At the third Windsurfer World Championship in 1976, with several hundred triangular sails swarming the bay in Berkeley, California, it was a 13-year-old scrawny kid with a mop of white-blonde hair named Robby Naish who whooped the fleet. He didn’t know then that the passion this surfboard with a sail ignited in him would drive him to the peak of wind-driven exploits, making Naish synonymous with windsurfing, kitesurfing and now windfoiling (windsurfing on hydrofoils). Though Naish won every windsurfing world title from his first until he graduated high school in 1981, racing was not his intended path. He saw the laid-back beach scene and exploring the sea with friends, sharing his stoke, as the lifestyle he wanted to promote.
Naish dominated the market with his neon-splashed windsurfing gear, and even though keeping a top world ranking as professional windsurfing became increasingly equipment sensitive, he pioneered the free-riding realm. The 1990s saw him usher in the kitesurfing generation, and in the 2000s, Naish’s latest is looking to regenerated the throngs of windsurfers from the 1970s and ’80s with windfoiling.
Now in his 50s and still pushing the limits of the sport and his body, Naish is looking squarely forward, sailing and surfing every day, and getting windsurfing in front of as many riders as possible. His lifework is far from complete, but the selection panel of the National Sailing Hall of Fame deemed him a worthy placeholder among sailing’s greats. We caught up with him by phone after he learned of his selection.
Big picture, you were a racer; has that always been a motivator for you?
It has really evolved for me. We had wooden booms. It was a very simple craft and a very unique fringe of sailing. I started windsurfing in 1974 and won my first worlds at 13. It launched my career. It was full-blown sailing. Olympic courses, tacking duels and I loved it. I thrived on outsmarting my competitors and going faster.
Windsurfing branched off in the 1980s and ’90s from traditional sailing to high performance, and there was a development boom in freestyle and slalom. Did that time excite you or were you starting to look for something else?
We developed ourselves out of the market with new gear every year. It needed to be blowing hard to go windsurfing, and you needed a ton of gear. Kitesurfing came along, and I was with that whole group in Maui and working with Don Montague. We were the first company developing and selling modern inflatable kites in 1999. I kept windsurfing, but I was really focused on kiting. Now the biggest mojo we have for our brand is hydrofoils.
You said you loved the racing in the early days, but you have really developed the sport with the Naish brand. Would you consider yourself an innovator?
I’m the polar opposite of someone like Don. He’s an innovator. He tinkers and finds people to create things he wants. I’m a sailor, a surfer, a rider. I do it for the visceral level, pushing my on-water experience. In the early days I loved one design. It was me against my competitors, and there were no excuses. When it got to the point where equipment mattered, the less I enjoyed. I adapted and that’s why I lasted.
I don’t want to sit in my garage and talk about my crap. I’d sail till my arms were dead. What I did was surround myself with innovators like Don. I’m good at riding and promoting.
You made a video recently where you were holding a GoPro in your hand and showing how to windfoil. It was sick! There was about 10 knots of wind, and you gave the entire tutorial in one take. Is it that easy or is it you?
I’m trying to get old windsurfers back. Those were the best times of our life in our 20s. Then you got a job, had kids, and there’s no time. Now the kids are older. But the average places people used to go to, it’s not quite windy enough to go windsurfing. Windfoiling is low performance really, easy to access, and simple.
I don’t want windsurfing to die. To go in light wind, you used to need a 9.5 sail with all the cambers and a $1,000 carbon mast. If you could windsurf everywhere again, people would do it. Flying around in 10 to 12 knots. Back and forth, and the sail resembles what we used in the 1970s, with no battens. I’m going the same speed in 10 knots as the top windsurfers. It’s a freaking blast. I want to bring it back to everyone everywhere.
National Sailing Hall of Fame inductees are often people who have either passed away or finished with their careers. All are incredible individuals. Do you feel like you fit into that group?
It’s cool. I’m old enough now that there’s some nostalgia. I think I’m still looking forward. I’m still a highly paid pro athlete. I’m doing a Red Bull movie project with a massive production budget right now. But I’m 54. Look at how much time has gone by. This is pretty cool what I’ve done, but I’m not looking in the rear mirror to say “look how cool I was.” This is stamping something on my earlier career, recognized by the sailing world. I’m proud of it.
You mentioned that windsurfing participation has been in decline for the past 20 years. Do you believe that a windsurfer in the National Sailing Hall of Fame might help the sport?
Not previously, but it could right now. It’s good timing with windfoiling. It’s good for me personally. A little younger and this recognition would be a little premature.
You’re still charging pretty hard, like superman. What are your limits right now?
I broke my pelvis a year ago kiting. And I just broke my foot. It bugs me a bit. The most important thing for me is keeping stoked and riding. I’ve never gotten bored of any of my sports. The first few years of kiting, I windsurfed less. I phased out of the professional windsurfing. Then, in 2008, I transitioned to SUP. It was a whole new sport. I maintain all three sports (surf, kite, windsurf). I never want to let my abilities wain because I’m an old kooky guy.
The first thing I did after my injury was start light-wind windfoiling. I was the perfect stunt dummy. I became my own guinea pig. I think this new genre of sailing will be more appealing. It’s not so technical, pure and simple. I got my girlfriend out in five minutes, foiling in both directions. I’m excited about it and how easy guys and girls pick it up, riding through the air with no pressure on the sail. Now with everyone jumping on the bandwagon, I see foils getting too high performance. Keep it simple. Don’t complicate it and it’s a blast.