The Grandfather Wing

A brief history of the handheld sails and wings.

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Bedřich Smetana, a former member of the Czech national cycling and speed skating teams, a pioneer of windsurfing, told me that in the 1990s he built a “wing” . A handheld sail which you could use for skiing uphill. In 2018 I was looking just for old stuff for the windsurfing museum, and I was not really interested in “flying”. So when Bedřich pointed to a pile of tubes and plastic, I vaguely promised him that we could TEST it sometime.
I knew that Pete Cabrinha was riding a longboard in Hawaii in 1982, powered by something like a hang glider. In 1986, Tom Magruder flew very high in the Gorge on a surfboard with a wing-sail on a pole. These stories have been published in windsurf magazines, so have accepted it as a marginal part of windsurf history. And I thought that was
the end of it…
But it wasn´t. In the summer of 2020 an inflatable WING became a hit. Of course, museum cannot be trendy, but we can try to follow-up. So i
t’s time to call Bedřich and take a closer look at his old wing.

As an introduction to the test of the grandfather of today’s “wings”, I wanted to write shortly about the 40 year history of similar devices. Surprisingly, a quick search took me back to 1900. It seems that the oldest documented use of “handheld sails” was on ice skates. Let’s commemorate some of the most interesting designs:

1/ 1900 – Sweden. It is clear that the rider was standing on the leeward side of the sail…
2/ 1901 – USA (?). Triangular sails with a handle certainly look familiar to every windsurfer. Notice that the ladies were standing on both the leeward and windward sides of the sail.
3/ 1916 – USA(?).  Triangular sails, this time even with wooden “battens” (!)
4/  1920 – USA(?). Racing model.
5/ 1929 – 1931 Giant Mountains, Czechoslovakia.   

The first experiments with ski-sailing in our country were probably carried out by Herbert Beutel in 1929. The first giant wing created with two strong bamboo poles with a triangular sail was too heavy. Fortunately, he obtained light alloy rods from an aircraft factory in 1931. Berlin sail manufacturer supplied a canvas to cover the first light and comfortable sail wing. Herbert named it Wiesenbaude I. 4 more wings were built soon. Over time, riders learned how to ride not only down the wind but also upwind. … Otto Berauer reached a measured speed of 90 km/h(!). Another rider with this sail in hands was able to tow 7 other skiers on the rope. …(the complete text in Czech )

6/  1929 – Canada.

This picture is well-known among those interested in history of windsurfing and it circulates online without description, or with an incorrect date, place and source. Our Canadian friend and collaborator Warren Toaze confirmed the photo was taken in 1929 in Canada and was published in 2015 in The Toronto Star.
There are several interesting details. It is one of the few proofs of the use of a sail with skis. Windsurfers will appreciate a triangular sail shape and the position of the “boom”. The flexible attachment of the “mast” to the ski binding was unique and far ahead of its time. The universal joint will be considered as a key element in the windsurfing design 40 years later …

7/  1920 – USA.  

Instructions for making a handheld sail from The Richmond palladium newspaper (1.1920). Note the position of the hands, feet, holding the boom, sail – the style and silhouette. Many windsurfers would be happy with such a position today. But this is a 100-year-old picture!(!). And it doesn’t matter that he’s a skater again.

Let’s skip 60 years from those ancient sails for skiers and skaters and return to the water and waves. As I have already mentioned, various wings in combination with windsurf boards were tested in the 1980s by several designers. The most famous were Jim Drake, André Lefebvre, Roland Le Bail and Tom Magruder. But designs from Otto Jung, Oscar Duschek and George Hamann should be mentioned too. To be absolutely accurate, Magruder’s Wind weapon and Hamann’s Birdy Rigg had wings attached to a board, but similar principles assign it to “handheld” sails).

12/ Another (somewhat mysterious) Wing made by Andre Lefebvre. The Kailua beach, 1/1982.
Probably the 3rd prototype of Jim Drake´ s design.
Peter T. has commented this picture today: ” … that particular project did seem a bit off the wall. I understood the concept but I thought it would not be the next “thing“…

Meanwhile in France …

5 years later in the Columbia River Gorge, USA…

Let’s return to the Central Europe, where in the 1990s Bedřich Smetana designed his version of the WING, using materials available in our country (polyethylene foil for sail, duralumin pipes and a halved windsurfing boom).
We do not know how many times Bedřich’s wing has been assembled and used since then, but it is certain that it was tested on a mountainboard in the autumn of 2019.

In the photo Mr. Staněk demonstrates the correct grip of the wing:

After a long introduction we finally get to the test that Martin and I took in January this year. It didn’t turn out well because of low wind. The description of the WING and not very interesting conclusion follows…

Description: Wing, triangular handheld sail approx. 5.5 m2
Material: Stabil – polyethylene foil, 390 cm Alu mast, 290 cm Alu boom/handle
Weight: approx. 7kg
Design and production: Bedřich Smetana, Prague, Czech Republic, 1990s (?), prototype
Windsurfing museum test conditions: 29.1. 2021, downhill skis, 2 riders without any experience with modern Wings, wind 2-5 m/s, East Bohemia.
Conclusion and impressions: Assembling the structure in winter conditions is a bit complicated, but it is possible. The wing is relatively heavy, but it would be fun if the wind blew more. It would probably pull as well, althought this time it did not. But for sure we can say that this Thing has a potential.

Picture gallery:

The video of the wing test on the mountainboard (2019) proves that the wing has power ( when it blows and you hold it the way you should. *) The rider in the picture obviously holds it differently than Bedřich intended….

Reference list / Sources of the images and photos:
6/ The Toronto Star, 27.1. 2015 (sent by our collaborator Warren Toaze)
7/ The Richmond palladium, 1.1920
8, 9, 13, 14/
(Figaro magazine 6/1982 etc.)
10/ Wind Surf Journal 1. 1982 (Windsurfingmuseumprague Archive)
11a-b/ European patent office, patent Nr. EP0076954A1
11c/ (c) SURF magazine 1982/6, Dutch edition. Thanks for photo to our supporter Cor Benjamin.
12/ André Lefebvre´s facebook page
15/ US patent office, patent Nr. US4563969A
16a/ Tom Magruder and the Wind Weapon – printscreen from youtube
16b/ US patent office, patent Nr. US4682557A

Photographs of historic sails and wings published for educational and non-commercial use only. Our (other) photos published just for fun. We look forward to your comments at

Special thanks to Bedřich, Uli Stanciu, Peter Thommen, André Lefebvre, Cor Benjamin, Warren Toaze, Dimitris Savidis, Martin (wing demonstration), Petr, Bára, Zuzka.