine if Porsche decided to produce high quality entry level cars and set themselves the target of having them become the world’s most popular vehicles. That would be a great example of where we’re heading with Airush.
Airush Kite Designer: Ben Severne
Ben Severne most known for creating Airush Kites from the very beginning started as an Australia windsurfing sail designer and rider. Taking the kites such as the Lift, Reactor and Flow to the public eye. His out of the box thinking and push to create kites that out performed the rest made him a house hold name extremely quickly. It wasn’t until 2006 when Ben Severne decided to release his Windsurfing Sail Brand: Severne Sails. This transition left Airush opened for the next generation of designers to take the reins in 2008.
GET LIFTED: 2002-2007
The kite that started it all for Airush kite development got it right first time. “Straight off it was even ahead of Naish, which at that time was very surprising!” remembers Mike Birt.
“You used to see people getting yarded every five minutes. I don’t miss that in kiteboarding and when the Lift was released it really helped reduce those sort of accidents as it had a relatively amazing top end and meant you could push your performance much more.” recalls Kyle Flower who had just moved to Maui. “It handled a lot of wind and was predictable too, which was very cool.”
Looking back over the product spec for the 2002 Lift it was sold to ‘turn advanced sailors into experts and make winners out of mere competitors.’ Sales hype and promises may still be all the rage, but so too are the qualities offered in that original Lift of power control, manoeuvrability and big air.
“The 9.4 Lift was a beautiful kite; very efficient with tight handling and it was just very, very good.” says Mike Birt, backing up the massive step forward that the Lift offered at a time when you took your life in your hands by just launching a kite.
Kyle Flower reckons that it was what experienced riders had been waiting for. “It had the levels of performance for riders that knew what they were doing, who wanted to go to the next level and jump high. Big, floaty jumps were the fashion then and the Lift was definitely a kite that could get you there and in control. Compare it to today and you’d be talking about the Varial X of its time; still easy enough to use but with performance levels taken up a notch for super huge jumps and it could even handle a kite loop that were just coming in. ”
A pro model was introduced in 2004 for the super aggressive riders, hungry for even more kite speed and insane boosts. In 2005 the Lift was back to one model and Airush expanded their C kite range to include the more intermediate styled Flow and the Reactor – their ultimate high-performance, high speed, highly explosive model, leaving the Lift to carry the high aspect boosting flag forward until it was swallowed up by the Flow and Reactor that both offered big jumping elements by then, too.
By then its job had been done and Airush were a very well respected kite manufacturer.
The Flow: 2003-2009
The longest running kite in Airush history to date, the design brief for the original Flow was for Ben Severne to create a kite that was extremely easy-to-use with performance that most would never outgrow, yet could also be used by the first time beginner. Starting life out as a C kite the first production model was already responsive, with instant power and provided loads of feedback to the rider. Depower and turning were progressive and smooth and are why many pro riders turned to the Flow in the smaller sizes when conditions got rough. Tracking the history of the Flow it’s easy to see how hybrid kite development evolved from the C kite…
For the next few years the Flow continued to gain a reputation as an easy C kite for all levels of rider and in 2007 took another step on when given a bridle to become the Flow SLE, bringing bow versatility and C kite functionality together. A hybrid design with less swept wing-tips than a pure bow design meant the Flow required less bar movement for a given depower, eliminating bar pressure and had much more feel.
Lower aspect, better in gusty conditions and with more parked power it was redefined as a more user-friendly version of the Halo, replaced it in 2007 and the Flow was eventually superseded itself by the Varial for 2010.
Gisela Pulido Rides Airush: 2004-2012
Many riders in their prime were in their mid 20’s in 2004, but the Tarifa based Gisela Pulido was just starting to grab podium positions at the age of 10. Gisela quickly grew to be number 1 in Female Freestyle for 8 Freestyle World Championship titles and 1 Wave world Championship Title. This monumental occasion while riding for Airush was unheard of at the time, bringing womens’ riding to the forefront of the industry and media attention. Showing that kiteboarding was not just a mens or age dependant sport.
Airush Mauricio Abreu Pro Binding: 2004-2005
It wasn’t just bars that were key to Airush’s growing reputation as R&D accessory specialists, they developed parts for everything that kiteboarders needed other than the kite. Mauricio Abreu had the first pro model binding in the sport with Airush that was lighter and with more adjustability than any product that had gone before and with a more cushioned bed. The foam layers extended higher on the shin, providing greater support when riding fast and edging hard and provided maximum lateral support for big jumps. The double overlay increased support while allowing proper flex. A heel lock down strap with a Quick Ladder Lock secured the whole deal and overall the boot had increased support and performance yet crucially maintained easy binding entry – consider how unstable the kites were then… and you can see why this was vital! The result was the ultimate fit with outrageous performance.
FROM REACTOR TO RAZOR: 2005-Present
Airush have been one of the only brands to continue to devote time and energy to constant C kite development from the moment they began designing kites, from the Lift in 2002. Highly charged for supreme performance, the Reactor was launched in 2005 and became the Generator in 2008, completed its transition to become the Razor in 2010; a more market friendly C kite, still with huge performance but much more forgiving and easy-to-use than the Reactor.
The Reactor was billed as ‘the latest in aerospace technology morphed with hardcode aggression tamed only by the very elite’ in 2005. Light weight and super efficient it was all about forward speed, dynamic efficiency and lightning quick reactions for the execution of the most extreme moves.
The 2014 Razor Team model maintains the C kite heritage, feel and performance that wake-style and freestyle riders demand, but also has superb range and comfort, making it more usable by everyday riders. Designed in conjunction with Vice World Champions Alex Pastor and Bruna Kajiya, Dutch Champion Bas Koole, and South African Champion Oswald Smith, never before has a kite delivered the highest level of performance within the reach of intermediate riders, yet at the same time keeping pro riders on top of the podium.
Featuring the proven Aramid (found in bullet proof vests) Load Frame for a solid structural link throughout the kite and combined with Technoforce D2 canopy, the Razor Team offers the ultimate combination of durability and performance.
“Totally awesome kites that will change your understanding of what kiteboarding is capable of.”
FELIX PIVEC, 2005
“The Reactor was a beast of a kite that I think today would still give you the most horizontal pull in a radical mega loop than any other kite ever made.”
MARK PATTISON, DESIGNER, 2013
THE PROTOY: 2005-Present
The Protoy is one of the most endearing boards in kiteboarding’s history, being the most widely recognised shape to first bridge the gap between super high-performance and incredible freeride attributes, gaining a cult following. Originally a shape of the late, great Colin McCulloch, the constant art thread that has been allowed to evolve over several years and different graphic designers, only adds further depth to its legendary status.
It was the first project of Airush’s visionary leader, Clinton Filen, and this is his story of the Protoy.
“2003 was the first time I met Colin. He and Ben Severne must be two of the most opinionated, no bullshit or sugar coating people I have ever met. I had spoken to Ben on the phone and then had Colin pick me up from the airport who launched straight into a rant about some ‘wanker’ team riders, closely followed by another rant about something completely unrelated. I quickly realised I was in for an interesting work experience with someone who was to become a very close friend.
“At the time Colin was making these incredible light weight twin-tips from the press in his shed for riders such as Aaron Hadlow and we set out to duplicate exactly what he was doing in our series production. What made the board such a standout was its ability to be ridden as a hardcore freestyle board but yet was still incredibly easy-to-use. In the years to come it become more freeride oriented, keeping its huge universal appeal.
“The graphic was inspired by my love for skateboard art where there is a constant theme and every year we set out to create a new woman on the board. Depending on the artist she has gone from being a topless Asian mermaid (Koldt Black) in the early years, to the darker, more sultry images of Pete Engelbrecht in the later 2000’s followed by the more classic skate style of Shaun Gardner and Graham Wiles of late.”
Mike Birt has been selling Airush products in the UK for over a decade and been involved in the R&D process for even longer. He also had first hand experience of Colin McCulloch’s expertise.
“There was one board that stood out as being miles ahead and having some sort of technological difference that was quantifiably better, and that was the Protoy. From where I sat it was commercial gold.”
Mark Pattison remembers it being a standout in the Airush board range for him. “I used to fight for that 135cm Protoy in 2007 – the white one with the flip tips and the chick and blood graphic. We only had one in our development stash and I just loved how it rode in choppy conditions, making rough water smooth and easy.”
THE T-3: 2006 – 2007
If you think that channel bottom wakestyle boards produced especially for park riding and could be used with small fins are a new concept, think again. The T-3 was the first shape of this kind that Airush worked on in 2006 and combined with Koldt Black’s ‘Terminator’ graphics “was a lot of fun.” according to Clinton Filen.
Again, Airush were just a little too far ahead of the production game as Clinton explains, “Ultimately we just couldn’t produce it in mass because of the complexity of the bottom shape and the desire for lighter weight boards in general. I believe only around 40 pieces were ever made.”
So if you have one, hold on to it!
The Halo: 2006-2007
The Halo was Airush’s first step in to production bridled kites, although designer Ben Severne had already developed one in 2003, but being a perfectionist decided he didn’t like it as the bar pressure was too high and the throw was too long, so didn’t release it.
A couple of years later the Halo eventually made it into the 2006 range, aimed at intermediate to advanced riders looking for increased security, depower and efficiency (released May 2005). The Halo’s biggest standout feature though was that it stacked with incredible wind range providing this immense hang-time. It was just unbelievable. “I got some of my biggest scary jumps ever on this kite when it first was being developed. Super overpowered you could just boost to the moon and come down with control and easy landings.” says Mark Pattison who had since taken over from Ben Severne as lead designer.
The Halo 2 was released in 2007 which was more high performance and hailed for the direct steering and responsiveness that it brought to a flat kite design by magazines. By 2007 the Flow kite was also in development and ticked more boxes as a more market friendly bridled kite and the Halo was replaced the next season.
VAPOR SERIES: 2007-2011
The performance market at the time of the Vapor release was a complicated one with freestyle and freeriding styles evolving really quickly. Bridging the gap in riders’ requirements was a huge task. The Vapor was originally designed around the five line performance of a C kite but with the depower, wind range and ease-of-use that come with bridles.
“Back then people had been really brainwashed into thinking that you couldn’t unhook on anything other than a C kite, so we had to make something to suit the market.” explains kite designer Mark Pattison (Paddo) on the hurdles at the time.
The Vapor 1 offered a much more forgiving option than a C kite but still had good unhooked performance. “The Vapor 2 was similar, but with a few more bells and whistles and slightly more power in the big sizes and more control in the smaller sizes.” Mark continues, “The Vapor 3 was a whole new kite in 2009 and a huge step forward in unhooking; really C kite-like but crucially maintained almost as much wind range and ease-of-use that we’d found in previous years.”
UK importer Mike Birt reckons The Vapor was a big hit in his territory, too. “I’d say the Vapor 1 was the only kite that really bridged times from the super performance of the Lift, to the modern Airush-Clinton-Paddo world that we have now. It certainly raised the profile of the brand in the UK and gave the balance sheets a more favourable figure.”
Released primarily in a five line set-up, the Vapor 3 also came with a four line bridle configuration option which was really well accepted in America, but in general it was difficult to market a kite with both four and five line options.
US agent Kyle Flower says, “It was a multi-use kite, not just a five line C kite. We were selling it to people that wanted to unhook but didn’t want a C kite; they wanted range but they also didn’t want a beginner kite. The market was there but it wasn’t huge yet and these were people that the Varial X would eventually cover perfectly.”
“The Vapor X was released in 2011 as a four line bridled kite with similar performance to the Vapor 3, but with a few improvements all round. In 2012 the Vapor X was actually replaced in terms of design for the focused freestyle market by the Razor. Those looking for more control or four lines switched to the Varial
THE WIDEBODY REVOLUTION: 2009-Present
Airush and Starboard group owner Svein Rasmussen believes, “In a light wind area or light wind season, a widebody board could mean twice the amount of water time. This stuff makes an impact on people’s life and that is where I feel we can truly start to make a difference.”
In 2009 there were surfboards and there were raceboards. Surfboards were easier to ride than raceboards and people were using them as their light wind option, although the raceboards had much better performance. The vast majority of kiteboarders weren’t up to the challenges of riding a technical raceboard though, and they still aren’t. The Sector bridged the gap in abilities needed for each board, bringing extreme efficiency to light winds and were relatively easy to ride, changing the way people looked at light wind conditions. Suddenly freeriders could build up great speeds in low winds, point higher into the wind than they ever had and found great fun in racing with their friends.
“Realizing these widebody designs had the most relevance in flat water race and freeride, we developed the Sector as the first widebody raceboards.” explains Clinton, who also points out that as had happened before, the market was still just a little green.
“Similar to the surfboards they were also extremely challenging to sell in beginning, as people are always cautious about these more ‘out the box’ concepts. But after about a year on the market they exploded and became one of our best selling boards.”
Svein looks to the future. “When we marry the widebody development with the Zero strut development from Mark Pattison, then Airush starts to rotate the perception of where the sport may be heading.”
There are currently three models available, each step up in size being a little more technical to ride and higher performing – but for freeride racers they present a staggering range of options.
THE FS SERIES: 2009-2012
The FS Pro was launched in 2009 as the Protoy shifted more and more to suit the freeride market.
“The FS was Colin’s the next big breakthrough in terms of freestyle boards.” states Clinton Filen, who took over the shaping of Airush’s board range after Colin passed away in 2009.
He continues, “This was the shape that I feel defined the current generation of freestyle and wakestyle boards. Looking at what I went on to develop for Alex Pastor, it is a progression from this original configuration with a bit more rocker for riding boots and variations in the outline for stability.”
In 2011 the range was expanded to satisfy the more focused high-level breed of freestyle riders with the FS, the FS Team and the FS Park models. In 2013 Alex Pastor’s full pro model, the Livewire took over the job for freestylers, but the FS had done the work of paving the way for super-progressive freestyle riding, more often than not claiming PKRA podiums with pro team riders Alex and Bruna Kajiya.
The 2012 freestyle model had evolved with a three stage outline, ensuring stability at speed and maximum engagement of the rail before boosting. The square tips ensured pop and responsiveness while the refined flex curve featured thinner tips with a stiffer mid-section. It was the ultimate freestyle shape at the time and with all that performance wrapped into a bombproof Biotech construction, it came with a two year breakage warranty for 100% freestyle performance.
Airush Changes Designers: Mark Pattison
Mark Pattison is one of the earliest members of the Airush team. His background started from repairing windsurfing sails at a local windsurf shop in Perth, Western Australia. Slowly working underneath then Kite Designer, Ben Severne. Marks ability to problem solve and be hands on quickly made him one of the focuses to assist in designing kites and kite accessories. In 08-09, Ben Severne decided to focus solely on Severne Windsurfing Sails, opening Mark Pattison up to a whole new world of projects. During this transition of working on complete ranges, Mark fully designed the 2010 Airush Range with Airush Snowkite Designer Benoit Menetier. Currently, all of the kites and bars are designed by Mark Pattison, putting through the test whether in Cape Town or Bali where he resides 6 months of the year.
Alex Pastor: 2010-Present
Added to the Airush Team in 2010, Alex Pastor went from 4th overall on the PKRA to holding 3 consecutive Vice World Champion titles. At the start, Alex was an extremely quite and shy person turning into a household name in the competition scene.
“His personality is quite different to the other riders in the game.” says Airush Marketing Manager, Marc Schmid, “I remember the first photoshoot with Alex, he said like 2 words the whole time. He has grown out of that but you still don’t see him jumping around in front of a camera, he lets his riding do all the talking.”
His most notable achievement was being the first rider to win a PKRA event in Boots, quickly showing the benefits of using such equipment in a competition setting. Alex is now currently leading the World Tour Rankings with placing 1st in 4 out of 5 events with 5 more events to go
The Varial: 2010-2011
Airush carried six LEI kites forward into 2010 – a huge and varied range. The Vapors had paved the way for a new way of thinking in approach to aggressive, versatile freestyle riding with the performance of a C kite but the safety and depower of a bridled kite.
The Varial took high performance kite flying down more of a freeride route and was Airush’s first kite to feature pulleys on the bridle. “This was a revolutionary step for us.” claims Paddo. “It allowed the kite to depower way more than the previous fixed bridles (such as we had on the Flow). But what made it really special was the fact that you could steer the kite when it was completely depowered.”
There was no more depowering the kite to a certain point and then just having slack back lines and losing all steering. The 2010 Varial had feel, stability and performance with increased range, efficiency and lift. ACTive (Active Conical Tension) provided the most stable platform available to allow the rider to focus more on their riding and less on their kite, whether that be in riding waves, shredding flat water slicks or simply jumping higher than anyone else.
In 2012 the Varial and Vapor X merged into the incredible first version of the Varial X.
THE LITHIUM: 2010-Present
2010 was as much, if not more, about making kitesurfing more accessible and more fun in more conditions as it was about continuing to push high performance boundaries. As well as the launch of the formidable Sector wide body freeride board, 2010 also saw Airush launch the Lithium kite, a model which has gone on to become the current top selling model.
“We really wanted to nail the delta segment of the market.” explains designer Paddo. “The public was obsessed with terms like ‘auto relaunch’ etc. but with its super long centre chord length, the first Lithium showed revolutionary improvements in its ability to handle gusty conditions. Using the kite in gusty places like the Gorge or Tarifa, you could basically just park the kite in the centre of the window and relax. Apart from sheeting out a bit in the gusts you wouldn’t have to reposition the kite much at all; you could just keep it parked and it would keep on pulling, like a truck. “We made some improvements in turning speed and power, going from four struts in 2011 to three in 2012, but since then it’s only had minor tweaks as people just keep begging us not to change it.”
The immense wind-range, simple handling and easy relaunch make it perfect for schools too, so the Lithium gets stripped of its fast bladder inflation system to save on costs and is used to teach new kiters across the world as the DNA.
US agent Kyle Flower knew the Lithium was what he’d been waiting for to move Airush to the next gear in the USA.
“It was like beams of light came out of the sky and we were like ‘Holy shit this is the best kite we’ve ever flown. It’s incredible!’. The Lithium had such a wow factor. The six was the first one I tried in waves in super sketchy conditions on Maui and I made every turn with ease and was just freaking out. It’s the things you don’t notice in that kite that make it incredible. I just couldn’t believe we were bringing a brand new product out and it was already that good first time around.”
THE ACCESS: 2011-2012
Good kiteboarding design is about looking to the future and trying to secure a safe progression for the sport and its riders. Airush have been working on short line development since 2007, yet only brought the Access short line kite to market in 2010 for the 2011 season. Unfortunately, like the One kite, it was dropped when Airush reduced the number of kites in their range as the performance disadvantages of using short lines (12, 9 and even 6 metres) are really hard to compensate for.
But in the Access they were really getting somewhere. Paddo says, “We managed to make something that worked well in the Access and we still work on short line kites in our development as I see it as an important part of the future of kiteboarding. Short lines may reduce the performance and ease-of-use a lot, but the added safety they bring and the more ‘Access’ spots that would become available when using such short lines would really help push kiteboarding as a sport that could be done by more people.
The First One: 2011-2012
Yet another first for Airush came in 2010 when they released the first one strut kite onto the market for the coming 2011 season – another huge flag staked proudly in the performance light wind arena for the brand. Featuring just one strut it flew very well due to its huge power-to-weight ratio and also had exceptional relaunch due to the swept leading edge. For 2012 the One was upgraded to something more like a pro version with way more performance, especially in high wind and was generally better for jumping etc.
Designer Paddo says of stepping back on One kite production, “We just had too many kites so had to reduce the size of our range. The One was reduced to just a 16 metre and become the super light wind kite of our ‘Lithium’ range. The huge power-to-weight ratio was at its greatest in the 16 metre, so this move made a lot of sense. But I have to say the smaller sizes of the One were great and I went through a couple of years where all I would free kite on would be One kites – they were so light, small, easy-to-use, great fun and quick to pump up and pack away. They really were great.”
Bruna Kajiya: 2012 – Present
Bruna Kajiya is revered as one of the most influential females in kiteboarding, period. Her aggressive and powerful riding is extremely far ahead even giving most men a run for their money. Bruna was added to the team in 2012 to compliment the group as a female rider who can promote the sport beyond bikinis and hand drag photos. A rider who is a friendly face on and off the water and completely rips, that is Bruna Kajiya and thats what she represents as a female kiteboarder in the public eye. Currently in recovery after ACL Surgery, Bruna will be back on a board in the next 6 months ready to shred.
THE VARIAL X: 2012-Present
By the end of the 2010 season Airush had well and truly flexed their kite building muscles, once again demonstrating that they were willing to break the norm and release as many products as they saw fit for the sport, pushing their vision forward.
In 2011 a financial crisis had taken its grip all over the world though and it wasn’t only the kiteboarding shops that were wanting to stock less items. The public wanted simplified options too and kites that would suit a much more all-round riding style.
The Lithium had gone down a storm in 2010 and went way beyond catering for just the beginner/early intermediate/freeride markets – wave heads had found an ally too as had anyone wanting to add huge jumps into their riding mix.
The Varial X brought the worlds of Varial and Vapor X riders together with what Airush called their SLC kite – a product that was absolutely as close as they could get at the time to a bridled kite with true C kite performance. It was pushed much harder at the unhooked freestyle rider who was given a very viable alternative to the tight confines of the world of the C kite. The 2014 model gives you everything you want in a C kite in a four line design.
The Varial X 2014 is the highest performance all-round kite in the current Airush range for the best combination of freeride, wave riding and wakestyle riding. The C-shape arc and flatter wing tips deliver great turning and direct response in combination with supported leading edge range and relaunching. Flying further forward in the window than the Lithium, the Varial X is ideal for unhooked performance and features increased aggression in jumps and kite loops while the moderate bar pressure makes it extremely easy to feel the kite through every turn. The drop to three struts this year gives weight saving performance and has improved the low and high-end capabilities
THE RACE BEGINS: 2012-Present
Originally developed from the Varial shape, the biggest difference was the increased aspect-ratio which helped the kite to pull upwind. Modifications to the VXR and the new VXR v2 include increased range for use across a wider range of conditions and a great pull downwind and manoevrability when needed, making it the ultimate dragster kite, whether you want to be first around the race course or simply the fastest at your home spot.
Race boards are still changing so much, and this is the biggest challenge facing kite designer Mark Pattison in pursuit of the perfect race kite.
ACTIVE CONSTRUCTION: 2012-Present
Airush Patented the Active Stringer in 2012 sparking a revolutionary new board that is extremely light and durable yet mimics the flex characteristics of a PU surfboard. The Active Technology uses a blend of carbon in conjunction with the stringer to allow the board to flex until a certain point then returned the board to normal preventing over stressing the laminate. This construction has proven itself for its 3rd year and has been adopted into the all new Starboard Surf range bringing the kitesurfing durability to the surf market
PROJECT ZERO: 2013-Present
Slamming an uppercut to the jaw of belief that light wind kite flying is difficult and technical, Airush launched the super-stable Lithium Zero strut kite to compliment their growing widebody, fun, light wind freeride boards like the Sector and brand new Slayer.
Paddo actually made his first zero strut kite in 2009. “I was just looking at the One and thinking, ‘Why can’t we just remove that single strut and add some concave to the leading edge?” he explains. “I made a really simple version myself in our Airush prototype loft in Perth. I made the panels really wide so it would be super simple to make and with hardly any stitching needed. It was really cool and I finished the kite in about four hours in total, including plotting, cutting and stitching time.”
The kite worked very well but as comes with the territory when you’re willing to experiment with the vision of the market, often the mass of the market pushes back and the One was already struggling in sales as it was still just too different and ‘weird’.
Paddo believes that the market is still so young and takes a while to accept change. “People just wanted a kite like their friends had, with struts, rather than something so new. So we didn’t release the Zero for a few years, but then the response that we were finally getting on the 16 metre Lithium One in certain really light wind spots around the world last year finally pushed us to make the 18 metre production Zero, which we released mid-season 2013.”
You’ll find the Lithium Zero in Airush’s current range and is one of the most innovative light wind kites on the market, getting you going in as little as five knots. Culminating from four years of development alongside the One kite, at just 3.4 kilos the 18 metre Zero is comparable in weight to a regular ten metre kite. Quick and lively, any unnecessary material and drag has been eliminated, making the Zero responsive, effortless and really good fun. Boasting an unbeatable power-to-weight ratio, the Zero’s jumping and hang-time capabilities are also amazing while the qualities of ‘drift’ and ‘stability’ have taken on a whole new meaning. In case you were wondering, the super high, unique wing-tips allow high exposure of the canopy for an assisted relaunch.
Evolve and Revolve
Clinton Filen stood proudly outside the Airush shaping facility, just down the road from their offices in Muizenberg, Cape Town and a smile broke out from the corner of his lips as he told me to be discrete about their plans to expand into new premises. I think it’s safe to now tell you that they’ve moved into their own town house to allow the creative departments to stretch themselves in modern comfort.
The game Airush find themselves in is now is much different to the one that Keith and Karen Baxter first engaged in back in 1996. Business is bigger, the sport has evolved, it’s safer, image matters, products are polished, there are more competitors and margins are even tighter, but the Airush attitude remains the same. And for the last four years, in the face of global recession, they have grown by 40% each year.
The family connectivity between everyone in the company is still very tangible. Make-shift sewing rooms in converted garages have been replaced with slick, new, shiny white premises where concepts are created and product identities are born instead of hammered into shape, but the ‘lab’ mentality keeps on buzzing. Clinton has created a close-knit team within Airush that share a good understanding of the market and have the expertise to deliver exactly the products it needs to for their core customers, but they welcome inspiration from everywhere and really get their kicks from developing items that we don’t even know we need yet.
Clinton may not walk in to a meeting in a pair of shorts, no top and the remains of a sandwich around his lips as Keith may have once done, but the down-to-earth approach to business, clients and customers is still there. It’s authentic and you can feel it. “I’ve always thought of Airush as the sleeping giant of the kite world.” states Kyle Flower. “But in the last five years we’ve really woken up and started to kick ass.” Distribution, quality and production are wound tight and the mass markets are loving the products. Clinton, Paddo and brand manager Marc Schmid are also very focused on pushing the physical boundaries of the sport, and Mike Birt says, “As much as I complain about them designing Formula One cars when the market wants SUVs, that is what I believe will be the correct hand to play for the brand through the next five years.”
Drop into Clinton’s board shaping lab today and you’ll find that he now has two CNC prototype shaping machines – one for surfboards and the more recent addition for twin-tips. Clinton seems to naturally carry the desire for development. Nothing is ever forced, it just evolves naturally through the creative environment that has been created. “That’s passion right there.” reckons Kyle. “He just wants to shape cool shit!” Now, cranking out boards to his heart’s content on his two CNC machines is like playing music for him. It’s something he just absolutely loves.
As Svein himself said, the whole Cape Town team are fundamentally very important to Airush, from Clinton, Paddo and Marc to the graphics, media and clothing teams to the shaping assistants like Pem. But the most key individual, the lynchpin must still be Svein. He’s the banker, he must analyse the performance every year and decides what’s going to happen, he’s the one who worked with the Baxters, who took it on and set it up on its own, who had the confidence to let it evolve in the hands of those who know kiteboarding best, far away in Perth and now in Cape Town.
The Airush family lab keeps on revolving and evolving. Each product release may not always be right for you and me today, but they are never afraid to put it out there and test the waters. And isn’t that what this wonderful sport is all about? The underlying message seems to be that if you are truly passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll be successful. And doesn’t it just seem to be working for Airush.