A Peek Into the Mind of the Mad Scientist Behind the Zero Strut Kite

The Scoop is known for a couple of things, scantily clad women, powered up wakestyle riding, strapless surfing and not settling for the usual. Today we get to talk to Greg Drexler, the man behind the strutless kite, The Cloud. While the Cloud may not be seen towing a guy throwing down a Blind Judge 7 in any magazine anytime soon, the truth is, the strutless kite is something very very different, something new. Greg was willing to experiment and push the limits of kite design while many other leading brands were content on replacing the graphics on the same old kite and calling it the next big thing. For that, Greg earns our respect and a place on The Scoop.

 

KiteScoop:  

Let’s start off with some background about yourself. This isn’t the first kite you’ve designed, is it? What was your design experience before this?

 

Greg Drexler with Boardriding Maui:  

Actually, the Cloud is my first kite design.

 

I grew up a landlocked kid so from the pool in the backyard my next step was to windsurfing on a local lake in the 80’s.  This brought me to Maui in the 90’s just a couple years before kiteboarding came on the scene.  I was always into tweaking my gear so this came in handy in the first years of kiteboarding where customization was kind of a requirement.  After a year competing on tour in 2001 I spent the next ten years in R&D for one of the big brands based here on Maui.  Everyone on the team wore a lot of hats so I participated in design and testing of all kinds of things but my primary responsibility was as the kiteboard designer.

 

I found over the years of designing that once I got locked into combinations that were working that it was a challenge to throw all that out to develop a completely new approach.  So for my first kite I wanted to really start from scratch rather than just accepting designs were the way they were out of necessity.  I measured and digitized everything I could get my hands on to try to connect the dots for any common threads of what was working and what was not.  Then decided I’d strip everything off the kite just to see piece by piece what needed to be added back on.  I hoped a simple approach could work, but I wasn’t at all confident as I’d never seen it done.  Well, other than my first kite being a foil back in the day.  I never forgot how rad and compact it was.

 

KS:  

What was the motivation behind branching out by yourself and starting a company like Boardriding Maui?

 

BRM:  

I’m super thankful for the opportunity to work with the group I did.  There’s a real beauty to having no other focus other than making gear.  What a dream.  After ten years it was just time for a change.  I didn’t leave with the intention to launch a new brand.  I thought I’d grow up and get a grown up job.  Took me some months to realize I’d been playing in the water all my life and this is who I am.  So I made a couple boards to satisfy my itch.  And then I thought, why not have a try at a kite.  I’d always been super particular for the handling I wanted so thought would be amazing if I could develop exactly what I wanted to fly.

 

The passion for the gear is what inspired it.  From there the question became, what am I going to do with this stuff.  So I quickly also became passionate about taking an entirely personal approach to its sales.

 

KS:  

Was there a big “eureka” moment for you when you realized that a strutless kite was possible?

 

BRM:

Yeah.  First time the first prototypes were launched.  Till then I hardly suspected they’d even get off the ground.  Could never have imagined that they’d work great on day 1.  There was plenty of opportunity for refinement but I was bouncing with excitement before I even got off the beach.  I’ll remember that day forever.

KS:  

Once that first prototype got off the ground, what was the one thing about how it flew that stood out to you? Was there some flight characteristic that really impressed you?

 

BRM:  

A couple things.  It was a pretty light wind day.  I don’t recall the specifics but thought it wouldn’t be possible to ride on an 8m.  Put it up just to see if it would fly.  Felt powered enough to go and was crazy stoked that it could have such low end.  Took me many months and testing some other stuff to develop a theory as to why.  And the other huge thing was how fast it was.  For my preferences there’s no such thing as too fast so I was freaking out stoked.  I incorrectly thought this would be inherent to all strutless kites.  Wingtip input from one back line twists cleanly through the entire wing.  Was when I rode strutless kites in development from other designers that I became aware that each has its own personality, same as kites with struts.

 

After a quick blast on the 8m I wanted to share it with my Brother.  He’s heavier than me and he was going great so I thought to try the 6m.  Couldn’t believe the low end.  To ride with my brother having a blast that first day was incredible.

 

Other than responsiveness, maximum depower was a primary development target.  The first prototypes were good in this regard, as good as anything else I’d flown, but pushing this to limit was where most of the development effort focused from that point on.  My feeling was that if the first kites showed any potential that I’d stick to what I know.  Meaning, for Maui, that’s strong, gusty wind.  I had no intention of developing anything bigger than around 10m.  It was what was discovered in flying them that inspired a wider focus.  Before developing my own designs I didn’t care for the handling the bigger kites.

 

KS:  

So your main competition seem to think that a zero strut kite only fits the traveler segment (Naish Trip) and the light wind segment (Airush Lithium Zero) of the market.  Do you agree with this strategy? What do you feel your kite brings to the table?

 

BRM:  

To describe me as competition to any brand is a gross overstatement.  This season I’ve sold globally as many kites as probably a single decent shop sells in one area.  I’m stoked to be doing what I’m doing, but from the perspective of a big brand I’m at best a tiny suggestion to consider new ideas.

 

As to my thoughts for their choices how to market their designs, I can understand the lightwind idea.  My feeling is that this is where the greatest need for improvement has been.  I was shocked to see their releases so soon, so I did go through a phase of trying to wrap my mind around that.  But I’m to a point now where I’ve begun to think there’s been enough talk already.  Seems to me it ultimately comes down to a feel thing.  Does your gear handle the way you want?  It’s about joy on the water.  When you’re out there how your gear was marketed is meaningless at best, and misleading at worst.

 

KS:  

So with your strutless kite so new to the scene, many people have no idea what to expect.  What flight characteristics is your typical user going to expect from your kite. Is there any kite that you’ve flown in the past that behaves the same way?

 

BRM:  

No.  I have not flown any other kite that I’d call similar.  That’s not to make some bold claim of better or worse, that will depend on the individual rider’s preferences, but different for sure.  If most kites are called on average 15% different from model to model or brand to brand then I’d call the Cloud 30% different.  It’s not for riders looking for the same old thing.  Strut-count is only one design component among an infinite.  So my description of the Cloud is not by any means a description of other strutless designs.  Beyond the handling responsiveness and different windrange I’ve mentioned, one big difference is how the emphasis on depower affects handling.  When I ride other kites now, I sheet in and out, I see the kite move, but I don’t really feel any difference.  I used to, but my benchmark is very unusual now.  When you sheet out on a Cloud, it depowers.  This is super weird for some riders when we’re accustomed to riding half sheeted out and still having power and steering.  Sheet in on a Cloud, it’s all there, super fast.  Sheet out and it’s gone.  I wanted my wife to be able to launch on the beach on a windy, gusty day and have the control not to get pulled anywhere.

 

KS:  

So it sounds like almost you’ve created a sports car of kites with a super sensitive throttle.

Here at Kitescoop we tend to cover the Wake style and strapless surfing sections of our sport. Let’s start with the Wake style side. Wake style riders value a stable kite that sits deep in the window and slacks well. Do you feel like the Cloud would do well in a wake style rider’s quiver?

 

BRM:

I don’t have enough feedback on this.  I’ve had riders in lightwind areas express stoke on the 17m for wake style but I haven’t seen it to know.  On Maui I’ve gotten feedback from a couple of the wake riders on the 8m.  They were stoked saying that its power delivery is super smooth and it drifted back in the window so was predictable where other kites tend to drop.  Wake style wasn’t my focus in its development so I was super stoked with the positive comments, limited as they’ve been so far.  My focus wasn’t so much on any one riding style so much as just specific handling characteristics.  If I were to put it in a box I’d say strapless surf and freestyle is its strength.  This has been what I’ve been enjoying for a couple years and I hated when kites would pull me off a wave or off my board.  Depower and responsiveness was the goal.  I had no idea what I’d find for drift.  It just goes to show that there’s way more undiscovered performance for our sport.

 

KS:

So how does the Kite end up drifting? How do the other flight characteristics lend themselves to being a good strapless surf kite.

 

BRM:  

To say what design criteria is causing which characteristics is a logical question.  It’s natural to develop theories to explain.  But my feeling is that such a theory need to be clearly stated as a fluid hypothesis subject to change.

 

If you’ve been riding a low rocker wakeboard and then jump on a high rocker board it’s tempting to state the differences it causes.  But did it have exactly the same flex, weight, shape?  Even if it did, changing one variable influences all the infinite others.  A given flex on a low rocker can have a completely different result on a different rocker.  At least this was my experience over many years of development.

 

That’s all just to say, what makes it drift so well – I can’t say for sure.  At first I had no specific theory.  Maybe just ‘cause it’s lighter I thought?  But many months later I noticed how it positioned back in the window more than other kites I’ve flown when sheeted out.  So my current theory focuses on this.

 

In summary my theory is that at the low angle of attack (AOA) when sheeted out, without struts the canopy luffs and this resulting flat profile at the front of the canopy no longer creates some of the lift that drives the kite forward in the window.  Meaning it drifts back.  It’s nuts how effectively it does this.  Game-changer.  I think this might also depends on designing the kite with enough freedom to change AOA  in a big way because I’ve flown some kites that don’t fit this theory.

 

As to what characteristics make a good strapless surf kite, for my riding this was focused on depower, but it’s up to every rider to make up their own mind for what suits their riding.  I wanted as fast as possible too but this was for any riding style, not specific to strapless.  The depower thing is kinda crazy as it’s maybe not as simple as it seems at first glance.  It affects so many aspects of the kite’s handling.  I recognized this in a bigger way after going several months without riding conventional kites.  When I went back to a kite a used to know well, a kite that I felt at the time had great depower, riding it now it felt like it was going to break my back in two.  Any punch in the wind went straight to the harness no matter how the bar was positioned.  On the Cloud this energy is directed through the bar and really spills the power when sheeted out without the rider even feeling it.  I wasn’t really aware of this but it clarified for me one of the reasons that some riders are puzzled by the Cloud with their first flight.

 

KS:

Let’s talk a little bit about your development then. It seems like even the first iteration of the Cloud was a very polished product by the time it hit customer’s hands. Would I be wrong in assuming that the Cloud isn’t going to have a yearly model, or are you planning on putting out a new kite every year? That being said, what weaknesses in the Cloud do you see in its current form and what would you be looking to correct in the next iteration?

 

BRM:  

Great questions.  To it being “polished”, my experience has been that a design team can put their best efforts into testing but that you’ll continue to learn more when it gets in more rider’s hands.  I’ve been so complimented to have several of the industry’s professional testers choose to have the Cloud in their personal quivers.  This lets me sleep easier if a handful of riders find its handling doesn’t suit them to know that it comes down to personal preference and not that I’ve failed in my interest to make gear that makes riders smile, myself included.

 

So what’s to change and when, I’m happy not to have a clear plan.  It’s a great luxury not to be a slave to the calendar and to instead let development drive what and when.  I’m constantly playing with changes.  After the release of the Cloud for a long time no changes were showing any promise.  Trying to get one change to work I tried a whole new approach to bridling.  This didn’t fix what I was trying to do but when I applied this to the current designs for cross reference I was super stoked on what what found.  A ton of work went into the bridling of the Cloud but I made the assumption that moving parts where necessary for big depower.  I was wrong.  Being wrong about this makes it easier for me to accept when other riders make assumptions about strutless knowing it’s natural to assume.

 

Just like changing out the fins on your surfboard changes up its handling, it’s the same with a bridle on a kite.  I’m working on making optional bridle designs for the current kites so riders can check this out.  I feel so good about this approach rather than some marketing hype that last year’s gear is crap and you need to buy something new every year.

 

Testing some other things also turned me on to the massive influence weight is.  Massive.  So I’ve been working on trying to further cut weight.  Not much left on the Cloud to remove.  Durability was a huge motivator from the project’s inception so I don’t use thinner bladder material even on the bigger sizes.  Nothing that will sacrifice longevity.  So I’ve been developing smaller diameter leading edges.  I haven’t broken it down to a % of a kite’s total weight, but for the Cloud the LE is where the weight is.  But going smaller affects LE rigidity in a huge way so it requires new approaches in other areas.  Early on I was tempted to scratch it but now I’m loving it because it feels really honest.  It’s easy to put some honking big LE on a kite but it’s rad to push small to the limit to see exactly where the weaknesses are and to revise accordingly so its at optimal efficiency.  I guess this makes me a design nerd, but I love it.

 

The other major thing I’ll mention is where the power is tuned.  I’ve been saying depower, depower, depower as this was my uncompromised focus.  I don’t regret that but to have that character I think influences handling at the high end of the range in a less than ideal way.  Instead of the power going through the harness, keeping the bar light, when at the upper range I’ve tuned the Cloud so that it wants to depower by sheeting out.  This is focused through the bar, so it gets heavy making you feel overpowered.  Testing suggests that you’re not any more powered than you’d be with different tuning, but just that you feel it more.  This was OK with me because I didn’t want to compromise any amount of total depower.  But I’m now accepting to direct a bit of the power through the harness so that it remains comfortable into higher wind to most rider’s preferred handling.  It still depowers excellent but not as much as the current bridle.

 

I’m still working on weight reduction so it’s too soon to know for sure when it will be fully dialed.  I’m targeting January but that’s just a guess.  January is when I launched the current Cloud and it was probably the dumbest time of year to offer something new.  But the gear is what drives me so I’ll update the Cloud as soon as itss ready.

KS:

If I were to look at the ways kites have changed in the past 5 years, I’d have to say for the most part, year to year there have been small incremental changes and tweaks but no giant innovative jumps that really shook things up. Do you view a strutless kite as something that’s going to shake up the landscape a bit? Other than the strutless kite, what giant leaps in progress have you seen in the kiting industry in the past 5 years or so?

 

BRM:  

When I think back about changes it’s funny to think that I have not normally been an early adaptor of change.  I loved the change from 2 line to 4 but it took me years to adopt the use of a chicken loop.  I just couldn’t adjust to the handling.  How’d that same kid become now obsessed with depower?  I tested bridled leading edge kites before Cabrinha launched the original Crossbow and didn’t see anything in it.  Shame on me.

 

When I found a kite I liked, I stuck with it for several years.  So for some years progression was more focused on my riding that what I was riding.  Now that I’m able to make exactly what I want the two can work together.

 

I don’t think my work will be of much direct influence to many individual riders.  I can’t imagine most rides have heard of it to have any ripple effect.  My impression is that most of the attention has been from within the industry and I’m happy for that.  Struts or not is not a super big deal.  Handling is what matters and I think this can be tuned in so many ways.  In a bigger picture I wonder if our sport is creating a limit for itself by our choices in performance and safety.  I’d love to see major changes that makes the sport more accessible so that we don’t fade into a tiny niche.  And I really hope more independent projects will launch with the passion to push the creative boundaries.

 

KS:

So what areas do you see within the current scope of the industry that have room to push? What major changes do you see that could happen that would help the sport become more accessible?

 

BRM:  

I wish I had some grand vision but my current ideas are relatively tame.  Along with kites I’ve been working a long time on a control system.  I think the current standards on bars is kinda OK for riders that ride unhooked but are hugely compromised for riders that don’t unhook.  I’m amazed by the lack of understanding many of my friends have for the systems they ride.  it’s truly scary.  Shame on them for not taking a more active approach, but shame on the industry for not better addressing this.  I’d like to see new standard develop that are more intuitive.  I hope to release in the next couple months the design I’ve been working on and I hope this will be of some influence to the big brands to consider new ideas.  That would just be a small step.  I hope bigger steps can be taken by designers will bigger ideas than mine.

 

KS:

I know there’s been some “damn kids and their newfangled toys, get off my lawn” response to the Cloud from some guys in different forums. What have been their main complaints? What have been the main doubts towards a zero strut design?

 

BRM:  

Doubts I can relate to.  I had them to.  So that’s all good with me.  I’m cool with complaints too.  I think any comments that are specific can be of great help to other riders considering gear choices.  Something like, “I hated the Cloud.  My XYZ kite has way more grunt.”  Or, “I can ride my XYZ kite into 35 knots with no problem and the 17 Cloud felt like crap over 17 knots.”  Stuff like this has value.  Other riders can come back with their experiences and different preferences.  Hopefully something like “Yeah, it’s not grunty and takes some technique to find the lift.” Or, “Yeah, it’s junk over 17 knots but it has revolutionized my riding in light winds where I had been stuck waiting for more wind.  And while i’ts not comfortable into higher wind, at least it’s safer than what I was riding.”  Then readers can decide what’s right for them.

 

But, this doesn’t seem to be the current state of the online culture.  Posters and readers seem to have no problem with the bashing and lack of accuracy.  One sentence will describe all strutless kites as the same and describe it as something that may be a fit for the Cloud.  The next sentence will claim opposite character due to a different strutless kite but no one call bullshit on the contradictory generalization.  I assume much of this is with no great intention but it seems like for some there’s real intention to deceive.  To this I asked the question if greater transparency would be helpful but all I got back was insults that I was trying to control information.  It’s really disheartening.  I’ve been told me that I need thicker skin and to not take it personal.  It’s sad to me if that’s the only solution.  My work is personal.  I don’t care to remove myself from any part of it.

 

KS:

Have you been in a situation recently where you would have preferred to pull another kite out of your quiver rather than an appropriately sized Cloud?

 

BRM:    

Sure.  Any combination of handling characteristics will have its strengths and weaknesses.  I have fond memories of a kite from 2002 for super fun hangtime and learning all the board-off stuff of its day.  Was great fun.  I haven’t ridden that kite specifically since but I’ve ridden others and they’re never as I remember them.  Seems like our benchmarks and related impressions and opinions change dramatically over time.  Specifically to today’s kites, I’ve probably always been a freak, but the different handling that was developed for the Cloud has put me even further outside the norm.  It’s the only kite that feels alive for me.  Thats where I’m at today.  Some years ago my riding was getting stale and I wondered if I was over kiting.  I changed up my riding style and the sport has been all new to me ever since challenged by a new set of tricks.  So maybe one day I’ll go back to an air style of riding and want different handling.  For now I’m happy to rig big on the rare days that I go boost while I’m sure there are much better kites for that then the Cloud.  I’d probably grab a C kite for that job.  Heck, then I’d be inspired to start riding unhooked again.  Fun to know there will always be options for keeping it fresh.  I don’t know if my choice to want one set of handling for all riding styles is common or if other riders want very different tools in their quiver.

 

KS:  

Any last words or parting thoughts you want to put down?

 

BRM:  

Yes.  Thanks.  I’d like to thank the riders that over the last year put their faith in this new offering and for all the stoke they’ve shared.  I’m so thankful for their support to have gotten this project off the ground.

For more information please visit Boardriding Maui

For ordering and pricing information please visit the order page.

Photos courtesy of Scott Drexler


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  2. Behind the bright eyes of Greg Drexler may be a mad scientist, but I have to say he is one of the – no THE most amazing, gentle, generous and talented man I know. I am lucky enough to get to hang with him on Maui. Not often enough, but I am ecstatic that he (and Avani) are in my tight circle of friends. To spend time in his company is to know relaxation, to gain perspective – on many things – kites, kitesurfing, life… and to experience the true demonstration of selfless generosity.

    Oh – and his style on the water is unparalleled. He is most interested in breaking kitesurfing down to the simple basics – ease, relaxation, simplicity and style. He has helped me understand that aggression isn’t required for an adrenaline rush – that everything opens up when relaxation and ease are what we let fly.

    The strutless kite? Sure it is simplistic in it’s look, but I’ll tell you, there isn’t a better feeling in the world than being out on the north shore of Maui, kiting with Greg at sunset, two or three Clouds being the only kites on the water, cruising in style on our Paipo boards (also Greg’s design – and the most fun board I have). Even if I am on my Naish Park, I still love the times I get to dabble with the Cloud. It is a different kite – made for the rider, designed and tested by the best honest man I know. Not trying to make it rich – just living for the stoke – for himself, for his wife, and for others. That is the definition of cool in my book.

    Thanks kitescoop for a most excellent article and interview. Kudos for the respect given G Drex. Deserved.

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A Peek Into the Mind of the Mad Scientist Behind the Zero Strut Kite A Peek Into the Mind of the Mad Scientist Behind the Zero Strut Kite A Peek Into the Mind of the Mad Scientist Behind the Zero Strut Kite A Peek Into the Mind of the Mad Scientist Behind the Zero Strut Kite
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