It’s late summer in Newport, Rhode Island at the 2016 Foiling Week convention where leading designers and athletes from around the world have converged to discuss the advancements in foiling technology. Don Montague takes the stage to reveal the designs used on his kiteboat, identifying what can be done with hydrofoil technology when you aren’t bound by competitive sailing’s class rules. Contrasting the physics of kite pull against conventional sail plans and lengthy dissertations on innovative foil control mechanisms, as Don reaches the end of his presentation, a packed crowd of boat designers backed by aerospace degrees and multi-million dollar America’s Cup budgets erupts into a thunderous roar of approval.
It’s not the crowd’s overwhelming response to Don’s kiteboat technology that’s remarkable, rather, it’s that this dyslexic high school dropout has managed to continually exist at the forefront of innovation across watersports, renewable energy and now foil technology, in a wind related career that spans almost 35 years.
Don does not sit still; he’s a force in motion. Anyone close to him will tell you about his easy going and compassionate psyche, yet underneath, he’s brimming with the drive and passion to push forward any one of his many projects. Montague has a determination in his voice that blends the paradox of technical accuracy with the laid back drawl of island pigeon—a quasi compendium of his early days in the watersports haven of Maui with his current residence in the techtropolis of the San Francisco Bay Area—yet perhaps most noticeable in Don’s speech patina is remnants of his Canadian childhood.
Having left his hometown of Vancouver, Canada at the age of 18 without a high school diploma and only the belongings he could pack into his 1969 Volkswagen bus, Don headed south to Santa Barbara with vague plans to crash with his grandmother while attending college near the beach. According to Don, he didn’t have a goal beyond getting better at the fledgling sport of windsurfing, nor did he have the money to enroll at Santa Barbara City College; but neither of these things stopped him from posing as his cousin in order to attend class. Dabbling in practical courses such as drafting and celestial navigation, his illustrious college career ended after four months when his cousin began dating the daughter of a professor and Don’s creative educational arrangement was quickly discovered and terminated.
With the help of Santa Barbara friend Martin Lenny (father of superstar Kai Lenny), Montague headed to Maui with $400 in his pocket and a promised crash pad on the floor of island famous surfer Brad Lewis. It was 1982 and Don found himself surrounded by windsurfing icons like Malte Simmer and David Ezzy. Despite experiencing “every catastrophe in windsurfing you can imagine,” Don poured himself into the waves and racing on a local level before competing on the Windsurfing World Cup tour in 1984. Because Don was smaller than most, he was forced to experiment with his equipment and soon became both an athlete and head sail designer for Gaastra. While Don made some lateral moves within the leading windsurfing companies, in 1995, when Robby Naish left Gaastra to establish Naish Sails, Don, along with Pete Cabrinha, joined him for the ride.
While Don had relocated to Hawaii in order to be at the epicenter of innovation in windsurfing, the non-existent sport of kitesurfing would eventually follow suit and join him at the heart of windsports in Maui. At first there were very few that saw the potential in the unrefined kite technology of its time. In 1992 Cory Roeseler introduced his water skis, reel bars and traction kites to Don, but as an experienced windsurfing designer, Don identified the key stumbling blocks: water relaunch, equipment complexity and the challenges of going upwind. While he did some rudimentary experimentation in the years that followed, it wasn’t until 1996 when Manu Bertin, a Naish sponsored windsurfer, showed Don a sample of the Legaignoux brothers’ inflatable kite that he felt many of his misgivings about kite design had been solved.
Don began to experiment with the potential of kites. However, as the head of R&D at a windsurfing company, he’d build his early prototypes in secret because very few of his fellow windsurfers shared his optimism—and with good reason: you couldn’t stay upwind. Don vividly remembers the day he was able to remain upwind at Ho’okipa on a surfboard and an inflatable; the introduction of the 4-line concept allowed you to depower the kite by changing the angle of attack. That was the moment Don knew kitesurfing was finally a viable product that was ready for widespread adoption.
Those early years at Naish saw an incredible pace of innovation; Naish released the first production 4-line kite and Don pioneered the push away quick release and trim loop as one of the most fundamental improvements to safety as well as the commonplace 3D segmented leading edges and strut systems designers use to shape canopies today. He also worked to develop many of the gear features we have long taken for granted: wind-able bar ends, octopus inflation systems and pump leashes.
Ironically enough, despite Don’s laundry list of essential kitesurfing inventions, one of his most significant innovations at Naish was the time and energy he poured into developing software. Naish had built proprietary software that allowed windsurfing sails to be designed on a computer and sent to a factory in China for immediate production. Once they hacked that software to accommodate the considerably more complex patterns of a kite, Don recalls, “We could build five prototypes a day in China and the only thing slowing us down was FedEx.” While the technology behind today’s kite R&D puts most brands on the same playing field, in those early days, Naish was building close to 350 prototypes a year which Don says allowed them to refine their product light years ahead of everyone else.
Don’s greatest contribution to the kite industry might be an unprecedented pace of R&D for the nascent years of the sport, but there were always technical problems that rapid fire prototyping couldn’t solve. He remembers spending four months at the factory in China trying to keep his initial kites flying in a straight line and prevent the leading edge from warping. Eventually, Don learned that the orientation of the panels within the various segments of the leading edge had to be offset to cancel one another out. While this period taught Don a great deal about tension and load between the canopy and the frame and helped tremendously in the development of early Naish products, it also illustrates Don’s predisposition to solving problems. Looking back, Don has learned everything he needs to know outside of a classroom. According to Don, “Structured environments make it very difficult to focus, but if I have passion, then I can identify the problem, learn the tool for the task and make it happen.” While Don’s dyslexia caused him to struggle in school, he has excelled at every task he’s applied himself to ever since.
The problem solving process in kiteboarding will never be complete, but by 2004, many of the core challenges faced by the consumer kitesurfing market had been resolved. Design focus shifted to optimizing material usage and lowering costs amidst higher oil prices rather than pushing the cutting edge of development. The kitesurfing market had become much more competitive, and in this new landscape, Don’s focus shifted to other projects. He had experimented with connecting kites to outrigger surfing canoes as early as 1999, but returned to the kiteboat as a means of sharing the solo kiteboarding experience with friends and the goal of improving the age-old concept of wind-powered boats by injecting the efficiency of kites.
Like much of what Don does, the concept of powering a boat with a kite may seem both whimsical and impractical to the narrow-minded kitesurfing obsessed athlete, yet the applications of industrial-sized kite power is an immensely fertile field for those that have a vision. Having left Naish, Don formulated a proposal with Red Bull to pursue his personal goal of sailing a kiteboat around the world; but having crossed paths in windsurfing and kiteboarding with Google’s founders, it was his long-standing friendships with Larry Page and Sergey Brin that convinced Don to “come save the world” and work on a renewable energy project.
With the caveat that there would be funding to further develop his kiteboat technology, Don joined Makani Power, a research outfit focused on high altitude wind turbines capable of harnessing the winds aloft to create energy. Don’s milestone while at Makani was flying the initial kite-based platform for 30 continuous hours of completely autonomous flight while generating electricity, but managing a small army of engineers with a yearly budget of $10 million quickly removed Don from the trenches of the innovation process. In 2008 Don secured funding for his kiteboat project from the Marine Science Technology Foundation and with the long term goal of setting a speed record from California to Hawaii, he formed an eight-person team to focus entirely on the technology behind his kiteboat endeavor.
“Honestly, the thing about Don is that he surrounds himself with ridiculously freaking capable people—the guy knows talent,” says Don’s lead fabricator and right-hand man, Joe Brock. When the laughter subsides, it’s obvious there’s a hint of truth in Joe’s self-serving compliment. Joe came onboard in the early days at Makani with an unused physics degree in mining and 10 years of commercial fishing experience in Alaska; he was unemployed and on his way to Mexico when he stopped by Makani’s warehouse to say hi to a friend. Don was out of town for the week but Joe stuck around to work for free and when Don returned, Joe was already elbow-deep in the tech of the renewable project and integrated into the momentum of the team. As Joe tells it, his interview consisted of “who are you, where did you come from and how much money do you need?” While Don’s hiring process can be far from conventional, he’s managed to routinely surround himself with technically skilled individuals that share his passion and intensity.
Spending a day with Don is a whirlwind of activities—ride this, feel that, watch this thing fly—it’s a non-stop tour of Don’s creative energy manifested in both success and failures of innovation, the latter being just another waypoint on the road of progress. With mini spinoff products all over the place, some commercialized some not, Don’s role in this seemingly unstructured factory of innovation is sometimes hard to grasp. Don is equally at ease expounding upon the infinitesimal details of physics as he is mixing a batch of resin and laminating carbon sheets with the rest of the team.
Most importantly, Don gets the larger picture: the application of his technology’s value to the consumer. He talks about creating ‘moments’—the circumstances of where his technology is relevant to people and puts his work into context by weaving stories. To this end, Don explains how he gets his funding. “I’m surrounded by people that are very smart. Some people have technical skillsets, but I have this momentum-building skillset. I have passion and vision and am able to connect these people together and set them in a direction. Then, because of the passion and the vision in the projects we work on, we are able to get funded.”
In the massive hangar of an abandoned Air Force base in Alameda, Don’s company Kai Concepts exists as a free form of work stations—a state of the art milling machine and tooling section in the northwest corner and a loosely organized kite R&D section in the south—but front and center is the next generation kiteboat taking shape. The focal point is a half-built trimaran, a hulking machine that looks like a stealth fighter in a full carbon layup. Don casually mentions there’s about a million dollars worth of carbon and labor in his latest hull, which gives you a rough estimate of the economic scale of the operation he’s got going. While Don’s true passion is the kiteboat, take one walk through his fun factory and you’ll realize he’s got his hands into just about everything: kites, foils, drones and massive rectangular inflatable floating docks which he’s designed to solve the problem that he innocently asks, “How else would you launch a kite from the two-story deck of your mega yacht?”
In Don’s world there’s no limits; there’s no lines drawn between what flies in the air and what skims over water, but in that cross-pollination, there is a lot to be learned. The circles in which Don moves offers a myriad of multi-project collaborations with the avant-garde of tech innovation, and while he is guarded of his high profile network, kiteboarding and innovation have connected him with Silicon Valley’s technical elite; guys like Elon Musk, who, according to Don, when it comes to kiteboarding he’s just a normal guy, yet in real life he’s thinking 1000x out of the box.
While Don’s passion is in the future of kiteboats, these days his team is focused on building a new watersport—an electrically powered foilboard aptly named the Jetfoiler. It’s a fascinating return to consumer product development for Don after a 10-year hiatus in the removed worlds of sustainable energy and kiteboating.
In some ways, it’s low hanging fruit; it only makes sense to take the foilboard and connect it with electric propulsion as both a form of wakeless transportation over water and as every middle-aged kid’s next new toy. Within less than a year, Don’s team has built a proof of concept from off-the-shelf parts into a highly refined custom-built carbon product with onboard computer systems that maximize efficiency and fun. The heart of the Jetfoiler program is pure data collection, however, Don imagines there will be plenty of knockoffs—but they won’t have the R&D data and the technology required to deliver a highly refined standout product. Regardless, Don’s long game in foil technology is much broader than a single person playcraft, which seems to be a consistent theme in his approach to innovation—discovering the next big thing.
When it comes to intellectual property and control of inventive technology, Don is quick to acknowledge this as a hot topic in kiteboarding. As an early innovator in kite tech, he seems to be disappointed by the use of patents as a form of licensing or competitive restriction. Much of what he has learned from the kiteboat and Jetfoiler is shared online. According to Don, “anyone could build a kiteboat” – in some sense it’s an open source approach to keeping the field free from extortionist patent trolls. While Don admittedly has a stack of provisional patent applications to file, he has no interest in slowing down the overall pace of innovation; he just wants to make sure no one corners the IP of the industry and gets in the way of his long-term goals.
Don attributes passion and vision as the essential ingredients fueling a career of innovation. His underlying motivation is connecting people with powerful experiences, “These are just moments in time when you gather with your friends and feel something you’ve never done before”—whether it’s kiting down a massive bomb in an outrigger canoe at Outer Sprecks, hovering 34 knots over San Francisco Bay on a high-tech kiteboat or spending an afternoon sharing the transcendental flying feeling of the Jetfoiler with athletes like Ruben Lenten and Kevin Langeree—these are the moments Don wants everyone to experience. He warns of getting stuck on one aspect within kiteboarding and instead suggests that we should focus on discovering new moments: “Pursue everything kiteboarding has to offer and do it for the right reasons—to have fun—because every day you don’t is one less day that you can.”
Words by Brendan Richards