Will kites fly at the Olympics?

Day 1 of the Kiteboard Class. 2011 Phuket King’s Cup Regatta.
Duncan Worthington
Kiwi born sailor Neil Pryde is the largest builder of windsurfers and kiteboards in the world and he has strong opinions on these two disciplines at Olympic level. The Neil Pryde RS:X is the windsurfer being sailed at Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships and the kiteboard, now ISAF recognised, is tipped as being a demonstration event in Brazil in 2016.

Pryde is the Managing Director of Pryde Group, an assemblage of companies with roots in manufacturing, sports branding and worldwide distribution. Sail-World.com has been talking to the sailor who is one of the best known brands on the world sailing scene, about windsurfing and kiteboarding.

He explained ‘I started sailing at ten years of age in Auckland and worked up to the Flying Dutchman class. My brother and I campaigned ahead of the Rome Olympics in 1960 but we just missed out on selection.

‘I was aiming for Tokyo when I got a job offer to work in Hong Kong with sail maker Rolly Tasker, back in 1963. I am a chartered accountant by profession and I worked with Rolly until 1970. Then I set up my own company making sails for yachts.

‘That was actually the core business of the company until the late '70s and early '80s when windsurfing took off. We jumped heavily into the windsurfing market as a sail manufacturer, not so much with our own brand, but rather making them for other people.

‘Until 1991 we were in Hong Kong and we then moved to China. We were actually pretty big at that stage and in peak times in the 80’s we were making well over 300,000 windsurfing sails a year.

‘They were the real ‘go-go’ days of windsurfing; pretty simple sails and not high tech like they are today, but big numbers. That’s how we really got started in the windsurfing market, as a mass producer of cheap sails.

‘We figured pretty early on that the future was going to be in developing our own brand so about the early 80s we started getting involved, taking on some designs and resources.

‘We started sponsoring high-level sailors and started building up our own brand. By the mid 80s we were the world leader in windsurfing sails and we still are today.

‘We were originally just sails and then in the early 90s we were one of the very first producers of the carbon fibre rigs. The next thing was wet suits as we thought ‘everybody’s going windsurfing so they need wetsuits’.

‘We didn’t actually get into the windsurfing hulls until we bought the JP Australia brand in 1999, with Jason Polakow, the Australian windsurfer who was one of the big guns.

‘These were wave boards, high performance sailing boards, basically Neil Pryde rigs with JP Australia boards. Neil Pryde at that stage had no position in the board market and we didn’t get involved in that area until the Olympic bid with the RS:X, which was around about or just before Athens.

‘ISAF were looking for bids for a new one design windsurfing class for the Olympics and we won selection with the RS:X. We are still there today and aiming to be there for Brazil 2016.

RS:X Women’s racing day 1 - ISAF Sailing World Championships Perth 2011

‘We noticed that kiteboarding was starting to cut into the windsurfing market. I met Pete Carina, a real icon in the sport and one of the originals. He had been in kiteboarding from its early days and in 2000 we bought all the rights to his name for kiteboarding products and Pete came to work for us. He did the marketing and product direction and we went in to the kiteboarding business.

‘Cabrinha is arguably the world market leader and we built about 25,000 kites a year.

‘Windsurfing is shrinking but kiteboarding is definitely growing by probably five percent a year, but not everywhere in the world. It’s started to slow a bit in Europe because one of the major considerations of kiteboarding is beach space.
‘Kites need a lot of manoeuvring space. In terms of being able to go on the beaches in Holland or France, the popular beaches, it is becoming an issue and on some beaches kiteboarding is not allowed.

‘Kiteboarding is only just getting to point where they are seriously looking at competition type sailing. It has been very much a freestyle free ride, more a having fun type of sport, particularly emphasizing travel and life style.

‘There is now an element in the sport that’s getting very serious about competition and they are making a pretty strong bid to be included at the Olympics.

Day 1 of the Kiteboard Class. 2011 Phuket King's Cup Regatta.
Duncan Worthington

‘Frankly, although we own Cabrinha, I am not necessary supporting that because I have one foot in each camp with windsurfing and while I think kiteboarding is a fantastic sport, I think it is a little premature to be saying they want to be in the Olympics.

‘Olympic sailing is all about one design because the emphasis of Olympic sport is on the athlete not the equipment and I think kiteboarding has a way to go to get to a one design standard.

‘San Francisco is much more advanced in racing. We were quite involved with the St. Francis Yacht Club and in fact we sponsored the first events that they put on in kiteboarding, through our American company. They were probably the most successful events so far run. Even so, while they have good competition and it is spectacular to watch, I just don’t think that they are ready for Olympic status and I say that even with my Cabrinha hat on my head.

Day 1 of the Kiteboard Class. 2011 Phuket King's Cup Regatta.
Duncan Worthington


‘I think kiteboarding ultimately can be an Olympic sport but I just don’t see it happening any time soon, in spite of the kite guys pitching.

‘But kiteboarding is still up in the air and right now in the RS:X class we are up and running, and probably have over 200 competitors at the ISAF Sailing World Championships' summed up Pryde.

However 'up in the air' might be not the appropriate term.

The largest regatta in Asia, the Phuket King's Cup, ran a demonstration kite boarding event last week, with 20 KiteBoard Tour of Asia sailors providing a strong fleet.

While the keelboat fleet sailled on each of the six days of the event, the kiteboards were unable to sail on four of those days because as soon as wind speeds dropped below eight knots, the kites fell in the water.

That meant on days when wind speeds averaged 10-12 knots, the kiteboarders were unable to start.

In practical terms, kiteboard racing using the existing kite technology, plainly will not fly across much of Europe and Asia.

Going forward the push to bring kiteboarding in the Olympic playing field will need either new kites or winder venues.