lifestyle, sport, culture

fly like the wind

words: andreas tzortzis


Don Montague moves quickly across a vast warehouse in a long-privatized Naval Air Force base on the edge of San Francisco Bay. The lifelong waterman—and water sports’ most relentless innovator—points to bags filled with massive kites, then lifts up the pontoon of a 60-foot, mastless, work-in-progress trimaran.

“Feel how light that is,” he says. Then he yanks on the chain of a roll-up door and a typical midwinter Bay Area gust blows through. Outside, under an arching, protective canopy, is his curent pride and joy: a 30-foot trimaran, powered by up to 645 square feet of kite, that gets up on foils almost instantly and hits speeds of up to 46 mph. It’s the result of years of persistent (and ongoing) fine-tuning that began when he first attached a kite to a sailboat in 1997. 

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Montague himself left Makani to be able to indulge several other ideas bouncing around his hyperactive mind. These include—in no particular order—a jet-powered surfboard that foils above the water, an electric-powered foiling boat and a rapidly inflating platform that can be used as a launching point for kites, or as a marina. He also recently experienced the uncanny feeling of being levitated above the ground in a human-sized drone.

And then there’s his most ambitious project: When the wind window allows for it some time later this summer, Montague and a crew of five other world-class sailors will depart Los Angeles for Hawaii in an attempt to beat the wind-powered watercraft record for the 2,500-mile passage of 3 days and 19 hours.

don montague, entrepreneur, sport

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Montague made his name as a windsurfer. But it was his kite designs that helped the young sport of kiteboarding expand rapidly. 

 THE RED BULLETIN: How fast do you need to go to beat that record?

DON MONTAGUEWe would be pushing 35 and 40 knots (40-46 mph); let’s say that’s 80 to 90 percent of the performance of the boat. You’re pushing that hard, and that is full concentration not to die. If there’s an error made, then everybody pays. The focus is intense to be able to go that fast.

How prepared does your crew need to be?

A lot of the guys that come on here have already won the Olympics and gone around the world a few times. They know how to do tunnel vision and focus. I couldn’t train somebody from scratch. They need a lifetime of performance sport. Because what I need is for him to be calm under the most extreme situations. I need him to think, and more so, I need him to anticipate.

You spend 10 days of your month in Maui, but your base of operations for your kiteboat venture, Kai Concepts, is the Bay Area. Why?

In SF you have like-minded people who are moving very quickly in a broad range of skill sets. Collectively I was able to draw from the very best in the world. I’ve survived all these years because I built an amazing team. I’ve always surrounded myself with much smarter people.

You grew up in Vancouver—were you always active as a kid?
In the summers we had a sailboat, on which we lived for a year. When I was 15, my father was involved in a project in Alaska developing really large freezing systems on boats to process fish quickly, and so I would go up there in the summers. That was the first big travel, where you go somewhere really desolate— it takes five planes to get there. There’s storms, and that sort of thing sets you up for where you’re going to be in life: those experiences at a young age and gravitating towards those extremes. I thrived when that wind was blowing. The more it blew, I was on the roof, crawling on my belly and hanging on to the railing with my feet sticking straight out. Of course, my mother and father are freaking out.

build,sail, kite, technology

Did this wild streak manifest itself any other way?

I was the guy who always took apart the telephone. I took apart everything I could find but I didn’t have a great background in engineering. Obviously I didn’t go to university. I didn’t make it through high school. I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I was 40, so I was told the whole time that I was stupid. And I was always getting reprimanded by the family: “Why don’t you get good grades? Why can’t you read?” You have to solve problems in different ways, so here’s an example: I couldn’t learn, but I had to pass high school. So before the era of small tape recorders, I took this tape recorder apart and made it real small. I ran a wire from it through my long hair into my ear. I taped everything I could imagine to try and pass the final exam, because I couldn’t remember anything. The point of the story is I found a solution. By going through the process of taping everything, eventually it got ingrained in there. 

That’s a remarkable way of dealing with it.

Throughout my life, I’ve used similar things to solve problems. I’m always anticipating what the next move is. For example, if I’m giving a speech in front of 1,000 people or 500 people, I would make the most insane videos of what I did. From an early age, I was already on the computer editing like crazy to make this 10-minute video. Now the video is playing, the crowd is engaged—now I’m comfortable. 

Don Montague

Coping mechanisms.

I can’t remember your phone number because all of the numbers are backwards. I can’t remember three numbers in a row. If you asked me to turn right, I’d wait and think about it. But you throw me on a board, there’s no issue, because all of the info is coming in and all of it is going out on what to do next. 

After high school, you eventually landed in Maui, where your natural skill at windsurfing got you sponsored quickly. But you quickly gravitated toward the gear side of the sport, working on sail design.

It’s a necessity for me to constantly design and change. I can’t ride the same thing twice—it’s not possible. You’re always trying to solve the next problem. You can imagine being with people who aren’t like that. They go insane because they’re like, “Can’t we just sit on the beach?” And I’m like, “What?!” I have this saying and I’ve lived by it: Every day you don’t is one less day you can.

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You then transitioned to designing sails for an entirely new sport in the late 1990s.

I had already done 10 years of work on the computer program to develop sails instantly. I had a whole team of programmers constantly improving that every day. So I already had the base on how to do this right and how to do it quickly. I immediately went into my “Don Monster” mode and I made 300 prototypes in a year. I was getting them as fast as FedEx could bring them in and I wasn’t even testing them because FedEx couldn’t bring them in fast enough and I’d already moved on. And that led to all the different developments that I made that allowed the sport to grow.

build, tech, boat

The trimaran being loaded into the water in Alameda, an area Montague chose both for its immediate access to water and its location in the Bay Area—where he would have access to technology’s top minds. 

Sounds like you don’t really do things at half speed. Where does that come from?

Some years I spent over four months a year just in the factory making it work. Nobody is asking me to do that—I just had to get it done. It’s like the jetfoiler; nobody is asking me to make that but I’m in there every day and every night, modifying it getting it to work so that everybody can have that experience.

You’ve often said that it’s a desire to share this feeling that led to the development of the kiteboat.

I wanted everyone to experience the kite. If you can imagine going through the waves being in a canoe holding on to this kite with everybody in the back and the exhilaration of all this happening—they can’t believe how this all feels.

How did Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin get involved?

They really believe in producing energy from kites. So they had already been down this path, and if you know them, they’re constantly searching and thinking about new ways to produce energy. It was nothing new to them when I told them I had a gigawatt of power already out there—every single kitesurfer out there is making power right now, as we speak—so of course I can make energy. And they said let’s start a company and use the kiteboat as a promotional vehicle to spread the word. 

It was that easy?

I had to pitch Google with a bunch of top guys sitting in the room. I
was nervous, and I had my little presentation as to why we should
do this. I got one word in and Larry just took over and said, “Yeah, Don’s amazing, we’re going to do this and I’m going to do it if the company doesn’t want to do it, so let’s meet outside.” So they left me in a little room for two minutes and they came back with big smiles on their faces and so they funded us $10 million right off the bat.

kiteboard, don montague, tech

The kiteboat’s steering mechanism evolved from a standard boat tiller to a hydraulic system that operates at the mast and on the seat. Optimal operation requires a crew of three. 

You were with Makani Power until 2013, when you decided to leave shortly before it was acquired by Google X. Why did you go?

My co-founder (and fellow kitesurfer), Corwin Hardham, died unexpectedly at his desk. He was the leader of the team and I was the behind-the-scenes guy. So when he passed, pretty much all of the burden was on me and other team leaders in the group. We were in the middle of negotiating at that time to bring the company into Google. Google purchased the company. It seemed like at that time my role was more babysitting than at the forefront testing. I can do that job—but it’s work. So I decided my skill set is more suited to pursuing the kiteboat, which was still my passion. 

But you stood to gain financially from an acquisition like that.
Oh, I could’ve gotten tons of money and tons of stock, but it just wasn’t really what I was good at and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’m not in it for the money.

So what do you hope to show with this record attempt?
It’s always been about bringing awareness and sharing that this is possible, motivating people to look at kites as an energy source. Indirectly, it’s a record attempt, it’s an ego thing. Something I wanted to do, and I get everything I ever want. It just takes time sometimes—more time. 

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