THE BIGGEST STEP FORWARD IN KITE DESIGN SINCE THE BOW KITE? THE AIRUSH HO’OKIPA EXPERIENCE

Be in no doubt that new material development is the biggest advance we’ve seen in kite designs and technology since the birth of the bow kite in 2005. Is a new, more expensive breed of kite really necessary, though? Over the last 18 years Cape Town has been like a second home to Kiteworld editor, Jim Gaunt, and he’s a regular visitor to the Airush ‘lab’ when there. In February this year he took his final trip to their base in Muizenberg to report for this magazine. Meeting with Airush MD, Clinton Filen, Jim wanted to find out why they’ve invested so much in developing their new Ho’okipa air frame material with the Challenge Sailcloth factory

THE BIGGEST STEP FORWARD IN KITE DESIGN SINCE THE BOW KITE? THE AIRUSH HO’OKIPA EXPERIENCE

Be in no doubt that new material development is the biggest advance we’ve seen in kite designs and technology since the birth of the bow kite in 2005. Is a new, more expensive breed of kite really necessary, though? Over the last 18 years Cape Town has been like a second home to Kiteworld editor, Jim Gaunt, and he’s a regular visitor to the Airush ‘lab’ when there. In February this year he took his final trip to their base in Muizenberg to report for this magazine. Meeting with Airush MD, Clinton Filen, Jim wanted to find out why they’ve invested so much in developing their new Ho’okipa air frame material with the Challenge Sailcloth factory WORDS: Jim Gaunt

THE BIGGEST STEP FORWARD IN KITE DESIGN SINCE THE BOW KITE? THE AIRUSH HO’OKIPA EXPERIENCE

Be in no doubt that new material development is the biggest advance we’ve seen in kite designs and technology since the birth of the bow kite in 2005. Is a new, more expensive breed of kite really necessary, though? Over the last 18 years Cape Town has been like a second home to Kiteworld editor, Jim Gaunt, and he’s a regular visitor to the Airush ‘lab’ when there. In February this year he took his final trip to their base in Muizenberg to report for this magazine. Meeting with Airush MD, Clinton Filen, Jim wanted to find out why they’ve invested so much in developing their new Ho’okipa air frame material with the Challenge Sailcloth factory WORDS: Jim Gaunt

Arriving at Airush HQ is always an experience of discovery, so was a suitable venue to help me get my head around the race for the next big thing. A new guy called Alex who works in international sales greeted me at the door of the Airush offices and escorted me on a quick stroll to the workshop, turning left then right along the narrow village roads that are lined with brightly coloured houses in the heart of Muizenberg. A minute later we passed through an archway to the left of Dave Stubbs’ surf shop and an indoor courtyard opened up surrounded by a series of doors and windows, behind which the rooms were filled with old surfboards and surfing related antiquities. Through the door on my immediate right I found Clinton, along with Airush and AK product designer, Dave Kay (AKA: DK), Su Kay (who now fronts up the test team operations and happens to be DK’s wife), and new blood on the Freewing team (the wing side of the Airush / Starboard partnership) product designer, John Lewis. In preparation for my visit, two wings had been inflated and the team were already deep in discussion while they surrounded a ‘wagu beef’ coloured Freewing Nitro prototype. Clinton had invited me over to help me better understand the advantages they believe their new Ho’okipa material, designed with Challenge Sailcloth, will bring to the market. We were straight in to business. “Jim, this is John, he’s been with Freewing for six months and looks after all wing development. You can talk to him about cricket.” Clinton chirped, before swiftly adding, “Or perhaps not. You just got hammered in the Ashes, ha!” A swift low blow that I thought was quite unusual from Clinton, though I guess as a South African, when it comes to cricket and you’ve got a chance to quickly hobble two Brits about the sport they invented, why wouldn’t you? John held out his fist for the customary Covid fist bump and I considered how his quite dishevelled, early twenty-something appearance quite accurately portrayed the blistering pace of development in wings at the moment. He too cut to the quick. “Have you tried a Nitro yet, Jim?” Sadly I’d not had the chance, but over recent months had become very aware of the advantages that Freewing believe the Ho’okipa material used on the air frames delivers in terms of stiffness and reduced weight on the wing. The Nitro will launch later this spring.

Clinton Photo: Craig Kolesky

I had however had a couple of sessions on the brand new Airush Ultra Team kite, which features Ho’okipa as the leading edge and strut material. I ploughed in with a few questions trying to probe for what I believe are the answers that kite customers are looking for. Firstly: is the extra expense of this new material really worth all the marketing hype? “I think so.” countered Clinton, confidently. “It’s a 50% increase on the cost of our regular wings and kites, but both ends of the wind range are increased and there’s a huge benefit from it being both lighter weight and stronger. If we look across the industry, it’s the luxury high-end products that are selling out. As long as you’re legitimately giving the customer more, then I think so.” he summarised. I should add here that after trying some really well designed kites that use these more exotic leading edge materials, I am sold. And not only for high level riding. When it comes to the improved general stability, turning reliability in light winds and direct bar feedback – these are things that most riders would appreciate. The deal struck with Challenge Sailcloth is that as Airush are doing all the development and testing, they have exclusive rights on the material until they produce their first range of Ho’okipa products later this spring. “It’s a little bit like we’re doing all the work and if it works everyone will benefit from it. If it fucks up everyone will save a lot of effort.” Clinton smirked, before more seriously adding, “I mean, I actually have sleepless nights about certain aspects of the design. It’s like a million dollars when you’re doing this, you know. It’s scary.”

Team rider, Ramiro Gallart

The conversation darted back and forth with relation to the benefits of a more laminate based product, like Aluula, and a more woven material, like Ho’okipa. I asked Clinton how he views this race for the next big thing and how much of it comes down to marketing? “I think Ho’okipa is absolutely the best material we could be using. It’s also awkward, because I don’t want to say, look, we had the option of using a laminate like Aluula and we made a decision not to, because I don’t want to be hating on Ocean Rodeo. I really appreciate the work, the energy, the time and the direction that they’ve taken. It’s not a mindless direction; it’s just a direction. So I don’t want to be running people down who are really innovating. The problem lies with the guys who are using the same material as everyone else and putting a premium price on it. That’s not serving the customers and not serving the sport.” Airush perhaps don’t get all the credit they deserve for their design led innovations. When I put forward that I see this race for new materials amongst manufacturers being a very key thing in the industry and ask him if he thinks there’s some fence sitting going on, his answer is automatic. “It depends on your mantra. I want to bring something new to the customer. When your pillars are innovation, durability and sustainability, then you can’t fence sit. If one pillar is profitability then you fence sit. But I just think that’s the whole fun of the thing. It’s also different for us because it’s always been an agenda point. From the beginning of our Team Series products, no one was asking us for them. We were just always searching for lighter weight and more performance. That is literally what gets me up; I just like building products. I’d get bored if we had to build the same stuff everyone else is building.” While there isn’t much to complain about with Dacron kites, I wanted to know more about why Clinton puts himself through sleepless nights, turning over the essentials of a ‘million dollar’ situation when it comes to the investments made in pushing forward with this new Hookipa material. “Dacron is a good material and it does its job. Like fibreglass, it’s a very well costed solution to a problem and isn’t going to quickly become obsolete. In the early days of carbon fibre development it was seen as being very risky though, but now you can see several different carbon fibre model options within a single range of bikes, for example. There are fundamental challenges in dealing with the fabrics and you’ve got to overcome those.”

Clinton loves the Ultra – the current single strut performance machine, and it was the ideal model to first implement a lighter, stiffer material on that allows a kite to fly even further forward

Cuben Fibre was the first foray away from Dacron in leading edge kite material, and it was an expensive flop for Best Kiteboarding in 2005, for a number of reasons. Clinton believes one reason being that the material didn’t twist, which is still a really important aspect for helping kites turn quickly and efficiently, but was even more so then as kites had far less support from bridles. “That was at a time when you really relied more on the twisting of the kites to aid the turning. The seams were an issue and failure of those were a big problem. I’d also imagine there was a lot of shrinkage with the instability of the material. Building regular Dacron kites is still an art today, which is why there are so few kite factories. You’ve got to book match the fabric, lazer cut and put the panels together very precisely and manage the closing seams really well, which is already difficult. It’s difficult to see where it’s going to go, but you’re just chasing improvement either in wovens or laminates.” Aluula is the most notable new material from the last year, which is a laminate. Hookipa (and Duotone’s SLS) are woven materials. What’s the difference in application? “There are fundamental challenges in dealing with the fabrics. We decided that a laminate wasn’t right for our needs, so we had to look at what we could weave into the fabric instead. Many years ago we tried to weave Dyneema into the canopy cloth with the maker Teijin, but they had these shrinkage issues. So we had to work out how to stabilise the fabric first. This is just part of working with composites. It’s not just about the Ultra PE on its own; it’s about blending it with the layers. If we just built it out of Ultra PE it wouldn’t be possible.” I interjected and asked Clinton to go back and tell us more about Ultra PE, which I’ve heard him mention several times in the past as a key material, and is found in kite lines, too.

“It’s sort of like this ultra high molecular, polyethylene that basically enjoys being under tension. It’s not often where you have a number like Ultra PE, which is 32 times stronger than polyester. 32X is a massive number. Normally you might get double, but when you get 32 times from a base fabric, that’s a lot. We’ve been using it in the load frames in our canopies for ages because it’s light and strong and damage tolerance is good.”

Clinton on the job in the shaping shed

Photo: Kyle Cabano

Ultra PE and therefore Ho’okipa may be 32x stronger, but it’s seven or eight times the price of regular Dacron. Airush have, however worked out how to do the key function of stabilising the material with recycled plastics, which actually make up 48% of the Ho’okipa material as a whole. The working part of the Ho’okipa is the Ultra PE yarn that is stabilised by a polyester yarn which has a film in it. That film is created from things like recycled PET plastics. “One of the challenges for us is the need to orient all the panels very, very specifically. The strength of the fabric is so directional. Film based materials are more flexible in how you place them, so if your films are dealing with some of the load it’s less sensitive. Ho’okipa must be lined up perfectly because everything’s under so much load. When you put the material under a lot of tension you don’t want twists in the kite so you get the response out of the material that you desire. If you look at the graph, Ho’okipa is infinitely stiffer in the warp and the weft, but in the bias it actually has very similar characteristics to Dacron. This twisting ability really helps the kite steer well. When you get it right, it’s actually a nice material to work with.” I ask Clinton how much attention he pays to online forums which are a notorious home for people to immediately rail against expensive products. “I’ve looked at some of the comments on Aluula and the D lab. People get really angry about it, but I’m like, you don’t have to buy it! There are beautiful kites made out of Dacron; buy those. If something’s more expensive, look into the product. Where does the cost go and are the company really delivering a tangible benefit? It's also not only about the benefits now, but what could come in the future as a result of utilising new materials.”

Clinton at home

Photo: Samuel Tome

We touch on our shared enjoyment of biking, as an example, and Clinton revealed he has a Specialized Diverge. “Within that model range there are something like five different options that vary massively in price. I have friends who are happy to pay three times more than me, but I look at the cost benefits. We’re not trying to build luxury products. I’m trying to create premium products that have a tangible benefit; that’s what we are chasing. This is a really big step for us and the industry I think.” Airush are very committed to this path and have already poured a lot of investment and time into the development of Ho’okipa. This year the Ultra Team is the first kite that you’ll see the material used on, but Clinton says we can expect to see it also appear in other models in the future. “I also think it’s very important to highlight that the current Dacron products are still relevant and great for customers, which is why the Ultra V4 Dacron model is still available. The Team series is a journey we’ve been on with certain product lines for years. The idea really goes back to the fundamentals of bringing absolutely high performance to the market and it’s about finding the components that will create enough of a justifiable difference. “Looking at the Ultra Team, all the smaller sizes have fixed bridles which quite specifically changes the way the kite rides. It’s a different animal and a more precise kite. In creating the Team series we’re able to open up and tailor things more towards a customer that really puts the kite in the right place and knows what they want it to do. None of this detracts from the original legacy of the Ultra, which is just an all round great kite that does everything well for foiling and light wind riding.”