WORDS – Jim Gaunt
INTRO – A lot of people think he's from another planet, some think he just visited one for a while. Whatever your view on Lou Wainman, he's the first name on most top riders' lips when it comes to inspiration. Synonymous with extreme gear experimentation and riding innovation, he led the two-line wakestyle charge from the front, landing powered passes seven years ago, that we are only just seeing on the world competition stage today, while still making his own bars, foot straps and shorter and shorter lines in the evening. Criticised by some in the industry over his relentless pursuit of a kiting wake-style, his positive influence in today's most popular professional freestyle discipline is obvious.
Never one to jump in front of the camera though, images of him were hard to come by, even for magazine editors. His elusive nature only added mystique to his building iconic status. Now, as the name behind the Wainman Hawaii brand, could we be seeing more of him? We hope so.
Lou really hasn't given many interviews, so we're thankful he chose to give this one. But what do you ask a huge icon of the sport? That's easy; as he's swerved most journalist's probe, we'd better start with the basics:
Can you remember when you first became aware of kiting?
I remember seeing it on a section of a windsurfing movie back in 1996. Laird Hamilton and Corey Roesler were doing it using water skis. I thought it looked like a cool stunt, or one of those sports like wire walking or stilts that you had to train for years to do. The bars were really wide, around four or five feet, and had a reel system that looked like it had a circular saw blade in the centre. It wasn't until I arrived in Maui, and was sat at Ho'okipa one afternoon, that a French guy named Manu Bertin showed up with an inflatable Wipika kite. He went out on a strapped surfboard in wind that was too light for the windsurfers. I watched him drop into some mast-high waves over and over until it clicked in my head, 'Jesus Christ; this is the shit!' I nudged my room-mate, Elliot Leboe, and said, 'Hey man, let's get some!' He immediately got on his cell phone, calling around asking where to get those pump up kites. Apparently the man to find was named Joe Cool. We found out he had them all stored at a shop called Hawaiian Pro-line. One day about ten of us showed up, each picking a colour like a super hero picking out his costume. I remember clearly: Manu and I were white; Robby Naish, Robby Hilburn, Elliot Leboe and Sierra Emory were red; Mauricio Abreu had the Brazilian flag colours painted on a white kite; Fadi Issa was purple, like the Lakers; Rush Randall (my hero) was green; Flash Austin and Pete Cabrinha were yellow, and so on. You could tell from far away who was who. One night I got really high in my room painting my white kite black with magnum magic markers. That was an interesting time because you couldn't really order equipment after looking in a magazine; you had to make it yourself. Any time something new happened it was awesome because whoever did it was the talk of the town.
Where are you from originally?
Was it windsurfing that drew you to Hawaii?
Yeah man, I came here to push my windsurfing in the surf. Coming from a place like Florida was an amazing upgrade. I'd grown up working and sailing when it was windy and wakeboarding when it was calm. One day my older brother, Aaron, strongly suggested to my dad that it would be wise to send me to Hawaii. Being involved in watersports was expensive and they knew I needed some help to get going, at least until things progressed, so luckily my parents funded most of my trip until the day I called to say 'I got it from here'. I think the fact that I didn't have work or school to go to gave me the time I needed to develop the tools and skills to do my thing. Having that opportunity was the key to my success. That's not to say that at one point I didn't drive the whole thing straight off a cliff, but that's another story.
Were you really into wakeboarding when you were younger - I'm guessing there's not too much of that on Maui?
Big time, since before it was even called wakeboarding. They called it 'skurfing'. I was really lucky to have friends with ski boats; we would do landscaping work all day and afterwards would head to the lake taking turns - three laps or three falls, whichever came first. I had some of the coolest friends growing up. Knowing how crazy I was, they took good care of me. We all got into windsurfing together, too. I would bang on my friend Jason's window at 5am, when the cold fronts were rolling through, whispering, 'Hey man, it's windy!' He would throw a pillow or a magazine at the blinds and yell at me. His Dad was the head of the F.B.I or something and used to think I was retarded. Later on in life, right before my Maui days, I would ride the ski-rixen, or cable parks, on a flat lake for wakeboarding and skiing. I was at one of the best parks in South Florida when I met Shannon Best. He had a broken shoulder but arrived on his mountain bike one day. He walked to the front of the line, grabbed a rope and proceeded to go out and ride better than anybody. He did stuff nobody knew you could do, all with a sling on his arm. Shit like that makes for instant hero status.
Can you describe the differences and similarities with where you grew up to where you've spent most of your adult life, in Hawaii?
Both places are beautiful and have a lot to offer, however, if you ever had a day of mast-high surf in Florida, every windsurfer in the state would take the day off work. It would be on the news. In Maui it's not actually too hard to become bored with 20 foot waves and 20 knots of wind. Right now I'm looking off the deck down at Ho'okipa and it's better conditions than Florida ever had when I lived there, even when hurricane Andrew hit. So, yes, it's safe to say you can become very, very spoiled here. Florida is just really flat, but you can see crazy things, like an 18-foot alligator cross the street, or a lightning storm cover the whole sky. Growing up in both places was a good thing. I look forward to growing up somewhere else as well.
“Lou embodies what kiteboarding should be about: Ride for yourself, ride for fun!-Thomas Chenowth.
In Kiteworld issue #05 you explained that breaking eight windsurfing masts in succession broke you financially, and that it was lucky that kiteboarding came along when it did. How did you afford to start?
I had also broken my boards and sails too! All on this one really bad day when I was trying double loops and I broke one thing after another until everything was ruined. Even the stuff I borrowed. It was then that I got a job at Hawaiian Island Surf And Sport; one of the main shops in Maui, besides Hi-Tech and Second Wind. My job was to clean up all the sandy windsurfing rental gear, let it dry and put it away. It was a good job, the shop crew were funny and the owner was an original windsurfer called Lenny. One day his friend Jimmy Lewis came into the shop and he introduced me. I already knew who Jimmy was from all the speed sailing videos I used to watch back in the Florida surf shops. Anyway, Lenny suggested that he make me a board since I was an up-and-coming kiter. Jimmy invited me up to his shop the next day, but I think by the time I left Jimmy had said to himself, 'That kid is fucking retarded.'
I think people forget that you actually did quite a few competitions. Can you remember how many you did?
I only did around four or five I think. There's lots that's cool about travelling and meeting new people, I don't regret any of that. It was more about loving Maui and having my own home for the first time in my life that enabled me to tinker around with projects. I had this whole lifestyle that meant more to me than competing or being world champion. I remember after I won one event this guy said, 'Hey, you're now World Champion.' I said, 'No I'm not. You have to have a real sport before you can crown someone king.' By that definition, either Martin Vari, Flash or Aaron Hadlow are the first real world champions, not me.
How did you make it work after that when you weren't getting any winnings or sponsors weren't giving you incentives to travel?
It was rough. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, I admit. I guess it worked though because I had great friends and family. Any time you see anyone raise their own arm in victory they are raising it for everyone who got them there too, even if they don't remember it. Sometimes we are really lucky to forget things as well as remember them. There was about eight years where I wasn't sponsored, or in the industry. I was so poor at one point that I was living in my car, eating out of IHOP (International House of Pancakes) dumpsters and chain smoking anything flammable. They could make a movie about it, like the time I decided to steal from everybody, kind of like a reverse Santa Clause. Guys would wake up and their boards and trucks would be missing. It's safe to say I had some issues. At one point I even built a house in the jungle.
You're regularly the first name that comes up in terms of being an inspiration to other riders. Who do you see as icons outside of kiteboarding and why?
Actors. Acting is the highest level of human evolution.
Where does your inspiration come from within the sport and has it changed over time?
Generally my inspiration comes from the people within the sport. I wouldn't want to leave anybody out, but Rush Randall is the first that comes to mind. For me personally he is the most talented waterman. Speed is another inspiration. I've always liked to go really fast.
What do you think it was about you and your riding that caused such a stir in the sport? Was it purely your wakeboarding background that made you click so early on with such a style in kiting?
I guess I had all the right qualifications. All I had to do was learn to control the kite. Other guys had to learn how to get into their bindings. It was a cool time to be at that level because I had something different to offer.
You've always been noted for riding completely different gear to everyone else. Whether it's pulley bars, tiny fin-less twin-tips or kites on super short lines. What have you learnt about kite gear over the years and have you settled personally on a few items that you think you will always ride?
I think the centre back fin on a surfboard slows me down. Also, a board with more rocker will go upwind better than a flatter one. I will likely ride a surfboard without straps and a six to seven metre kite for a good while.
The Wainman products are a little different, with short, three strut, incredibly stocky kites and boards with huge amounts of concave in them, to name just a couple of things. Do you have any more radical products in mind, like you've been synonymous with riding?
Not at the moment. Business is about selling to the average consumer. The limo driver of this crazy party is not allowing this out of the car just yet.
Do you think the market is ready yet for such things?
Yes, but first we're going to sell Rabbits.
“Nine years ago Lou showed us what it was all about. We've been trying to catch up ever since.” - Lewis Crathern
What are you personally riding/experimenting with at the moment and what is the feeling like when riding it?
Round bottom boards. They are faster than concave boards because they repel the water and they are also fin-less. They are faster because they are more forgiving at higher speeds than something that is biting and edging through the water, like a fin.
You're a very private person, choosing not to do many interviews or appear in many videos, yet you are seen as an icon in the sport. Does this put pressure on you every time you head out onto the water, or would you rather return to the anonymity of being an unknown kitesurfer?
Everybody is really cool with me everywhere I go. People treat me the same way as anybody else, so no, it's all very good.
A couple of years ago we were sent a batch of images of you, shall we say, kiting in all your glory, bearing the moon in the day time. Do you do that often? I imagine it's an enriching experience, but those cliffs are regularly littered with the sport's most expensive and well-trained lenses!
I would share the lesson I learned doing that with you, but nobody would follow me as usual. You will have to do it to learn what I found out. When you do it, you mustn't tell anybody around you that you're about to do it and just start off like normal. If you do it, you will see why they say you should rob a bank in broad daylight.
You had been off the radar even more than usual; no one seemed to know what had happened to you. Was it a bit of a statement?
Not really. It was a bit cold, though. I had to yank on it on my starboard tack so that on the way back in nobody would use the photo against me. Notice I had no harness on, so imagine the coordination required!
The only thing you were wearing was an arm band with an iPod in. What's the music of choice for such a solo session?
On that specific day I just kept playing Billy Idol's Dancing With Myself. I usually load that sucker up with everything and DJ through songs my whole session. I think I've gone through 25 of those headphones now and four or five iPod shuffles. Totally worth it though, I highly suggest you get music on the water and get really high.
Do you still like to ride a lot on your own? That must be pretty difficult in a place like Maui.
No, I ride with the group. I like to help the guys who break down and need a lift back to shore. They're usually interested in how my little kite can pull us both so hard, which is good for business. There was a period when I wanted to play mystic wonder-boy, but now I play it safe. I have a good set-up: my wife and daughter hang out on the beach getting a tan while I ride for a couple of hours each day. I think the times I rode solo was a good learning period and I think every rider should do it at some point, when they are ready, and always with safety in mind after good preparation.
When Wainman Hawaii started up I thought that we'd be seeing a lot more of you and that you'd have to join the media circus, but you haven't. What's your role in the company and how does it all work?
It's my intention to be more in the public eye as the company grows. A lot of attention to detail is needed within our group, and for the next couple years as we build up steam our focus will be on that. Then we will join the circus and get in the cannon.
Franz Olry also works for Wainman. What does he bring to the company?
He is working 'with' us, He has his own board company called Alkita. He makes some amazing shapes and has the best graphics I've ever seen. Franz is Franz; totally awesome in every way.
What are some of your best memories from those early days in Maui when the sport was exploding and the Kite Beach crew were at the heart of the experiment?
I think my days shaping with Jimmy Lewis were my all time favourite. Getting to just stand in the room with the man is like a gift. At one point I actually believed he was God. Really, no lie. I think the time when we levitated up 40 metres is a memory I won't forget. Elliot, Jack Webb, Mauricio and I were there, it was nuts. Hanging out with Chris Tronolone was for sure another highlight.
“Lou and I joined the Red Bull team at the same time together back around 2001. He may seem difficult to approach or thick skinned at first, I hope he doesn't mind me saying this, but he will literally give you the shirt off his back. In fact, he helped me launch my career after our first event in Cabo Verde by telling me to make a video. We focused hard on making Fluid Revolution after that. He was right, and I owe him huge for that. I'll never forget the good times together Lou. You are one of the raddest dudes alive and I wish you the best with your new company. You deserve it!” - Adam Koch
Do you still get the same basic kick out of kiting? What is it about kiting that does it for you?
I totally get a kick out of it, and more and more so. I know one day we will have something safer and with more potential, but until then, it's enough. And if that day never arrives, it's okay, what we have will do just fine, even for a lifetime.
Issue #05 was published in June 2003. In it you said that competitions would be better served by holding racing events and huge airs, and that kiteboarding should be about more Evil Knievel stunt stuff, such as jumping over piers. Almost seven years later, all that has happened, mostly within just the last year. Racing is getting huge, Lewis Crathern and Jake Scrace got hundreds of thousands of hits with the video of them jumping over a pier in the UK and Ruben Lenten has arguably been the most popular young kiteboarder for the last couple of years with his enourmous mega-loops. Where do you see the sport in another seven years?
Okay, I see some riders going with really long lines - like 40 to 50 metres - and doing even bigger airs. I see some riders making the surf aspect more legit. I see riders going up and over the kite - full circle. I see younger and younger kids getting into it. I see a TV show about the life of a kiteboarder travelling the world. I see a few YouTube videos becoming world wide news. I see rubber equipment and a mega-sized pump that doesn't hurt your back. I see single-strut kites and kites with lights. I see kites with six and eight lines. I see tails on kites. I see a tank tread type board for land kiters. I see a pulley made from skateboard bearings (light) and I see a spray-on treatment for the kite canopy. I see a Japanese girl who will beat all the boys.
What are your interests outside of kiteboarding?
If there is no wind: everything. If it's windy: nothing.
Who do you think is doing a lot of positive things in the sport and why?
The movie and magazine makers, because they are the main source for information, such as safety and products. They might not give all their money to a 'John Wayne' cancer foundation, but through the years and the amount of information that gets out there, they save a lot of lives... and feed a lot of mouths.
Who deserves more credit than they've actually got and why?
Nina Heiburg. She was hardcore and better than most of the guys.
If you could change one thing about kiteboarding what would it be?
I would teach people to always attach and lay out their flying lines DOWNWIND of the kite. Laying them out upwind is dangerous; the kite is more likely to take off and drag something with it, you are more likely to tangle the lines and get confused. Laying your lines out downwind, you place the bar upside down, comb out the lines toward the kite, attach and then go back to the bar and check. On the upwind way you can't really check your lines before you pick-up the kite to launch. The industry followed what the pros were doing, which was the upwind way, because it's a little faster and because they were competing on narrow beaches. Using the downwind method you're being more responsible, especially if you leave your gear and turn your back on the kite.
Where is the best spot you've ever ridden and why did you like it so much?
Right here everyday, Kitebeach Maui. It's got everything: warm water, big waves, tons of space and everyday at 4:20pm or so, the silver light comes out.
If you could give one piece of advice to any kiteboarder, what would it be?
Go see Jimmy Lewis.
Find Lou and his crazy gang at: www.wainmanhawaii.com
This interview is in issue #45