(This is PART 3 of a three part interview feature taken from issue 40)
|Jaime Herraiz is one of the good guys in kiteboarding. When you meet him, that big, warm smile hits you like a slap across your soul.
He grew up in Valencia and got heavily into windsurfing when he was eight. Having already been to Tarifa when he was 12 and 16, he knew it held the healthy, outdoor lifestyle that he craved and, when the underground trend of techno-music and drugs really surfaced and became super-hip in the bars and clubs of Valencia, he packed his bags and moved.
It took a few years until kiteboarding came onto his radar, but when it did, windsurfing's loss was kiteboarding's gain as his infectious enthusiasm for the sport saw him join the radical group of dynamic and exciting individuals that took the sport by the horns and give kiteboarding its early, dramatic twists of identity at the start of this decade.
His dedication, vision and professionalism have seen him progress with North Kiteboarding, from pro rider to team manager, young blood team mentor, gear developer and tester and he's recently opened 'Wet' in Tarifa, a flagship North store that's also the hub of North's Spanish distribution network.
If there's anyone in kiteboarding that can say, 'been there, done that' and still be holding a lot of cards in the game, it's Jaime. He is the genuine article and we're lucky to have him onboard
When did you first come across kitesurfing?
When I first moved to Tarifa I became a professional windsurfer and was doing testing and R&D work for Fanatic and A.R.T. We'd go to Maui for photoshoots and testing each year and it was there in 1996 that I first saw Laird Hamilton and Rush Randle going out, but they made it look pretty clumsy and not very exciting at all. A year later in 1997, it was the same sort of thing, but there were a few more of them out, still not going upwind. 1998 was different: guys were going upwind and even jumping. I was there for another month but had really light winds. One another day of struggling to go upwind at the point at Ho'okipa, I saw Robby Naish come blistering past me and jumped off a wave. I was like, 'Okay, I'm done! I surrender!'
Where did you get your equipment from? It was pretty hard to come by back then wasn't it?
It's a funny story: I went to the Hawaii Pro Line shop and Mauricio Abreu was the clerk. He was being such a prick though! Ha ha. He was saying, “I'm not sure you want to be getting into this sport. It's super dangerous, blah, blah, blah.” He made such a big fuss out of it. Back then the Wipika five metre inflatable was the only kite to have and there were no brand new ones. The only ones I could get were these second hand ones off Rush Randle. I talked to him on the beach, he sold me one and then I went to see Mauricio for a bar. I remember he charged me $110 for a quick-release system that never worked. It was super-fancy with all this carbon, but didn't work. He told me there were three kinds of bar: “The beginner bar is 110cm long, then there's the advanced bar, which is one metre and then there's the pro bar, that people like me use. That's 90cm.” I was like, okay, I'll go for the advanced bar as I'm sure he wouldn't have let me have the pro bar!
And what about lessons?
Mauricio Toscano, now chairman of the PKRA, gave me my first crash lesson. I was good friends with him from windsurfing. We were down at Camp One, between Kite Beach and Sprecks, surrounded by all these trees, rocks and gusty winds. He passed me the kite and said, “Put it on your right hand side and let it drag you out. Once you're out, just kind of whip the kite... whip the kite. You'll feel it and when you're comfortable try and get onto the board. The first thing I did was run over a windsurfer. This poor guy was trying to uphaul and, you know how it is, I was just looking at him thinking I don't want to go there, but sure enough headed straight for him.
When did you realise it could be a viable career?
I didn't really take it seriously to begin with. I was still earning my beans testing fins for intermediate freeride windsurfing boards, but it had become a struggle. I kept on with it for a while, but kitesurfing was so new, it was a wide-open universe with three dimensional moves. I got so into it I quit my windsurfing job and took a rep role for a clothing company. If nothing else, it gave me enough time to kite back home in Tarifa. That was 1999.
Were there many kiters in Tarifa back then?
No, just me, my brother in-law, Eduardo, and another English fellow, called Lee. Some windsurfers took it up soon after, like Stephane Etienne, but soon dropped off and are now full-on kite haters. It's funny to see what they're like.
You joined North soon after that. Can you describe the atmosphere and what it was like to be part of such a fresh scene back then as a pro rider?
We were pretty reckless at times, but it felt like we were building something. It was about a focus; not individual focus, but a general focus. We created the Professional Kite Riders Association (PKRA) and were bound together, hand-in-hand, with our president, Mauricio Toscano. We were fully involved in every single decision that was taken and, at least speaking for the people I was closest to, like Shinny, Martin Vari, Jeff Tobias and Will James, we felt like ambassadors of our sport and our brands, before actual riders. I think that's gone the other way now. I don't see riders acting like ambassadors for their brands, or like they have to defend their sport at all.
But surely that's because back then there was a huge void that needed filling?
We had a huge complex; it was all about 'legitimising' the sport. That was the word that was used most often. The surfers were calling us clowns, the windsurfers hated us and the wakeboarders thought we were just lame people on strings. Martin Vari was world champion, but no one could feel proud of being the world champion of kiteboarding at that time. It was a huge struggle to overcome the perceptions that people had of kiteboarding, created by the long pants, seat harness and tweaked moves of Flash Austin etc. We had to come around it and join forces with the 'Kite Beach Maui USA' crew, with their two lines and bindings. But there was one thing that was mandatory through it all: you had to attend the beers after a contest. It was more awkward to not be at the bar than to miss your heat. If you weren't in your heat it would be strange, but if you weren't at the bar afterwards, it would be scandalous!
That's where all good things move forward!
Exactly, and where we had all these great ideas before forgetting them in the morning. Now it all seems super-serious.
As I said, we were trying to legitimise the sport, but also share a vibe with everyone. Just to show how four friends, with different backgrounds - from Argentina, Spain and the USA – who were sponsored by three different kite companies, came together and just had fun. We just wanted to be ourselves and let people know that you didn't have to be the cool guy from the beach... that there was more to it. Will and I, in particular, really thought the fun element was missing from the sport. We thought people needed some guys with some humanity that they could look to and potentially try some of the tricks they were doing. Some guys used the DVDs to learn tricks from and nailed them in two or three weeks. It wasn't too advanced, it was just about fun.
They are both really watch-able DVDs and edited really smartly by Chris Tronolone. Was he like the catalyst for it all or just the linchpin that pulled it together?
In the beginning I guess he saw it as a business when Will and I contacted him. He's this big American-Hawaiian guy and probably saw us as some stupid Euros with some money, so thought he could make some money out of us. But as we came together he got to know all of us better and completely understood what we were about. Chris is really good at squeezing the characters out of people. He gets to know you really quick; your bright sides and your dark sides, and can show it to people in just very short frames. He completely summarised all our characters in three minutes. My friends said they could see me entirely in those films. He's really good.
Both videos were timed so well. Space Monkeys 2 was the barrel quest before anyone knew it was really possible, but Space Monkeys 1 was probably had the most pivotal effect. Can you explain what happened at the first event of the season in Austria in 2002?
That was the funniest story of my life and, honestly, it wasn't meant to be that way. We'd worked on the video, travelled and were just pushing each other, going, 'I can do this', 'I can do that' and, of course, Martin could do three times more than any of us! So we just pushed and pushed and the video was edited just before the start of the season. We first showed it in Leucate at the Mondial du Vent event, but not a lot of people paid any attention to it. Then we had a premiere on the night before the first day of the PKRA season. I was sitting at the back and I remember watching Adam Koch's and Mark Shinn's faces and everyone in the room was shaking their heads, going, 'We're fucked.' Sure enough it was the easiest contest I've done in my life. Martin was first, Will got second (although he couldn't actually handle-pass, but he just really made it look like he was) and I got third!
You competed for so many years and had some hotly contested battles, yet I think Cabarete 2004 was the first event you won wasn't it?
I was like 30 and after all those years I finally made it. I think that was the peak of my career, because I felt comfortable. I'd just spent two weeks on holiday in Brazil with my family, I was happy, I'd just signed a contract with North and I felt really calm. Martin had always said, “Man, I don't know why you don't win – you're better than that!” I was inventing moves, like the front mobe, and people were beating me with them! Aaron and Martin were freaks, but Martin would kill me because I'd ride with him a lot. He'd watch me and go, “Fuck, that was sick!” Then, boom, he'd have it nailed. I'd have just spent a week figuring it out!
He said that he'd talked to some good friends in the sport who convinced him to come back with Vari kites. Did he talk to you?
Yes. The way I see it, kiteboarding wouldn't be what it is today without the guys like Martin. I don't know anyone more driven than him and he's got a lot of things to say. He was world champion, took some time out and then came back and won the Chile wave contest so long after. He's got his confidence back and really has to get on his toes and step it up; he doesn't know how to be mediocre.
I remember doing a feature with you in Hawaii in 2004 and for an afternoon you, Martin, and Will would go out, one at a time, and try to pull into deeper waves than the other guy. Then you'd come in and hand the kite onto the next rider for the rest to watch. That hunger has never really dried up has it?
No. We thought that was big back in the day, but it as small! Now we're just getting to the point where we can feel comfortable in bigger waves.
Is that where you have the most fun riding now?
I wouldn't like to think so. I got into kitesurfing because it seemed like an endless choice of potential fields to explore. I still really enjoy freestyle and, even some old school, but for sure, I do like riding waves.
Presumably the huge diversity in the water conditions, wind strength and directions here in Tarifa is why you like it so much?
I lived in Hawaii for four years and felt like a slave to the conditions. I was never happy and couldn't have a real life. I was either on the water or just pissed about not being on the water. Every time I sat down to work on the computer I knew I could be missing out. It was even stressful going to the shops, or the movies. The conditions over there can so often be a nine or a ten on the scale, so you always feel like you're missing out. In Tarifa, it's not that good very often, but it's so regular and I don't feel like a slave any more. I've got more of a balance between work and play.
Your roles within the sport and North have changed so much over the years. Can you summarise your involvement now?
I'm 35 now and just being a team rider and doing kit testing was growing old on me. When I first joined Boards and More (the company that owns North) at 24, the company didn't even have a name for the kite brand. So that was the first thing to figure out. I said I didn't really want to be a team rider because I was done with that side of my life. I really wanted to be more involved in R&D as well as distribution and marketing. I got convinced it was a good idea that I became a team rider again and have had the chance to do everything, from travelling, doing demo tours, figuring out equipment, dealing with companies and distributors. Last year I was team manager and still doing demo tours and still having to ride and do photo shoots even though I didn't feel like a team rider any more. It's the story of my life. I really wanted to be done and move onto the next step. This building came along and I thought about doing a flagship North store, but before I knew it, Till Eberle from North was out here suggesting we do the whole thing; a flagship store and the Spanish distribution from downstairs. I'd been in the industry long enough to know that I didn't want to be a distributor. I've always been very critical of them, feeling like they've never done enough. But then I thought that maybe it's time to act; to make a difference.
How are you doing that?
We're making it cleaner and working really fairly with our dealers. We use this huge shop as a tool for distribution and have all these aids to service our dealers. We even have an outlet store in town for their second hand gear. We've grown so much in twelve months because I think the dealers are so impressed with the help that comes from our side. We're not just here to buy, sell and collect money. We have a really active support network and take stock from one shop to another and, if they have old stock, we re-buy it from them. It's a bad time to start a business, but a really good time to be helpful if you have the right tools to do so. It's a good challenge and I hope that if we're doing well it will help our competitors push forward and step up their game.
There aren't many people with your unique overall perspective on things. What do you know about kiteboarding?
It's a difficult time but it's at a point where we could go one way and things will be really good, or we could go the other. I see it at a point where everyone is struggling, everyone's cutting down and I blame a lot of brands for not spending so much on R&D any more, not pushing their marketing side too much and playing it too small mindedly. When cheap kites entered the market it ruined it for everyone, not only the other manufacturers. Kites and boards are not expensive or cheap – they are just worth what people will pay for them. Everyone was willing to pay more for kites than they are now. Prices have gone up 20% for us and companies have had to get more professional, we need more resources but we need more margin. At the end of the day, everything shows in the market and some of the equipment that gets released is under-developed. Marketing-wise, we could have more heroes. Aaron should be paid five times more than he's paid and, Gisela, three times more. There are so many team riders pushing the sport and they haven't been used by their companies. It's not that companies are not professional, they just don't have any more money. It's like a death spiral. Companies don't spend that much on their team riders and the team riders don't value their companies that much.
And there don't seem to be many shop riders on the beaches any more...
There are no opinion leaders helping people. That's what I think is missing the most and is exactly the way I want our company to go. Since dealing directly with customers in the shop, I've realised you don't have to sell things cheap. This stuff isn't food – you don't need to buy a kite, you don't need to be a kiter; it's not like having to survive – it's just a pleasure. It's a fun toy and a way to get away from everything, but you should enjoy it and make sure that the equipment you have is the latest and premium. It's about the feeling inside, not what you pay for it. If anyone wants to step down our levels of marketing or R&D at North, then they are always going to have to fight against me. We need to be up top. We need to be proud of being kiters. So I ask small companies entering the market to either be up top or nothing, because selling kites for half price is just fucking up the market long-term. Once someone has paid €600 for a kite, they're never going to pay €1200 next year.
But that's the world that we live in.
It is, but it's a real pity because these things really affect small markets like this. But still, most people involved in this industry operate with a passion, which is completely different to most industries I've been exposed to. There really is no money in it for the amount of work that we all do, so there has to be passion and that still really appeals to me.
The biggest memories are probably from those early PKRA meetings where we were all together and you could just feel the vibe. There were 60 guys that were like 60 warriors of the sport. It was like the movie '300' – there we were in Austria, standing strong against anything that got in our way. I would also have to say the prize ceremony in Cabarete, not because of the contest itself, but because everyone was so happy for me. Everyone was like, 'Finally!' All the weight in my shoulders had gone and I remember people hugging me and I was just hugging everyone, even big guys with beards! It was happiness and I knew everything was going to be fine from then on.
Read more features from the Rhythm and Health series:
Part One: Tarifa intro
Part Two: Alvaro Onieva
Part Three: Gisela Pulido
Read issue #40 for free online now here