Turning the career dial back to an early rung on the professional ladder might be a second act typically unthinkable for most of us, but for kitesurfing icon Ben Wilson, a return to his role as a high-profile surf ambassador is one he couldn’t talk himself out of. While the Sunshine Coast kitesurfer is best known for his BWSurf brand and coaching clinics, Ben’s pedigree as one of the biggest icons in the legitimate kitesurfing movement cemented itself under the Slingshot banner back in the mid-2000s. Ben has charged some of the biggest waves and challenged the status quo of kitesurfing within the industry, but as the dust settles on the BWSurf decade, Ben is at a split in the road, and the gravity of team Slingshot is pulling him down a path already traveled.
To understand the iconic achievements of Ben Wilson, you have to look back into Ben’s history. Before the BWSurf kite brand and his decade-long run as a team rider at Slingshot, the pivotal moment in Ben’s lifelong career as a waterman rests with his humble beginnings as a culinary chef. Straight out of high school, a young Ben Wilson entered cooking school with the hopes of gaining a universal skillset that would allow him the mobility to slip in and out of the best surf locations the world had to offer. In 1998, at the critical stage when he was emerging from school, iconic Aussie pro windsurfer and close family friend Scott O’Conner had just bought the lease to a small island in Fiji for $225,000. Determined to create the ultimate windsurfing and surf destination, O’Conner set out to build the legendary Namotu Island Resort and recruited young Ben Wilson to fly out and help the outfit get up to speed.
Namotu and its nearby neighbor, Tavarua, brought surfers from all over the world, and back then, the tow surfers that were pioneering Jaws on Maui would drop in during their off-season. According to Ben, “Guys like Dave Kalama, Robby Naish, Pete Cabrinha, Rush Randall and Mike Walsh weren’t just tow surfing, they brought kites and early hydrofoils on their travels. It was their off-season training, and they did everything.” Of the Maui tow surfing crew, it was Brett Lickle who took the time to show Ben the basics of kiteboarding, improvising on the small beaches of Namotu. When the chaos of the early learning curve cleared, Brett left Ben with a 5m Wipika Classic that Ben combined with an old surfboard with footstraps drilled into the deck””becausethat’s all they had back then. When Robby Naish came through, Ben upgraded to a Naish 7m AR3.5, “the one with the roll-up tips,” and eventually converted to a twin tip board like the rest of the early kiteboarding world.
“While in today’s kitesurfing world, Ben Wilson is an icon of core kitesurfing culture, few people remember Ben’s early days hucking big spins and handlepasses on a twin tip.”
It’d been four years since he arrived and the small Fijian island had long become Ben’s home. He would have never left Namotu had it not been for his growing ambitions to become a professional kite athlete. In 2000, Ben traveled back to Australia to compete in the legendary Merimbula Classic, which was introducing its first kiteboarding title. Landing on the podium in second place, Ben caught the attention of Slingshot’s team manager, Chris Wyman, who was based out of Hood River. A legendary athlete in the windsurfing industry, Wyman invited Ben to tag along on an Aussie road trip that doubled as a mission to set up Slingshot’s Australian distribution channels. Scouring the east coast for kiteboarding opportunities, Wyman helped Ben kickstart his professional kiteboarding career as a Slingshot athlete.
LEFT: Photos from the first Zoo session with Jeff Tobias were printed on just about every kiteboarding magazine cover across the planet. A few years later, Ben returned with photographer John Bilderback and to this day, still can’t forget the ugly steps and heavy rinse job he took on this wave. // Photo John Bilderback RIGHT: Two hours from Ben’s place on the Sunshine Coast, Rainbow Beach, with its side to side-on conditions and a fun punchy beach break, is perfect for unhooking. // Photo Bill Crang
In those early days, the focus of the kiteboarding industry was on freestyle riding with some surf mixed in, but the limited depower in early kites kept wave riders saddled to sharp-edged, low-volume twin tips. In today’s kitesurfing world, Ben Wilson is an icon of core kitesurfing culture, but few people remember Ben’s early days hucking big spins and handlepasses on a twin tip. Despite his surf pedigree from growing up in the waters of Australia’s southeast coast and his super-charged surf resume from guiding trips on Namotu and Tavarua, Ben scored early freestyle contest podiums with the likes of Jeff Tobias and Martin Vari. As one of Slingshot’s prominent athletes, Ben was gaining notoriety throughout the world, and sometime in 2005, he got a call from longtime friend Mauricio Abreu. Having traveled and surfed together, Mauricio was stoked to share how he’d been kiting waves with his conventional surfboard: “You’ve got to try this””it’s a thing,” Mauricio exclaimed over the phone. That call kicked off a new chapter for Ben, not only riding waves with a surfboard but riding waves without straps. Ben stopped chasing the twin tip tour and began traveling the world in search of the best kitesurfing waves, and with that, Slingshot became one of the first brands to support a freeride athlete. Instead of chasing contests and podium bragging rights, Slingshot encouraged Ben to showcase the new surfing side of the sport in the best conditions possible. Ben started pumping out films from his travels: The Unkown Road, The Dirty South and Shades of Green””and quickly began setting the standards of a purist form of kitesurfing.
While Ben wasn’t the only athlete pushing kitesurfing’s progression, he had become one of the earliest and most vocal advocates of a version of kitesurfing that treats the kite as a tow-in vehicle, taking the focus off of the kite and emphasizing the core variables of the surfboard and the wave. In those early years, Ben became the poster boy of unhooked riding, which he imparts the roots of this movement back to Mauricio Abreu. As a pioneer in the early wake-influenced Maui days, “Mauricio did everything unhooked. If you did the trick hooked-in, it didn’t count,” Ben explains. When Ben started unhooking and riding waves with a surfboard, he took the same approach””every wave had to be ridden with the pull of the kite transferring through your front hand. “This style of riding opened up your whole body and felt the most like surfing. This is what I wanted kitesurfing to feel like,” said Ben, “I began to think of the kite as a vehicle to get into the waves, and once you had the power of the wave, you’d kill the power of the kite and rip the wave like you were surfing, completely open and free.” Looking back at his committed unhooked days, Ben acknowledges that his outlook was narrow-minded. When he filmed his movie The Unknown Road, he recalls having lots of good hooked-in footage from when the conditions weren’t ripe for unhooking; after all, “you need good conditions to make unhooked kitesurfing look right.” Ben’s purist commitment to principle required that everything had to be unhooked, so all the hooked-in footage, no matter its merit, was cut from the movie.
“Aerials were the pinnacle of everything you could possibly do in the surf . . . If Vari was making 10 airs hooked-in, I was making one while unhooked, and this started to open my mind.”
When kites with supported leading edges and greater depower arrived in 2006 and were refined over the following years, Ben’s views on hooked-in riding adapted. “With C-kites, it wasn’t a huge advantage to be hooked-in because you didn’t have the depower or sheeting, but with the new kites, the equation changed.” For Ben, it was the art of surf aerials that softened his views. “It was super hard to do airs unhooked, and aerials were the pinnacle of everything you could possibly do in the surf.” Ben watched as Martin Vari completed his transition from freestyle to hooked-in kitesurfing while punting massive airs. “If Vari was making 10 airs hooked-in, I was making one while unhooked, and this started to open my mind.” Having come to terms with the reality that surfing isn’t always about down-the-line wave riding, Ben’s vision for doing in-the-wave aerials required depower to successfully stomp them in all kinds of conditions. “Once you nailed a new type of air, it was sick, and the transition happened quickly. With unhooked riding having been so technical, after hooking back in, airs felt so easy.”
On the broader question of legitimacy, the kiteboarding industry has always faced an imperceptible barrier when it comes to converting surfers into kitesurfers. Some believe it to be an optics issue while others think it has more to do with the technicality of the equipment. From the moment he started riding surfboards, Ben became determined to break this barrier. In 2010, Ben started his coaching clinics to spread his passion for kitesurfing, connect with people and share his knowledge. Having traveled the world tirelessly for 10 years as Slingshot’s frontman in the surf, he also chose this time to part ways with the brand and launch BWSurf with the intention of building surf-specific equipment that would open up kitesurfing to mainstream surfers. “All I wanted with BWSurf was to create a great kitesurfing experience, knowing that people could grab a kite, have a safe session with no issues and love what they were riding.” The early years at BWSurf were driven by Ben’s passion for surf-specific products and innovation, but the challenges of maintaining a small business were omnipresent. Having forged itself as a niche brand with a loyal following, BWSurf ’s revenues were bounded by its narrow focus on surf products that banked on the idea that the mainstream surf world would finally let go of its resistance to kitesurfing. No matter how far the surf side of kiting had come, the technical gear and the lesson-based learning curve were just a step too far from surfing’s minimalist approach, and the soul of surfing would not broaden its horizons. As BWSurf rolled into survival mode, the pandemic dealt the company its final blow, and in July of 2020, Ben recorded a goodbye video that announced BWSurf ’s plans to stop producing products.
A visual comparison of Ben under the lip with Cloudbreak operating in two different modes. Ben illustrates the point; surfing with a kite is still very much surfing, the kite is just a vehicle to get into the wave. // Photos Scott Winer
After shedding the logistics and financial pressures of running a kite brand, Ben shifted his attention to his coaching weeks. “Having been burned out on the business side, all I wanted to do was get back to the feeling I had in the first few years, where it was all exciting.” Since taking over the General Manager position of Namotu in 2018, Ben was situated in the perfect position to double down on his clinics and keep life simple. As news of BWSurf ’s closure circulated the globe, he began receiving messages from several prominent brands that were interested in working with him. “It was good for the ego, but at that point, I just wasn’t thinking of getting back into the brand game.” After multiple conversations with friends in the industry, there was this consistent opinion that Ben’s talent and notoriety would go to waste if he wasn’t connected to a brand. Ben’s old friend Mauricio set up a meeting with Slingshot’s Brand Manager Alex Fox, and Ben touched base with old contacts from his early days that were still working at the Hood River headquarters. “I had been trying to find a reason not to join forces with a brand, but everything at Slingshot felt so right.” After using some of the products and talking with Slingshot’s CEO, Jeff Logosz, the Slingshot surf program seemed to be the perfect fit for both Ben’s personal riding and product development goals as well as his coaching clinics. Having worked hard to bring Ben back, Brand Manager Alex Fox celebrated the move. “I can’t say anything about Ben’s riding that the world doesn’t already know. His name is synonymous with progression, and we couldn’t be more honored to welcome him home. His input and direction on product development as well as his experience and knowledge of the industry will prove invaluable to the Slingshot brand.”
Looking back, Ben recalls those days in the early 2000s when Slingshot began changing the kite industry with groundbreaking designs like its one-pump system and split strut canopy construction. With a front-row seat to past innovations coming out of Tony Legosz’s R&D department, Ben reckons Tony to be the kite industry’s shining source for off-the-wall inventions. “Tony’s like a mad scientist; so innovative, so forward-thinking”” there are so many crazy ideas that he is playing with at one time.” When asked to compare Slingshot’s R&D back then to now, Ben points out, “In the early days, Tony was a one-man team, but now the Slingshot R&D department has a full staff of engineers and testers that handle the day-to-day deliverables.” Ben laughs, “The new Slingshot design department must be a really scary thing for other brands because Tony is in his element working on crazy creative concepts””and when he nails something, he’s got a full team that can refine ideas and reliably push products to the market.”
Having managed the BWSurf design pipeline, Ben intimately understands the gauntlet between concept, implementation and production. Upon returning to Slingshot, he has taken particular note of the refinements made to the company’s design, testing and production process that produce a platform like the SST surf kite. At the same time, Ben has signed on with Ride Engine as his harness and accessory source. Having introduced the first hardshell harnesses to the industry circa 2012, Ride Engine is embarking on a new phase of growth and innovation in its product lines. “Ride Engine makes insane products, and they’re building everything I use across all disciplines””from surf traction pads to leashes, each product is perfectly dialed.”
As hard as he may have tried, Ben Wilson couldn’t resist the natural gravity of brand life, particularly because it was Slingshot that was calling. Spinning clichÃ©s of poetic full circles, Ben’s step back from BWSurf is actually a giant stab forward for the Australian kitesurf icon. Having spent 10 years earning a crash course master’s degree in brand mechanics at the controls of BWSurf, Ben doesn’t regret his time away from Slingshot. “The life lessons during those years have brought a lot of value for me; you always learn the most in the middle of your biggest challenges,” he says. While much has changed for Ben, now a husband and father of three, his passion for creating kite products and connecting with people is still his calling. Back on the Slingshot team, Ben has lined up all the perks of product innovation and support without the distractions of day-to-day operations, which opens up more time to get back to the lifestyle of kitesurfing. As a surf ambassador, Ben’s perch on Namotu is the ideal testing ground for a company like Slingshot that has its hands in so many watersports, whether that’s surfing with a kite, foilsurfing or the early days of wingsurfing. “I’m grateful to be in this position””the timing couldn’t be better,” says Ben. With Slingshot at his side, Ben has been released from his past and has reloaded for the next chapter in the kitesurfing history books.
This article was featured in Tkb’s Summer 2021 issue, Vol. 18, No. 2. To read more from this issue click here.