Johnny Heineken (Larkspur, Calif.), age 24, has been named the 2012 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year for his dominating performances in competitive kiteboarding, including the Kiteboarding Course Racing World Championship in Cagliari, Italy, where he topped 148 competitors to claim the world title for a second consecutive year.
Heineken also proved his racing prowess by besting 45 competitors in the Kiteboarding North American Course Racing Championship in San Francisco and 34 competitors at the Pacific Pilsner Canadian Kiteboard Course Racing Nationals in Squamish, Canada. He set a new course record (14 minutes, 4 seconds) in the Ronstan Bridge to Bridge Race in San Francisco among 58 entrants and rounded out his record by posting victories at PKRA Mexico (20 competitors), PKRA Burn Kiteboarding World Tour (16 competitors) and Copa Mexico Regatta (13 competitors). He finished second at La Ventana Classic (20 competitors) and took third at both the PKRA Beetle Kitesurf World Cup (31 competitors) and PKRA Gold Games Kitesurf (30 competitors).
The selection panel was especially impressed by the fact that Heineken’s racing took him to venues across the globe – including Germany, France and Turkey—where his fellow kiteboarding competitors were considered the world’s best. They also made note that kiteboarding (also referred to as kitesurfing—an athletic surface water sport combining aspects of wakeboarding, windsurfing and surfing and using a large controllable kite to harness the power of the wind) had come into its own as a significant sailing genre. One panelist pointed out that the term “yachtsman,” despite its allusion to the most traditional aspects of sailing, easily befits a sailor with Heineken’s talents and devotion to growing the sport.
“To even be mentioned in connection with this award is an honor; so many of my role models are on the list of recipients,” said Heineken, who was on the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year shortlist in 2011 as well. “But it’s also exciting that kiting has been accepted into the world of yachting. It’s pretty amazing how far the class has come in the last five years and exciting for me to be involved in the development of that.”
Heineken explained that kiteboarding narrowly missed becoming a discipline for the 2016 Olympics and he would be very surprised if it were not included in the 2020 Games. Course racing on kiteboards is mostly windward-leeward with some added reaches at the finish line to bring spectators to the beach “to watch the fleet going 30 knots.”
“I started kiteboarding a lot later than many of the people I’m competing against, but I did grow up sailing and that’s what has given me a strong background to be a good kite racer,” said Heineken, who took third in the 29er Worlds when he was in eleventh grade, finished fifth in the 2008 49er U.S. Olympic Trials, and served as captain of the UC Santa Barbara Sailing Team for two years. “Typical sailboat racing courses are what we’ve optimized our gear for; it’s the same game, the same tactics, really.”
Heineken added that it’s much harder to learn how to be a good tactical sailor, making quick decisions and dealing with every crossing incident perfectly, than it is to learn to kiteboard. “It’s time on the water just like every other class. You can call it a boat or a board or whatever, but kiting is the only kind of sailing where you’re directly connecting the sail through your body to the board and then to the water via the fins. You’re so involved in the dynamic of making the boat go fast through the water that I would argue it’s the most pure form of sailing.”
Heineken, who was born in Greenbrae, Calif., trains and travels with his older sister, Erika Heineken, age 26, who was runner-up this year for the Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year and shared the top step on the podium with Johnny at the Kiteboarding Course Racing World Championship as the women’s division winner.
Johnny Heineken has a degree in mechanical engineering and works on the mechanical team at Alameda-based Makani Power, an alternative energy company developing airborne wind turbine technology. He is a member of St. Francis Yacht Club, which he praises for helping pioneer course racing for kiteboarding.