At 72 years of age, Neil Pryde is one of the stalwarts of the Phuket Kings Cup and indeed of Asian sailing.
This year Pryde is sailing his Welbourn 52 Hi Fi in the Phuket King’s Cup IRC Zero Class. Pryde has won the King’s Cup four times in the top racing division; the first time in 1998, then in 2001, 2004 and again in 2009 and he is looking for a record fifth win in 2011.
Pryde, a New Zealand born sailor has been in Asia for almost 50 years. He is the Managing Director of Pryde Group, an assemblage of companies with roots in manufacturing, sports branding and worldwide distribution. This week at the Phuket King's Cup we took the opportunity to talk to the sailor who is one of the best known brands on the world sailing scene, about his ‘real job’.
He explained ‘I started sailing at ten years of age in Auckland, like most New Zealanders in the P Class, a little Sabot type thing. I was the Cherub class national champion a couple of times and I went from there into the Flying Dutchman class. My brother and I campaigned ahead of the Rome Olympics in 1960 but we just missed out on selection.
‘I was aiming for Tokyo when I got a job offer to work in Hong Kong with sail maker Rolly Tasker, back in 1963. I am a chartered accountant by profession and I worked with Rolly until 1970. Then I set up my own company making sails for yachts.
‘That was actually the core business of the company until the late 70s and early 80s when windsurfing took off. We jumped heavily into the windsurfing market as a sail manufacturer, not so much with our own brand but rather making them for other people.
‘Until 1991 we were in Hong Kong and we then moved to China. We were actually pretty big at that stage and in peak times in the 80’s we were making well over 300,000 windsurfing sails a year.
‘They were the real ‘go-go’ days of windsurfing; pretty simple sails and not high tech like they are today, but big numbers. That’s how we really got started in the windsurfing market, as a mass producer of cheap sails.
‘We figured pretty early on that the future was going to be in developing our own brand so about the early 80s we started getting involved, taking on some designs and resources.
‘We started sponsoring high-level sailors and started building up our own brand. By the mid 80s we were the world leader in windsurfing sails and we still are today.
‘We were originally just sails and then in the early 90s we were one of the very first producers of the carbon fibre rigs. The next thing was wet suits as we thought ‘everybody’s going windsurfing so they need wetsuits’.
‘We didn’t actually get into the windsurfing hulls until we bought the JP Australia brand in 1999, with Jason Polakow, the Australian windsurfer who was one of the big guns.
‘These were wave boards, high performance sailing boards, basically Neil Pryde rigs with JP Australia boards. Neil Pryde at that stage had no position in the board market and we didn’t get involved in that area until the Olympic bid with the RS:X, which was around about or just before Athens.
‘ISAF were looking for bids for a new one design windsurfing class for the Olympics and we won selection with the RS:X. We are still there today and aiming to be there for Brazil 2016.
‘We noticed that kiteboarding was starting to cut into the windsurfing market. I met Pete Carina, a real icon in the sport and one of the originals. He had been in kitesurfing from it’s early days and in 2000 we bought all the rights to his name for kitesurfing products and Pete came to work for us. He did the marketing and product direction and we went in to the kitesurfing business.
‘Cabrinha is arguably the world market leader and we built about 25,000 kites a year.
‘Windsurfing is shrinking but kitesurfing is definitely growing by probably five percent a year, but not everywhere in the world. It’s started to slow a bit in Europe because one of the major considerations of kitesurfing is beach space.
‘Kites need a lot of manoeuvring space. In terms of being able to go on the beaches in Holland or France, the popular beaches, it is becoming an issue and on some beaches kitesurfing is not allowed.
‘The great thing about kitesurfing is that it is a great travel sport. The stuff is so portable that you can put your gear in your backpack and your board under your arm and basically go anywhere.
‘While it has started to get a bit constrained around Europe and some other crowded areas, the sport is still growing in places like Asia because people can travel so easily, which is very much in contrast to windsurfing where it is really difficult to travel with your gear.
‘Kitesurfing is only just getting to point where they are seriously looking at competition type sailing. It has been very much a freestyle free ride, more a having fun type of sport, particularly emphasizing travel and life style.
‘There is now an element in the sport that’s getting very serious about competition and they are making a pretty strong bid to be included at the Olympics.
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‘Frankly, although we own Cabrinha, I am not necessary supporting that because I have one foot in each camp with windsurfing and while I think kitesurfing is a fantastic sport, I think it is a little premature to be saying they want to be in the Olympics.
‘Olympic sailing is all about one design because the emphasis of Olympic sport is on the athlete not the equipment and I think kitesurfing has a way to go to get to a one design standard.
‘San Francisco is much more advanced in racing. We were quite involved with the St. Francis Yacht Club and in fact we sponsored the first events that they put on in kitesurfing, through our American company. They were probably the most successful events so far run. Even so, while they have good competition and it is spectacular to watch, I just don’t think that they are ready for Olympic status and I say that even with my Cabrinha hat on my head.
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‘I think kitesurfing ultimately can be an Olympic sport but I just don’t see it happening any time soon, in spite of the kite guys pitching.
‘But it’s still all up in the air and right now in the RS:X class we are up and running, and probably have over 200 competitors at the ISAF Sailing World Championships.
‘Its interesting to see the kiteboarders here at the King’s Cup and I will watch their progress with interest.
‘I did quite a bit of windsurfing in my early days, but I am too old for kiteboarding.
‘But I just love sailing here in Asia. I hate the cold, been living in Asia too long. If I am going on a long ocean race I want to go to a place where it gets warmer not colder.
‘That’s why I think sailing in Asia is doing very well. The standard of racing here is actually pretty damn good and that’s why we are seeing more and more very good sailors from around the world, coming here to have a look.’
Can Pryde win a fifth Phuket King’s Cup this year?
Obviously enjoying the competition Pryde concluded by saying ‘Let’s see what happens in the next few days. It’s a roll of the dice. We probably can be as lucky as anyone else, hopefully even a little more lucky.‘
For news, results and information on the 25th Phuket King’s Cup please visit the event website www.kingscup.com
Sponsors of the 2011 Phuket King's Cup Regatta include Kata Group Resorts Thailand, PTT Group, Siam Winery, Singha Corporation, AIA Thailand, PTT Global Chemical, PTTEP, Thai Oil, Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket, Boathouse and Sunsail. Media Partners include 91.5FM, Helm Superyacht Asia Pacific, The Nation, Phuket Best Group, Phuket Gazette, Phuket Magazine, Sail-World.com, SEA Yachting and YachtStyle Asia.