Heading North

North’s Brand Director Mike Raper has been navigating the company’s direction since its reset in 2018. Already well known in the kiteboarding realms thanks to its slick product line-up, all-star team of riders and aesthetically eye-catching marketing, North’s emergence into the foil market in 2019 was well-received but limited. But, as Mike explains from his home in New Zealand, they were just keeping their powder dry…

Photos: Georgia Schofield (unless stated)

Product Manager Uli Sommerlatt and Mike out doing some critical R&D…

Hello Mike. Firstly, could you give us a bit of background about yourself and your role at North?

I am the Brand Director at North. Responsible for all product development, marketing and branding, privileged to be based here in Auckland. I am responsible for the brand’s look, feel and tone but more importantly the performance of our products. I work closely with our Product Manager, Uli Sommerlatt, who is the lead for North’s product development. I also work closely with Holley Butler, our very talented Marketing Manager who looks after the brand marketing. 

You’ve been in the wind and water sports industry for over 30 years. What have been the most significant highlights during your tenure?

Kitesurfing exploded into the windsurfing world in the late 90’s. It was just awesome to see people jumping on board with a new sport, a new way of harnessing mother nature and to ride more efficiently. When it comes to foiling, I started hydrofoiling with snowboard boots in 2002. Watching the rise of foiling over the past 10-15 years and most recently winging in the past two years, has been hugely enjoyable. Each new sport has brought about a massive change. Every time I see someone getting into a new sport, to see the buzz, the excitement and the stoke, it’s an amazing feeling. 

I guess the older I get, the more I realize the best part of my job is getting people on the water. Giving them the opportunity to experience what I’ve experienced. Out of everything I do now, sharing my passion gives me the single biggest buzz. And as time goes on the more important that becomes, especially as I share it with my teenage daughters. It is not about how much time I’m out riding, it is becoming more about how much enjoyment others have on the water. It has been such an honor to watch people being introduced to the ocean and seeing more and more people enjoying it, especially during this Covid period. That’s why we do what we do I guess.

What would you say was the key motivation for you in your choice to join the new North brand? 

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We have access to new technology like never before. When we were recalibrating the North brand, we had the opportunity to start with a clean slate. This was the single most exciting part for me. For someone to say ‘hey, if you were to do this differently, how would you do it?’. We were mobile, agile and free to create the brand and product we’d always dreamed of, without restrictions. We brought together an incredible team of designers, from Pat Goodman to Hugh Pinfold, Uli and Jaimie Scott. We then purchased the Mystic brand and thus formed North Action Sports Group, which gave us turnkey access to an amazing sales network worldwide. I was motivated to discover how we could do this better, do it differently, and I can safely say we are on track to change the status quo. 

For you personally, joining North has seen you return to New Zealand on a more permanent basis. How has that been? Nice to be home?!

Yes absolutely! I spent 15 years in Hong Kong working with international manufacturers, learning about production and process control. I was lucky enough to be trained by the legendary Mr Neil Pryde. It’s been great to take this experience home with me now. Hong Kong was amazing but it’s hard to be a water person in a windless big city, kind of like a fish out of water. 

Now I’m back in Aotearoa, I have just had the best summer I’ve ever had! Seriously. There was one session, two weekends ago where I had 23 hours on the water, over three days. I was absolutely broken at the end of it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When you’re open minded about the possibilities, you realize how many ways there are to make use of our everchanging aqua playground. Whether it’s under the water, on top of the water or flying and jumping across the water, being in the ocean is so special to me and foiling has opened up so many opportunities. There is no excuse not to be on the water now, we are covered for equipment from the smallest surf with foilsurfing, to boosting Bir Air in 40+ knots. 

For someone who loves water sports, New Zealand is paradise. You can ride all year-round and there are such varied conditions. From foiling to kiting and surfing, we never have a dull day here.

North has just released new foil collection. You have the advantage of joining the ‘foil revolution’ when it is reaching relative maturity – how has it been reviewing the market and deciding the direction for the North foil range?

I feel extremely lucky to have been able to study what our competitors have done and look to improve the customer experience or do things differently. It’s given us time to come to the market with a complete range that’s been well thought out. The March launch of the North Foil collection elevates the Sonar System to a whole new level. 

Race Foil design guru George Hradil has worked together with America’s Cup marine engineer Uli Sommerlatt to develop a completely new hydrofoil wing technology, that is stable, controllable and fast. The Sonar modular foil system can accommodate a range of different sports as well as being incredibly intuitive and easy to use. We’ve also brought some exciting technology into the foil boards through our board shaper, Jaimie Scott.

The biggest benefit however, is being able to work with the North Technology Group. We have been able to really leverage off what the group has to offer with North Sails and Southern Spars. I am confident we’re coming to market with a strong range of products that have a good combination of being easy to use as well as delivering high end performance. 

How much access do you get to their tech and do you interact with the team there closely?

Yes! That’s what attracted me to this job in the beginning. North Sails has recently granted us one of their top material specialists, Dave Little, who completed five America’s Cup campaigns to work closely on material development with Pat Goodman and Uli Sommerlatt. We are experimenting with some innovative technologies that I think could really change up the industry. We have full access to their R&D facility in Minden, Nevada USA, as well as their manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka. We have a core, international material development team who work with some of the big names at North Sails in the product development department.

You have team riders distributed globally, but who’s in your main foil and wing test crew closer to home?

We have a small, tight crew here based in Auckland. Being surrounded by some of the world’s leading foiling brands and the America’s Cup, Auckland is a hotbed of development and design, we’re always watching what each other is doing. We have an enthusiastic team of strong riders who are on the water if its windy or there’s waves. Not to mention, all our staff are either foiling or are learning to foil. Sometimes your staff are your harshest critics!

You are also releasing the Nova wing. What have you learnt from the world of wings so far and how has this been applied to the Nova?

We’ve actually been developing the Nova wing and benchmarking against our competitors for almost two years now. Pat is a perfectionist and made 15 separate prototypes before we went into production! We are very lucky to have drawn on Pat’s incredible expertise from throughout his design career in paragliding, kiting, windsurfing, and now winging.  

In terms of what we learnt; we could see a lot of wings didn’t have the rigid stability needed to jump. Therefore, we created the XLT joint, specifically designed to stiffen up the wing and strut, providing you increased performance and jumping capabilities. 

We also noticed that a lot of wings had a very small wind range from our benchmark testing and hours on the water. Pat Goodman then discovered a way to adjust the profile to provide a massive wind range for the Nova. We also saw a lot of wings fighting themselves in flight and saw a demand in the market for less deformation and wrinkles in the canopy. Therefore, we introduced our radial panel cuts through the help of our colleagues at North Sails, and we now have a much smoother canopy that equates into a more balanced ride.

There seems to be some fragmentation of the wing market now with ‘surfier’ and ‘speedier’ wings – where does the Nova sit on this continuum?

The Nova is a fantastic all-round, crossover, performance freeride wing, with great upwind drive and a lot of efficiency for its size. It performs in a range of conditions from riding big waves, to high speed flat water sessions and ability to boost a little freestyle. Most importantly, it’s easy to use and has great bottom end power to get you up on the plane. I am absolutely frothing on the Nova. The 5m is my go-to for NZ conditions. I think I’ve logged almost 200 hours on it now! 

The brand seems to be very mindful of who it picks to join the team. I make it 10 including the recently appointed kiteboarder, Capucine Delannoy. What are the key characteristics you look for when you’re scouting for a new team rider, and are crossover kite/foil/wing riders now going to become a box to check for anyone new?

It’s hard to answer that one. I’ll have to break it down, firstly we are always looking for riders who embody our brand values and that are relatable. Natural talent goes without saying. We are looking for the best athletes but not at the sacrifice of our brand values and morals. We have loved working with Camille and obviously bringing Capucine on has been a really strong addition to what I call the ‘Dream team’ of current North riders. 

The second part of the question is the crossover of kiting and foiling. I personally think, although there is a lot of crossover between kiting and foiling, that foil is developing its own unique athletes and characters within the foiling community. Similar to kiteboarding and windsurfing in the early days, a lot of windsurfers came into kiting yet there were still two distinct cultures. I believe we should respect and celebrate the differences of these sports, as well as the riders that participate in one or both of these. 

We are always scouting interesting and new talent within the foiling community that embody our brand values and can push the sport forward. We have no idea what is going to be possible in the next few years with foiling and wing foiling. I am confident in what we have in the R&D pipeline to help these riders push the limits. If foiling carries on its current trajectory, it is going to be incredible. 

So back to you Mike, where are your favorite go-to foiling options on your doorstep?

I am lucky! I live in Auckland, right on the water. On a high tide I can kite in front of my house, as well as being able to travel to the east or west coast in less than 20 minutes. I am also blessed to have a holiday home further north where there is a natural estuary with a beautiful long sand bar for foiling. My longest foil wave was 1.27km on a GPS. In my position at North, I am privileged to have access to all our sample equipment and lucky to have a network of friends I can share that with. 

Do you spend more time surfing, kiting or doing some kind of foil activity these days?

I ride to the conditions, I love all the sports but especially winging at the moment as I’m learning the most in that area. In my spare time when I’m not working, my passion is big wave foiling with mates out the West Coast. We are like a bunch of middle aged groms, frothing on every session, big or small.

I still regularly go for Big Air kite sessions, as soon it gets over 25 knots. I also love an epic down the line kitesurfing session when the opportunity arises. It’s hard because there are so many different ways to foil now, I probably spend 60% of my time foiling, 40% kiting. At the moment, I’m really enjoying pushing my personal performance boundaries in all the different foiling sports.

 The America’s Cup has had plenty of mentions in this interview. Have you had a chance to watch much of it? It’s been pretty insane…

Loving it! Awesome having all of this on our doorstep. Being so close to the racing has been incredible to watch on the water. The performance and progression of each of the teams has just been something else to witness. Over 57 knots on a monohull foiling is insane! The America’s Cup is doing some great things in regards to opening people’s eyes to the world of recreational foiling. On a professional level, those subtle changes can make big differences on the water and it’s really interesting to study and relate this to what we are doing here at North. It’s also been a pleasure to regularly see some of the big sailing names out there foiling with us, enjoying their time in NZ!

With a sport moving so quickly, I guess that you are already looking at your next generation of foils – anything you can let on about here?!

We are in constant, perpetual R&D, we don’t stop the development for both wind wings, foil boards and hydrofoils. The benefit of the Sonar modular foil system is that we can add new hydrofoil wings at any time to improve performance in all the different sports. Regarding the wind wings we regularly have two or three different directions going at one time. As I mentioned some of the biggest changes and performance will come from material development in combination with design. We know the recipe, we’ve done this with kites and we have proven with the Nova that we can produce a high-performance wing. Now it’s all about refinement and evolution. It’s an exciting time to be involved.  

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