The following interveiw is from Performance Windsurf Report vol.5
#1 and was printed in the spring of 1995
Hot Sails Maui cuts out their
own share of the windsurfing market each year
with a line-up of sails that always perform exceedingly well. Small, but
tenacious, Hot Sails Maui celebrated major victories on the World Cup
circuit last year with team rider Jessica Crisp winning the overall title
for women. Jeff Henderson, founder of Hot Sails, at thirty-two years of
is the youngest CEO of a major production sail loft. Brash and outspoken,
the Vermont native has led their charge into the world market since the
M: You grew up in a big time skiing family. Your Dad
was a ski racer in
Alta, Utah in the 50's. At what age did you start skiing?
M: So you were at it from the beginning?
JH: Until I was eighteen. Then I went to the Caribbean and tried
windsurfing and went cold turkey on skiing. I lived a mile from the ski
area. It was part of my PhysEd program in school-the whole bit. I was a
instructor. After windsurfing, I think I've skied six times since December
M: You were down there on vacation?
JH: No. My mom was an innkeeper in Vermont and decided to move to become
innkeeper in the British Virgin Islands. She decided to manage this hotel,
four rooms. My mom's British. We were two of five white people on the
island. Very small. No electricity, no roads, no telephones. I went down
help her move and saw windsurfing and tried it. Basically from then on my
focus was windsurfing. I was hooked. I changed my schedule around;
convinced my high school to take an off-campus term for credit. I proposed
to them I would to go to the Caribbean and build a windmill. (Laughter)
yeah. Amazingly enough, after being turned down once they let me do it.
I moved down for three months with my girlfriend and built this windmill.
continued learning-suffering through learning windsurfing. It's not easy.
It's not easy?
JH: Definitely not. Next year moved down there again. Bought my first
board, which was a three piece shark surfer. This is a three piece board,
three even length sections with a meter and a half length stainless steel
bolt that goes through the length of the board. You put it together you
tighten the bolts on each end.
M: So you can travel with it, right?
JH: Right. It comes with a two piece boom, but the split in the boom is
the middle of the boom so it would fold up and it had a four piece aluminum
mast. It was a pretty big investment. I spent all my free time on it.
M: What kind of a sail was on it?
JH: It was a real piece of junk, an old pinhead.
M: Okay, what happened
JH: I met a young lady who I was teaching at a windsurf area, on the beach
who had some friends who had a board company - Bora Boards of Marble Head,
Mass.. After that season I went up to Massachusetts and met them, and they
asked me to race for them. I had never raced. They said, "Come down
harbor and sail around once." So I stepped off the dock and sailed
and came back. They thought that was great. So they said, "We're going
go to this race next weekend, can you go?" I answered I would, and
so off I
went. Turns out it was the North American Championships. So my first race
ever was the North American Championships. In 1981, Atlantic City, New
Jersey. So I went down there and saw some very interesting
people-Schweitzer, Mike Waltze, Rhonda Smith. There were waves, and these
guys were out wave riding. I was stoked.
JH: So I sailed my ass off . . . the middle of the pack, 18th I think,
something like that, which was great, you know, first race. The Bora people
were stoked, so I kept getting boards from them. Then I went back to the
Caribbean and laid around another season there. I came back up and then
had my dream summer.
M: Dream summer, 1982. Why dream summer?
JH: How about off the record?
M: No way.
JH: I had a very good summer, racing. I was winning all the races locally
and stuff like that.
M: This is where?
JH: All throughout New England.
M: You were winning a lot of races?
JH: Winning a lot of races and having a great time. I was nineteen and just
had a blast. So after that summer I was getting ready to go to college and
I was registered at U Mass, Amherst. About two weeks before I was to go
school I heard about this job opening with Hood Sailmakers. I met one of
the guys who had made some windsurf sails. His name was Ethan Bixby. He
the 505 Class World Champion. I interviewed with him; I didn't really know
what the situation was. I heard they wanted to hire somebody for something
to do with windsurfing or sailmaking, or something. So I applied with him.
I met with him once and the next day I met with the president of the
company. They hired me on the basis of those two interviews. It was totally
M: They hired you for what?
JH: To start a windsurfing sails division. I was nineteen and didn't go
college and they ask me, "We need market research in the next six months.
Can you handle it?" I said, "Sure, no problem." They take
me out and they
tell me, "Here's your office. This is Judy, she's your secretary. The
bit. I'm this bum windsurfer from Vermont and the Caribbean. It was
amazing. The doors close and I'm sitting here in this empty office and I'm
just going, "Market research . . . what exactly does that mean?"
pretty funny. I got the letter like the next day from the president saying,
you know, blah, blah, blah, this is our philosophy, and glad to have you
with the company and all this, and at the end there was a typo. It was
supposed to say, "Welcome aboard", but it said "Welcome abroad".
very apropos because a week later I went to Spain to do the Worlds,
compliments of Hood Sailmakers. And to do market research.
I ended up being the top American finisher there-there was only like three
of us there. I finished higher simply because Robbie dropped out-he hated
round board racing. It was all round board racing then. So I ended up near
the end of the pack, but the top American finisher. There started my big
career with Hood Sailmakers.
M: Hood was purchased shortly before you
JH: Yes. By this multi-millionaire Frenchmen, Jack Setton. He was very
eccentric, very young.
M: When did he buy them?
JH: In 1982. He came into the company, he's French, French-American,
actually. He bought it for the name. He hated all the old sailmakers. He's
like, "Where's the windsurfing division? What's this? I need a windsurfing
division immediately." So I got hired for it and I was his protégé,
of. He hated all the old traditional sailmaking guys who were around the
company. He believed windsurfing was going to take over the company. He
a radical guy. Everyone in the company was terrified of him.
M: How long
did you last with him?
JH: Three and a half years. I learned . . .
JH: Damn near everything. Obviously I've learned since then, but I had a
real formal training. It was very unique in sailmaking because basically
when he came into the company he said, "This kid needs to know everything.
Teach him." He came in and restructured the company and many people
fired. Everybody was just shaking in their shoes. Whatever he said was law.
JH: Law. Totally. So I had carte blanche in the company to go cruise, go
hang out in the chemistry department and check out how they were treating
the fibers before it would go to the weaving machines. I could go into the
warehouses and just check out everything and grab any materials I wanted
and play around with them. It was really the equivalent of going to school
for sailmaking and nobody could ever match that. That's why I ended up
staying and just bailing on college. It is one of the main things that
gives me a totally different outlook than all other-almost every other
sailmaker in windsurfing. Most of the sail designers and sailmakers are
self trained or trained via other windsurfing sailmakers. Very few are
formally trained in traditional sailmaking. That gave me-when I did end
going out on my own-a real edge.
M: So things went gangbusters?
JH: Gangbusters beyond belief. But this is definitely during the glory
days. About a year and a half after I started we purchased a big sail loft
in France and took over their operation.
M: 'Till when?
JH: Through '84. Basically we went into the marketplace with a real good
image. We went to the shows, for an example, Salon Nautique, Paris, 1984.
It's a big Paris boat show. We went in there, it was a 10-day show, we sold
7,000 sails. We went 10 days later to the German show, Boot Dusseldorf,
sold 3500 sails. This was our first year in the market. Nobody had even
heard of us. Things went great, we started production, and I had some
disagreements about cloth with the production manager. We ended up using
some French mylars and all the sails delaminated. A big bummer. The next
year. . .
JH: Yes. I think we used Kevlar in the sails and it was too thin and it
blew up. Anyway, it was a disaster.
M: So '84 and '85 were hallmarked
by production disasters?
JH: Production disasters and rave, rave reviews for the actual product.
So the designs are good, but production is awful. What's next?
JH: I would like to insert that in '84 I was fortunate enough to work in
Hawaii with Hood Hawaii loft under Paul Morgan and Brian Quinn of Hood
Sails. There they taught me everything about wave sails. And they were
totally on the leading edge.
M: That was your first exposure to Hawaii?
JH: Oahu. I hadn't been to Maui, yet. In spring of 1985 Hood went through
major restructuring, and the Hood Hawaii Loft bailed because of
disagreements. So I went to Maui to set up Hood Sails Hawaii on Maui.
Spring of '85. I moved to Maui April of '85. One of the things that
happened, sort of irrelevant of the restructuring, was that the Hood Hawaii
Loft left the company.
M: So this was when Morgan and Quinn decided to
form Windward Sails?
JH: Yes. Anyway, I moved to Maui and set up the loft. I spent all my money.
Bought a car, computer-spent all my savings. A month later, BOOM, Hood
closes the windsurfing division completely along with about six other
M: When was that?
JH: May of '85. So here I am. Basically I had a real good knowledge of
world windsurfing design, but I didn't know my ass from my elbow about how
to run a company. I had to decide whether to stay in Maui and be the ninth
custom sailmaker-that's how many sailmakers there were then-and compete
try and get a world market share sometime, eventually. Or, I could move
this place called the Gorge. There were basically no sailmakers there and
felt like I could do well there without too much of a problem. Or I could
move, and this is the funniest, I even had a building selected where I
would move to Davenport, California. It's just north of Santa Cruz, and
start a company called "Waddell Sailmakers." I'm dead serious.
decide to stay in Maui and give it a year. I figure that if I didn't have
an international licensee for my brand in a year I was going to bail to
of these two places. Six months later, the Japanese licensed Hot Sails Maui
and since then Hot Sails Maui has been most definitely based on Maui.
How was the name selected?
JH: It is nothing too terrible romantic, but, very practical. My idea was
to select a name that I could later sell. That's why I didn't use my own
name on the sails. Remember, I was coming from a very international
background. With Hood I had worked in Japan and in Europe. I knew that I
needed to pick a name, that worldwide, could be easily pronounced and
M: Hot Sails came officially into being when?
JH: June 1, 1985.
M: Your first sail was?
JH: It was a blue and yellow 5 batten RAF with 2 convertible battens. It
was built for Scotty Trudon. And that was the first picture ever taken of
Hot. It was sent with a press release to Japan, and instead of giving us
nice little press release they gave me full page.
M: And that's how you
got your licensee?
JH: Yeah, we got the press and a licensee. Plus, I had contacts in Japan.
That was a real plus to have these worldwide contacts. I had contacts with
all the sail material manufacturers and all their R&D departments because
M: So you are designing all of your own sails?
JH: Wave sails and race sails. The very first race sails were RAF slaloms
and they took first in the first annual Kanaha team slalom that summer.
That was the first time I ever did that. That was with Scotty Trudon. Our
team took second and Scotty overall took first.
Running my own business was a real challenge. I was ready to be selling
world wide. I would have been extremely comfortable just going right into
production, boom, a real company. Basically where I am at now. That was
happening. It was bookkeeping, state and local taxes, employees. All the
exciting things of having your own business. Literally it set me back years
learning all that. It's kind of amusing. I was in a perfect position to
manage a company that was up and running including an R & D department,
worldwide distribution, production and all that. But I was not in a
position to run my own business on zero investment and zero money. So for
the first six or seven years not a dime came in from any other source. Hot
Sails Maui was started on about 2500 dollars. And some leftover stock from
when I moved out of the Hood Hawaii loft. But that's it. And there were
investors, no loans, no nothing. It was totally hand to mouth. Brutal. I
wouldn't want to do it again.
M: Where are the sails being made?
JH: Now in China, but they're R&D'ed in Haiku and they were first made
Osaka, Japan. My licensee is building sails there in a loft not much bigger
than my own in Hawaii. Working with him was a great experience. That was
early Hot Sails. Then we moved our production to Holland. That lasted a
couple years. And then we moved to China in 1989. And we've been there ever
M: How long has the retail store in Maui been open?
JH: The downtown retail store has only been open since 1992, but we've
always had a facility on Maui since day one.
M: You opened your Gorge
loft in '92?
M: So you've actually kind of come almost full circle from your
premise of opening Hot Sails in the Gorge?
M: You knew you were going to come back here?
JH: Oh, yeah. Mecca is Mecca. This is the mainland Mecca. Hawaii is the
global Mecca. You got be where the action is.
M: How much has Hot Sails
changed from the early days in terms of
ownership. Is it still a privately held company? Is it still just Jeff
JH: It's still pretty much Jeff Henderson. It's changed dramatically in
that there's a lot of people involved now. For years and years I had a hard
time allowing other people to help, but now I've got a great crew.
Are you still the lead designer?
JH: I'm still the lead designer. I still do all the wave sail designs. I
work with Mike Danielson in Hood River on the recreational bump and jump
sails. Basically a few years ago I realized that to become serious enough
to attract World Cup racers and top level people, I was going to have to
let go parts of the design simply because I honestly don't believe-and to
this day I don't believe-that one person can build top world class race
sails and world class wave sails, let alone all the other sails that need
to be designed, like bump and jump.
M: It's too much for one person?
JH: It's too much of a task, but it is more that your focus has to be
pretty narrow to be effective, especially with racing sails and wave sails.
They are both about as far apart from each other as they could ever be.
people that you are dealing with are pretty far apart as well. To have
people take you seriously as a world class sail company, you personally
have to be so involved in that particular area of expertise. If you don't
have a racing background it is pretty hard to build-I'd say it's impossible
to build-really good race sails. And if you're not wave sailing, it's
almost impossible to build really good wave sails. So I just basically-I
think it was in 1990-said, "Okay, what am I going to do?" And
I was lucky
enough to meet Phil Smith from New Zealand. He was really into cambered
sails and racing and we hit it off. It was a good opportunity for me to
give up the whole racing side of my design work, and just go fully into
wave sailing and wave sail design. Now, Mike Danielson has taken over the
racing program for 1996.
M: What do you think are the strongest lines
at Hot Sails? What do you
think your specialty is?
JH: It changes by the day, so it's pretty interesting. We'll conceptualize
a line, or a complete range of lines, well in advance of their release.
I'll plan production and everything else around what has sold and what the
market trends are. It's a really well balanced program, because we're a
very designer heavy company. We have, for the amount of sails that we
actually built, so many people involved in the design, it's ridiculous.
mean, we have almost as many sail designers as Neil Pryde does and they
20 times the amount of sails that we do. For a small company to have a
designer for each sail line, full time designers, I consider that to be
M: What do you view as your niche in the market?
JH: I think we are perceived as a wave sail company simply because we've
been based on Maui for 10 years. But with a good presence in the World Cup
and Jessica winning the World Cup last year, that really helped.
ran your sails on the PBA circuit, and won it all?
JH: Yeah. So that's really helped.
M: Racing competition is an important
focus for the company?
M: Why is that? Is it important to give the line more
JH: It definitely started that way. It's pretty funny, because we've built
fast race sails on and off ever since the company started, but we still
sold 4 to 1 wave sails because of our Maui reputation. Racing, the PBA
racing circuit, legitimizes fast sails. There are a lot of fast sails out
there that aren't doing World Cup that are just as fast, but they are not
recognized as such because they don't have people out there doing the world
M: Who do you think your biggest competitors are?
M: One of the raps that I've heard about Hot Sails is that
priced, and that can be perceived as a negative. I think your competitors,
probably more than anyone else, harp on that fact that they are low priced.
What is the reasoning behind the price point marketing?
JH: It didn't used to be that way. For years and years we sold custom sails
full price just as high, if not higher, than other companies. It was like
hitting a brick wall. At a certain point there is no growth potential. And
I could name a number of companies that have hit that wall and either
they've stayed where they are or have gone backwards. They soon realize
'There's no money in this. Where are we going to grow?' When you get to
that point, it's kind of like a ladder in business and that is one of the
major steps. You cannot grow beyond that point, because you are not earning
enough to increase your marketing or to do things like investing in the
World Cup or top riders, or advertising, and marketing. When we hit that
point we looked at all the different options and we spent a couple of years
messing around trying to figure out how to get past that, over that next
step. We considered going mail order direct, but it was vetoed almost
immediately because of the image that went with it. Then we thought maybe
we could hook up with a little bigger company and do a dual company
marketing thing. It didn't happen. We knew we needed to widen our market
base to get up to that mid-level company size. I ended up spending a hell
of a lot of time in some pretty bizarre places overseas trying to get some
people who had no idea what windsurfing is to help us out, without
investing in the company. We were finally able to get the equivalent of
loans to get product onto the market at a smaller profit.
M: So you were
able to lower your prices?
JH: We lowered our prices to increase market share. We took a risk to do
that. We weren't big enough for people to know us as an international
company and coming into certain markets at a lower price people instantly
think, 'Oh, that's a cheap sail.' But we let the product speak for itself.
We are offering really good value for the dollar and that has been our
policy ever since.
M: Are you making less, or are you buying your materials
JH: Oh, no. We're making less. People who work for Hot Sails are extremely
creative and everybody, including myself, trades a little bit of income
a hell of a lot of freedom and creativity. If I didn't have good people
doing that, the company would not exist. I don't think I could run any
other company in any other business in a similar way. Because if you are
making CD's, what are you going to offer these people? And here it's, make
your own schedule, go windsurfing as much as you want, here's tons of
equipment, here's trips to Maui, here's an exciting growing situation
that's running on the edge. Maybe it will all pay off.
M: There's some
excitement in that overall gamble?
JH: Oh definitely. Everybody who works for the company is single, has low
overhead, and has very few responsibilities. And that's the only way it
could have worked up till now . . . I'm sure the day that I settle down
other people start settling down that will all change, but until then it's
kind of a free for all.
M: Let's talk about windsurfing in general. The
sport as we know it. Where
are we at?
JH: I think the sport is alive and well. People go through phases. Loves
come and go. I know many people who have left the sport. And people who
have been doing it forever and ever. I'm small enough where I can, you
know, follow the good things that are happening, I got no problem in the
industry. It's not a real big moneymaker, but people do it for other
reasons than the money. They do it for personal satisfaction. So I don't
think it's going to go anywhere. It's not going to disappear.
the most interesting thing about where Hot Sails is at right no?
JH: The most interesting thing is we're coming up to that next step on the
ladder-where we've gone from a small to a mid-level size company and we're
looking at where the future lays. Do we want to try and kick into the last,
what I consider the last step of the ladder, which is over a certain
volume? To me, it takes a whole new commitment, a whole new company setup,
and a whole new everything. And what's interesting is that I'm able to look
at that and go, "Is that something that I want to do? Or do I want
have a company that runs well and settle for a certain business that can
fine tuned and adjusted and not necessarily worry about huge growth."
it's exciting to be able to feel like I can choose.
M: What's your best
JH: It's the United States, now. For the first seven years of the company,
it was not. Not even close.
M: What are the most compelling reasons for
someone to consider purchasing
a Hot Sails Maui as their next sail?
JH: I would have to say balance of value and quality. We have an unusually
sophisticated design and development program, but we don't spend nearly
much money as a lot of our competitors on marketing-so we are able to pass
on all that savings to the consumer.
M: The value aspect, then, is the
JH: I would have to say so, yes. Unless you get into specifics. There are
certain situations where our products, I feel, are extremely better than
the competition is.
M: You're not talking about price, you are talking
JH: Right. Certain features that in certain situations, make a huge
difference. Like our light wind wave sails-drift wave sails. A very teeny,
teeny segment of the market, but we dominate.
M: What size?
JH: We're talking from 5.3 and up. It's a very specialized part of the
market, but it's just one of my personal favorites. I like to go out on
of those near calm days and to find surfing quality surf and to wave ride
in those conditions. You know, like I said, very, very specialized. No
market interest, whatsoever.
M: I'd rather be hit in the head with a
JH: Just because you haven't been out with the right stuff. You can't
imagine what you're missing. Light wind wave sailing is one of our niches
because we make the lightest production wave sail that is available and
makes a quantum leap difference for those particular conditions.
sailmaking, what's more important, design or materials? Or let me ask
a better question. What leads the evolution of sails? Design or materials?
M: Not materials?
JH: Not materials and not existing designs. I have a revolution go on in
head about once every 18 months, where I'll suddenly want to try something
really, radically new.
M: What's the most interesting thing going on
in windsurfing right now?
JH: In windsurfing? I think the most interesting thing happening in
windsurfing is a major backlash against hyper-intense windsurfing. Fun is
one of the few things that's been able to keep me windsurfing at all. I
think that a lot of the whole 'big deal' attitude in windsurfing is kind
burning out, and a more grassroots 'let's go have fun' windsurfing, 'let's
not be uptight' is coming back. And I think it's going to be the savior
the sport, bring new people back into the sport. Previously, two or three
years ago, I think the 'bad attitude' windsurfing was at its height and
was one of the things that worried me as far as the sport continuing. One
of the most worrying things I ever saw was that if you weren't planing,
weren't windsurfing. And I think that is the biggest load of crap that
M: The 'just say no to 5.0' stuff, right?
JH: All that stuff. To this day, some of the best windsurfing I have is
when I can go and cruise on a long board under 500 foot cliffs in a couple
of knots of wind and just explore. I'm one of the only guys on Maui who
really windsurfs in weird places by myself exploring, going out and just
having a totally peaceful, wonderful time just checking things out.
M: And planing is not a requirement?
JH: Nah, just making sure there's
not some huge swell underneath is
important though. That whole aspect is something I really like. I'm real
happy with all the professional sailing and stuff, but the core and the
beginning sailing stuff, are my fondest memories of windsurfing. That super
challenging beginning time and exploration. Like when I learned to cruise
all over on my three piece shark surfer. Amazing, just incredible times.
Now, when I windsurf it's more like going to the gym than when I go out
go explore some new territory or go on an adventure with some friends or
whatever. That has nothing to do with, 'high performance windsurfing.' And
I think that the sport and a lot of the media in the sport is kind of
picking up on that. And that I think is exciting to see.
M: The future
JH: I think it will attract a lot more people to the sport. One of the
things I still really enjoy about windsurfing is that at 32 I can still
out and try new stuff. I'm still getting my back loops wired, and stuff
like that. I can still get excited about trying new moves and still trying
to excel in sailing, and the danger level is exceedingly low compared to
any other sport. Windsurfing is what I love.
Interview by Mike Low
E-mail Jeff here