Monday, June 25, 2012

A Tribute to Jim Drake

"Every time Jim Drake goes windsurfing, he re-writes the history. The reason is simple. No one, anywhere, has been windsurfing longer than Jim Drake."

The Winston-Salem Journal reported: Jim Drake, an aeronautical engineer credited with inventing windsurfing in the late 1960s, died Tuesday (June 19) at his home in Pfafftown, NC. He was 83. Drake died of complications of emphysema, said Holly Fleming, his daughter. Drake accomplished many achievements in his life, Fleming and two friends said Thursday. "He was highly educated, but he could talk to anyone," Fleming said. "He was an excellent father. He had friends all over the world who share his love of outdoor sports and sailing."

Drake developed a workable design for attaching a sail to a surfboard in 1967. He built a prototype. On May 15, 1967, he took it to California's Marina del Rey to test it. Fred Wikner of Bethesda, Md., Drake's friend and colleague, said that Drake designed the technology behind a windsurfing board, including an attached sail that could help control the board...

Bill Mai, who teaches screenwriting and film making at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, said he has known Drake for 45 years. "He led an incredible, incredible life," Mai said. "He was a generous man. He never held a grudge against anyone. We are all going to miss Jim."

Drake is survived by his wife, Sam, his daughter, Holly Fleming, and five other children from his first marriage.

Starboard Windsurfing Academy wrote: The very first thoughts and ideas of the original Windsurfer actually relates back to the early 60's, when Jim Drake discussed the concepts of wind powered water skis and surfboards with his good friend Fred Payne. However, the thought at time was to use kites rather than conventional rigs. Still, nothing really happened until several years later, when Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer got together and actually built a board in Jim's house in California. It was January 1967, but details such as centerboard, fin and the actual universal joint were not even close to finalization. In fact, Drake was still trying to figure out how the sail could be mounted and the board could be controlled. It was months later during one of Drake's commuting drives to his work place at the Norton Air force base in Southern California that he clicked on the idea of a moveable sail.

Jim Drake took his family and the new contraption he called "The Skate" to the beach on May 23rd. 1967. No one on that beach could have known that the grey haired gentleman they had watched rigging was about to make history.

American Windsurfer Magazine (now out of business) 1996 interview: Jim tells his story of the earliest days of windsurfing...the evolution. This is how the interview ended:

AW: The sport has really changed hasn't it?
JD: Yes it has. Oh yes.
AW: How do you feel about that?
JD: I have an optimistic view about the sport. It certainly, at least, has hit a plateau, and I think the reason it has reached this plateau is because there are some natural barriers to participating in the sport. Some are brought on by the media and some are brought on by nature.

The one that's brought on by the media is the picture of the sport as being this athletic circus trick of jumping waves and whirling around this great wide ocean. Well, that's simply not what the sport is. Just not at all. It has much more broad application and pleasures to it. Because people who are athletically inclined but not as superbly coordinated as Robby [Naish] can enjoy the sport in many regards without having to ever get airborne. I think that's a media created problem for the sport. But it's hard not to be more energized first with spectacular photos though than it is for calm lakes and all.

I think that the natural barrier that has come about, which perhaps technically can be breached, is the wind barrier, on the low side. If the sport were able to create a board and sail which allows pleasurable fun for the not very good, in 8 ? 10 knots of wind, two things would happen. First, the number of sailing spots would go up by a factor of ten. And second, the number of people who can do this, or the number of people who can now see themselves as actually participating in the sport would go up by ten thousand. So for notch reduction, and the lower limit of the wind speed for the board, you'll create several factors, wind spots and people. That's just natural. But hey, if I were so smart, I'd be as rich as Hoyle! [Both Laugh]

Eddy and Jim
Eddy Patricelli (former editor of WindSurfing): ...for all the controversy surrounding Jim's role (or non-role) in "inventing" windsurfing, what was lost in the debate were his ongoing contributions to the sport. He was designing boards and fins for Starboard. He was writing articles for me and others. He was out there, at events, on the water, flying to Thailand! He was a member of the windsurfing community. I think everyone can agree he played a role in creating windsurfing, but to what extent shouldn't overshadow his contributions since then, he wasn't that young -- and he was involved! Eddy continues:

My voice trembled the first time I called Jim Drake. I had landed a dream job at WindSurfing Magazine. Only it was more of a nightmare. The editor had quit. I was working alone, under deadline, and in way over my head. And now I was calling Jim Drake, the man who helped invent a sport that had given my life purpose, surrounded me with a tribe of friends, and had me traveling the world.

As the phone rang, I pondered how one starts a conversation with someone their life has been so connected to, so in debt to, but without them knowing. All trepidation vanished in Jim’s “hello.” He sounded humble, friendly, and genuinely happy to be chatting about his, “favorite topic.” Within minutes, he was pitching story ideas. “Don’t pay me,” he insisted. “Let’s just have some fun.” I hung up the phone feeling comforted. The job before me wasn’t so daunting, not with Jim peppering my inbox with articles.

He was passionate about his contributions, yet open to feedback, even when it meant cutting a 200-word intro paragraph that offered – in the first lines – math equations detailing the physics of a planning hull.“Why did you cut it?” he cried over the phone. I told him I cut it to simplify things; to make it easier to get people into the article. Long silence. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” he shrugged. And just like that – poof! “So what are we doing next?”

There was always a “next” with Jim. He hounded me like a teenager when his Starboard Serenity – a 15’ long board – was released. “Well, what’d you think? What can we improve?”

Once he sent me the same email twice over an hour. He was excited to share how he’d used computer software to overlay graphic illustrations onto a photo. Finally, he was able to show the forces at play when a windsurfer planes, minus all the pesky equations. The layout appeared in WindSurfing’s 25th Anniversary issue. It’s one of my favorites, though not for what’s shown on the page. The layout embodies Jim being Jim: driven, focused, relentless in his search for better solutions.

Years later, when I accepted a job on another magazine (Islands), Jim Drake was one of the first people I called. My voice trembled a little. The news I carried meant our collaborations would end. But I had to call him. I was grateful for the sport he helped create, for the help he volunteered to me, but most of all I was grateful for his friendship. I will miss him.

Jim and Svein
Starboard's Svein Rasmussen said:  His spirit was always to include everyone and especially women and kids into windsurfing. Jim and his wife Sam spent years with us in Thailand developing designs and strategies to increase the popularity of windsurfing. He was always optimistic and especially happy to challenge the status quo. His view on “one design” versus free choice of windsurfing gear for the Olympics was well known. His designs, like the Formula 175, the world's most winning race board ever took competitive windsurfing to a new level.

Scott McKercher: It is with great sadness to hear of Jim’s passing and reflect on a life that was truly remarkable. It is no secret that he was a man with incredible intelligence and vision. If it wasn’t for this, my life involving and revolving around windsurfing would never have come about, which is a debt that I and every windsurfer carries. I would not be who I am.

Jim and Sam
I mostly saw Jim at the Starboard offices in Bangkok or dealer meetings. But you could see when he brought his lovely wife Sam was when he was at his best. This is where I saw how much of a lover of life they were, in appreciating simple moments together, thus defining love. I loved the passion put into everything he did, as he took so much time to explain everything with thought. And I remember very fondly the energy and thought that went into making sure the “Vodka martini” was made to perfection, thus to be appreciated at it’s highest level, which I’m pretty sure was a consistency that prevailed through everything he did. Those Vodka Martinis were damn fine. I got to hear the way he spoke about Sam and see the way he would dote after her. Bringing breakfast in the morning like it was the morning after someone had first met and he was trying to impress.

US Patent 3847800
Pete Dekay, Windsport: I only got to meet Jim Drake a couple of times but it was always memorable. On each occasion I would leave our conversation somehow more stoked on windsurfing. I proudly display a framed copy of the “windsurfer” patent on my office wall and it will always bring back all my fond memories of this incredible man. We all need to carry on the windsurfing spirit of Jim Drake—it is what windsurfing really is!

Mac Barnhardt: A few years ago not long after getting that license plate (WNDSRFR), while walking out of a restaurant after a customer lunch meeting, I noticed a torn off piece of paper under my wiper blades. It said “Do you windsurf? Email me at xxxxxx, Jim Drake”.

I’m fairly knowledgeable about windsurfing, so I knew who Jim Drake was. But it couldn’t possibly be him. For those of you reading this who don’t know who Jim Drake is, he is widely considered to be the “father of windsurfing”. He invented windsurfing (with Hoyle Schweitzer) in 1967...

But this had to be a joke. I live in North Carolina. Doesn’t Jim Drake live in California or Hawaii? Whoever it was must have seen my personalized windsurfing license plate. Someone had to be playing a joke on me. I bit however and sent an email to that address. I said something to the effect of “If you’re not the real Jim Drake, stop being cruel and leave me alone. But if you are the real Jim Drake, by all means...please reply.”

I got a response. He claimed to be the real Jim Drake. We corresponded a couple of times via email until I was satisfied it was no joke and we finally decided to meet for lunch, at the same restaurant I found the note. Turns out Jim and his wife had friends who lived in the area and had convinced them to move there from California...

If it had not been for that very personalized license plate that I was agonizing over, I would never have met the father of windsurfing himself. So thank you Kris for the wonderful gift that kept on giving and...thank you Jim for bringing us the best sport in the world. My life has been truly enriched by windsurfing and I know I speak for many people when I say we’re all very grateful. More from Water Turtle.

Clay Feeter, Stand Up Journal: I am so sorry to hear about Jim's passing. I have and often sail the Serenity windsurf board that he designed, and of course we all owe him such a debt of eternal gratitude for teaming up with Hoyle Schweitzer in 1966 to create an accessible universal joint/wishbone system that launched us all on new paths via the sport of WINDSURFING (an industry base that plays such a huge role in today's SUP explosion).

If not for Jim's engineering mind, who knows how many days of flying solo on our windsurf boards across the water we would have missed... or if the great sport of windsurfing would have even happened at all!! But bottom line about Jim Drake: he was such a gentle, caring man who took the time to look you in the eye and communicate what was on his mind.

Our thoughts go out to his family, loved ones and all those touched by his time on this Earth... which is more than even Jim could imagine.

Ellen Faller: In reality, I can't begin to pick ONE remembrance of Jim Drake that would mean anything to anyone other than myself. He was one of the most intelligent, okay...brilliant people I have ever met, with most interesting "take" on life, thoughtful, observant, and amusing. In many ways the most modest but forceful person I've ever met. I am truly grateful to have met him, enjoyed his company, his martinis, his views on windsurfing, and his stories. I have been windsurfing since 1980, and am windsurfing and teaching even now, but it meant so much more after I met him. One little story: on my first day at Starboard HQ, at Lake Taco in 2003, lunch was being served and Jim was across the table from me. I'd been in Thailand all of 12 hours, jet-lagged to the extreme, and hungry. I found him looking at me. Then he said "Ellen, the orange things are NOT carrots and I think you will find them rather hot." I don't eat "hot" food, at all, period, end of story, and was apparently in need of a warning to his observation. Good thing! Jim could eat the hottest food imaginable to me, and loved it. I could not. I don't know how he knew, but I really appreciated the warning. I'd still be up on the ceiling, flames coming out my ears, without his warning.

In all, Jim Drake was a man I will never forget, and will always appreciate in so many ways.

Roger Jackson: How was the "uphaul" invented? Well, Jim had designed the mechanical U joint for his first sail powered surf board (it was not called a Windsurfer yet..... just a sailboard). He sewed up a sail, got a mast that looked about right and made up a wishbone boom. He assembled it all and "tested" in the back yard on the grass... he picked up the sail and stepped up on the problema.... it all works! He and his wife and another couple carted the new board and rig down to the beach in Marina Del Rey Harbor. He set it all up on the sand, and yeah..... everything worked just fine. You pick up the sail that's laying on the sand beside the board and step on the board! Put the board in the water and attached the sail....all is good. His friend picked up the sail and handed it to him as he was standing on the, this is getting better all the time, it's all going to work. He sailed a little ways and went to tack. Somehow he dropped the rig in the water....hmmmmm.... no helpful friend to hand him the rig, also no sand like on the beach or grass like in the yard. It seems there is a problem here. So, he paddles back to shore and has his friend hand the rig to him again and sails around a little more being super careful not to drop the rig. So they pack it all up and head for home. Sometime between when they arrived at Jim's home, and the next day, the "Uphaul" was tried out and officially invented. Jim was always a little embarrassed when he told this story as he felt a man with his ability to design things should have seen the flaw in his original plan.

Karen Marriott, US Windsurfing: I was lucky enough to run into Jim and his wife Sam at a number of windsurfing events over the years. As excited as he was to talk about his latest refinements of windsurfing gear, he was just as excited to talk about (or to) the person who just got into windsurfing and was experiencing the sport for the first time. Over all the years of developing high tech gear and working with the superstars of windsurfing, he never got jaded or lost sight of the fun and freedom that windsurfing brings to the average folks on small bays and lakes around the world. With a twinkle in his eye, he would tell tales of the first times he windsurfed, when there was no one to tell him how to use his new creation! He will be missed.

Allen Parducci: Jim was a remarkably intelligent humorist. I think he had a particular fondness for Mark Twain. He occasionally, for parties, dressed like Mark Twain, and very much looked the part. One incident that I remember was his response when I explained to him why the occasional top speeds one experienced on the windsurfer diminished the sense of speed afforded by the much more common lesser speeds. Without pause for reflection, he responded: "Allen, always carry a bucket on a line when you windsurf; as soon as you feel yourself speeding up, throw the bucket in the water; its drag will act as a governor, keeping you from accelerating!"

Tor Bakke: Jim was a dream to work with at the time of the "scatter gun approach" with ideas and bold designs flying in all directions. Always inspirational and optimistic in his own soft spoken way. He calmed us all down. What I found most remarkable for a guy of his magnitude, was that he had all the time in the world listening to others, including my (at that time) 16 year old son, sweeping the floors in the work shop. Although Svein came up with the idea of a wide board, Jim refined it to perfection, and the Starboard Formula 175 just killed it, as the most successful race board to date. He followed up with the Serenity, which is no doubt the most extreme light wind design around - so from one extreme to another, and with a finger in most of the "between stuff" Jim hugely contributed to Starboards success. "Tor, the speed record will be broken by a kite, and it will probable soon be an Olympic sport." I was politely agreeing. His visions, and his ability to simplify seemingly impossible tasks were unique.

We had to custom make a desk for Jim, because he was always working, standing up - and usually with his trade mark hat on. I was extremely proud when I managed to talk Jim into copying his original and bellowed hat (It meant he had to part from it for a while) to mass produce them as Jim Drake hats. Not sure how many we sold - but heaps.

Starboard was throwing lots of parties at the time, and still is of course, but Jim always distinguished himself from the crowd with those nuclear Dry Martini's. Looks stylish Jim, what's actually in them.? "Go and buy a 100 proof Stolichnaya Vodka, a Tangueray Gin, a Vermouth and some olives - and make sure you have a mixer and those deep Champagne goblets. They are larger, ah - and don't forget to put them in the freezer the day before..Need crushed ice too, and I'll come over and shake some delights."

I knew the shopping list had to be followed to perfection, so it took me one day solid to get it all organized, including getting hold of a proper mixer and the glasses.

Svein came along too, so lets say we were three well travelled gentlemen looking forward to enjoy that sunset delight. After some shaking and measuring going on in the kitchen, Jim came serving the ice cold projectiles. Holy cow,- "well for those of you that like Vermouth" and he just nodded towards the kitchen.

Jim was commuting between the US and Thailand regularly, and asked me one day if he could park his car in my yard while he was away. Sure no problem. When my car broke down one day, I sent him a mail asking to borrow his, for a trip to a windsurfing event some good distance away. "Just use it, put as much mileage on it as you possibly can." In reality he had just given me his car, as long as he could "borrow" it when he was here. Quite novel, and understandably his visits became more scarce as time went by. I later traded the car in for a new one with the blessing from Jim, but as you all know - he will never be using it again. "I'm so happy you and your wife are taking good care of "Charlie" - which was his name for the car.

Glad I had the opportunity to meet this gentleman as he truly was. Controversial, innovative, gracious, generous and extremely talented and influential.

Bruce Matlack, One of the first "dirty dozen" windsurfers-1969, First American and World Windsurfer Champion '72-73: As far as the Windsurfer, Jim Drake had the vision to patent the free sail system and adopt a more appropriate, modern sail rig to a sexy, California surf board platform. Whether or not he was exposed to the prior art of Newman Darby, whom the Smithsonian later credited with the invention, may never be known. The modifications that Drake innovated were definitely the tipping point that spurred the sport on to the "mainline" scene everywhere in the world.The sport took off like wildfire in Europe, and to a lesser extent in the US. A huge textile manufacturer in Holland, Ten Cate, was licensed to manufacture the Windsurfer by Drake's patent partner, Hoyle Schweitzer, and virtually overnight Europeans were "surfing" (that's what they called it) "everywhere there was wind and water" (a marketing phrase of Windsurfing International). During this time period Drake had gone back to working in the engineering, science and/or think-tank industry. Schweitzer on the other hand had decided to ditch his boring past and jump headlong into making a business of this new sailing novelty.

Aside from windsurfing, Drake had amazing soft-sell persuasion skills that I witnessed first hand at a presentation he gave on the grassy knoll known as, "The Event Site" in Hood River, Oregon about 2005. Jim presented his involvement in the history of the sport, framed in relation to the "other inventors" that had recently been exposed. I remembered him for this amazing skill that I call, plausable deniability- a phrase I heard recently on NPR. He left us all spellbound with his oratory. He claimed to be "at best" only the "re-inventor" of windsurfing, giving all others credit before his big epiphany; his "Ah Ha!" moment one day in 1967 while driving on the Santa Monica freeway. Freakin' incredible talent I mumbled to myself. I had a number of questions to ask Jim about his particular innovations, but he disappeared, smartly taking no questions. In that 20 minute speech I had witnessed Jim explain that he was at best, only the 3rd guy to come up with the windsurf idea, yet he accepted the "Father of Windsurfing" moniker just the same. I had just heard him deny himself the role of inventor, yet envisioned the hand clapping crowd picking him up on their collective shoulders and carrying him about town anyway, as the sole, true inventor of their sport. I asked myself, "How did he do that? Did he just hood-wink me as well?" He was or could have been a master statesman. He had that power- a master of plausable deniability.

When I notified Guy Le Roux, one-time editor of WINDSURF Magazine (the original windsurfing magazine owned by Hoyle Schweitzer), of Jim's passing, he wrote the following in a return email to me: "I liked Drake. I met him around 1982 at Cabrillo Beach. At the time he was testing a bizarre slab-sided, triangular planform longboard windsurfer with a centerboard at the tail and a canard up front under the mast base. The board didn't look right or work well in my eye. I thought he was a mad scientist. I was not impressed. Around 2004 (or 05) I had a nice chat with him at South Padre Island. He was exasperated at the time by the ISAF having selected the RS:X over the Formula board for the Olympics. It was visibly eating at him. By this time I had developed a new respect for him after following how his NASA-like expertise had helped Starboard refine the Formula Board concept. I asked him for a tip or two on inventing board stuff. His answer: "Modify something that is sort of like your idea--it's a lot faster and cheaper to prototype." His wisdom has stuck in my head..."

The reason I quote Le Roux's email is because of the Drake quote at the end, "Modify something that is sort of like your idea--it's a lot faster and cheaper to prototype". I believe this may summarize Drake's modus operandi when he "re-invented" the Windsurfer. Refine or add to someone else's ideas. We will never really know if this is what he did, since we don't know what Drake really knew of Darby or the others. But I find the quote interesting given my other impressions.

My view: "Re-inventor?" Definitely. "Father of Windsurfing?" I wouldn't go that far. The man? Incredible statesman, listener, visionary. Really a nice guy who will be missed by all.

More: Jim Drake, The Physics of Windsurfing 2005 (reprinted by Average Joe Windsurfer Blog) ~ The Drake Chronicles ~ Jim Drake Wikipedia  ~ American Windsurfer Holye Schweitzer Interview 1996.


  1. This memorial page is linked to the outstanding Obit posted last night in the New York Times. See:

    Chad M Lyons
    Windsurfing Historian

  2. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

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