Interview by Brendan Richards
Photos by Steve McCormick & Axis
This story first appeared in The Kiteboarder Magazine’s Volume 11, No. 2 Issue, now available online for free.
It’s a new day for Adrian Roper of Axis Kiteboarding. From the pastoral green hills of his New Zealand farm you can see the wind shadowed Lyttelton Harbor, a lesser known testing ground for this longtime Kiwi kiteboard builder. The thermal winds that grace this spot and others more popular on the south island serve as a backdrop to Adrian’s relentless pursuit to reinvent and improve the modern kiteboard since the earliest of kiteboarding days.
When speaking with Adrian it’s difficult to tell whether his fascination with materials and inventive design trumps his love of kiteboarding. He speaks with boyish enthusiasm for all things technical and gushes about the functional properties of even his boards’ smallest details. Adrian’s discontent with the status quo can be seen in his small farm outside of Christchurch, complete with horses, chickens, fruit trees and edible gardens. The house Adrian built with his own hands uses commonsense principles to cool itself in the summer and heat itself in the winter, a shrine to Adrian’s quest to reexamine the mechanics of everything that surrounds him.
Adrian is no stranger to comebacks. His resilience was tested early on with a devastating factory fire and more recently with complications after the sale of Underground, his first kiteboard brand. Despite these turbulent business adventures, this Kiwi shows no signs of slowing down. Adrian is back in the driver seat at Axis Kiteboarding, calling all the shots and sewing the seeds of innovation into the art of board building for years to come.
Your generation grew up before kiteboarding existed. How did watersports become integral to your life?
I grew up in Rothesay Bay in Auckland, New Zealand and from there it wasn’t far to the beach. We all used to hangout there after school, that’s what we did. We learned to surf and I had a little boat so I learned to sail and fish by myself when I was quite young, around 12 years. I’d go out sailing for the whole day and catch a pot of fish. It was just how we grew up. It was an easier life and people didn’t get so fussy about looking after kids, you just did your thing. The windsports part of my life started when I was 17. A friend of mine came back from Long Beach, California with one of the first windsurfers in 1981. It was the Windsurfer International, one of the original ones. My mates and I learned on that board.
Every career path starts somewhere. When did the board building seed become planted?
I had shaped a surfboard as a kid, but it really started with the very beginning of windsurfing. At that time the first New Zealand made boards being built were the Superstar and Comet lines. I asked my parents to get me one, but they wanted me to be an academic and go study at university. I just wanted to windsurf and although they wouldn’t buy me one, they came up with what they thought was a safer plan and offered to help me build one. I began by translating the instructions for building a windsurfer out of a French windsurfing mag. I shaped it in polystyrene and clad the whole thing in plywood and then sanded and painted it. I made the sail, and both the boom and the mast out of aluminium. I did the whole thing and really enjoyed the process of it. The board actually went pretty good for the time but the whole plan sort of backfired on my parents, because I ended up entering board building as a profession rather than going their academic route.
That looks like a big board. In those days where did a kid get the foam for that kind of volume?
At that time I couldn’t get a foam block the size of the board, so I just glued a whole pile of blocks. I just made it up; everything I did from the start I made up because I didn’t know any better way of doing it and I have carried on going like that since. I think I have an engineering brain. Whatever I’m looking at, wherever I’m going, my mind is continuously looking at everything that I see and thinking, now how would I go about manufacturing that and how would you build it better — that’s just how my brain works. When I look back on that first board, I did a lot of things that are quite sensible in retrospect, but I didn’t know any better. I think that’s why I’ve been successful at what I’ve been doing.
How did you make the leap from a Kiwi kid shaping in his backyard to a professional board builder cashing a paycheck?
I moved to Oahu when I was 20 years old and got a job working for Windsurfing Hawaii making booms and teaching windsurfing. It was 1984 and everyone was coming back from Maui saying how fantastic the wind was over there. Mike Walsh had only discovered windsurfing on Maui a year earlier and he was the first to sail Ho’okipa; it was the very early days. I rang around on Maui looking for a job and managed to get a hold of some guy named Jimmy Lewis. I told him I did laminating and it turned out his laminator had left the day before. I caught the next flight over, and Jimmy picked me up at the airport and gave me a place to live in the old post office side of his factory. I worked for Jimmy and he gave me the basics of shaping but I also worked for a bunch of people over the years; Dave Daily at Hitech, and Ed Angulo, but the highlight was working for the windsurfing brand F2.
Peter Thommen was the shaper for F2 and they sponsored Bjorn Dunkerbeck and pretty much built all the boards for most of the top World Cup sailors at the time. I got the job when my truck broke down on Maui in the middle of the night. I stopped the next car that came along. Turned out it was Peter Thommen. He gave me a ride up the road and we started talking. He mentioned he built World Cup boards, and I said, “Oh yeah, I do that too.” Peter said, “No no . . . we build World Cup race boards.” I said, “Yeah, me too.” I then asked him if he was using divinycell and carbon as materials and he went quiet. F2 was also trying to work out how to do vacuum bagging at the time and since I’d been doing heaps of that I offered my help. The next day I went down to Peter’s and they gave me a job building boards. I worked for him for many years and that was probably the best job I ever had.
What was so great about working for F2?
F2 had a huge budget. Any new idea we could come up with they’d freight in new materials, and we’d be doing a bunch of experiments with different ways of building boards. If it worked, great, and if it didn’t we weren’t in a place where we had to sell it to make money. We’d just walk away from bad ideas and try the next thing. In those years I learned a lot about materials and the way things ought to be built.
You were at the heart of the windsurfing industry and then you relived the same coming-of-age in kiteboarding. What was that like?
The most fun part of windsurfing was when it was evolving and changing so fast. Sometimes you couldn’t improve the board anymore and then all of a sudden the rigs would change. The evolution in modern rigs would open the door as to how you could shape the board and the designs would leap ahead but then you’d be stuck until the rigs moved again, or the fins, or whatever – it was all connected. Windsurfing became boring when the development slowed because everything was so refined. When kiteboarding was invented it was the most exciting times, because we had no idea what a kiteboard looked like. To have to think, should it be a directional, should it be a twin tip – going through that stage was so exciting. When I think back to the early days of my windsurfing career, the people I formed friendships and interacted with were amazing. Those early adopters took on new ideas; it’s different from when the sport matured. Windsurfing these days is so refined and the people involved are different. The people that got into kiteboarding early were the same kind; the crazies, the dreamers, the kind that thought outside the box. That was what made it interesting.
You were so deeply ingrained in windsurfing, how did you transition to kiteboarding?
After years of living on Maui, my partner Melanie and I had enough of island life and moved back to New Zealand to open a windsurfing factory and shop. It was going quite nicely, building windsurfers and selling them in Christchurch. I missed the conditions in Maui and made a trip back every year, and it was there that I saw Laird Hamilton and others doing downcoasters. At first we laughed at it as a quirky and crazy idea, but when I saw a video of Lou Wainman holding his own and jumping, I was totally drawn into it. I didn’t think of it as a business decision; for me it was the intrigue of figuring out kiteboarding. The first year of it, I pretty much neglected my windsurfing store because I was so focused on how to make a kiteboard work.
Where did you get your first kite and was it inevitable that you would start making kiteboards, given your history?
My first real exposure was when Peter Lynn, who was located an hour south of us, showed up trying to kite in the estuary in front of my windsurfing shop. At that time I was thinking, how am I going to learn to kiteboard, then I look out on the water and there’s Peter and Kane Hartill trying to figure out how to do it. I ran down there to pick his brain and ended up doing some board design for Peter. He sponsored Kane to do the early European kite tour on his kites. This was the first tour with Flash Austin and Franz Olry in the very early days. Kane had taken my boards on the tour, and because some people knew me from windsurfing I started getting inquiries to build boards here in New Zealand and export them all over the world. I used Underground as a brand name for windsurfing since I was 20 years old, so it made sense to build kiteboards under the same name and it absolutely took off from there. We started exporting boards in 1999 and it went from me and a couple guys in the factory to 15 employees working full-time at one stage. It was out of control; we were building a ton of boards and shipping everywhere.
I remember seeing Martin Vari show up at the Waddell Kite Clash on one of your twin tip boards with the flip tips in the early 2000s and that seemed like the beginning of Underground’s presence in the States.
That was the Wavetray. It was an amazing board for the time. When Kane Hartill had come back from the European tour, he was raving about Franz Olry’s twin tip and how it was the future of the sport. We made some production gelcoat boards with twin tip flips and ended up exporting a lot of those to Germany. That board didn’t have flex, and so we started building boards that were more like wakeboards. Models like the Dinnertray, Lunchtray, Fridgdoor – they had flex and they were lighter and thinner. Then we came out with the Wavetray which combined the flex construction with a small step and flip tip on the end. The construction was something we invented ourselves; we built a gelcoat bottom, but before it completely hardened we vacuum bagged and laminated the top onto the bottom. We sold a lot of those around the world and I occasionally bump into someone whose still got one and they’re totally resistant to trying something new. I obviously think things have improved a hell of a lot since then, but some swear it’s the best board they’ve ever ridden.
Of all your contributions to board building during the Underground years, what’s one of the most significant?
As people started jumping higher and someone invented the kite loop, riders were dropping harder on their boards and no matter how we laminated foamcore boards, they just couldn’t handle the sheer factor. I looked to snowboard technology which used poplar wood cores, but that was too heavy for kiteboards. I searched the Internet and worked with my local timber merchant to discover paulownia wood. It’s a sustainable timber, light as balsa but structurally much stronger. The best paulownia was grown in China where they trim the limbs off the first year of growth to get the best millable wood. We first used paulownia wood cores somewhere around 2001-2002 on some pickleforks we built for Extreme Sports Maui. We were the first to use paulownia then and now that material is an industry standard.
You are no longer associated with Underground. How did that come about?
During the early days at Underground we had been growing very rapidly but in 2003 a fire swept through the factory and the retail store burned to the ground. We lost the whole lot. We still had orders and some insurance so we rebuilt the factory from the ground up but it was an incredibly tiring mission. In the following years we made a comeback but the increasing strength of the New Zealand dollar made it uneconomical to export our boards from NZ to the world. We had no choice but to move manufacturing to Asia, but at that stage I hadn’t much experience with manufacturing abroad. Around that period I received an offer from a new factory in China that wanted to buy Underground, employ me to run the company and consult at the factory. It was a great opportunity, so I took it on, but it became apparent that the quality wasn’t there and nobody listened. For me, detail is the most important thing. You can do all the marketing in the world, but if you don’t have your quality right it’s all going to fall over. There are a lot of other reasons, but they ended up going bankrupt. I walked away and once my noncompetition clause was up I was allowed to start another company, so we started Axis, which is now two years old and doing very well.
It must have been hard to watch something you created fall apart just within reach?
It took five years for them to kill it. I’d seen it coming and the process of watching it die was the worst. They didn’t pay attention to small details and they just thought I was a whiner and I had absolutely no control; being unable to do anything about it was pretty depressing. That was one of the great things about starting Axis. Why is it built that way — because I want it built that way. Every part is manufactured the way I want it. Every aspect of our boards is designed by thinking out of the box instead of the same-old same-old, just like everyone else. Little things such as the design of the handle, the construction of our footpads or the new material we use in our straps is thought out and redesigned, not because it was how we did it in the past but because it’s the best way we can possibly do it now.
Design is a balancing act, have you ever made a big mistake?
Last year we tried a revolutionary footstrap and pad design. It almost worked, but not quite. The two-part design allowed an unprecedented amount of adjustment to the footstrap angle. At demos I would show people how to set it up for their foot and they came back and said they really liked it, but users on their own could not get it right. It was a good lesson on strap design, so this year I handed the pad/strap prototype to my non-kiting daughter and she set it up perfectly, no questions. We learned an important lesson on designing for simplicity.
It seems fair to say that you are borderline obsessed with materials and construction processes, but how do you approach designing for feel and performance?
I do a lot of my R&D myself because I can trust myself 100%. I’m very picky on how things feel and I’m quick to pick up the finer differences in boards because I ride a different board almost every session. A lot of riders use the same board for a whole season, so they get on a new board and they can’t even work out what they are doing because it is so different. To be good as a tester you have to be very good at riding a lot of different things and picking out the differences. I’ve got a couple of key guys I work with, for instance Olly Brunton; he’s a team rider in New Zealand that comes with 10 years experience in pro-snowboarding. Sometimes I test with an old friend I grew up surfing with in Auckland. He’s an intermediate kiter at best, but has an analytical mind that’s clever at working things out. I always draw my own conclusions first, working my way forward from there while backing it up with people I respect as team riders and testers.
I like to test boards in the estuary at Christchurch. It’s very easy to test there because it’s a thermal wind, very even and smooth. The wind is the same everyday. The water is very flat and I can lay a bunch of boards out on the beach and test them all back to back. I take two or three passes, doing the same trick, come in and change the board, do the same again and the same again, then go back to the original one and confirm my thoughts about the first board. I also use the feedback from our US team; they’re riding different conditions, different styles, and usually it confirms my thoughts. If everyone is in then I was onto it, it’s right and then we move forward.
You’ve always drawn a sharp line and kept your hands off the kite side of the business. What kites do you ride and why?
I ride the Ozone C4 because it feels just like the kite I learned on many years ago. It’s obviously a modified version, but it feels like something I understand. I tried to ride bow style kites but they didn’t agree with me. I like a kite that has some bar pressure, and when you pull, it actually does something. The C4 jumps high, feels comfortable to ride and it’s a great kite. I know and respect the guys from Ozone. I feel like head designer Rob Whittall is quite similar to me; he’s fanatical and a perfectionist, he looks at everything with a questioning mind. They only do kites, and we only do boards, so it makes sense, but we’re not married. There’s no business connection.
For some years you held the New Zealand windsurfing speed record, yet your role in kiteboarding has been a cross between a brand figurehead and tinkerer/mad scientist rather than an athlete. Do you get out much?
The job requires I do a lot of the things. I work with key team riders around the world to get ideas about the future of the sport because I’m not the most cutting edge rider anymore. I’m in contact with a lot of people, and travel to shows in Germany, US, and Australia. If a new idea comes out of that, I work out the shape, the construction, and do it up on computer to make sure the design is perfect. Nowadays I spend a lot of time in Asia working with factories. The factory where our Axis twin tips are being built is a reasonably new factory and I’ve been involved in correcting some of the ways our boards are built. The job requires a lot of time in factories, fixing things, and making processes work better. There’s a lot involved with designing, manufacturing, working with team riders and doing tradeshows. I don’t have a particular schedule; it’s a matter of working on all the bits and pieces all the time.
You’ve been described as a gentleman farmer. Why so and how has that played a role in your life?
We try to live as sustainably as possible, although complete sustainability is impossible in today’s world. I spend half my time flying around the globe in an airplane, so honestly I’m absolutely failing when it comes to that. We’ve got two girls, they’re 15 and 17 now and we wanted them to have a life of understanding where food comes from. We try to grow a lot of our own food with 60 fruit trees, chickens that lay eggs and veggies growing from the farm’s compost. We try to work on a permaculture type principle with the land and we planted 3000 native trees, and some poulownia as well. We built a house that is sustainably oriented with a passive solar design that heats itself up in the winter and cools itself in the summer. We use a wood burner for cooking and heating water panels throughout the house for warmth. We have wood lots we’ve planted for firewood as well. The walls are insulated with sheep’s wool and the floors are a recycled and refinished basketball court from the local girl’s high school. We did as much as we could ourselves, to show the kids the process and give them an idea of how to do things. We have horses and can ride out the back door for five hours with amazing views and never see anyone. I ride horses because my girls do it; my elder rides competitively. The horses have been a crazy experience. Everything I had done before; surfing, windsurfing, snowboarding — everything was all just a dead fiberglass thing you lean up against the wall when you’re finished. Cooperating with a live animal that has a mind of its own took me a long time to wrap my head around. To get to the stage where I could ride a horse without a saddle and not fall off was a huge learning curve. I enjoyed that process, and I basically did it because my girls were into it. They weren’t into the watersports side of things and it was either wave goodbye to them or be a part of what they were learning and doing. I had a great time with that.
You’ve been around the windsports block twice now, and kiting is at the early stages of embracing foilboarding technology. As a “traditional” kiteboard manufacturer, what are your thoughts on foiling?
It fascinates me because there’s so much potential. I watched how the America’s Cup racing embraced foils and how quickly the San Francisco foilboard racing scene is evolving. I’m not designing foils at the moment, because all the companies building foils right now are specialists. We know how to build boards, so we have foilboards coming out with various mountings to work with the foil mounting systems that are out there. Mounting the foil is a key thing; there are so many mounting systems out there but it’d be nice if we all came up with a sensible system across the board — a completely open source system. I’d like to see something like a slider system with a 10-inch box to spread the load. The current flat mounts with four bones create point loads and the Tuttle box, although clever for it’s paralleled sides that keep the fin from racking back and forwards so it won’t pull itself out of the box, was initially designed for a 300mm fin for windsurfing. With bigger windsurfing fins we had to make deeper boxes and bigger heads, and now they’re sticking foils on there. It doesn’t seem to be the right thing to me, but time will tell.