WHERE DID IT ALL BEGIN? WE MET UP WITH DAVID DORN THE CO-FOUNDER OF DRAGONFLY KITEBOARDING TO DISCUSS THE ORIGINS OF THE FREEWING.
David, what were your earliest experiences in watersports?
My father taught me how to sail when I was six years old and he was an Air Force pilot and flight instructor, so I was always thinking about sailing, wind, and wings. My brother and I started flying kites from the earliest age and we used to experiment with large kites, and inflatable kites, and traction kites pulling us along on our bicycles. Years later I learned to sew and started experimenting in making my own kites.
Then when I was heavily into windsurfing, I used to do repairs and experiment a lot making kites out of sailcloth. We were always making things by hand, and my brother had a stack of 10 kites that we added kevlar lines, and control bar, so we could harness the wind for traction. We used to put kites and sails on everything, boats, canoes, skateboards, snow skis, land-boards, you name it. So I grew up experimenting with all kinds of wind toys and was always dreaming of new ways to harness the wind. After many years windsurfing, I had the opportunity to try the wind-weapon, which was like a hang glider wing attached to a mast and a windsurfing board. It was a wild contraption that had huge potential for flight but was very hard to use. At the same time, I was taking flying lessons and getting my students pilot’s license, and also experimenting with my father’s hang glider. My brother and I got ourselves into some pretty scary situations back then but somehow we managed to survive, usually with a timely intervention of some experienced persons who would appear like guardian angels. After that was years of surfing, sailing, and windsurfing until it eventually became my career.
What was your background before making the Freewings?
Sailing and windsurfing since I was young, plus I always had an interest in different forms of flying because of my father. My father took me flying in small planes, gliders, and motivated me to take flying lessons. I was always interested in everything with wings that flies or glides. Surfing most of my life and some SUP. And I have been kiteboarding solidly for the last 20+ years and using a variety of equipment and exploring all of the various disciplines. In the last few years we have been heavily into foiling in all its various forms, but especially kite foilboarding. I think most of these things are relatable to wingsurfing in some way. Over the years I have been involved in designing and making custom equipment for windsurfing and kiting, and then when I got involved with Dragonfly Kiteboarding we have been designing and developing our own line of kite gear.
Did you come up with the Wing concept on your own, or were you inspired by someone else?
The first time I saw a similar wing was on the snow, and I was very impressed by it. That was about 30 years ago. But when the snow-wing was later used on the water it generated a lot of pull on the arms because the drag on the board was very high. Plus those old hard-frame wings were kinda heavy as well so it didn’t really catch on as a watersport at the time. About 20 years ago my then business partner Jon Holzhall and I started experimenting with adding handles directly onto kites to bypass the bar and lines system (the handles were his idea). This basically made our kites into hand-held LEI Wings. The system was appealing because it was safer and more accessible than traditional kiteboarding. Then I remember the first time I saw a modern inflatable wing was at Hood River around 2011/12 where slingshot designer Tony Logosz had made himself an inflatable wing.
What inspired you to make your first wing?
I was immediately intrigued by Tony’s wing because of the integration of kite construction materials, it really stood out as something different. But, I quickly discovered that there wasn’t anything even remotely like that available, and his wing was just a one-of-a-kind prototype. So I realized that if I wanted to have a wing like that then I would have to make it for myself.
How did you make your first Wing?
At the time we had already been designing and making kites and kite gear, so I asked one of our designers and good friend to help me co-design a wing. I had the experience and ideas, and he had more technical expertise in the engineering department. We set out to collaborate on making our own design based on what we knew from windsurfing, sailing, and kiteboarding.
We already had a computer program that my friend developed for kite modeling, and he was able to adapt the program and write some new code that allowed us to input our wing design ideas into 3D models. Eventually, it got to the point where we could experiment with these 3D Wing models in virtual wind tunnels to figure out if they were going to be air-worthy or not. After a lot of work, we were happy enough to complete our first design. Then we hand-built some prototypes and started testing them on land and in the water.
Those first prototypes were the result of a lot of theoretical knowledge and guesswork but it paid off and they flew reasonably well.
What did you do after that?
The first Wings taught us the fundamentals and gave us a lot of insight and practical experience that we brought back into the next design. The second generation of wings we made were lots of fun to fly so we became addicted fairly quickly.
What did you like about Wingsurfing?
The good thing about the wingsurfing was that it brought together so many different elements from all the various areas of our experience. It immediately felt very intuitive and natural. The wing has a way of weaving together all your skills, and it keeps revealing new insights as well.
How did the idea for the “Freewing” brand come about?
We decided that we wanted to keep making wings for ourselves and our friends, and maybe even make one that was good enough to sell to the public. So we eventually decided to develop the “Freewing” line under the “Dragonfly Kiteboarding” label. When we decided to dedicate ourselves to the project, things started to move along. We went through many more rounds of prototyping, testing, and development, getting a little better each time.
When did you start selling wings?
The first wing made available to the public was the Freewing version one in early 2019. We made enough wings for ourselves and our friends and some extra ones to sell, these were sold out very quickly and more people wanted them. We made some improvements to the next production models and started getting orders from Asia and Europe as well as the US. As word spread and the Wings started to be seen around, we began to attract interest from several companies who approached us to make our wings. And since then we have even licensed some of our designs to several companies who make our wings under their own labels.
What are you doing these days?
Nowadays, we spend most of our time testing and refining our wings as well as making the accessories that go with them. My wife Suzie does a lot of the heavy lifting on the business side, and she is my regular training partner (both kiting and wingsurfing). We also travel when we can to promote our products and visit our test centers. We always try to get on the water as much as we can, which on Maui is quite a lot. The weather here allows us to wingsurf all year round. But the wind does stop occasionally.
What inspires you about Wingsurfing?
Since starting to wingsurf, I am constantly amazed by how much there is to learn along the way. I really love the feeling of discovering new things and learning new skills. I learn something new every single time I ride and It blows me away. I am still as stoked about “wings” today as I was when I first started dreaming about them as a child, except now we can bring our dreams into reality, and we get to play with some really awesome toys.
Do you think that Wingsurfing will catch on like other sports have?
People often ask us “if this sport he’s going to catch on”, and we say “Yes, and not only has it caught on, but you better start now if you want to catch up”.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into Wingsurfing?
A lot of people out there might still be on the fence about whether to try Wingsurfing or not, so I would say to them, “Definitely try it as soon as you can because then you’ll be that much better off when you finally realize that you want to do it”.
Where do you think Wingsurfing will be in 5 years?
I know I will still be doing Wingsurfing in one form or another, but who knows how it will look like by then because the sky is the limit.