Starboard’s Head of Brand and Design talks theory, innovation and why he still loves windsurfing.
Words & Photos John Carter
Mechanical engineering has given me a different approach to board design. Most people design from an intuitive process where you windsurf, you feel something and you keep refining it intuitively. The way we learnt to design in engineering is to draw from theories of physics, materials, mechanics and dynamics using established concepts that have been developed and quantified over hundreds of years. You get this different understanding of how windsurfing equipment works, so often a new prototype or some methods I’d use would look counter-intuitive to people. I would make prototype after prototype to test various theories and learn step by step how to apply findings into our board ranges. Let’s say you wanted to build a bridge. You could sort of figure it out how to do it yourself from scratch intuitively or you could benefit from hundreds of years of bridge building skills by learning first from proven theories and from people who have experience on how to make a bridge; that’s a big advantage. I think that is where my background has helped a lot. I love understanding how the wind works. You don’t see it as wind, you see it as molecules of air moving at different speeds, moving from high pressure to low pressure areas, you see things in terms of transfer of energy, frictional losses and streamlines. It is a different way of seeing how windsurfing works. Through that, you can design things that maybe other people might not have thought of.
It was exciting to make the inflatable AirPlane windsurf boards. That makes you feel like a pioneer, like you are discovering something new and breaking new ground. The refining, iterative process after we’ve launched a new concept however is not so much fun for me. That is fine though because we have a lot of people in the team that enjoy improving and refining our model ranges for new model years. That job is maybe where I get a little bit bored but whenever a new challenge comes up, I get fired up. Right now, Philip Koster really wants to make a perfect Maui board as he has not managed to find anything that suits his size, style and weight. That’s a chance for me to jump in there and use my own methods. I like that sort of fresh challenge.
I am originally from Cambodia and of French nationality, brought up in the Middle East in Qatar. I learnt to windsurf in Qatar and moved between there and France a lot when I was young. I did a period of schooling in France then finished my university education in London at UCL. Living in Highbury, I even started supporting Arsenal. I moved to Thailand straight from London. I was in my finals at university and at the time I still wanted to follow up on my childhood dream of becoming a professional shaper. I originally wanted to start my own custom brand but before doing that I thought it would be good to gain some industry experience. So I wrote to all the brands. Svein offered me a cool internship at Starboard so I headed over to Thailand for three or four months. From there I just stayed on and have been here for sixteen years now. I’ve always wanted to be a shaper. My original plan way back then was to introduce a really lean mass-production CNC board manufacturing method that would give you the best of both worlds; individual custom boards but made in a production line fashion. Maybe one day that will still happen. A good retirement project for me perhaps.
When I wake up I think of coffee. Every day for me is like a big football game. Every new collection is like a new championship season. I wake up, psyche myself up and plan the approach to the work that needs to get done and how I can achieve one hundred per cent out of the day, from A to Z and in every detail, in every move and every strategy while always making sure I’m efficient in the long term. I really can’t stand wasted time and wasted work. That’s my approach, it is hard to explain.
Svein is one of those people that just blow you away. Professionally I can imagine it was like working with Steve Jobs. They both have the vision and the drive, the famous reality distortion field. They make the difference and influence industries for generations to come. You hear Steve Jobs could also be difficult to work with and Svein is no different there either, but you understand the reason for it. Svein has a fascinating way of shaping how things will be, of seeing now what most don’t see until years later. Let’s say you really respect a person for the decisions they make with their brain, but the more you get to know Svein you respect even more the decisions he makes with his heart. That is what makes him really amazing. I would certainly call him my mentor. There are many times when I have been the young arrogant, ‘so sure of himself’ kid and he would let me do my thing and three years later I’d figure out for myself what he meant. Funny thing is, he knew that from the start.
“ I studied mechanical engineering; it has given me a different approach to board design ”
Shamal is the name of my original custom board brand that I created when I was a kid. I was looking for a name for the sunglass brand I’ve started and everytime I tried to force a brand name out it just didn’t sound right. So I decided to just use a name that I already had and that was already associated with the sport and my story. The idea of the brand is about representing the windsurfing lifestyle, so that we are not just an industry about equipment. If you think about it, almost the whole windsurf industry is fuelled by revenue from selling gear: boards, sails, masts and booms. What we need now is for people to buy windsurfing fashion brands as opposed to Ray Ban or Oakley. For example, every time a windsurfer buys an Oakley pair of sunglasses, a Nixon Watch or a Rip Curl T-shirt, none of that money goes back into windsurfing. I thought, what if we create our own brands that stand for what we as windsurfers like and with that revenue, sponsor windsurfers, windsurfing events and promote windsurfing images to the high-street public and on TV. Feed money back into the sport and create a marketing mechanism for windsurfing. With just a drive for equipment, we are not marketing to the high-street public through fashion like how surfing, running and other big sports industries are doing. What if we could do that? What if growth of windsurfing would come not as an equipment-industry but as a lifestyle-industry? That idea is what I hope to catalyse with Shamal.
There is always so much to do. You see this mountain ahead of you and there is something that just drives you to climb it. For me, every once in a while when I lose my way and question what I am doing, I like to go on a windsurfing trip with friends or the team. There was a time when I went to visit Tris Best at the OTC with some friends in December as I thought it would be fun. Once I arrived there it was so cold I was like, why am I going windsurfing in this horrible weather. It was actually a mild December for the UK but to me it was freezing. The wind was offshore at Weymouth and it turned out to be the best windsurfing session I had all year. The water was flat and people were watching from the road; I was riding gear without thinking about work – pure fun with some good windsurfing friends. That for me is the lifestyle about windsurfing that I enjoy and it keeps the drive going.