By Paul Lang
Don Montague has a long history in kiteboarding and was one of the people involved in very early kite development. While still working at Naish as the head of R&D, he began to play with attaching kites to outrigger canoes and boats.
He’s since moved on as founder of Makani Power, a renewable energy company, and is also hard at work developing kites and boats specially made for kite boating. We had a chance to talk to Don about his kite boat project and also got a history lesson on the beginning days of kiteboarding.
Not all kiteboarders know about your long history in the sport of kiteboarding. How did you get to where you are today?
In 1982 I moved to Santa Barbara from Vancouver, Canada. I tried going to college, but the parking lot was right on the beach, so I just went windsurfing instead. I couldn’t afford tuition, so I went to classes as my cousin, but it turned out that one of my teacher’s daughters was dating him, so she asked me to leave.
At that point I had $400 and a friend of a friend in Maui. I bought a ticket, showed up in Maui, and slept on my friend’s floor. I worked in a restaurant, made enough money to buy a few more sails, entered a few races, and won.
That led to being sponsored and being able to travel all over the world. In 1986 I became a part of the Gaastra test team. Back then, Gaastra was selling 200,000 windsurfing sails a year, so there was a lot of money available for teams and events.
While still racing, I became the Gaastra Sail Designer. I had a passion for designing things, but one problem is that I’m fully dyslexic. I had no schooling and no engineering knowledge, so I taught myself all the CAD programs and came up with my own ways to make it work.
Then I was part of the original group that started Naish Sails and I was in charge of R&D. In 1993 Cory Roeseler showed up with his Kite Ski system and was trying to convince me that this was the next big thing. I was skeptical. There were a lot of lines and this heavy bar and all these carbon battens, but he was flying upwind.
I saw him get worked at Ho’okipa. All his battens broke, and I was just like, “You know, this is just not ready for consumers. This is cool, but there’s no way we can sell this.”
But then we started noticing the ram-air kites. Laird Hamilton and some other people were playing around a bit, but no one was going upwind except Cory. One day Manu Bertin, one of our team riders, showed up at the loft saying, “Don, this is it, this is the thing!” He had an inflated leading edge kite that had been built by Bruno Legaignoux.
The workmanship was phenomenal and I had never seen anything like it. I had played around with putting condoms inside ram air kites to try to get them to float and had sewn together some pool mats that you would use to float around in your pool, but what we were doing totally sucked.
Bruno was making these as safety kites and was pulling himself around on little boats. Nobody knew about them. At that point, we were far ahead of everybody else on sail design software. I had invested a lot of time, money, and people into developing the most insane sail design software ever.
I called Bruno and said, “Come to Maui. We can help develop your kite with software that will let us change a kite in five seconds.” A month later he was at my house and we developed the first kite design software. It was fully three-dimensional, made all the patterns, the whole deal and we became the first licensee of his kite patent.
Everyone on Maui, including Robby, thought kitesurfing was lame. Robby was like, “Don, I don’t want you spending any more time making kites. We need to focus on the core business.” There was a little friction, but it didn’t last long.
One day I was at Robby’s house and I talked him into trying it. Just 15 minutes later he was riding the shore break in front of his house doing back loops. I already had an established factory in China for windsurfing, so I showed up there saying, “Just give me one person and a sewing machine to make kites. I won’t ask for anything else.” Of course, the next week I needed ten people. Before we knew it, we had sold something like 20,000 kites in our first year.
I would spend months and months in China figuring out technical kite details. I think I made like 200 leading edges to figure out how to make them not twist. Kite design was a complete unknown. Eventually I wanted to share the sport with all my friends that didn’t kitesurf, so I attached a kite to a canoe.
That was fun, but I wanted to go faster and it was way too wet. We modified a 50′ catamaran to be pulled by a kite. Pretty soon we were making a 30m, 50m, and then a 100m kite. This was around 2002 or 2003. That was the beginning.
We attempted to cross from Maui to Oahu, but we broke everything in the process. We bent stainless steel bars and broke large pulleys. There was a lot of force in the channel with 25 knots of wind!
From there we designed a purpose-built catamaran. We did the Molokai crossing and beat all the kitesurfers. This is when I decided that I wanted to go around the world with a boat being pulled by a kite. I started to put together a proposal for Red Bull, but then I realized that I would need to make the kite autonomous.
There’s no way I’d be able to hang onto a large kite all the way around the world. Some people at MIT had contacted me in the past to talk about kite design, so I started calling them to ask what would be possible. In San Francisco I met with some people who were working on autonomous parachutes. Because I still had some name recognition in the windsurfing and kitesurfing worlds, it was pretty easy for me to find people to talk to.
I started looking for other types of sponsors and also happened to become friends with the founders of Google. In 2006 I presented a proposal for the Kite Boat Project and how the project could be used as a promotional vehicle to suggest that there’s a lot of power up there that can be harnessed.
My friends at Google, who are a lot smarter than me, said, “Don, you should help save the world. Why don’t you concentrate on saving the world and use your kite boat to spread the word?” I said, “I’m not sure if I know how to do that, but I can build a team and get the best people to work on this.” After presenting a kite boat project, I left with a check to start a renewable energy company. We founded Makani Power and started building kites and ground stations, but at the same time I was still building kite boats.
We made a lot of progress and realized hydrofoils were the best way to utilize the kite because of the lifting forces of the kite. It was also relatively dry and I was really tired of being cold and wet. Our first boat was a catamaran that flew on two T-foils and two J-foils. We worked on that for about three years and also built a bigger 30-foot boat.
That one had hydraulic steering and we really figured out the kite launching. Then the Marine Science Technology Foundation came along and they wanted me to work on looking at actually pulling ships with a kite.
They provided really good funding and I was able to hire eight full-time people outside of what was happening at Makani. At that time, Makani was up to 50 engineers. I broke off the Kite Boat Project from Makani and named it KAI (Kite Assist Institute).
During the last three years we’ve built a number of kite boats and have learned a lot. Now, I’m going into a new project called KAI Concepts. The goal is to go from San Francisco to Hawaii and break the sailing record with a kite boat.
What is Makani Power developing?
Airborne wind power. Basically it’s a turbine in the sky. The best way to learn about it is to go to www.makanipower.com. If you map the United States, only 17% of the land is usable for traditional wind turbines. With our system, 70% of the land is usable.
This has the potential to be a large source of utility power. We just received another $3,000,000 from the government, Google is funding us, Boeing is on the board of advisors, and we’re affiliated with NASA. In my opinion we’re five to six years away from having a commercial product. This will make a difference in the world. Your children and your children’s children will be able to enjoy extracting power from the wind.
What’s the end goal of the Kite Boat Project?
Whether I was paid or not I’d be doing this. I have a passion and it’s the same passion that drove me in windsurfing and kitesurfing. A lot of people in the sailing world have approached me about building kites and working on breaking records. They all know kites are the next big thing.
Will the Kite Boat be commercial? I hope not. It’s dangerous. Well, it’s not so dangerous if you know what you’re doing, but it’s really dangerous when you’ve got something that can propel you and a 3,000 pound boat at 40 knots. That’s some serious load there. People can get hurt.
The goal is not to make and sell kite boats. With Kite Boat, at the moment it’s a really personal goal to break sailing records. You have to remember that I’m also working on Makani, and that is a hugely commercial project. Kite Boat is a promotional vehicle for Makani that shows you can extract a lot of power from the wind.
If these kites are too complicated and dangerous for the general sailing public, do you see kites being a part of the sail quiver of an ocean-going racing sailboat?
Yes. This is going to explode in their world. A lot of the big names in sailing are closely following what we’re doing here.
Do you ever see the technology you are developing trickling down to people that go for a leisurely cruise on their sailboats?
That’s a totally different scale. Right now we could develop a system to put up a kite and cruise around at three or four knots. You could then push a button and the kite would be pulled down and stored into a tube or something. It would be completely remote control and fly on a single line.
That could happen, but the stuff I’m working on is very different. It’s high performance and will not trickle down to average sailors. I don’t want to sell a kite to someone out there sailing on San Francisco Bay.
Do you work with or closely follow any of the kiteboarding manufacturers?
I was there in the beginning, so of course I personally know Raphael Salles, Robby Naish, Pete Cabrinha, and a lot of other people. I know what everyone is up to, but my application is totally different. The loads we’re dealing with are much higher.
I’m using Cuben Fiber, a spectra-laminated cloth, to make kites because the loads I’m dealing with are in excess of 2,000 pounds. They’re dealing with loads of a few hundred pounds. There are very different requirements between my project and regular kitesurfing.
What are some of the challenges in dealing with those loads?
You can’t use conventional materials because they just deform. It’s also not just the kite. You have to have a winching system, you have to be able to fly the kite at different line lengths, and you have to make it safe. The kite and boat is a complete unit and everything is related.
There’s a lot going on and we monitor everything. We have load cells, string gauges, a GPS, pressure sensors, the boat is basically a lab. We don’t just go out with a GPS to see how fast we can go, we know the exact line load on all four lines and we not only know the pressure in the leading edge, we know how it changes at height.
How do you control something like the kites you are using?
In some of the pictures you see me holding a bar, but the load going to me is very small. I’m really just feeling what the kite is doing. Especially when we’re testing something new, I want to be able to feel what’s going on. I’m also talking to the guy steering the boat and he makes adjustments. On the latest boats, there’s a series of servos that the boat driver controls. Something you don’t see is that we’re actual
ly changing the profile of the kite while we’re out there. We change it through pressure, but that’s all top secret. The way we depower and turn the kite is sometimes all done through an Android phone. We’re just moving air around.
What’s the launching process like?
We have large carbon fiber tanks that are pressurized to 4,500 psi. We’ve also got an A-frame mast. Basically, you just pull up the A-frame mast, connect the kite to the pressurized tanks, and I can inflate the kite in less than five seconds. The quicker it happens, the less chance there is for something to go wrong.
The actual launch happens within 15 seconds. To get it down, we have a really sophisticated electric winch. The winch allows us to fly the kite at different line lengths. There are days that the wind is only blowing like two knots at the surface, but it’s blowing over 20 up high.
It seems like kiteboarding is on the verge of having a huge influence on the sailing world between what you are up to, course racing, and speed kiting.
Yea, the course racers are killing it. On a course board, you can go faster than just about any sailboat. We’ve been saying it for years and now it’s proven. A lot of people on the America’s Cup are kitesurfers.
They all know about it and are following it. It’s possible that the sailing world might throw a bunch of money into kite development. There’s no question that a kite will be some part of a sailing around the world record attempt.