Saturday, May 17, 2008

You, Me, Drake and the License Plate

I don’t like those vanity license plates...never have. I roll my eyes when I see tags like “LUVNIT”, “MOMZVAN”, or “TUFENUF”. But when my beautiful bride gives me one for my birthday several years ago, how am I supposed to respond? It was a personalized plate that has to do with windsurfing, of course. Picture this in your mind as I said, “thanks honey” with all the enthusiasm I could muster. I was ridiculed by friends. I just played it off...”it’s a birthday gift from my wife” was the perfect truthful excuse. It’s not my fault she gave it to me...I can’t just go and trash it.

A few years ago not long after getting that license plate, 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.*** What a lot of people don’t know is that Jim has another claim to fame. He’s also a real “rocket scientist”. He was the first man to design an aircraft on a computer. One of his designs (with lots of help he says) was the X-15 rocket plane, which still to this day holds the world speed record for a manned aircraft. He also did the first designs for what became the B-70 and the cruise missile. And now, on top of all that, he can also claim to be a part of the new world speed sailing record of 49.09 knots recently set by Frenchman windsurfer Antoine Albeau, since he was on a Starboard speed board.

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.

Imagine if you were a basketball fanatic and you met James Naismith. I couldn’t believe this was happening. We hit it off as Jim was very easy to talk to. We talked about many things including those years back when he designed and tested the first board, how far windsurfing had come, Formula boards and racing, the future of the sport, etc. It was a real treat to be sitting across from the man who basically was responsible for my wind addiction. We had lunch again after that and had more great conversation. Jim even joined our local windsurfing club at the time and helped promote our annual “Learn to Sail” day event with the local TV news. I have since moved to another town in North Carolina but I've seen Jim a couple of times the last few years in the Outer Banks. We got to meet a couple of his sons (between he and his second wife, they have eight children and sixteen grandchildren), got a sneak peek at the new Starboard Serenity and Gemeni boards last year, and joined Jim at a talk he gave at one of the local windsurfing shops.

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.

(From left to right): Mark Pace, Rob Cornwell, Jim Drake, Todd Morris, and Mac Barnhardt - last year at SailWorld Hatteras

Notes on Jim Drake and origins of windsurfing -

Its been over 40 years since that first creation and Jim is still innovating. He designs for Starboard windsurfing company, does a great deal of fin design, and still consults with the Pentagon.

His most recent board design is the Serenity.

More on Jim here.

Here is Jim’s original scientific paper on windsurfing in 1969.

***There is some debate as to who actually invented windsurfing first. While it can be said that Newman Darby (and an Englishman Peter Chilvers) designed and invented the sailboard before Jim, Jim is the guy who actually invented “modern” windsurfing by making it workable and much more efficient. Here is an old interview with Jim about this and how it all happened.

More on Newman Darby here.

1 comment:

Catapulting Aaron said...

Great read, Mac... I agree that he should be living some place a bit windier