welcome to EH Kiteboarding

The story behind EH Kiteboarding and Kitesurfing in Cabarete:

By: Marina Chang
2007

I first met Eric when I went to Cabarete to learn kitesurfing in 2000. He had just launched his company and his flip tip boards were the rage. When I returned in 2002 to partner with the school Kitexcite, it was an exciting time for him. Eric and Peter Stiewe had just joined forces, their kites were taking off and they were being contacted by a number of brands for design work. To be honest, I was intimidated by Eric when I first met him. One quickly realizes where they stand with him - the guy does not mince his words and he is very direct ! Dig a little deeper and you will find a deeply devoted family man with a big heart. Confident, opinionated and sometimes obstinate, Eric's passion for kiteboarding and his love of Cabarete cannot be denied. When Eric wants to do or learn something, he does so with 100% commitment. He isn't exactly getting rich material-wise. In fact, he calls his company his "hobby." But the opportunities he has provided the local kids and getting respect for his designs has made him wealthy beyond his dreams in spirit. Read on to see how a young boy from Belgium ended up carving out a life for himself in the kiteboarding world.

Where did you grow up and what was your dream job when you were a kid? I was born in 1960 in Antwerp, Belgium and wanted to be a fighter pilot like every other boy on the street. When I tried my first windsurfer in 1976 that dream changed to board shaper. Later, friends and I started to cut our sail and boards for higher winds. When Robby Naish won the windsurfing world cup in Italy, he became my hero and my life path was chosen: it would be wind and speed all the way.

How did you end up in Dominican Republic? I got addicted to windsurfing and was desperate to ride waves. Hawaii was too expensive and far so a friend and I looked at the Caribbean island Hispaniola where the Dominican Republic is located. Hispaniola is part of the Windward Islands and we found out that the North Coast enjoyed strong trade winds. This and the fact that my buddy had friends there was enough info for us to find the cheapest flight and start our quest for wind. I landed on the island in 1983. After a couple of weeks this Flemish boy from the city was completely lost. It seemed as if the whole town was wearing the clothes and shoes that disappeared mysteriously along with my money and passport from my hotel room. To make things worse, the airline I came with went belly up and I was stranded on a third world island, broke with no way to get home. So, I had no money, no language skills and nothing but a board bag to sleep in but I had my gear and 25 knot winds everyday so had plenty to stay happy and alive! Soon afterward, I found a job at a water-sports center and my Dominican career started.

What were the early days of pioneering Cabarete like? Cabarete was a small fishing village where people lived from the land. Nobody used money and there was no power, telephones, running water or a sign of government services. There was a trading post where people bartered goods like eggs for rice or oil. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other things we take for granted were non-existent. The real luxury was a piece of salami or cheese. We would spearfish on the Kite Beach reef for our main meal. At that time, the whole gringo population was pretty poor and good friendships formed. I remember a Dominican merengue song that was called "The Fridge Ate my Salami" - it was so appropriate for our time. We only had one fridge for all of us, so a hard earned piece of cheese was often quickly eaten by the others.
But it was a young man's dream - we were totally free! Imagine, we were 20-something year old dudes that taught windsurfing lessons an hour or two a day, then spent the rest of the day riding and looking for food and women. It was pure survival but we made enough money to eat and occasionally buy new gear from the passing tourists. Soon, the secret of Cabarete was out and more windsurfers started discovering it as a windsurfing destination. As we grew older, some left while others developed their skills and today many of that core are successful local businessmen and leaders in the community.

When did you see your first kite and kiteboarder and what was that like? I saw a documentary in 1997 while I was in Canada. Laird Hamilton was showing this new sport and it was love at first sight. I was still in rehabilitation and in a wheelchair from a nasty skydiving accident but I knew that if I recovered, I would definitely try this out. A year later during lunch on Cabarete beach, I observed Franz Orly shredding the surf and flying over the windsurfers. I was still on crutches but I got hyper-excited and my rehabilitation accelerated dramatically. Several weeks later I was kiting. One memory that has stuck with me was that I paid $1700 US for my first Naish AR5 9M 2-liner kite!

At that time did you ever think you would end up making your living kiteboarding? This was natural for me - I had always made my money with the sports I was involved with as I constantly modified or designed my own gear since I was never happy with the stuff that was on the market. And always, there were others that liked and bought my stuff.

What was Cabarete like during the birth of kiteboarding? It was hell and at the same time we had a lot of fun stirring things up with the windsurfing establishment. The schools were against this new sport and they fought hard to keep us out of the water. This was pretty common all over the world when kiteboarding first started. I spent some time in jail with my friend Garry Eversol because we defied a "kiting ban" police order. Once the sport became more mainstream, business picked up and the windsurf schools all jumped on the wagon.

Who were some of the people you worked with during that time and where have they gone? In the beginning I was sponsored by Windtools foil kites and bought my boards from Franz Orly. Later, Bruno Legaignoux was passing us the Wipika prototypes to test and later, the Takoon kites.

Who were some of the early companies you worked with? We started designing for Liquid Force, then Best Kiteboarding in the USA and Loose Kiteboarding in Italy. I also designed several production boards for Wipika and Brunotti.

Who are some of the pros you have worked with over the years? I work with my Cabarete team, OEM customers, EH distributors and the Lam Factory. Besides the staff in China, everybody that works for or is related to EH Kiteboarding are all active kiteboarders. Many are outright experts.

EH is one of those names that everyone has heard of but not many people know much
about in North America. Why is that?
There is a very simple answer for this. I do not spend a lot of money on marketing - I prefer to spend it on research and development and my Cabarete kids team.

You have known Bruno Legaignoux for years. Where did you meet him and how did you
start working with him?
I got to know Bruno because he was experiencing computer trouble and needed some help. At the time I was developing software fixes for the infamous year 2000 bug and had a computer geek reputation so a friend of a friend introduced us and I spent several weekends configuring his network. We got to know each other but we have never worked together on kites. We share a passion regarding design work in general but we are 100% independent.

What have you learned from Bruno or perhaps what has he learned from you? Very little actually, we really go our own ways. I do use Bruno's concave trailing edge patent, which I consider a great technique to keep the right amount of trailing edge tension. For the rest we do not communicate that much. Bruno does live three hours away and we run into each other when the PKRA is in to town. I do not look at what other designers are doing. Designing is my passion and hobby, and I will only do what I believe works. No gimmicks on my products.

You have always supported the local Dominican kids by giving them kites in Cabarete. What
inspired you to do this and what is your overall goal?
After living 25 years in Cabarete, I really know what is going on and am very aware that our local kids live underprivileged lives. Most fall in the extreme poverty class - it is only natural that I support them. My goal is give these kids hope and a chance to shine bright.

What was it like watching Ariel win the 2007 PKRA Dominican stop? Total glory! Bruno was standing right next to me when it happened and we both realized that the bow kite had just made history. It was the first time that this new concept had won a major freestyle event. Bruno took out his Diamond White check book and wrote a nice check out to Ariel. The first thought that came to mind was, what now?! The second was sad. Carmen, my wife, was burying her father on the other side of the Atlantic around the same time that Ariel won his last heat. I would have loved her to have been by my side or me by hers. You can not have it all - that is just the way it is.

When the bow concept first came out, you were not sold on the design or performance gains. Why and what changed your mind? When the first bow kites came out I was very skeptical as I thought they were too cumbersome. Pure peer pressure got me back to the drawing board. After many prototypes I started to see the light and decided to go my own way. I developed the Ripper and the Beast and with that experience under my belt, I took on the Eze, an easy but very powerful kite that has its own distinct feel.

You have been working on an ultra flat kite for over a year. What type of performance gains do you see with this type of kite? We actually started to work on the Ripper design in late 2005. The Ripper is considered an ultra flat and is now in its fifth generation. I started off with ultra flat when the bow craze hit the kite world as the design allows for very efficient small kites with a huge range. This design is so versatile and lets you do whatever you like. It enabled us to develop two distinct types of ultra flats: the Eze for light wind with easy forgiving performance and the Ripper for the hard core in high winds. Ultra flat is a term that the media has latched onto lately, but in reality has been around for a while.

Why did you decide to license Freak Dog kites and do you think it has or will hurt the EH brand? Why use the word hurt? Freak Dog is not the only brand that licenses my designs. Freak Dog (FD) is EH USA and they are one in the same. To give good service, FD needed better margins than a normal EH distributor so we decided to form a separate USA company with its own inventories managed by the FD company. Scott Polera and I are very compatible and he has proven himself to be a very creative and productive partner.

As you look back at the growth of kiteboarding Cabarete, what has been the most exciting part of the journey? Seeing our kids develop their talents and stand on the top of the podium.

How did you feel when Peter Stiewe left EH to design for Best? Well it's always hard to break up successful relations, especially when large contracts are in play, but in the end it was the best thing for both of us. Peter always dreamed about being the head designer of a big company and his dream came through. And for myself, In exchange I got complete design freedom. I do not have to worry about the risks I need to take. I spend my whole life on the edge; it's the only place I feel comfortable.

How accessible is kiting to the average kid in the DR? Not at all. A set of gear costs an annual wage.

Why and how did you start EH? Much of the gear the sponsors were sending me was blowing up or breaking. I met Peter and he had a demo version of Surf Plan and a contact phone number for Lam industries in China. He was broke and had no money to get going, and my custom kiteboard business was booming. Adding kites to my product line was a natural thing to do. We immediately started to work developing new kites and things took off like crazy. Within weeks we had Liquid Force as a customer and two weeks later, we had Best signed up too. It was an insane time. Every week we had new designs, the Cabarete winds were howling , the cash flow was awesome and life was great.

When did your focus shift from windsurfing to kiting? After seeing Franz Orly blast by the windsurfers, kitesurfing completely took over as my means to jump and shred waves, a lifetime passion.

What other kite designers do you have a lot of respect for? Bruno Legaingoux as the inventor of LEI inflatables and Paul and Peter Schiebel from Caution. Those guys started out building kites without software, only using their bare hands, scissors, needles and a sewing machine.

There are currently four Dominican riders competing on the KPWT world tour. Why KPWT
and not PKRA and what kind of support are they receiving?
Several Dominican businessmen are supporting them. We are very proud of our guys and recently they have shown to be hardcore competitors in the cold stormy waters of France - they deserve our full support. With the PKRA and KPWT, you have to make your choice. You can't do both. The Dominican riders prefer KPWT because that organization takes good care of them and many of their friends compete in it.

What up and comers do you think Ariel needs to watch out for? Ariel does not have to worry for awhile, he has this ability to copy a competitor's trick on the fly. However I have several team riders that are well on the way to equal Ariel. Emanuel "Nono" Rondon is currently doing the KPWT tour with Ariel and just recently won the Masters of the Ocean competition in kite, surf, and windsurf. Felix "Posito" Antonio Martinez still needs a year or so to mature for competition. 2008 Cabarete PKRA will be his first exam.

How old are these kids and when did they start riding? The youngest kid on my team is 7 years old. Ariel started when he was 10. Posito is 12 and already does kite loop double handle passes.

What do you think kiteboarding has done for the local population, if anything? It has given many kids hope and pride. Never forget that they are some of the poorest riders on this planet. To see one of their own take the top spot carries a lot of weight and hope.

How has 'fame' affected the lifestyle and attitudes of the kids who are getting media attention and placing at competition podiums? Very little. They don't care about the fame much; they need the money to feed their families. Ariel always gives me the trophies and asks if he can keep the check. He then goes home and hands it over to his mother. Even this young, they are true professionals and very focused on the task at hand. Glory has very little to do with it.

What do you like most about living in Cabarete and what do you like least? I love this place and am completely at ease with its idiosyncrasies.

You have stated that you will never integrate a single pump inflation system into the design of your kites. Why? We see so many Cabarete visitors struggle with leaky one pump systems and then pay fortunes getting it fixed - that is if it can be fixed. Knowing this, I can not justify using this system on my products.

What are the disadvantages/challenges of the Ovando design? Hmm, I only see advantages in my mind. You can kite in 8 knots, freestyle in 10, re launches are easy and they have a very good range from a small package. Lately Luis has chosen the 09M Ovando as his preferred freestyle kite in light winds. He claims that its constant power allows him to recover faster from failed tricks.

M. C.