Faster than the speed of sail

Talk about torque! Rob Douglas uses strength and finesse to transfer the force exerted by a full kitesail to the tiny board on his feet. — Photo courtesy of Rob Douglas

It’s a classic Clark Kent to Superman transformation: a self-proclaimed business conservative, Black Dog CEO Rob Douglas channels his inner demon when he harnesses himself to board and kite in the water.

On October 28, 2010, Mr. Douglas set a new outright world speed sailing record, surpassing other kitesailors, windsurfers, and even a 65-foot trimaran when he achieved an average speed of 55.65 knots (64 mph) on a 500-meter course in Luderitz, Namibia, on the southwest coast of Africa.

Although this is only his third year competing, Mr. Douglas is a two-time world record holder, an eight-time national record holder, and the only American to ever earn the outright world speed sailing record.

Strapped by his feet to a small board and by lines connected from a harness to a rigid nylon kite, Mr. Douglas is David to the boating industry’s Goliath. He races neck and neck with huge, multimillion-dollar, hydrofoiled multi-hulled sailing vessels, only to emerge as the fastest sailor in the world, besting his former record of 49.84 knots, which he set in 2008 in Luderitz.

“I was born into sailing,” Mr. Douglas, 39, explains. A Vineyard native, he found his sea legs, like it or not, at just two weeks of age and has been on the water ever since. In addition to spending time on classic sailboats, he was an avid competitive windsurfer for 20 years, forsaking it only after discovering the thrill of kitesailing (also known as kiteboarding or kitesurfing). “I tried it in 2002 and entered my first race in July 2008 in the Canary Islands, setting an American speed record for kiteboarding.”

Races that have taken him to France, Africa, and the Canary Islands are now luring his younger brothers, Jamie, 38, and Morgan, 34, to compete as well. All three traveled together to Namibia in October, accompanied by coach Mike Gebhardt.

Their passion may be genetic, but Rob’s physique and tenacity have paid off dramatically since his first race in 2008. “I’m just an average guy who likes to compete,” he says, somewhat modestly. Acknowledging that his “God-given physical attributes” of weight (220 pounds) and strength are critical to keeping his rig in the water at high speeds, he believes he inherited his determination from his parents, Capt. Bob, master of the topsail schooner Shenandoah, and Charlene, who runs Arrowhead Farm, a riding stable at the family home in West Tisbury. He works out three days a week with personal trainer Brad Hill at the YMCA, bikes, practices yoga, and spends as many hours as possible on the water from April through November on the Island, traveling to Costa Rica during the winter to maintain his fitness.

The Vineyard climate is well suited to kitesurfing, Rob says, with its frequent winds of 15 knots. Windsurfers, in contrast, seek stronger winds that are less common on the Cape and Islands. Speed sailing competition sites are chosen for their windy conditions, flat water, and wind angle off the beach.

The conditions in Namibia several weeks ago were ideal, according to Mr. Douglas. “It was very windy, 45 to 50 knots, and they had dug a man-made canal the entire length of the course,” he reports. The four-meter-wide, 750-meter-long canal was only one to three feet deep, creating extremely flat water and perfect conditions for breaking speed records. The downside: the exit segment of the course was unusually short, just 300 feet long. On Mr. Douglas’s second run (after breaking the record), he got entangled in his lines, exited face-first, and broke his wrist as he tumbled to a halt. After signing his world record claim, he took a quick flight back to Boston to have his wrist repaired by an eminent hand surgeon. The prognosis: Mr. Douglas should be back on board in time to defend his world record in April 2011 at an event on the southeast coast of France.

Sponsored by The Black Dog, Cabrinha, his equipment manufacturer, and Lynch Associates, Mr. Douglas says it is a privilege to represent the United States. With The Black Dog logo emblazoned on all his gear, he says he feels kiteboarding is just an extension of the lifestyle brand his father started nearly 40 years ago.

Rob envisions enjoying his status until next fall, when those with a lust for speed and sea journey back to Namibia where conditions are particularly suited for breaking world records.

Until then, Mr. Douglas plans to apply the lessons he’s learned to his sport and to his business: “Guys who never give up win,” he sums up succinctly.