At a time when most of his friends were frantically rubbing zit cream on the first splashes of acne covering their faces, Robby Naish was a world champion. The quietly confident 13-year-old beat out a much older field in the young sport of windsurfing in 1976. The next year he did it again, and again and again. He won 24 titles in all, adding two kiteboarding world championships to that in his late 30s. But his impact on the sport’s growth and popularity went beyond that.
For the better part of two decades, he was windsurfing’s Michael Jordan, a man with a profound addiction to both the water and winning, and a transformative figure in a sport that grew from wooden booms and plastic boards into a global industry. If his great rivalry with Holland’s Björn Dunkerbeck didn’t quite equal the scale of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls against the Detroit Pistons, it matched its intensity.
Now 50, Naish retains a puckish air about him -- the white crow’s-feet around his eyes (from years spent squinting up at a windsurfing sail) one of the only giveaways of his advancing age. He still wears sandals and shorts as a matter of principle, and surfs his favorite break, the big-wave cauldron Ho’okipa on Maui’s North Shore, whenever the wind is up.
In its 18th year, his eponymous company is a successful manufacturer of high-end windsurfing, kitesurfing, and stand-up paddleboarding gear. The last two are sports whose wild popularity he helped pioneer in the mid-1990s and early part of the 2000s.
In a large house on a cliff buffeted by winds, Naish reflected on the lessons learned in a life lived both selfishly and passionately.
KAILUA, WHERE I GREW UP, is a super-cool little community on the northeast side of Oahu. Back then it was totally off the radar. Obama has kind of brought it on the radar with his Christmas holidays, but even up until the last few years, everyone just stayed in Waikiki and went to the North Shore.
We lived about a five-minute walk from the beach. I didn’t even own a pair of slippers until I was in the third grade. I did everything barefoot -- went to school barefoot, played flag football barefoot, played basketball barefoot. I still have that … I come barefoot all the time.
WHEN I FIRST STARTED WINDSURFING, there were like six or seven of us in Hawaii. It was when there was only one windsurfer and it had a wooden boom, plastic board. There had been no development in the gear yet.
You didn’t jump on a windsurfer and go anywhere. You fell and you fell and you fell and you went 10 feet and fell. In Kailua the windsurfers would drift down the beach and then have to somehow drag their gear all the way back up. So I would go down after school and run down the beach and ask people if they wanted me to sail their board back up wind for them so they wouldn’t have to drag it. And so I would get water time that way.
I LOVE THE DIFFICULTY OF WINDSURFING. I love that challenge to tame it: “F*ck it! I’m going to beat this thing!” And the competitive aspect as well, where you controlled your own destiny. I never liked team sports. I’m not a super social guy; I like to go do stuff by myself, so it just clicked the right switch in me. There were winners and losers. When you went to a race, if you got third, you were third, if you won, you won, and if you got dead freaking last, you got dead last.
Some people can go and ride for six hours. I go out and I power through, and then I get off. The way I ride that’s long enough. If I ride any longer I’m probably going to hurt myself. I’m not just cruising around and coming into the beach to hang out with my friends and socialize and then go out for another session.
MONEY HAS ALWAYS BEEN IMPORTANT to me. My mom once told someone, “Robby probably doesn’t have the first nickel he ever earned, but he probably knows where he spent it.” I don’t, but it was a good sort of analogy to how I’ve been with money my whole life. The prize money from the competitions I won, I put in the bank.
Coming up with the money for my first board was the hardest part. I took my life savings, we sold the Hobie Cat I sailed, and I took my half of the money. I airbrushed T-shirts and I made paper shell necklaces and I babysat. I was sort of the neighborhood babysitter, which is weird for a boy. And so I did all that and then in 1975, I bought my first windsurfer for $340 complete. But that was a lot of money.
THE WATER IS AN ENVIRONMENT that is out of your comfort zone, and it’s always changing, it’s always different every time you go out. Anything that brings people outside is a good thing, but putting them into the ocean, or even on the water -- if it’s a lake or a river or whatever -- it’s even better. It’s just cleansing: It’s good for you, it’s kind of a mind, body, spirit thing. That little lake behind your house that you have never even bothered to go on because it’s not inviting -- you go out there on a stand-up paddleboard, which looks like the most boring thing ever, and you see the world from a different perspective.
MY FIRST WORLD TITLE IN 1976 IN THE BAHAMAS, we had no idea at that point if I was faster or slower than the competition. But I had a huge advantage when the wind was light because I was so light. So I had the combination of being light and having really good speed, but also being good because I lived here and I could go all the time. Some of the older guys definitely were put off. In fact it was the last year that they ever had an overall world champion. The next year they had weight classes.
I WAS NEVER ONE OF THOSE GUYS that would stand on a podium, throw my trophy in the air and go, “Yeah!” Humility was really, really important to me. I didn’t want to be that guy that everybody hated because I was winning. But I hated losing with such a passion, and the more I got through my career, especially when I had won so much, that fear of coming up short got more and more profound. We got to the point where I had such bad butterflies I was throwing up in my mouth before heats. Like literally getting sick from the adrenaline.
In a way it’s good that you know 25 years into your career that you still take it that seriously. That it’s not like, “Oh well, whatever happens, happens. I’ve won, and if I lose, whatever, it’s somebody else’s turn.” It was never like that. If you do it right you are going to get to a point where you know the only way someone is going to be able to beat you is if you make a mistake by letting him beat you. And not because it’s easy. It’s just because you worked that much harder than anybody else to get to that point.
You have to be willing to sacrifice whatever is going to come between you and that zone, which is friends, and family, and fun, and chicks, and parties. You have to be really, really selfish.
I BECAME A FATHER AT 18. I was young but I was older than a lot of 18-year-olds. I was obviously so self-centered in my early days that [my older daughter, Nani] didn’t get the time that, say, my 6-year-old daughter Christina is getting today. But the time we had together was really good. When I came home I had all the time in the world. We were so close in age that we would play. I don’t have regrets. I don’t have this glaring scar in my memory that I should have done something differently. She came up to be an incredible person, and I think the relationship that we had is what it is and it was fantastic, and she loves me and I love her. Nobody is perfect, but I like my flaws, you know, and the times that I’ve fallen down I think were reasonable. It’s good to get kicked in the face once in a while.
I’VE NEVER BEEN A GOAL SETTER. “I’m going to try and win that and once I win it I’m going to become a golfer or something.” I’ve never had aspirations to do anything else. So the whole time I was just trying to set myself up so there was a future next week or next month or next year. Like, if somehow it would continue I’d put myself in the best possible position to continue it. People have been asking since I was 20 years old, “When am I going to retire?” And I’m like, “I am retired. I do what people do when they retire.”
BJÖRN DUNKERBECK’S FIRST SEASON on the tour was in 1987. You could tell that kid was going to be really good when he grew into his feet. And so he quickly grew into his feet, and it was the good-against-evil rivalry for years to come.
He was quiet and a little bit arrogant, with a little bit of Dolph Lundgren in his persona. He wasn’t really nice with the public. It was a perfect sort of good guy–bad guy thing, and I played the good guy. And it was good for me because it pushed my career. It pushed me to get more into the technical aspects of the sport.
I was never the technical guy. I couldn’t even change a tire on my bicycle. I liked to ride. You could give me anything and I could ride. I could get my bike on one wheel over the hill, round the corner, down the street all the way to the beach. I could wheelie longer than anyone. I could ride a skateboard better than anyone. But ask me to fix anything that broke … I’d give it to my brother or someone else.
KITESURFING WAS THIS PERFECT TRANSITION as I was ready to stop windsurfing competition [in the mid-1990s]. I was still doing the World Cup in 1998, when we started kitesurfing. You need a certain amount of wind in windsurfing to get high-performance riding out of it, especially when you’ve been doing it as long as I have. And kiting brought high performance into that realm of shitty conditions. You didn’t need that much wind to go boost on your kite and ride waves. So it extended the amount of time you could have fun and get air.
THE VERY FIRST ADVERTISEMENT MY COMPANY DID FOR KITING was a black page with “Absolutely positively the wrong sport for 99.9% of the world’s population” written in white letters. You flipped the page and it was introducing Naish kitesurfing. And that’s the way we approached it. It’s f*cking dangerous, people are going to die doing this, it’s super extreme. Obviously the equipment has developed and it’s become a much more accessible sport.
I LOST SLEEP OVER STARTING MY COMPANY. I didn’t want to do it. I liked being responsible for only myself. I knew it was taking some of that away; I was going to add this layer of responsibility, tying me to other people and, boy, it was hard. But it’s one of the most rewarding and, at the same time, one of the scariest parts of my life right now. The decisions that I make now affect the livelihoods of 40-somewhat people and their families.
I still have flexibility; nobody is telling me what to do. I’m not accountable to a bunch of people. And that to me is really valuable, more valuable than growing the brand and cashing in and getting my $15 million paycheck and moving to Florida and going golfing or whatever people want to do when they retire.
I HAVE TO FORCE MYSELF TO BE GROUNDED and am sure in my wife Katy’s eyes, I’m not around anywhere near enough. They want to go hang out on the beach and build more sandcastles and stuff, but it’s not in my nature to fluff the nest. I’ve done really good. But it is really out of my nature to be a family guy.
It takes a lot to get me upset. My wife used to say, “Oh, you are a pushover. You let people walk all over you.” She used to always say that, and after 22 years, she realizes why. Because if you are going to go through every day letting every little thing upset you and try to stand your ground on every d*ckhead that you meet, you are going to be miserable.
I TELL THE YOUNGER GENERATION, if somebody is going to pay you a dollar to go do this, you are like the f*cking luckiest guy in the world. So you’ve got to do everything you can to perpetuate it. I’m a pretty good example that if you play your cards right, you approach your life right and you are lucky, then you could do this forever.
Check out the May 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.