For Kirkland resident Billy Roeseler and Lake Washington High School alumni Cory Roeseler, it all started out with a dream of using a kite to break the speed sailing record.
In the process, they created a new sport, kiteboarding. Now, roughly 30 years after experiment with prototypes on Lake Washington, the father and son have been inducted into the city of Kirkland’s Plaza of Champions. The initiative was created in 1988 to “honor and recognize those groups and individuals in the greater Kirkland area who have not only reached the pinnacle of achievement in their chosen field, but have also, through that achievement, contributed in a significant way to our community.” Individuals are nominated by the Park Board and then approved by a City Council vote.
The ceremony was held Marina Park on May 24, not far from Cory Roeseler’s childhood home, and overlooking the water where countless times their experiments met with success and failure.
Billy Roeseler, who has lived in Kirkland since the 1960s, said he first got his love for water sports while growing up in Wisconsin. There he water skied and even built ice boats as a kid.
“I spent a lot of time in water,” he said.
This interest was also reflected in aspects of his 47 year career in aerospace. Between 1975-76, he worked on a hydrofoil for Boeing. In 1979, he published a paper on the possibility of using hydrofoil and a kite to go 40 knots in only 10 knots of wind. Building a home at Yarrow Bay, he then purchased a Dynafoil, a watercraft that allows the user to experience hydrofoil. By the late 1970s, Billy Roeseler was making early kite experiments on Lake Washington.
Not all of the contraptions worked, however, including one was made from a Hobie Cat hull and a modified hang-glider, but the experiments continued nonetheless.
A few years later when Cory Roeseler was 14, he joined his father, piloting the kites on the water. Ironically, this was in spite of his distaste for sailing, describing himself as a ski snob.” In a 2012 presentation, the Lake Washington High School alumnus remarked that as a “power and speed junkie, I wasn’t easily convinced that any form of sailing was for me.”
“I hated wind because it made the water rough,” he told the Reporter.
However, while Lake Washington didn’t have strong winds, it was still suitable for kiteboarding, which didn’t require nearly as much wind as sailboats or windsurfing.
“When my father was excited about sailing, I guess we struck the right compromise,” Cory Roeseler said.
For two years, they tested out a kite with a very large design. It had a wingspan of 56 feet with the pilot sitting in the kite itself; it was also capable of carrying 1,000 pounds in 20 knots of wind.
Across the globe in Breton, France, two brothers by the names of Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux were also working on kiteboarding. They were unaware of each other’s work until the sport finally gained traction.
Although Billy and Cory Roeseler conducted the experiments, they were also joined by two dozen teenaged friends and neighbors who helped them, which include piloting the kite. During one experiment in Juanita Bay, a pilot took the kite up before it suddenly nosedived into the water. He was taken to the emergency room after suffering a bruised hip.
“That was the last flight of the big bird,” Cory Roeseler said.
In response, the Roeselers made radical changes to the kite design. They moved the pilot out and put him on skis or a board. The kites got reduced from 56-foot wingspans to eight, and weighed only 1.5 pounds.
At last, they had what they considered to be their first successful kitesailing flight at Point Wilson off of Port Townsend. The flight demonstrated both the progress in their design – and some of the weaknesses. While Cory was able to gain lift, the kite was difficult to control, and the situation became serious after the wind carried him out towards the tide in the Strait of Juan De Fuca, necessitating a full-out rescue.
“That was successful kiting and unsuccessful getting home,” Cory Roeseler said.
Continuing their experimentation at the Columbia River Gorge, they worked to improve on navigation control, using both boards and skis with the kites.
“Control is very difficult,” Billy Roseler said. “We could get lift; we knew how to get lift. But control was hard… We tried many, many things. Kiteboarding has technology and athleticism. In early years it required a lot of both.”
The Gorge gave them good wind speed compared to Lake Washington, where the necessary wind speeds were less regular.
“Access is a big deal,” Cory Roeseler said. “We had some success on Lake Washington, but we also figured out the wind resource and access. It isn’t the best spot in the world, so we started doing more traveling.”
In July 1989, Cory Roeseler beat 190 of the world’s best windsufers in the Blowout, then a 17-mile race on the Hood River. He later went on to win outright in 1989 and 1993. To this day, he still holds the speed record for the event.
By the early 1990s, they turned their passion into a business, founding Kiteski Inc., which sold kite kits. While the venture didn’t last long, it gave them the opportunity to travel around the world and promote kiteboarding at boat shows as well as participate in World Cup events. All of this gained exposure for kiteboarding, which they believe was essential for its eventual success as a sport. They also made and distributed videos on kiteboarding and took out advertising.
“Without the travel it wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” Billy Roeseler said.
The promotion caught the attention of ESPN, which invited Cory Roeseler in 1995 to participate in their first X-Games in Rhode Island, which included 12 other kiteboarders.
“That was a big deal,” he said.
Although their dream of kites breaking the speed sailing record came true, its superior air time over windsurfing is what got people’s attention, according to Billy Roeseler. Participating in World Championships in San Francisco for several years, as well as applying for and receiving a U.S. patent for a reel bar, Cory Roeseler then competed in Maui in 1997, where they made a big breakthrough for the sport. Though only a few tried the kiteboard out at first, the curiosity of many, including Olympic athletes and windsurfers attending, were forever piqued.
What attracted them, Billy Roeseler said, was that Cory could remain in the air much longer with a kite. While windsurfers could get 10 feet of lift, while a kiteboard allowed Cory to get 30 feet. The longer air time allowed him to perform tricks, such as somersaults.
“That’s what sort of generated the hype, the big jumps and tricks,” Cory Roeseler said. “But for the typical consumer, the typical kiter, it’s not so much that. They might have weak knees. They just like the small package. It’s easy to transport a kite and a small board and then a big honking wind surfing board. You can jump in lighter wind.”
“When we invented the sport we thought it was about speed, but it’s about altitude,” Billy Roeseler said.
The increase in kite boarders brought with it both camaraderie and additional minds that enabled the sport to mature and grow.
“The kites got safer, easier to control, better to launch,” Billy Roeseler said. “When you have 10 people, the technology progresses slowly, but with 100 people it goes faster.”
Cory Roeseler, who moved to Hood River, Ore. in the 1990s, said things really picked up for kiteboarding after 2000, and by 2012, kite boarding had become so intentionally popular that it was finally included in the 2012 Summer Olympics (it was overturned for 2016). It is now estimated one million people participate in kiteboarding all over the world.
Throughout the years, various entities have celebrated the Roeseler’s pioneering work. The Hood River County Museum has an exhibit on them, and Red Bull produced by a documentary on their story. With their induction into the Plaza of Champions, the city of Kirkland is now paying tribute.
“It’s a great honor,” Billy Roeseler said. “I’m thrilled.”
“I’m glad my parents chose to raise us kids (in Kirkland),” Cory Roeseler said. “I think it’s a great place to raise kids.”
Now, 30 years later, Cory Roeseler, who still resides in Hood River, remarked that the same winds on Lake Washington they had trouble harnessing are now handled with ease thanks to innovation in kiteboarding design, and Billy Roeseler said he sees kite boarders in the air near Marsh Park in Seattle.
“It makes me feel good,” he said.