Words Svein Rasmussen
Pics: Starboard, Georgia S Photography, Abraham Shouse Photography
There’s a perception that big company heads aren’t always willing to put themselves ‘out there’. And while in some cases this is correct it’s not the case here. In SUPM’s latest Behind the Brand article we go straight to the horse’s mouth of stand up paddle board (and windsurf) equipment manufacturing giant Starboard’s Svein Rasmussen.
One day in 1976 I saw a pic of Matt Schweitzer (SUP surf World Champ Zane’s Schweitzer’s father) in a National Geo mag. He was windsurfing on a beautiful lake with a gorgeous girl. That pic changed my life and I dreamed about windsurfing over the two next years while saving cash for a board by delivering the local Norwegian newspaper Agderposten.
I went to the LA Olympics in 1984 and won a few world titles over a 15 year backpacking journey around the world. Suddenly in 1994 I was the oldest person on the windsurf pro tour and my friend Tor Bakke hinted that it was time to become more serious, so I moved to Thailand with my savings of US$ 10,000 and set up Starboard, which seven years later became a world leader in windsurfing.
In 1999 my father started to paddle with a long canoe paddle on a windsurf board at our little lake in Thailand. I asked him what he was doing and why? He said that he paddled around looking at nature and spotting fish. Six years later during a trip to Maui I saw paddle boarding (proper) developing as a pioneering activity on the island. This was the second big ‘glimpse’ of ‘something’ in my life. I loved paddle boarding from the start and simply could not stop thinking about it – just as with windsurfing.
I always liked to improve my gear while on the pro windsurf tour. I used this knowledge to develop Starboard’s windsurf range. With SUP we could do it all again. And with all that accumulated knowledge of shapes and technology I was like a kid in a candy store – everything was possible and we created stuff that today is mainstream. But those days were total breakthroughs in terms of technology and shapes.
Every day is my best SUP memory – endless sunsets and sunrises, downwinders and at times catching a few waves when the possibility is there. My SUP heroes are my father, Connor Baxter and Zane Schweitzer – they keep me inspired and wanting to paddle more.
My idea of fun is to come up with a concept as part of the team, build it in the workshop and test it a few days later, combining some amazing conditions with new gear experiences. We sort of have Xmas Eve every week here. Ideas come from everywhere – a beginner at the beach, a shop employee, a pro rider or a designer. Then the task is to refine those ideas and make sure that it one day is totally polished and ready for production.
In the early days few people expected that SUP would become the next big thing, but as soon as we got those sceptics out for a sunset paddle they realised the powerful combination of nature, the sport element and on water sensation is what makes SUP special. It’s a wonderful merge of meditation, activity, technology, technique and amazing natural exploration all at once.
During the early days it was fun to bring the sport to lots of countries. We even introduced SUP to already well versed watersports territories like Western Australia. Our friend at Red Paddle Co, John Hibbard, pretty much introduced Starboard and paddle boarding to the UK when he was on our international team – great memories.
My title is Chief Innovator, and my life is drilling into every little part of our organisation, trying to make it better. Starboard is a product driven company so I spend most of my time driving the product development and environmental strategies together with our British product manager Ollie O’Reilly. We have been ahead of the curve in terms of shapes and technology and often create what we call 100% market share, meaning the first year there simply is no similar product in the market. Marketing and sales often suffer at the hands of our product driven philosophy but hopefully long term we see a great product outweighing a smart sales and marketing campaign.
Inflatables are popular due to transport and storage, but even more so as it’s been a well marketed concept. There are now lots of people who walk into stores of retailers offering only inflatable boards in the entry level segment. For shops it’s easy to store inflatable boards, so somehow this technology receives more market share than it deserves at the current development stage in terms of durability and performance. So far it has not been possible to shape any rail or bottom contours, so paddlers ride boards that are wider, slower and curvier than they need. They’re also tippier than necessary which reduces the positive aspects of paddling. We are working on ways to improve the basic concepts and will for 2018 introduce new technologies, but for now boards like the new GO is an exciting step up for paddlers that have enough storage space and are looking for a better experience.
Moving forward we have one goal: to help lead the watersports industry towards being “less bad and more good”. How can we reduce our carbon footprint, motivate people to pick up trash and invest into re-forestation? We are a small company and this enables us to make radical changes within and set exciting goals for immediate execution. As a premium brand in windsurfing and paddle boarding we want to share and promote the view that: “purpose is the new luxury”. We want to build lighter, stronger and more durable gear from recycled and bio-materials, showcasing that there is more intelligence ahead and future generations really can prosper through up-cycling. We invite people to live a Deep Blue Life, something you can read more about on Star-board.blue, our environmental site. On that site we also share our board and company carbon footprint.
In the UK the carbon footprint per capita used to be 11.2 tin back in 1960. That’s reduced that to 7.1 ton. This is a very significant improvement but can we go further? When we sell a board we plant a Mangrove tree, which over 20 years absorbs up to 1 ton CO2, so by voting with your wallet you can help set a trend of re-foresting the planet.
These days forests are still losing, our planet is still losing, so it’s important that each of us make small changes and contributions to create a shift towards seeing the planet winning. We are looking at supporting the Mangrove Coin introduction. A new currency backed by a natural blockchain. How would it be to trade knowing that for each coin coming into circulation there is a mangrove tree planted? We paddle boarders who really appreciate and understand the value of nature can support movements like this. Who would not rather buy a board with Mangrove coins than US$ transactions? It’s a matter of how we vote with our wallet and which systems we endorse. We live in a society where the consumer has more power than ever, so let’s use our votes consciously every day we go shopping.
Our most popular gear are touring and all round boards, while our largest market share is within the wave and race boards market. We are in the premium segment and we often talk about 100% market share. This phenomenon appears each time we introduce a new niche to paddle boarding or a new technology. It’s these breakthroughs that moves the brand forward. We are not a good marketing or sales arm. Our interest lies in making really good gear and seeing it available years ahead of the competition.
Last year we spent half of our net income on environmental causes, so this is obviously where our other interest is cemented.
For 2018 we are introducing a lot of new exciting shapes, technologies and concepts. It’s too early to release this info now but we can say that the patented Airline technology we introduce in our inflatable offering will mean the boards flex about 50% less and rotate the perception of inflatables – let’s leave all the other 2018 stuff until release in Sept this year.
Most weekends we will test race boards at our test centre at Wongamat Beach Thailand. It’s brilliant for downwinders. Half the weekend is SUP with the other half being windsurfing. I easily get 4-5 water hours a day to check out prototype shapes and technologies.
Our home is at Taco Lake close to Bangkok. This is also where we also have our office so I will paddle to work on one of the new GO boards. They’re the most stable/fast hard boards in our 2018 lineup. Once in a while I will join Ollie O’Reilly for a trip to test wave boards in Bali or Maui, but he gets most of that fun.
Inflatable boards and their evolution is very interesting so I’m also paddling new types that are simply much faster than any other in our range. These will be released in August. Long slender waterlines are preferred for less friction.
SUP gear in general has a very long way to go. Kit needs to become lighter, more durable and shapes need to improve drastically. We are still vaguely uneducated and over the next 10 years we may see some real exciting changes. I had the same discussion with my Norwegian friends in 1980 when we asked ourselves if windsurf boards could get any better. Most of all, we need to reduce the carbon footprint and find ways to recycle boards and bring down the price. A new 2017 Volvo costs the same as the 2001 model Volvo I drive today, whereas board prices have escalated quite a bit, so yes, we need to figure out ways to become more efficient.
My dream destination is Dawei Myanmar. There is no accommodation available other than tents and fishermen’s shacks so you will not meet many Earthlings there. All waves can be shared with friends and flat water areas have wonderful lagoons to explore. Paddling through the mangrove forest is magical and seeing 10,000 crabs crawling on the beach is quite something. When it comes to new locations in the early days I tried to be the first person to paddle board in various countries – that was a fun challenge.
My burning ambition, while living the most amazing life any person can imagine, is to make Starboard a truly useful company where short term profit comes second to creating a better tomorrow for all of us.
Thanks to Ollie O’Reilly for driving our awesome eco board projects and our partners Parley, SUP Kids, Sustainable Surf, Watertrek and Arne Fjoertoft at the Thor Heyerdahl Mangrove Park.