With a 20-year career in kiteboarding, Alexander James Lewis-Hughes, a.k.a. Rowdy, has a unique blend of skills on the water and a deep knowledge of the kiteboarding industry. Not only is he a professional rider with an expert level of proficiency across all disciplines, but he has also been an innovator in the park riding and wakeskate scenes, a competition judge, a cameraman, and a kite tester. Laci Kobulsky caught up with this Australian legend during his 20th anniversary in kiteboarding!
Hi Rowdy! What is your full name, and first, please, I need to ask where your nickname Rowdy comes from?
Alexander James Lewis-Hughes. Long story short, when I was a kid in Australia, and we were doing a kite trip with all the groms, there was another kid named Alex, who we called Rowdy. We called him Rowdy because he wasn’t the slightest bit rowdy. That’s kinda how nicknames go in Australia. We are big on sarcasm. Anyway, one day this kid just disappeared, he got on a bus and went home. I was the only kid who didn’t have a nickname, and everyone liked calling that kid Rowdy, so I just adopted it basically. Sorry there isn’t some wonderful story about it.
Where are you from, and where do you live now, buddy?
I’m from a small town called Alstonville on the North Coast of NSW Australia; it’s one of the most well-known areas for surfing, I guess. Right now I’m still travelling around, but I spend a lot of time in Poland as well.
Do you still have a favourite home kite spot?
Yeah, of course, I know the spots at home so well, and I also think they are some of the best in the world, just that the wind isn’t as consistent as some places, but if you like surfing, it’s no issue.
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You’ve been around a while! I heard that you are celebrating 20 years in kiteboarding! Is that right? Can you remember the “old days”? What made you try this thing?
Yes. Yeah, I can. I saw a dude (Ian Graham) at my beach doing it in like 1999 or so. It looked sketchy, and I would help him launch and land his 2-line Wipika. He was one of the first people in Australia to do it. He gave me some old videos like The PowerZone (1 and 2), where I saw Lou Wainman and Shannon Best doing tricks but also cruising around to islands and kind of using waves like a skatepark. The idea of riding smaller boards than I was windsurfing on at the time got me hooked. It took a bit to get started because I didn’t have money for gear, and I also didn’t want to throw away all the time I had spent windsurfing and becoming a National Champion.
You are somewhat vocal about kiteboarding development; In your opinion, has kiteboarding evolved in the right direction in the last 20 years, or would you like to see something different?
What’s the right direction? It depends who you ask; I don’t think there’s anything you can label “right or wrong” really unless the sport is doing something ethically wrong (which I guess you could debate maybe it is in some regards).
My personal preference would be to see riders supported for riding and kiteboarding pushed as a legit boardsport. Personally, I don’t give a shit about how many likes and views someone gets; it’s totally irrelevant to what they are doing in a video or how they are helping to push the sport and progress the overall level. I think it’s sad nowadays that it’s basically all any person or brand looks at, and it’s why kiteboarding is losing its identity and also why the overall level and videos brands produce has dropped considerably over the last four years… There’s no two questions about it. Riders just don’t have the same drive to go hard.
And your vision/predictions for the next 20 years?
Not sure. I hope there’s a trend back towards creating simple, functional equipment where the vision and philosophy a brand promotes matters as much as the product. I hope there’s a future where more passionate riders start their own brands and promote who and what they want to see progress.
You are one of the most overall and niche kiters out there. Can you please list all the disciplines you are into?
I like to think of myself as a kiteBOARDER. I think kiteboarding is all about riding different boards and making the most of different conditions. I’m into all the disciplines, even race, every once in a while. My favourites are probably Wave, Freestyle, Park and Wakeskate, though.
Wakeskate is super your thing! Are there any other guys who could compete with you, or are you king of the castle?
I think there are some guys who are decent, most guys you’ve never heard of. Alex Campet is also pretty good overall, and there are dudes in Melbourne AUS who used to be super into and doing some cool tricks. To answer the question, though, I think I would beat anyone in a competition right now if that were a thing. I think a lot of people don’t understand the time it takes even to do simple tricks on a wakeskate well unhooked, let alone consistently. Things like Backside Bigspins took me years to work out how to do them well, even 360 shuvs unhooked, which are pretty basic just to flick hooked-in take a lot of time to get everything looking smooth unhooked. I think the uptake of Strapless Freestyle on a surfboard has only made people appreciate Wakeskating less, people assume the two things would be the same, but it’s so far from the same thing it might as well be race and freestyle. Obviously, I never did it for any sort of fame, so I don’t care, but it would be nice to get a few more people really doing it to push against and also get a bit more recognition when you do something well. Riding alone makes it hard to stay motivated.
In your recent video, I saw you throwing buckets off the waves while unhooked. I have not seen that in a while! Why do you prefer to go unhooked in the waves?
I always unhook, since 2004, this is the vision I followed and still believe in. People assume I can’t ride hooked-in or something, which is a pretty funny thing to think because it’s a whole ton easier hooked-in.
I prefer to unhook because I think it’s more of a challenge. Instead of only worrying about the wave, you also have to worry about kite positioning a lot more unhooked. You need to plan ahead, and your setup is crucial. Overall I also think in the right conditions, it feels a lot more like surfing and allows a much bigger range of movement and freedom. Doing airs and tricks also far closer match the level of skill required to do the same surfing. To be honest, hooked-in wave riding gets pretty boring for me quite quick; it just doesn’t feel like you are doing a whole lot.
Any tips if I want to try riding unhooked in the waves?
Yeah. Ride the right size kite or even one that’s a bit small. You don’t want to be overpowered. Don’t bother, especially at first if the wind is too offshore. Choose cross to cross-onshore for the biggest range of motion. Make sure your kite is trimmed properly; you want to be able to ride towards it without it falling backwards out of the sky. You also want to make sure it’s not too depowered; otherwise, it won’t drift. The setup is actually really the same as you would hit a rail in the park. The start of the wave can be crucial for setting your speed and position before unhooking. Overall, though, it just takes time. There’s no secret to quick success; you just have to practice.
Park riding has been a massive part of your riding in recent years. Why do you like it so much?
It’s always been a big motivation for me, and it’s one of the reasons I started kiting. We had tons of riders and park focused comps in Australia dating back to the early ’00s. I like park because it’s the most versatile and creative discipline. If I could only choose one thing to do, it would be that because it would take the longest time to get bored with. The setups and combinations are endless.
What do you see as a highlight of your kite career? Best trick or performance?
I guess it’s constantly evolving, so that’s hard to say. In general, I like to work on making different or new tricks in each video rather than always repeating the same 5-8 tricks and doing them better and better. Obviously, I still repeat some stuff, haha.
I think my AMPhetimine Brazil part, Wakeskate B-side and Death of Park part were decent highlights. To an outsider, maybe it seems like much of the same, but many of the tricks in there were tricks I was first to the table to do. I think the lines, especially in the Brazil video, were pretty gnarly as I was super overpowered on a 15m going fast. Drone isn’t the best angle to highlight that speed, but I remember even Alex Maes, who was filming at the time, was kind of worried about what I was doing, especially coming in switch to ollie on. Also, the wakeskate lines and varial off the wave in Brazil were things I was pleased with, it looks simple and controlled, but the truth is I don’t think many people could go there and replicate that stuff. There’s a reason I’m the only one with these types of clips.
As for waves, they are always changing; I think much of the performance in waves is simply mandated by the conditions. I liked my video riding a 1970s single fin because that was super hard, but again no one really cares. I also was pretty happy with the foil board wave footage as that was also a crazy setup to try and make work.
So judge, athlete and now also videographer! You have been involved in quite a few longer projects. The latest one is the Death of Park if I am not mistaken. You have a really unique style of editing; where do you draw your inspiration?
Boardsports. Skateboarding, mainly. Skateboarding is the core of boardsports, it’s the biggest and most true to its roots, so it makes sense to me to draw the most inspiration from there. I guess editing is like riding; you see things you like, then just adapt that into your own approach. The more you do it, the more you shape your own style. Some people have good style early, and some people take longer to create a style. Eventually, everyone has some kind of unique style I think, unless you are just straight-up copying someone’s work.
It can be hard to create your own path; people are always scared to do what they think because they are worried people won’t like it. I’ve had tons of people tell me what I’m doing is wrong, or I should copy this certain style or do this certain thing, but I’ve always had a vision for the style, and how I want my films to be, so I just stuck to it.
If I were to simplify my approach to editing, it is that less is more. This is a super hard path to take because you can’t use effects and tricky editing to cover up mistakes. It’s an old school approach, I guess, where the most important thing is to get the shot right in the camera. Maybe that’s what people see in my films? I’m not sure. Ultimately, I’m making films for riders and the progression of the sport. What I’m doing is also never as likely to appeal to mainstream ideals.
Any ideas for future projects? Is there any dream project you would like to work on?
Yeah, I’m always keen for another project. Covid is making everything hard, but my goal is to continue to film and help push the next generation to ride better and progress the sport. I’d love to be around doing that for a long time.
You are also involved in product development, right? I think you have been part of the Ozone kite development; How so?
I had input into the AMPv1, yeah. I did some testing and helped to choose between some different designs and options they gave me. I pushed to get a kite like the AMP for many years before it was released. I think every brand should have a kite like that in their range. I’m not as involved in the design of the other kites, but I still pass on my feedback there as well.
One thing we’ve talked about in the past is board size. Why do you think people still kite with small boards and struggle to go upwind? Who should try something bigger?
Because of brands and shops, brands don’t make big boards; they don’t want to spend more on new moulds to make them or waste time or money educating the masses. Brands all follow each other for the most part, so until there’s that option there and it’s selling well, most won’t bother. Shops don’t care either because they just sell what brands make. If they don’t have big boards to sell, how will they tell people to buy bigger boards??? It’s all a dead loop. The industry, in general, is pretty stale like this.
Pretty much everyone could benefit from a slightly longer or bigger board. A huge majority of riders are on boards that are small for no reason. Big air riders may not want to size up, but how many people really have 30+ knot big air conditions every day???
How big is big enough? What size should the casual kiter use, in your opinion?
Depends on weight and height also what you want to do on the board. Like surfboards, there’s no strict answer to that question, just try something out and see what you like. In general, though, I think the average male that’s on a 142 could easily step up to a 149 as an overall board. If they are mainly into park and waves, then a 155 could also be on the cards.
What is your ideal setup?
I don’t really have one. I like changing things up. But my most versatile board is the Tranq 155; that’s the board I could take to do everything. As for surfboards, a 5’10 squash tail and for wakeskate, a 41inch would get me covered for simplicity’s sake. If you want to know about foil, I’d take a 75cm mast and 1200 medium aspect wing, short fuse and small stabiliser.
Alex, thank you very, very much for your time and big respect for your career in kiteboarding. Is there any message or legacy you would like to leave in the world of kiteboarding?
Try and execute things properly, make it look good, work towards a better future where riding and pushing towards a sport that has culture and respect is the norm. Together we can make a difference.
All photos are from the Rowdy archive.
This interview was conducted by Laci Kobulsky. About Laci:
I am Laci Kobulsky and my passion is creativity. I love to experience new sensations and sharing them with other people, therefore photography and videography become point of my interest, since it provides easy way how to capture and share extraordinary moments in life.
Learn more at https://www.kobulsky.com/about.
By Crystal VenessEditor at IKSURFMAG, Crystal Veness hails from Canada but is based in South Africa. When she isn't busy kitesurfing or reporting on the latest industry news for the mag, she is kicking back somewhere at a windy kite beach or working on creative media projects.