Jim Drake dies at 83; aeronautical engineer created the Windsurfer
Aeronautical engineer Jim Drake had already solved the “puzzle” of pairing a surfboard with a sail when a young man who stopped to admire “the Baja Board” in the late 1960s suggested what he called “the perfect name”: the Windsurfer.
In his Santa Monica garage, Drake had designed and built a prototype meant to be ridden in a novel way — standing up — and steered by an inventive hand-held sail assembly. He first tested the board in 1967 off Marina del Rey and the “wind-propelled apparatus” was patented three years later.
The craft caused the sport to take off in Europe, and by the early 1980s about 200,000 Windsurfers had been sold. When windsurfing debuted as an Olympic sport in 1984, Drake watched the first races off Long Beach. There was also an amorphous measure of the board’s influence: “Windsurfing” essentially became the generic name for the sport.
Drake, who also made significant contributions to the aerospace industry, died June 19 at his home in Pfafftown, N.C., of complications from lung disease, said his daughter Hollis Fleming. He was 83.
While working for the Department of Defense in the East in 1962, he mused about “standing on a surfboard in the middle of the Potomac and powering it with a hand-held kite,” Drake said in 1981 in The Times.
Upon returning to California, the sailor suggested the idea of combining sailing and surfing to his close friend Hoyle Schweitzer, a surfer who volunteered to pay for the board’s development, Drake told The Times in 1983.
He had to figure out “how to get the whole thing to work in a simple, straightforward, emotionally satisfying configuration. The key was how to steer,” Drake said in the 1983 article. “I knew I wanted to stand and didn’t want a tiller, so there was the problem of thinking of a control mechanism.”
Small, flat sailboats were popular at the time, but had to be used while sitting. Drake devised a way to connect the sail to the board by using a universal joint, which let the sail pivot in a complete circle or lie flat — and allowed the rider to stand up. He also updated “an old idea” that had worked on many boats, a hand-held wishbone rigging that allowed the sail to tilt and turn in every direction.
From the start, Schweitzer was far more interested in turning the board into a business, Drake later recalled. Together they formed Windsurfer International to manufacture the boards, and both of their names appear on the patent.
At best, Drake said he considered himself “the re-inventor” of the sailboard, which two other men could lay claim to inventing. “My contribution was to make the thing actually efficient and workable,” he told American Windsurfing magazine in 1996.
When the Professional Windsurfers Assn. inducted Schweitzer and Drake into its hall of fame in 2002, they were hailed as helping “to mold windsurfing into its current form.” The group called Drake the “father of windsurfing” and Schweitzer the co-developer “who brought windsurfing to the masses.”
But the pair had long since parted. In the early 1970s, Drake sold his interest in the business to Schweitzer for $36,000, the equivalent of about $175,000 today. Drake later explained his decision by simply saying “It’s just not quite my cup of tea.”
“It was always a hobby for him,” his daughter said. “He had six young mouths to feed and I think, honestly, he never wanted to give up aerospace, which he loved.”
As an aeronautical engineer and national-security systems analyst, he divided his time between private industry in Southern California and government work in Washington.
He worked on the design for the X-15 rocket research plane and on the winning configuration of the B-70 supersonic strategic bomber, The Times reported in 1983. He also was involved in early designs for the Tomahawk cruise missile, according to the Rand Corp., where he worked as an aeronautical engineer.
James Robert Drake was born in Los Angeles on Jan. 8, 1929, to Harrison Drake, a bank executive, and his wife, Doris.
Growing up in Toluca Lake, Drake became an Eagle Scout, “which was his proudest moment,” his daughter said.
At Stanford University, he studied mechanical engineering and aeronautical dynamics, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1951.
He and his wife, Wendy, were only children, which may be the reason they had six children, all of whom were raised to enjoy the outdoors, said Fleming, his eldest child. His wife died in 2000.
Late in life, Drake designed sailboards for Thailand-based Starboard Designs, challenging current thinking with radical new short and wide board designs that have helped riders win titles, according to company founder Svein Rasmussen.
After working in Thailand for a year, Drake moved to Pfafftown in 2003 to teach computer-aided design at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Although his split with Schweitzer over the Windsurfer caused a decades-long estrangement, Drake told American Windsurfing in 1996 that the story had “a happy ending.”
“Hoyle, much to my annoyance, later on made a great success out of it. Worldwide,” Drake said. “He made windsurfing famous and me famous along with it.”
Drake is survived by his second wife, Phyllis; his two daughters, Hollis Fleming and Stephanie Lees; his four sons, Matthew, Andrew, Alexander and David; and 15 grandchildren.
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