Up Where The Air Is Rare

May 06, 1985
May 06, 1985

Table of Contents
May 6, 1985

The Jazz
Dwight Evans
Robby Naish
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Up Where The Air Is Rare

Two-time World Cup Champion Robby Naish, a free spirit on land, really cuts loose on a sailboard

At a professional windsurfing contest once in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Robby Naish says he nearly burned down his hotel playing with firecrackers. Another time, in Japan, a water-balloon fight moved from the street to his hotel roof to jail. "Light-wind boredom," says Naish, the world's best sailboarder.

This is an article from the May 6, 1985 issue Original Layout

That won't be a problem today. For the past 10 days Naish, 22, has been home in Kailua, on the windward side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, waiting for wind. Last night a surprise storm passed over the Islands, leaving snow on 13,796-foot Mauna Kea and a Kona wind blowing. Unlike the steady northeast trade winds, the fluky Kona blows from the southwest.

There are eight other windsurfers at Waimanalo Bay when Naish's red Dodge Charger pulls up: six on the beach and two floundering in the bay. Thirty-knot winds are turning the lips of the choppy waves to spray, with occasional 40-knot gusts ripping sunglasses off their wearers. "I think this is mostly what I need right now—to get slammed around a lot," says Naish, shouting to be heard. "I need to get my coordination back up." He savors the wind for a moment. "Definitely speedboard material," he says.

This will be the first test for Naish's new "speedboard." It is a white fiberglass stiletto, 9'2" long and a mere 19 inches wide, a triple-finned 12-pound stunner with blue waves streaming back from the sharp nose like flames on the hood of a hot rod. Naish rigs it with a hot-pink storm sail, completing the New Wave sailing ensemble with his own fluorescent orange and Day-Glo-lime trunks. "Hey, you need a wet suit out there," shouts another sailor. Naish chuckles, as if he isn't planning to get wet.

He steps lightly onto the board in knee-deep water and zooms off toward Rabbit Island, about a mile away. After about 300 yards he jibes and heads back toward the beach. "I don't like to sail in one direction too far," he says. "My attention span isn't all that long."

Four young Japanese boardsailors, beached and having nothing better to do, watch as Naish speeds back and forth. Out 300 yards, jibe, return; out, jibe, return. He leans back in his harness for more speed, pulling the boom down until his shoulders skim the swells. The board now becomes a silent speedboat, arrowing toward shore at 25 knots. Suddenly Naish shoves the sail around the mast and snatches the other side of the boom, the board virtually pivoting in the water. The move is smooth and sure; Naish never moves his feet. The Japanese are on their feet as he accelerates away.

Naish is alone in the water now (alone in being upright, at least). Using the face of a three-foot wave as a ramp, he shoots skyward like a sub-launched Polaris missile; at the apogee the board levels off and then dives back toward the sea as Naish moves to bring it into equilibrium for the landing. He soars off a swell, and the pink sail becomes a wing in the blue sky as he glides. "I've done about 100,000 of those long, soaring jumps," he says later. There are whoops from the Japanese on the beach for this one.

One hour and a few wipeouts later, pleased with the performance of the new speedboard, Naish comes ashore. Behind him is a nine-year string of championships stretching from his own Kailua Bay to San Francisco Bay, the Canary Islands, Cancun, Sardinia and Japan, plus all the stops in between. Two years ago the International Sailboarding Association formed a professional World Cup circuit, which has three disciplines: triangle-course racing, slalom and wave performance. In both World Cups to date, Naish has swept all three categories. Last weekend, despite feast or famine wind conditions that first broke equipment and then becalmed the field, Naish finished second overall at the 1985 season's opener in Japan. The remaining events are in San Francisco, Germany, Holland and France.

Harold Iggy is Naish's "shaper," the man who sculpted his new speedboard, a prototype of a similar production model. Iggy says of Naish, "If you take the whole world, Robby would be here"—Iggy reaches one hand above his head, gripping an invisible satellite—"and everybody else would be here." He brings his hand down to his side.

Windsurfing (or boardsailing, or sail-boarding—the terms are interchangeable) is hugely popular in Europe—more money supposedly is spent on windsurfing equipment than skiing gear there—and Naish has become a Continental superstar. After triumphing in rough water at the Netherlands World Cup last summer, he left his weary competitors—including Holland's Olympic gold medal winner, Stephan van den Berg—panting and shivering on the beach. He went back out for a solo demo, and executed an "aerial loop"—a scarcely believable maneuver in which board and sailor take off on the lip of a wave and float through a high, precarious full gainer. Watching Naish do this, a first on the World Cup circuit, 120,000 Dutchmen nearly fell off the rocks into the water. "I hit it just perfect," Naish says. "Sailed away, and didn't even get wet.

"The European sailors are always asking me how many hours a week I train. I say, 'None.' I never train. But if there's wind, I'm out there. This winter we had 40-knot winds on Kailua Bay for a full week. I went out for six hours on the first day, four hours on the second and by the third day had completely worn out my feet and hands. I had these pain pills from when I'd hurt my ankle in Australia and was taking them, and I'd come home and just die. That's how much I love it."

We seem to have a problem in semantics here. Naish is asked the difference between sailing whenever there's wind and training.

"Training's no fun," he says.

Naish's home at Kailua is the hub of a lively little windsurfing community that includes his discoverer and sometime mentor, Larry Stanley; the redoubtable Iggy; and, not least, his own hyperactive family. His mother, Carol, is a board member of and a dancer with Ballet Hawaii, and she's also president of Naish Hawaii. That firm markets Switzerland's Mistral boards, the kind Robby sails.

Rick Naish, Robby's father, was a flat-track motorcycle racer in Northern California in the '60s, a classic place and time for that sport. In 1968 he moved to Oahu and took up big-wave surfing on the North Shore and later became a Hobie Cat sailing champion. Meanwhile, he supported himself and his family—Robby has two brothers and a sister—by teaching high school photography and marine biology. Today he's a sailboard shaper, the chief designer for Naish Hawaii. Robby is vice-president of the firm.

Growing up, Robby was a kind of wild kid. "As a young child he was headstrong and ferociously independent when he was away from us," says Carol. "He was the toughest kid in nursery school. And he was rowdy until he started traveling to windsurfing contests, which he went to by himself. We told him he'd have to keep his grades up if he wanted to keep traveling. The early windsurfers around here were a very large extended family and Robby had the opportunity to form close friendships with adults other than his parents."

Among those adults was Stanley. After service in Vietnam on a Navy LST, he settled in Hawaii. In Vietnam he had actually surfed in Cam Ranh Bay—shades of Apocalypse Now—and in Hawaii he and a Navy buddy, Mike Horgan, opened up a windsurfing shop in their living room in Kailua. It was the first in the Islands. To liven up business they went looking for a kid who could become a star. Enter Robby Naish, age 11.

"He was windsurfing on Kailua Bay with his brother Randy," Stanley recalls. "These two little bitty kids, so short the booms were way over their heads, sailing in 18-knot winds! They were going so good that I figured there must be something to having the boom up there, so I moved mine up, too."

Under the wing of Stanley and Horgan, Robby won the Windsurfer Hawaiian regional championship. The prize was a plane ticket to Berkeley, Calif. for the 1976 Windsurfer North American championships. The unknown from Hawaii took second—and won a plane ticket to the worlds on Nassau's Emerald Bay. There he became the Windsurfer world champion. His spoils included a plane ticket to the 1977 worlds in Sardinia. First again. That's the way things have been with Robby.

Naish is full-grown now, 5'10" and 155 pounds. He's square-jawed, curly-haired and handsome and has a portfolio of 53 magazine covers that he has appeared on, mostly European. "There have been a lot more.... I wonder how many Brooke Shields has," Naish says with a self-conscious smile.

Competitors say Naish's sailboard sense is innate and as unpredictable as the wind itself. In triangle races, he may head so far off on his own private tack that he almost looks lost, only to zoom back with a huge lead. And his competitive intensity can be explosive. He has been known to throw a fit after winning a race by half a mile instead of the mile he wanted. But he doesn't brag about his ability; despite what the record shows, he won't call himself the best. He knows there are other, younger prodigies out there somewhere.

Robby had been a whiz in high school art classes, and he has airbrushed many a custom board for Naish Hawaii. He still sketches from time to time, mostly on planes. "I do all kinds of weird stuff," he says. "I don't like to draw realistic sorts of things. I've always been about this close"—he pinches his fingers—"to being crazy anyhow. Every time I get a fever, I hallucinate."

Be that as it may, the Naish the world sees is all business. He owns a piece of the Quiksilver sports clothing company. He will soon host a syndicated TV show called Windsurf World and has written two books: Windsurfing with Robby Naish, published in four languages, and Robby Naish Superstar, published so far in French and German, which he speaks himself.

In 1981 Naish married his high school sweetheart, Bitsy. Officially, she's Elizabeth, but at 5'2" and 93 pounds, she fits the nickname. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Nani, which is Hawaiian for "beautiful," and that name is equally apt. Robby and Bitsy live in a house alive with the cries of backyard doves and myna birds, on the same Kailua beach where Robby learned to surf when he was eight.

Bitsy and Nani hold down the fort while Robby travels 180 days a year, sailing on the World Cup circuit and making promotional appearances. He's not exactly crazy about the situation, but adding a wife and 3-year-old to the difficulties of a tight schedule would be a complication the Naishes consider unwise.

And while the star pro is away, the local amateurs are out there at spots like Diamond Head off Waikiki, Backyards on the North Shore and Hookipa on Maui. Especially Hookipa, a remote, rocky corner of the world and a hotbed of windsurfing. At Hookipa, daring sailors have raced desperately down 30-foot waves while being chased by a thundering white lip and have lived to tell about it. Almost daily, they're inventing new stunts and raising the standard; a double aerial loop is on the way. Naish, whose contribution is the "midair jibe," makes sure he catches up when he gets back from his latest trip. "I don't want to lose the respect of the Hawaiian wave riders," he says.

He's always eyeing new horizons. "I've been racing internationally for nine years now, and you lose that push and drive," he says. "It's natural. You just start thinking about other things." For example, the annual Weymouth Bay Speed Challenge at the mouth of the English Channel. With the right conditions, and sailing one of Iggy's specially-made speedboards, Naish figures he can top the current record of nearly 33 knots.

Then there's that far-out creation in his garage. It may be the sport's next step—make that leap. It's an experimental sail that's more wing than sail. The sailor wears it on his back, and the object is to take off on a wave and fly away. To his competition, Naish already does.

PHOTOSTEVE WILKINGSAs a wave crashes beneath his board, Naish launches himself over plumes of spray.PHOTOJIM CASSIMUS[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSCRAIG MOLENHOUSEDad and Mom (above) take care of business so Robby, Bitsy and Nani can relax.PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSENaish checks out the foam core of a board that has been meticulously shaped by Iggy (left).PHOTOSYLVAIN CAZENAVE/WIND SURFLast year Naish became the first sailor to perform a 360-degree flip in competition.