“In 1942 or 1943 I bought a small boat with a keel and rudder. I wanted to go to a local island where there were Indian relics. But the water was shallow, so I took off the keel. I found that I could steer by tipping the sail left or right, so I got rid of the rudder, too.”
By 1964 Darby's experiments with sailing techniques led to a breakthrough: his girlfriend (later wife) Naomi Albrecht sailed his latest design while standing on a board. Unlike the sails on conventional sailboats, the sail on this one could be tilted on a pivoting mast to change direction and control the boat without using a rudder. It had never been done before.
Darby kept refining the design. His most important innovation was a special kind of universal joint for connecting the sail to the board, which allowed for greater control of speed and steering.
“You can feel the power of the wind and by feeling it, you can control it. It's the simplest form of sailing in the world. And now millions of people can do it.”
Darby's original sailboard was like a scow--a fast, flat-bottomed boat with broad, square ends--that enabled the sailor to skim over flat water at high speeds. The kite-shaped sail, sewn by Darby’s wife, was one of many shapes and sizes Darby experimented with over the years.
Today most sailboards, better known as windsurfers, are based on surfboards, giving them their distinctive sleek look and the ability to surf on ocean waves. But some manufacturers are starting to make their boards more like Darby's original. John Chao, editor and publisher of American Windsurfer magazine, says, "They're finding that the short and wide boards actually go faster. There's also an interest in going back to Newman’s original kite sail. It’s coming full-circle.”
Darby also developed a joint that connects the sail to the board, allowing for greater control of speed and steering. Before the addition of this joint-a type of universal joint-the sailor's weight held the sail in a simple, shallow hole. But high winds could lift the sail right off.
Darby’s universal joint was a key improvement to the sailboard and remains a distinguishing feature on windsurfing boards today.
Generally, a universal joint is a fastener that allows two parts to flex with respect to each other, but not rotate. Darby’s universal joint could swivel as well, allowing the sailor to drop the sail in the water if necessary, to steer by tipping the sail, and even to spin the mast and sail around.
Darby experimented with different ways to attach the sail to the board. He tried metal and rubber joints, but they weren’t flexible enough. The mast would turn, but it would also pop a hole through the sail. “It’s dangerous if you’re in the middle of the ocean, alone, and the sail doesn’t work.”
Darby solved his problem using an 18-inch length of nylon rope and some household hardware. The rope is both tough and flexible. “It’s elastic, like a large, strong rubberband. It bends and stretches. It can handle a 300-pound pull and has a tensile strength of 1,000 pounds. And it lasts a long time.”
Some modern windsurfers still use the nylon-rope universal joint, but most use better materials--like urethane--that have eliminated the safety problems that Darby discovered in his early trials. But Darby’s still a believer in his nylon rope. “[The new joints don’t] hold up as long as nylon--only a few years.”
Newman Darby created a sailboard simulator to teach people how to use his invention.
Darby says that, in some ways, using his simulator is just like windsurfing. “It teaches sail positions and gives learners confidence. But when you’re out on the water, the wind comes in gusts from different directions and the board bounces up and down. “You just have to develop a feel for it.”
So what's the hardest thing about windsurfing? Darby says it depends on the equipment you're using."If you're using a small sail and a wide board in a light wind, you couldn't fall off if you wanted to. But big sails are heavy and hard to pull out of the water. And narrow boards can be tippy. Lots of people quit the sport because they're exhausted after a couple of hours, but it doesn't have to be that way.”
Darby has never stopped improving the sailboard, as well as building and designing other boats. He’s invented new forms of trimarans, catamarans, kayaks, and other personal watercraft. A recent project is the Windspear--a combination rowboat, kayak, and sailboard with a paddle and fin-for cruising and paddling.
Newman Darby’s curiosity and persistence began with childhood play and exploration. His experiments with boats and sailing from an early age provided the knowledge of tools and materials that made his inventions possible.
Darby’s first boat, built when he was 12, sank. Instead of giving up, he resolved to build a better one. He learned more about boatbuilding, constructing a working boat when he was 14.
“I thought about sailing all the time. I wanted to explore. I couldn’t drive, but I could row a boat. I used half of a pup tent for a sail and had a great time.”