Robbie Douglas: ‘How fast can I go?’

After years in the game, speed sailor is still one of the quickest on the water.

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How did Robbie Douglas go from sailing a 152-foot topsail schooner called Shenandoah when he was 16 to breaking multiple world speed sailing records and becoming one of the fastest on the water at age 48?

He attributes his success to one or two questions: “How fast am I going, and how fast can I go?”

Douglas started windsurfing around 1988 — a necessary departure from normal sailing that allowed him to push the boundaries a bit more, and sail in more windy conditions. 

He took part in a number of windsurfing regattas up until the late ’90s, but found that races often lacked sufficient wind speed to suit his liking. “It was an amazing thing I had found, but I found myself looking for more,” Douglas said. 

Fast-forward to 2002, and Douglas found a sport that not only enabled sailors to deal with heavy winds and powerful gusts, but held dizzying speeds center-stage as the ambition of all who were gutsy enough to attempt it — kiting. 

Douglas began freestyle kiting, and immediately fell in love with the freedom and rush of adrenaline that it provided. He tested the boundaries of kiting capabilities, and began to get more comfortable being in some of the windiest conditions he had encountered in his sailing career. 

Instead of focusing on huge aerial tricks involved with freestyle kiting, Douglas chose to pursue a niche form of kiting, called speed sailing.

With speed sailing, the equipment is nearly identical, except the board and sail are designed specifically for reaching the fastest speeds possible on a single tack.

Boards are often cut to be asymmetrical, with a pointy nose to cut through the water, and a bit of rocker for reduced friction. This design limits edging and rail resistance for a smooth ride. A delta or bow kite with a bridle and swept-back wing profile also allow for increased speed and aerodynamics.

“Once you make the switch from freestyle kiting to speed kiting, you progress fairly fast,” Douglas said. “The equipment is very similar, but your goals are different.”
In 2008, Douglas travelled to Luderitz, Namibia, to hit “the trench,” a skinny finger of water 2,297 feet long, nine to 12 feet wide, and only one-and-a-half feet deep. 

“Trench racing really changed the game,” Douglas said. “The shallower the water, the flatter it is. The flatter it is, the easier it is to hit top speeds.”

Douglas said he has crashed in the trench a number of times, and got “extremely lucky” after one particularly bad wipeout. “Crashing isn’t really an option when you are in the trench; there isn’t much room for error,” Douglas said.

In the trench, Douglas became the first person to set the outright world speed sailing record on a kiteboard, hitting a speed of 49.84 knots (approximately 57 mph).

But Douglas’ record was broken soon after by a French rider named Alex Caizergues, as he surpassed the speed by less than one knot. 

In 2009 history repeated itself at the Luderitz Speed Challenge, when Douglas became one of the first to break the 50-knot barrier, but was again overtaken by Caizergues by less than a knot.

One thing that Douglas said made it difficult to prepare for the conditions present in Luderitz was the lack of similar conditions here in the U.S. “Nothing beats time in the water and getting used to your gear,” Douglas said. “You can train in the gym all you want, but you have to get used to the conditions you are going to be competing in.”

But no amount of time in the water or training at the gym could prepare Douglas for the turbulence he was about to experience in his life.

In 2016, Douglas was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. Just three days after his last treatment, he became the International Kitespeed Association world champion speed sailor for the second time (he previously won the 2012 title in Salin de Giraud, France). He defeated some of the world’s fastest sailors — including his two brothers, Jamie and Morgan.

In June 2018, Douglas traveled to Plage du Rouet in La Palme, France, where he broke the world speed sailing record for one nautical mile with a speed of 39.04 knots (44.93 miles per hour), a goal he set for himself after the 2016 world championships.

Douglas said he will have to pull back a bit on competitive racing, as recent developments have reshuffled his priorities in life. “I had my first son two years ago, which definitely impacts how I train. I guess I am getting older, and starting to think a lot about the future,” Douglas said. Between his wife and his son, Douglas said, he had to move kiting down on his list of priorities:

“I’ll pick some events here and there that I can train for, and continue to do what I love most.”