Who is Joe Cool?
Interview by Paul Lang
Maui. Before I sat down for this interview, I tried to find out whatever I could about. I didn’t find out much. I was told that he was the “kite guru” onMaui and had been responsible for bringing the first kites there. In the early days, if you wanted a kite, you went to Joe. Beyond that, nobody seemed to know anything else about him. Even people who were around onMaui at the time couldn’t tell me very much. As it turns out, Joe Cool (whose real name is Joe Keuhl) is a kite flyer. You can’t really call him a kiteboarder, but he is a complete expert on kites and their theory and design. He has used kites to pull everything from himself on the beach to kayaks, buggies, boats, and outriggers. I didn’t just learn about Joe Cool in this interview – I got a whole new look on the beginning of the sport of kiteboarding. Joe is an incredibly nice guy who can talk for a long time about kites and the history of kiteboarding. Whatever you may think of him, the truth is that he played a huge role in the early days of kiteboarding and all kiteboarders should know who Joe Cool is.First thing first. How did you get the name Joe Cool?The first windsurfing event that I raced in was at the Royal Bahamian Yacht Club and it was pretty unreal cool. At the awards ceremony they gave everyone nicknames. Joe Cool was just a play off my last name. It made a cool logo so I used it on my artwork and sail designs.Very few people understand your involvement in the beginning of the sport. How did you become involved in kiteboarding?I started windsurfing in the late 70s in
Key West, Florida, where I taught myself how to sew and make windsurfing sails. At the time, windsurfing sails only came in one size and my friends and I needed storm sails, high wind sails in smaller sizes. I was basically just a beach bum with an art degree who painted on windsurfing sails. That progressed into doing inlay work with the cloth to get a better look and then learning how to design sails.
With all the scrap sailcloth lying around, I made some two-line stunt kites and got into sport kite flying, which started to grow in the early 80s. Kite flying was a cool thing to do when it was too windy or too light to windsurf.Later on, a good friend of mine on
Maui became the fastest sailor on Earth for a couple of years when broke the forty-knot barrier on a windsurfer. He would come back from his speed events over in
Europe and tell me about all the cool stuff, like kites on boats and other crazy attempts at speed. Well, I saw all the pictures and he told me about Jacob’s Ladder, a modified Tornado catamaran powered by a stack of Flexifoils. As best I can tell, that boat pretty much helped start their company at the time. I started flying small stacked Flexifoils because when the leading edge would bend and flex, it would help give control and speed to the kite. I think a blade kite design was once clocked at about 180 miles an hour on land, so theoretically we should be able to break the fifty knot barrier in the water, and I’ve learned a few tricks over the years and think with the right team we can do it. Anyway, the guys with Jacob’s Ladder were trying it and that got me motivated. There were others, like Cory Roeseler’s dad in the Gorge with his water skis who was also using stacked Flexifoils. The problem with the Jacob’s Ladder boat was that on a speed run they got lifted out of the water and nearly killed everyone on it, so it went away.
Maui? I had a small funky sail repair/artist loft above Hi Tech sailboards on
Maui. Basically, I would work two hours a day, windsurf ‘till dark, and party ‘till I dropped each day. People knew that I flew kites and I would meet other kiters and people that were into traction kiting. Traction kites were big kites that created power to do things like buggy, sand-slide, jump, and eventually kiteboard. I met Bruce Peterson, who was a rep for Flexifoil kites, while he was traveling through
Hawaii. At the time, Flexifoil made the coolest kites around. I had some small ones, but he turned me on to a sixteen foot wing span kite with a fiberglass rod leading edge. Bruce went on to become one of the leading windsurfing sail designers and racers in the Columbia River Gorge with his company, Sailworks.So I became the kite guy on
Maui. Sport kiting was growing and all the kites were made in
China, in super sized factories where the windsurfing sails were made. Well, companies like Neil Pryde saw the number of kites being sold and the amount of cloth being bought and started to think about getting into the sport kite market. They bought a kite company that was about fifth place in the industry at the time and gave it a shot, even using their Windsurfing team to do a photo shoot, so I was there with them, being a good friend of the team at that time. This was around the late 80s. Neil Pryde was the logical company to try stunt kites out, but the attempt flopped.Soon after, a crazy French guy named Bruno started banging on their door with his wild WIPIKA concept, so they gave it a try. The kites were hard to make and the designs kept having last minute changes. Because of that and also because of fear of issues of liability, they dropped it after making just a few kites. Bruno had some cool ideas about kites and a friend of mine who worked for Neil Pryde at the time kept me informed of the developments. We would kick around ideas on how we could utilize the kite’s water launching design for boats and windsurfers.It was the good old days on
Maui, smoking the Maui Wowie and kicking around crazy ideas. Everyone thought we were nuts for even talking about it, let alone trying to develop the sport. Everybody else thought for sure that heads and limbs were going to get tangled and amputated, so it was a super hard sell to get other people to see the vision.In windsurfing at the time, basically everyone was trying to jump the highest they could off the biggest Hawaiian waves they could handle for the cool pictures. When I met Bruce from Flexifoil, he put on a pair of military boots and floated downwind for forty feet with his feet twelve feet above the ground at Ho’okipa. At that moment, I knew kites were the way to go.Before all of this, I had been working on a horizontal windsurfing hang glider rig to try and fly off waves. It was pretty cool but didn’t really fly. A company copied it and lost all their money, close to a million I think. When I finally meet the owner, after trying to contact him for years, I said, “Dude, I will tell you now what I was trying to tell you, it doesn’t work. Kites are the way to go.”
What was the equipment like back then?
Terrible. Totally loaded two-line kites with no instructions. The first kites didn’t even come with bridles. I had to make the first bridles by hand; it was madness. Bruno was a crazy guy like me with a dream, but with no business skills. Bruno was a true believer in his design and he was right. The coolest thing about his design was that it was basically, sort of, pretty much ready for the public with a little finesse. There were a few other kite rider/sailors, dudes that were moving in the same direction all over the world. The internet was getting popular, so we started communicating by e-mail.
There was Peter Lynn of New Zealand, in fact I bought a stack of about six or seven kites from him that were rigged up for ladder or stack kiting. You could take kites off for higher winds or you could add more kites for lighter. There was also Cory Roseler with his KiteSki. Cory was an engineering type of guy and had developed a reel bar system for launching and retrieving his large Banshi designed flat kite with hard battens. There were the wild and crazy Frenchmen with their ram air kites that were used by kite-buggy flyers in
Europe on low tide beaches. It was a pretty cool scene at that time.Well when I saw Bruno’s kite that Neil Pryde had made it was very cool. You have to remember the two things that were necessary for the sport to happen, I mean for it to go from a goofy stunt-type of thing to a viable potential mass market type of sport. We had to find a kite that was easy to re-launch from the water and was able to stay up wind. Well, Bruno’s water kite worked, and it could do both of those things, so I called him up. He flew over from France and stayed with me while I ran him around all over the island introducing him to everyone in the windsurfing industry, as
Maui was the spot for the R&D of windsurfing.This is how I got the so-called world distribution of Wipika kites, but I needed to find a distribution network for Bruno to give me the first kites. I talked to a lot of people, and was turned down by everyone except one company. Everyone that said no was afraid of liability issues. I would go on to find out later that the one company that agreed to work with me owed everyone money. They were on the verge of shutting the business down, and so had nothing to loose by trying to distribute kites. Well, when we ordered 300 kites, my new partner and Bruno got into a royalty fee squabble, meaning that he accused her of not paying enough. He wanted me to go to court on his side and sue my own partner. It was a mess, and shortly after I went to work for another company that was getting into kiteboarding. I quickly designed my latest kite in thought, which was a modified Wipika design with an adjustable third line running from the middle of the leading edge and canopy. I copyrighted it right after I flew it. When I brought the kite to this other company, they pretty much hired me on the spot for their new kite boating department.How did the first Red Bull King of the Air come about? What was your involvement?Well, to push the sport and give it a burst, you really need some professional looking events to fake everyone out in the media world that you have it going on. I’d been working events for windsurfing for years as a judge and decided to take it to the next level.Our first kitesurfing event was a year before the first Red Bull King of the Air and cost me $400 out of pocket. With help from friends like Kim Ball at High Tech Sailboards who handled all the hassles of permits and let us use all his equipment, Mike Waltze who was a lot smarter than I was in dealing with lawyers and corporate suits, along with the usual cast of kite enthusiast characters, we pulled off a cool event that got great coverage from the photographers and writers of the surf rags. The big sponsors came the following year with their lawyers and took it even further. Mike did the hard work while I had fun on the beach promoting, setting up, and throwing parties. Man did we party.
Who were some of the characters you were experimenting with?
Marcus “Flash” Austin, Lou Wainman, and Chris Gilbert were the truly hardcore believers and developers. They were the guys on the water all the time. There were other kiters that tried it out in the beginning, but only off and on. Flash, staying up wind and being sort of a soul-surfer type, Lou being a radical all out skate and wakeboard type trickster and Chris being the professional cool business type shredder were the guys in my mind who took it to the next level. At that time, I did a lot of running around picking kiters up downwind and taking them back upwind, fixing kites, teaching the basics of kite flying, promoting, trying to get kites into retail shops, and bullshitting to everyone on how kites were it and how kiteboarding was going to surpass windsurfing in five years. Well, it only took three.
Do you kiteboard yourself?When I got my sixteen foot Flexifoil from Bruce back sometime around ’82, I learned to jump, do some major downwind beach slides, and kneeboard in the shore-brake. I used water skis a few times and longboarded with small kites. I was into sailboats at that time and was getting ready to cruise on my boat using kite-power. Basically, all of the R&D for kiteboarding is laying the ground work for kite boating and the time for kite boating is finally here. There are some guys building small kite catamarans in New Zealand and Australia and here in the
San Francisco Bay area.
When did you realize that kiteboarding would become a real sport with manufacturers and team riders? Was there a moment when it suddenly became more than a few people experimenting with a crazy idea?I realized it when everyone got lawyers and started threatening to sue each other. Some actually did. This happened when we ordered those 300 Wipika kites to sell and people still couldn’t get them fast enough. Anyone with a connection in
China and twenty grand could get as many kites as they wanted out the back door of the factory or take a kite to their competition next door and have them make it. For many years, all of the kites were coming from one of only two factories.What is the scene like inMaui now compared with back then? IsMaui still as relevant as it use to be in kiteboarding?In
Maui now, the scene is crowds.
Maui sold out the land and over-developed before building up the infrastructure more, meaning there are traffic jams not only on the roads, but also on the water and at the beaches. Still though, it is a big blue ocean out there and
Hawaii is one of the coolest windy warm spots on the planet. When the big winter waves hit though, it is one of the best places for rad surf kooks.
Every time I have seen you, you have a video camera in your hand. How far back does your footage go?My footage goes back to day one. I’ve got it all on tape and print, every part of my story. A good example would be the first day I met Flash. He showed up with his rad rainbow skim board, four line mattress kite, super long hair, and gold ringed fingers. He ripped, of course he was still going downwind, but he ripped like I never saw anyone up to that point, even getting air.Any chance you’ll put out a video?I’ve put out some shorts and fun type stuff. I’m still learning how to edit and hopefully will get a professional video out in a year or two, before I croak.You relocated and moved to San Francisco. Why did you leaveMaui?
I gave a proposal to a large kite company to travel while promoting kites, all the while working on kite boat development with a F-24 trimaran, a super cool and fast trailerable sailboat. I cruised it from California to Key West for light air R&D, then up to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, for medium wind, and then went back to
San Francisco for heavy air and to try and make an impact with kite boating in the sailing world.
The program ended up not working out, so I found a good yacht club with a bar. The guys at the club are all good people so here we are, doing the obvious, flying kites from boats and building a few small ones. We’re getting ready to launch a custom 27-foot catamaran, a modified Stiletto with a large kite flying option.
Is racing going to play a large role in the future of the sport? What do the yacht clubs and sailors think about kite races?
Yes, yacht clubs will bring the sport to a sailing level of acceptance. A lot has happened in the past year with the super big help of the St. Francis Yacht Club and their team. They hold a lot of the major sailing regattas on the West Coast and in
America. When there is overlap between a regatta and a kite race, the professional sailors are watching and the younger ones are starting to kite. These guys are a new breed of kiteboarders. They are getting into the sport not to jump or do tricks or ride waves, but to race competitively.
I’m glad to say that I’ve worked on all the race committees of the kite course racing at the St. Francis Yacht Club and have videoed it all. In fact, last night was one of the best races we have had and next week should be great with the first National Championships of the new discipline here in the U.S. When I talk to other kiters around the world about what we are doing here, they say they are racing but they are just doing long distance or boarder cross which is cool, but what we are trying to develop is a more traditional form of an Olympic triangle or course racing like any other sailboat would do. Getting all the rules of the road so to speak will take a little more time but we are basically almost there. Once the rule book is put together with US SAILING’s Racing Rules, everyone will be on the same track.
What’s your view on the sport right now? Where is the sport heading?
I’m probably the biggest fan of the sport and would like to see racing be the main driving discipline to take the sport to the next level, meaning Olympic level competition, maybe even a new
America’s Cup level in the sport of sailing for not only kiteboarding but also kite boating. Hopefully I can be on one of the kite boats racing before I kick it out of here.