Originally Published in the June 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
If you kitesurf at any beach near Santa Cruz, California, there is something that will jump out at you immediately. An overwhelming number of people ride gear from one company: Caution Kites. Caution is not your average brand. They have built a fiercely loyal customer base on the northern California coast, but outside of their local area they are considered a small kite company.
The Caution Crew, headed by founding brothers Peter and Poul Schiebel and partner Jeff Burton, have a reputation for being a very tight knit group of kiteboarders and for being very protective of their local spots. Some riders view the Caution team as being a group of territorial misfits, while others see them as a group of dedicated riders that treat each other as family. Which perception is true? We got together with Peter, Poul, and Jeff to find out.
How did Caution kites get started? What was the original reason that you built your own kites instead of using ones that were available from someone else?
Peter: Both Poul and I were sponsored windsurfers, competing in both wave sailing and racing competitions. During the early 90’s we had been working for Waddell Sails, but just prior to the beginning of kitesurfing I started my own custom windsurfing sail company, Schiebel Sails.
Poul: Peter had tons of experience building windsurfing sails, and when the first two line kites showed up on Maui, it made sense to build our own stuff. At that time it was difficult to even get a kite, but we were able to purchase a used one from a friend in Australia. I pulled it apart and we built one from the ground up, and that was the beginning of Caution. We started experimenting with materials, and ended up introducing the first kites with a Dacron leading edge.
Who came up with the name Caution? Where did the idea to put flames on the kites come from?
Poul: Peter came up with the name at some point in ’98. The thought was that if the kite products didn’t make it off the ground, Caution Santa Cruz could become a clothing company. As it turned out, building kites became a full time job, and apparel never became anything more than a half-assed afterthought. The name Caution was appealing because of its self-promoting nature, frequency on signage, and in the sense that Caution is relevant to the dangerous and extreme aspects of kitesurfing.
Peter: Poul came up with the idea of having flames after we moved production to the Ezzy factory. The thought came from flames often seen on hot rods and Poul wanted the flames coming off the leading edge, fanning out over the canopy.
Poul: Peter shot it down at first as being too complicated, but over the years the flames became not just a part of the kites, but a part of Caution. Ultimately, the flames represent the culture at Caution: tradition, commitment, and the ability to resist trends while focusing on building products that we want to ride as kitersurfers.
How would each of you describe your roles in the company?
Jeff: Peter runs the repair center and designs kites. When Peter became self-employed in the windsurfing days, he became his own boss and that hasn’t changed. He doesn’t observe normal work hours. For instance his average day doesn’t end until 4 am, and regardless of whether the night is spent playing poker at the local card room or working out new designs on his CAD program, he doesn’t get out of bed until 11:30. Everyone in Santa Cruz knows Peter is not available until sometime after lunch. Peter at one time was a champion foosball player, and last fall Peter hustled a couple kiters for a few hundred bucks. Apparently they had no concept of what competitive foosball looks like. Peter has a keen intellectual curiosity for matters mechanical, a tremendous sense of integrity, and is a master at the art of negotiation. Poul handles factory logistics, hardware and accessories, and shuffling debt among low interest rate credit cards. That’s a joke, sort of, but owning your own factory has tons of perks, but also adds a level of complexity to day to day operations that will turn your goatee grey well before it’s time. Dealing with that is Poul’s problem. I am in charge of domestic and international sales. I’m based out of Santa Barbara and spend much of my time on the phone interfacing with customers, retailers, and distributors. This helps me keep a pulse on the kiting market, and helps with product development because I am able to bring a wider base of input into designing our products. As far as design goes, everyone has a hand in deciding what qualities to look for in products and determining what makes it to production.
Do you have company meetings at the local Taco Bell like in the Caution movie Taking Davenport?
Peter: Yes, but it’s not as dramatic as H-Wood would make it. It’s a great way to hold business meetings, because the Bell allows us to get away from the loft, where we can tell stories, talk equipment and logistics, and keep up with our team riders. We like to spread our money around a couple of the fine dining establishments on the west side, but more often than not we end up south of the border.
Is it true that Peter designs kites without computers? If so, how does this help the products?
Peter: It was true until 2004. I was definitely a hands on kite designer, but when it became apparent that CAD design would not only make the design process faster, but would also open up my schedule for late night poker and foosball, it was a dream come true.
Poul: Peter’s experience in building kites from the ground up helps in the prototyping process, because we aren’t married to the computer and we don’t always have to go back to the factory. When time demands it, Peter can make large structural changes in the loft, and send them up the coast the same day.
Do the two of you have a sibling rivalry about goatee length?
Poul: No rivalry, but mine’s longer. I started a goatee in my windsurfing days and it became a trademark then. In fact, one of the Schiebel Sails logos had a hairy Viking with a goatee. Somewhere along the way Peter started growing his, except that Peter is always changing it going from goatee to lion’s mane to other configurations not yet recognized by society.
The Caution Santa Cruz crew has a reputation for being very local. Is this a conscious image that Caution developed? If not, where do you think the perception of the Caution localism came from?
Poul: It’s nothing we consciously strive for; in fact we rip on all people equally, including ourselves. Some people seem to throw us in with the rest of the Santa Cruz thug reputation, but this is ignorance
rather than anything else. The few examples of kitesurfing localism over the years have come from individuals in the general Santa Cruz kitesurfing population, not from anyone within Caution, but given the prevalence of Caution Kites in Santa Cruz it’s easy to see how that might be confused. They say any press is good press, but for us it gets old as it seems to be the only thing Caution gets any recognition for. When it comes down to it, we are a company that sells products internationally, and this is our living. We put a lot of energy into making great, durable, high performance products that we love to ride, and we hope others want to buy. As a company, we’re here because we love what we do and we have a lot of fun doing it. If there is any element of truth in this bad rep, it’s that if you hang out with us, you’re going to have to develop some thick skin and definitely not take yourself too seriously.
Do you think there are a lot of misconceptions about the Caution Crew? Is there any truth to the rumored ties between Caution and the Hell’s Angels?
Poul: There are a lot of misconceptions and perhaps some truths. We are a group of guys and girls that like to have a good time. Despite the goatees, we’re approachable, and we are doing what we love to do and having a good time doing it.
What advice do you have for the kiter who shows up at Waddell for the first time? How welcoming is the Caution crew to riders from out of the area?
Poul: Get a Caution kite! Seriously, Waddell is like any other wave oriented spot. It’s about etiquette. It helps to have a familiar face, but with common sense and respect you shouldn’t have any problems. The talent level at Waddell is fairly high relative to the average kitesurfing beach. The end result is that when you show up at Waddell for your first time, you really should be thinking about how you can fit in rather than stand out.
Peter: There isn’t a lot of tolerance for etiquette mistakes. Waddell can be crowded with just locals, but at the same time Waddell is also located within a stone’s throw of the Bay area, which can cause a major influx of kiters on weekends. When you kite in the waves everyday with the same people, you make it work, play by the rules, and everybody gets waves. It’s been observed quite frequently that a single person can cause a lot of chaos on a crowded day.
How did it happen that almost every rider in the Santa Cruz area flies Caution? If the kites are good enough for the majority of riders there, why hasn’t the brand caught on as well in other areas?
Jeff: Tough question! We have a good chunk of the market share in Santa Cruz because we do a good job of communicating the strengths of our products with the locals and offer awesome customer service. The size of our market share has fluctuated over the years, and there are a number of reasons for this, but ultimately it may come down to the fact that we are kitesurfers first and salesmen last. We make decisions based on what we think is right, and what’s right may have less to do with increasing sales numbers and marketing and more to do with what we think is important in kitesurfing. The Caution Crew is a very tight-knit group of kiters. What have you guys done to promote the community feeling among Caution riders?
Peter: It’s a cultural thing, not anything we really have to do or put effort into. We make great products and we have a good time wherever we go. It’s a family, where loyalty and straight shooting seem to go a long way and we do our best to take care of the people that support us. A lot of brands have built a strong community on the internet, and that’s not really our strength, but maybe something that we could aim to improve in the future.
What do you look for when picking out Caution Team Riders?
Jeff: Skill is a big factor, but ultimately we look for someone with integrity, solid personality, and loyalty. We don’t pay team riders, we compensate them in equipment, and that has helped us build a quality team with a lot of integrity. Over the years we have lost some high profile riders, and we don’t hold anything against them for taking a sweeter deal, but ultimately we have a very talented team. Our riders all have some sort of day job, yet are still dominating on the water, and that’s the kind of riders that deserves a lot of respect.
What was kiteboarding on the Northern California Coast like in the early days? Who were some of the main characters at the beginning of the sport?
Peter: There is a guy known as Beach Captain who was one of the first kiters. He is still kiting on a vintage Naish ARX and refuses to hook in because of how dangerous he believes it to be. I don’t think he has a clue about high depower kites and the safety improvements since the early days. Dave Broome, a friend from the windsurfing days; Chuck Patterson, a waterman from Southern California; and Chip Wasson, a friend and rival from windsurfing were some of the early characters. At first there were three guys with one kite, and the next year four guys. I believe the first contest was held in 2001 – maybe ten guys out.
In the first season of kite races on San Francisco Bay, Caution riders would drive up to San Francisco and win a lot of the races, but there don’t seem to be many Caution riders involved in the races now. Why don’t Caution riders show up anymore and what do you guys think of kite racing?
Poul: We really enjoy racing and were involved in windsurfing racing when we were younger. Back in the first season, it was fun to pull up to the city front and compete with old friends and win a bunch of races. I think they are still pissed to this day about us going up there. They thought they had it all figured out with their big kite company brands and trendy technology claims, but us misfits piled out of our trucks and smoked them on multiple occasions. It was a good time and we partied at the St. Francis Yacht Club after the races. Everyone had a great time. However, the novelty wore off and it was tough heading into the city on a perfectly good windy Santa Cruz day. Like windsurfing, the early days of racing changed, and the evolution of board technology warped what was an even playing field. After a break, we sent three team members up to US Nationals this past summer, and the tables had turned. Our guys were getting smoked by everyone else who had paid any attention to the new reality of course racing boards. Our guys were nailing their starts, only to find themselves in last place before the first windward mark. Racing is now a serious time and financial commitment to board technology and for the moment only one of our team riders seems to be motivated to go down that path. But overall, racing will offer the industry a lot in terms of innovation and performance.
In the beginning, Caution was run by Peter and Poul. What were the circumstances that Jeff, who was previously working for another kite company, was brought in as a partner?
Poul: We’ve known Jeff since we were 15. Jeff had also started kitesurfing early on, and he was working for another kiteboarding company. At that time Caution was growing at a steady pace despite the lack of solid sales experience. Jeff was a natural fit for the culture at Caution, and he brought a solid background in sales and a new level of professionalism to the organization.
Do you guys pay attention to what other companies are coming out with when coming up with products to develop?
Peter: We keep an eye out for what’s out there as it’s good to know where our products stand in relation to our competitors. Right now the nature of SLE design has really opened up a diversity of performance options, and our experience has taught us that good ideas can inspire even better ideas.
What do you guys think about the current state of the kiteboarding industry? Do you think there is enough room for all the manufacturers that are out there?
Jeff: It’s a tough industry, but as long as it continues to grow, there will be small companies entering the market. Companies will continue to come and go and products will rise and fall based on their merit. As a company, Caution is lean, smart, and passionate for what we do, and these qualities have helped us enjoy a successful career in the kitesurfing industry.
Why do you think kiteboarding companies have not adopted standards such as line colors and quick releases?
Peter: Companies are trying hard to stand out and standardization places limits on the ability to out-design your competitors. Choice is good; you can design high performance gear, or design for the lowest common denominator, but either way it’s up to the consumer to make an educated decision on what works best. There is a compelling argument for safety standardization, and an industry-wide conversation on basic safety equipment and design is an idea worth exploring.
What does the future hold for Caution? Will you be trying to branch out and sell more kites across the country and worldwide, or will you stay focused on staying such a strong presence on the Northern California coast?
Poul: We’re going to keep doing what we have been doing since 1998: kite every day it’s windy and build the kites and boards that our riders want to ride. If our international market share increases because more people are buying our products due to performance, without us having to hype it, well then that sounds fine.
Originally Published in the June 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine