An Interview with Dan Kaseler

Most of the Pacific Northwest sailing community knows Dan Kaseler as an accomplished sailboat racer and the busy entrepreneur owner of Raptor Deck and the local Quantum Sails loft. What many may not realize is that in the mid aughts, he was involved in a successful effort to break the World Speed Sailing Record, with professional windsurfer Finian Maynard using sails Kaseler designed.

The World Speed Sailing Record is presently held by the wild mono-directional proa, Sail Rocket, which posted an astounding 65 knots in 2012. But at the time Kaseler and his team began their chase in earnest, they were facing an Australian proa, Yellow Pages Endeavor, which had held the record for eleven years, the longest record run in the history of the World Speed Sailing Record Council (WSSRC). The records set on Kaseler’s sail designs set the World Record in 2004, and held it until 2008.

48° North: How would you describe your beginning days in the world of windsurfing?

Dan Kaseler: I came from a dinghy sailing background on Bainbridge thanks to my parents. Somewhere in high school, my friend Matt McGregor—who lived a short distance from our yacht club—got this longboard windsurf setup; and I started to play with that thing and think it was pretty cool. It quickly became apparent that while dinghy sailing was cool, you can’t really jump a dinghy.

So it was more the freestyle vibe and tricks that drew you in, rather than the outright speed?

It was all there. It was tropical, there were girls in bikinis, people were going super fast compared to boat sailing. It was like everything I knew, but it had a cool factor. I was like, “I gotta learn how to do that!”

What were the speed differences between an average sailboat and the average windsurfer?

Even then, you were going at least twice as fast on a windsurf board than you could have on a dinghy. People were flat-out ripping. Laird Hamilton was dropping video edits for Neil Pryde—who knows how fast he was going, but I’m sure it had to be at least 30 knots. That wasn’t an era like today when we have all kinds of boats doing 30 knots, back then it was looking pretty fast.

Smaller diameter masts and wider luff sleeves were aspects of the record winning sail set-up that remain in the marketplace today.

With that build up, you started getting into it?

It all came first in the Gorge for me. I managed to windsurf across it once and crash on the other side. Then I’d windsurf back. I didn’t know how to jibe or really how to get in the footstraps and harness, but I could plane on a shortboard. I had picked up a Volkswagen bus for $700 and I lived in the bus at something called the Wind Ranch, which was this derelict commune of guys from all over the world who were all there to windsurf. It was a really fun time. I wasn’t even 21 years old yet.

Were you exposed to speed sailing in this environment?

It wasn’t really on my radar. Speed sailing was actually a very, very small part of my career and wasn’t what I was personally all about in the beginning. I was all about learning how to sail well enough that I could go to The Hatchery. That’s where all the cool guys sailed. There was this host of heroes who had just started doing double forward loops and back loops.

There was a speed thing going on, though. The speed events were in the Lyle River mouth. There’s a sandbar and they’d get really flat water. It was mostly a group of national-level riders and I didn’t have a lot of interaction with them. The guys around the Wind Ranch were more concerned with who did the biggest trick or how incredibly windy it was.

Were you gaining skills and knowledge of sail design, construction, or repair that paved the way for your future endeavors?

Oh yeah, my job down there was at Rushwind. I worked for Dave Russell, who was arguably the most technologically forward-thinking guy. He was the first to make computer-cut sails using a Carlson plotter—there were no boat lofts that were building sails on a computer back then. As I evolved, I switched to work for Hurricane and designed a couple of ranges of sails.

I would work my brains out during the season in the Gorge and then would come back and study Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington during the off year. I dropped out to ski and windsurf more… don’t do that kids! A gnarly wipeout at Stevens Pass shattered my femur, and that was the big turning point in my life. With a broken leg, I bought my first computer. I started to build my own sails. And, I started firing off resumes everywhere trying to get a job designing windsurfing sails in the big leagues.

And that’s what brought you to Hawaii?

Yeah. I flew out there and still had to walk with a cane and couldn’t sail yet, but I managed to win the job working in Don Montague’s garage for Naish Sails Hawaii. Robbie Naish is the Michael Jordan of windsurfing. It was a tiny company at that time, but it was before kiteboarding was started, so windsurf was everything. Between Robbie, all his friends, and his paid team of riders, I was plugged right into basically the best people to ever do it at that point.

Dan Kaseler: sailor, entrepreneur, world record sail designer.

At Naish, were the priorities balanced between speed sailing and freeride?

Speed sailing is a very fringe thing. It’s not even part of the windsurf market, so to speak. There’s a professional windsurf association, and the disciplines are slalom races, foil races, freestyle, and wave sailing. So, speed is not a sanctioned discipline.

In speed sailing, you’re just trying to get the holy grail—the 500 meter. There are a lot of other measures, but the big one is who can be the fastest of all time over 500 meters. The people chasing that tend to be a very eclectic and eccentric group who often get obsessed with a quest to break that thing. And they often work in their own sandbox somewhere. It’s not industry-driven at all.

At Naish, we used the speed sailing results as a marketing tool to sell our regular inline products. I was head of R&D for windsurfing, and while the speed thing was very fascinating to me, it wasn’t where we made our bread and butter.

So it was purely rider driven?

You’ve got to start with the history. First, it was Crossbow I and II. Then, the windsurfers got a hold of the record and were able to beat the boats. It went around a few times; they’re all interesting stories themselves. Then, down in Australia, they made Yellow Pages Endeavor, a proa with a fixed wing. They were able to blow the windsurfers out of the water. The record at that time was kind of like Sail Rocket’s now—people just thought, “Well, that’s it, nobody’s going faster than that.”

Yellow Pages Endeavor held the record for eleven years, and nobody had ever done that. From my point of view, they didn’t even really have anyone chasing them, until Bjorn Dunkerbeck—who was then the winningest windsurf racer of all time—started getting into speed sailing. Bjorn created a speed sailing event with RedBull, and he invited his friends to come and try to get fast times. My boss, Robbie Naish, was one of the guys who got invited, and that was what started my involvement. It began as, “Hey, let’s build some sails for Robbie so he can go do this with his buddies.”

The best part of the story is that there was one guy who was pretty interested in speed sailing, a younger rider named Finian Maynard. He was very fast in a straight line and he really, really wanted to do something with speed sailing. However, Bjorn wouldn’t let him enter the event because of some complicated feelings between the two after competing on the slalom tour. I also think the event was set up in such a way that Bjorn was perhaps supposed to win it, and Finian was probably the only character that had an honest shot at beating him.

The crazy thing was that Robbie invited Finian to be his rig caddy, flew him to the event to carry his gear from the truck and to rig it up for him. Finian has a beast-mode mentality, and he was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch other people try to break his dream. That lit a fire under Finina that ultimately resulted in him getting the record. He was as upset and motivated as a man can be.

When I built those speed sails off the plotter for Robbie, I was serious about it, but I also knew Robbie had no shot because he was too small. Everybody knew he was too small.

So Robbie had no shot. Finian had a real chance to beat Bjorn. Is it all body size in that world?

First, you’ve got to be huge and strong. And then you’ve got to want it. Finian was probably 6’3” and 255 lbs, and Bjorn is just yoked. These are big men, big athletes.

Finian wanted it, and that set the wheels in motion. He got an ex-speed-record-holder, Eric Beale, to advise him and started talking to the town in France, Saintes Maries de la Mer, where you can dig a trench. At that point, all the records fell at the French Trench, Namibia wasn’t on the map yet. You had to talk to the local authorities about where you could dig or enlarge this trench in the mud. You also had to get the timing equipment placed and set-up, and then you had to sit there and wait and wait for the conditions. I’m talking months at a time, just sitting there waiting for the right day. Finian was in a unique position in life where he was disconnected. He had the desire, he corralled all the forces, and he camped out there.

There were maybe a couple of riders around the world who might have had a chance, but at that moment, Finian had all the magic. He was driven. He was big. He really wasn’t afraid of falling. He was only afraid of failing.

Were you there with him?

No. I had a lot of other work to do. And no one from the Naish team was there either, although Robby did make visits and do some runs. It was really all Finian.

We would get footage back and, even though it was pretty crappy video, we’d use that and his feedback to build another round of sails. Keep in mind this went on over a couple of seasons. We built a lot of cool and interesting stuff during that window. We were putting in a solid effort, but we were on a very small budget.

That’s something very unique about what we did. Yellow Pages Endeavor had been done with a massive budget. Even with Sail Rocket today, they have Vestas, a multi-billion-dollar energy company, supporting the project. We were more-or-less working out of a guy’s garage with a plotter and a roll of plastic. We looked at that situation and thought about ways to beat the record. We had a very bright computer programmer from Brazil on the team as well, Dudu Mazzocato, so I had some super special design tools, but in general terms, we were a very small team.

We were able to put it together: the right guy, the right venue, the right day, and the right equipment to get a WSSRC ratified record.

The truth is that, in so many ways, I was just a small little cog in that record. My part of it was just the sail; and I don’t really consider the sail to be the key factor to setting that record. It all had to work together. So while I’m proud that we set the record and that I made that sail at that time, the sail that actually set that record was a refinement and culmination of ideas that were widespread in the market, rather than a giant innovative leap.

Irish windsurfer and former world record holder, Finian Maynard, blasting down the French Trench with one of Kaseler’s sail designs.

What else can you tell us about the sails that broke the record?

There are different ways to attack the speed record, and we came after it in a very crude and brute way. There’s sailing efficiency now where you can do three or four times the wind speed, I think it was only blowing 25-30 knots when Sail Rocket set the record, so they’re going 65 knots in 25 knots. We just attacked the problem by shoveling a ton of wind onto the equation, and that also works. With this approach, you’re almost less concerned with aerodynamics and more concerned about whether the guy can hold onto it, or how comfortable it will be when he’s going down the trench. Can he push through his footstraps on his fin hard enough? Can he make the bear away to begin the run (every trench run begins with a bear-away because you have to get up on a plane on a reach before you can go downwind, and it was true with Sail Rocket as well). I felt some negativity coming from some of the leading minds of sailing, that we were just a bunch of dumb guys who were taking advantage of that equation and just piling on more wind and not worrying about efficiency. At the end of the day, we beat all those guys, so there was some redemption in that.

I think the focus on rider comfort was the biggest difference between me and the other designers. My logic was that if the rider is comfortable, he will push harder and go faster. We tried to make it rideable when it was really really windy.

We built a lot of crazy stuff, but some things stuck in the marketplace. For one, we set up the sail with a smaller diameter mast. We thought it would be better aerodynamically, but we also like the way those smaller diameter masts felt. That played right into my theory of the correlation between comfort and speed. This type of mast is now very common on smaller slalom sails. Another idea was wider luff sleeves, which some other brands were experimenting with as well, but is now commonplace. We built some speed sails that had very wide luff sleeves, which is like a longer, larger aerodynamic fairing. Nowadays, all the race sails look like that. You give a little up because it’s a little heavier, but you gain a little in top-end speed.

During the record attempts, Finian was within a tenth or a hundredth of a knot of breaking the record, so little things like that start to play into your mentality. You’re so close, you’re looking for anything that can give you just a tiny bit more.

We played with inflatable battens to save weight, as well as full carbon wing sails and double-surface sails similar to what you see in today’s America’s Cup. In the end, something very traditional set the record.

What did this whole experience mean to you and your career?

It was huge for me. Nobody thought Yellow Pages was going down. It was only a few months later that I was getting hired to run R&D at Gaastra, which was the second biggest windsurf sail company in the world. I had done a lot of great things, but when you break the world speed sailing record, people notice.

Would you ever pursue a speed sailing record again?

Honestly, I’d love to take a shot at it again. The opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet. If I were to go after the record right now, I think I would start with a pretty blank piece of paper, even though I’d look very hard at what worked for others. I am particularly interested in captive kite rigs, and other solutions that minimize or eliminate heeling moment.

Dan Kaseler is the owner of Raptor Deck, Quantum Sails Seattle, and Avanti Windsurfing Sails.