Jim Drake – Inventor of windsurfing

Windsurfing sport has, literally speaking, a stormy history: it all started as a crazy idea from which a patent was developed.  Then, in turn, the patented idea grew to a sport and ultimately to a complete industry.  Beyond this: to an attitude of life.

 

We shouldn’t fool ourselves though. Crediting a single person for the invention of windsurfing would be presumptuous. There are sailing boats that have used wind as locomotion on water for millennia; Polynesians have been riding waves for ages, to name a few.  In the end, however, it is the utmost probability that the Californian James (Jim) Drake transferred the idea of using a floating board equipped with a fixed manoeuvrable sail and then positioned a person on top of the vehicle to steer it.

 

Photos Starboard
Detailed Drawing of "The Skate" (1967)

 

Something water ski-like, with sail

1962. One evening, Jim Drake, an aircraft engineer, was sitting at dinner with a working colleague named Fred Payne.  Back then, both spend a lot of time sailing, water skiing and closing down snow covered mountain sides together.  Fred had just rented a house at the river and reckoned: “We should try something, with which one can drive on the river simply by means of wind.  Something water ski-like with a sail.”  Drake took the idea as superb.  At the time, both thought of a great kite which they could steer with their hands. “We talked till sunrise, there was plenty of Remy Martin”, Drake remembered.  In the following weeks Jim often thought about this conversation, also calculated a little, dismissed the idea of the kite shortly afterwards though.  Nevertheless: “ The concept of holding something in one’s hands while standing on a board” he still considered to be brilliant.


Role model big sailing vessel
During the mid 60s, some ‘sailboards’, similar to his idea, were available on the market. “They were heavy and had a bad aerodynamic; the pilot sat on top”, Drake explained.  At the same time, inventors at the US East-Coast and in England also worked on similar ideas, which, however, were never seriously enhanced.  The Drakes were, back then, close friends with the neighbouring Schweitzer family.  Together they went on many trips, water skiing at the Baja in Mexico.  One night in the year 1966, Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer were sitting together, a bottle of cognac on the table again.  Jim told about his idea, Hoyle liked it very much.  “ Let us build a board”.  Shortly afterwards the first board was finished.  Now it was up to developing a sail.  Drake racked his brain how the sail could be adjusted to the board and then, how to control it as well.  He first thought of a traditional ruder.  But there had to be other ways: “Traditional sailors use only their sail”, came to his mind.  From now on, big sailing vessels served as role models for changing the direction.

 

Photo Starboard

 

Gradually, we are getting closer to the core. Drake, however wanted to handle with only one mast.  This, or rather the pressure point of the sail, he wanted to be able to move.  It was a good idea, one may call it a flash of inspiration, as will become apparent later on.  Only, how do you move a sail?  There are two possibilities: either linear on one bar, which would be complex from a mechanical view, or rotating.  In any case, a hinge is necessary.  “This is the component, that differentiate a windsurfer from all other sailing vehicles to this day”, says Drake.  He decided in favour of the latter and thought of a type of cardan joint which he could adjust on deck .  This way, the sail could be moved in every direction.  Just, where and how do you hold a baggy sail that rotates in every direction?

 

Entrance ticket boom

Back then, something boom-like had already been invented, or rather we should say that some boats at the East Coast had them for stretching their sails.  There, it did not prove of value yet.  For Drake on the other hand, it was the entrance ticket to the world of windsurfing: “That was the draft.  I knew I could steer the sail while standing.”

 

In his garage, he glued pine slats on top of each other and cut them in shape. On the front end he joined the spars using belt strap and created a new type of corset that would contain the mast. The boom was finished.  Drake brought the fibreglass-mast, obtained by Hoyle Schweitzer, and the boom to a close friend named Bob Broussard, a sail maker, who sewed a thick convex cloth that fitted the framework.

 

His personal surf-teacher

May 1967.  With his wife, children, a 8-millimeter camera and the surfer in his luggage of course, he went to the ocean.  To be precise: to Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. There they met their sail maker by coincidence, invited him and assembled the surfer.  Drake was the first to try by standing on the board, attempting to move the sail.  He had two connectors for the sail and board with him.  The first version, in which the sail could only be moved alongside the board axis, proved to be inapt rather quickly.  The whole system was rigid. If one let go of the sail, the whole board would collapse.  The second version, the cardan-version, proved to be better.  Only, with the first try it already presented the dilemma that the sail could not be lifted out of the water.  “I simply didn’t think of this”. So, sail maker Bob Broussard had to help lifting the rigs.

 

The first day on the water was discouraging.  During the journey home, Drake pondered how the sail could be lifted.  It crossed his mind, simple: “pull”.  Two weeks later he went back to the ocean with an uphaul.  “I climbed on the board, pulled-up the sail high and taught myself how to surf.”  Who else could have taught him?

 

The first surfer party

Hoyle Schweitzer organised a farewell party to celebrate the birth of the ‘skate’, which was what they named the surfer back then.  So they had a proper feast, perhaps the first surfer party ever.  As the name ‘skate’ itself was already taken, they baptised the vehicle ‘Baja Board’.  But even this name should not last very long.  A marketing guy from Seattle named Bert Salisbury saw the set at the beach one day, stopped his car and said: “Jesus, I know a name for this: Windsurfer.”

 

Photos Starboard

 

1969:  The success story of the Windsurfer takes its course. Anyhow, Drake and Schweitzer had the draft patented.  Drake however had no idea of the potential of the invention. Hoyle on the other hand recognised it the faster. “Hoyle already had business in his head, I still had my doubts”, said Drake.  Hoyle Schweitzer thus began with the marketing; shortly afterwards he called Drake and wanted to take over the patent to market the surfer worldwide.  “I didn’t want this, I didn’t know how much it was worth.  Moreover, I had a well paid job.”

 

Hoyle took over the company quasi unasked and re-founded it as Windsurfing International.  Drake continued working as an engineer.  At the urge, Drake eventually sold his patent: for 36.000 Dollars.  “Hoyle earned millions”, said Drake a little contrite.  The quarrelling broke-up the friendship between the two, which Drake regretted the most.  “But you know”, he says with a calm voice: “the world now has windsurfing.”

 

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Jim Drake was born in 1929.  He now lives in North Dakota and with his 79 years, he still has four boards hanging in his garage to this day.  He describes himself as never having been a good windsurfer, he enjoyed the designing more.  Drake has followed the development of windsurfing with all its highs, i.e. the 1984 admission to the Olympic program in Los Angeles, with joy, but also with a little bitterness.  For some years, Drake has started to work in the windsurfing branch again as consultant of the board-brand Starboard.  Here he can do exactly what he has always had the most pleasure in: developing windsurfers.

 

Links

Chronicle on Video: Jim Drake on May 21st 1967 doing his first steps on his new invention in Marina del Rey, California (USA)

History Story: The Dream of Flying

Interview of the American Windsurfer Magazine with Jim Drake 1996

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