The path to holding the world record started when Douglas and his friend, Mike Gebhardt, began scouring kiteboarding magazines for an unchallenged niche. Douglas wisely recognized that while freestyle kiting was out due to his age (40), speed sailing looked approachable. At their first event in Spain in July of 2008, Douglas unexpectedly placed second; he and Gebhardt also received an invitation to compete at the Luderitz Speed Challenge in southern Africa that fall. The temptation to sail against the world’s fastest was irresistible and the friends mentally began preparing for “the trench.”
Speed sailing’s première event takes place each fall near the small diamond-mine town of Luderitz in the Republic of Namibia in southern Africa. Between August and March, strong winds howl from the ideal direction, drawing international crowds. Speed runs take place on the “trench,” a skinny finger of water that’s 2,297 feet long (700 meters), nine to 12 feet wide, and only one-and-a-half feet deep. At one end is a pre-start phase where kiters gather speed before entering their run; on the far side is the slow-down phase. In between is the precisely measured, 1,644-foot (501 meters) official run. Speeds are calculated and averaged over this official run using computer-controlled cameras. The fastest certified speed fetches the podium’s top step, and representatives from the World Speed Sailing Record Council—the official governor of speed-sailing records—are on hand to witness any new world records.
Amazingly, Douglas quickly established a new outright world record of 49.84 knots, becoming the first kiteboarder to hold this title (the previous owner was a windsurfer.) The record didn’t stand for long, however, as a French rider named Alex Caizergues pulled a juggernaut and bested Douglas’ record by a mere 0.03 knots.
Douglas returned home the fastest American afloat, but this wasn’t enough. He began testing new board designs and kite shapes, and he honed his fitness and flexibility. Ironically, history repeated itself at the 2009 Luderitz Speed Challenge when Douglas set a new world record of 50.95 knots; that same day Caizergues again out-sailed him by 0.03 knots. “Rob knows his skill set…[and] who’s in his class,” says Bill Lynch, Douglas’ close friend, sponsor, and fellow kiteboarder. “Alex is one of them. Each sets the standard for the other.”