Dom Zimmermann has just been elevated to Ozone’s head of design. After years working side-by-side with Ozone co-founder and legendary design chief, Rob Whittall, Zimmermann has assumed the mantle and now has the onerous responsibility for all the kites and wings in the ever-expanding range. The 41-year-old German splits his time between Switzerland and Mauritius, where consistent breezes, the big waves of Manawa and One Eye, and turquoise butter-flat lagoons provide ideal conditions to develop and fine-tune Ozone’s new offerings. The Indian Ocean island also affords Zimmermann the opportunity to switch-off by indulging his passion for nature. Its roads and hills make a perfect training ground for the endurance cycling races in which he loves to compete in Europe. Zimmerman took time out to speak to Ian MacKinnon, from Mauritius’ La Gaulette village, jumping off point for the fabled One Eye break.
Ian MacKinnon: How long have you been working for Ozone and how did it begin?
Dom Zimmermann: It started in 2005. I was the rep for Germany for five years when the brand was fairly new. By 2005 Ozone had got a bit of a range together. I started off with foil kites, back in the days of the Frenzy, a race kite for buggy racing, which was big in Germany. It was a handled race kite. I did competitions myself as a team rider for Ozone. I travelled around the shops in Germany, Holland, France and Belgium, which were big buggy racing nations. I was also helping Rob Whittall testing and trimming the big race kites. I took a break for three years and came back in 2013. Ozone started developing the Chrono [foil] kite. Because the market for recreational, handled foil kites plummeted, we needed to put our [foil] kite focus elsewhere. We already had tube kites giving us good base. But the Chrono was the top race foil kite and we wanted to be in that area. We released the Chrono in 2014. I got deeper and deeper into it working alongside Rob, as a test rider and designer. It evolved over about 10 years.
IM: When, and how did you become head of design?
DZ: Rob Whittall always had the goal that he didn’t want to be fully involved when he turned 50. It turns out that he was 52 before he felt fully confident to hand over the job to me recently. Now, he’s stepped back from day-to-day control, but he’s still around giving his ideas and experience. I’m working with Simon Burner and we come up with the designs on OzCAD [computerised design program]. Rob will look over those and give us his opinion, which is invaluable. But he doesn’t want to be part of the whole process with all the responsibility as head of design: the materials, the deadlines, release dates, and everything. He’s in New Zealand now and will come to Mauritius soon, but he’s just a bit more free.
We have so many kites in our range now; it’s massive. The R1 race kite alone, is a huge project. And there are three more foil kites, plus all the tube kites. It’s pretty hard work. You’re constantly working on three or four projects at the same time. It’s a lot of pressure. When one is done, there are still three or four more on your plate.
IM: How does the process of designing a new version of an existing kite, or a new kite, work?
DZ: With an existing product, once the kite is out in public, you get feedback and understand what the improvements should be. Often you know yourself. Usually it’s just that at some stage it has to be released. To be perfectly honest, it’s never perfect. It can always be better, but it’s the best compromise you’ve found to date. Then on the next version you’re refining those things you didn’t like, taking into account all the feedback.
For example, an interesting one for us was the Edge. For quite a few years it was seen as a race inflatable kite. With foil kites and the R1, they took over the whole race scene. So the Edge became less racy, more free-ride and user friendly, more of an all-rounder. But it’s the same as all kites, you want them to turn faster, jump higher, be lighter, and generally better.
IM: With the Edge V11 you moved in the direction of Big Air as that’s become a bigger part of the sport?
DZ: Sure, Big Air has gone through a boom in the last few years. The Edge was always a good boosting kite, but we didn’t really have a rider focusing on it. We always said we needed a really good rider to show what the Edge was capable of. We got Ruben Lenten on board a few years ago, but unfortunately he snapped his leg and couldn’t show it off. Now we have Jamie Overbeek in Holland, who’s doing a brilliant job demonstrating the Edge’s enormous potential. We’ve definitely gone more in that direction with the kite, developing its Big Air jumping and megaloop capabilities.
IM: What is the process of getting a kite from computer screen to the finished product for launch?
DZ: Depending on the project, we might take a current model and tweak the design on OzCAD and send it to Parapex [Ozone’s dedicated production facility] in Vietnam. There, we have a specialised prototyping department, a small team of five or 10 which is away from the main production line. It’s independent and can process our designs quickly, usually six or seven days. With three to five days shipping, we get it here in Mauritius. Then it’s a matter of getting some wind and testing it on the beach. We usually have two or three bridle layouts on new kites. Those can be trimmed and adjusted to change the attack of the kite and see the differences it makes. But sometimes after a full day of riding you find it’s not really working, and you go back to computer design and start the process again. For example, the Eduro, it’s our all-rounder. So it’s got to be tested and work in all conditions. We ride it with a twintip, a foil and then as a wave kite in the break to try to get a feeling for its versatility. It’s quite complex trying to do everything with one kite.
IM: Ozone has a rolling programme of launches, rather than releasing new models annually to drive sales. Is that the brand showing respect for loyal customers and waiting for you, the designers, to have something new to say?
DZ: That’s totally the way it is. A year’s cycle is really too short, with all the work you have to do: designing, testing, graphic design, sales team co-ordination. We just think a product deserves a much longer cycle: two, three, maybe even four years. It’s much easier for the shops. They don’t have to mark down prices to clear stock at the end of the year. Of course, we may do a bit of a colour refresh, but the design doesn’t change. For our small design team it allows us to be flexible. If it’s a good design and it’s selling well we can let it run for years. Equally, if we’re working on, say, the Eduro and find something we can incorporate into the Edge that makes it work a lot better, then we can do that. The exception is the Wasp wingfoil wing. We’ve been trying to push a release every year.
IM: The Wasp V3 has just been launched. What’s new there?
DZ: With the Wasp V3 we mainly focused on making improvements. We brought more sizes into the range, going from 2.3m to 5.7m in narrower steps. We changed the sail material to triple ripstop, which is less prone to stretching. We also stiffened the handles. They’re not rigid, but stiffer webbing handles. The surf handle in particular, is nice for riding the wave. This is definitely an all-round wing, easy for a beginners right up to experienced wingfoilers. It doesn’t do anything unexpected. It has a bit of flex, so if it’s loaded, it’s capable of breathing a bit. The whole wingfoil thing is developing so quickly we feel the need to adjust in the coming years, into a range of models, like kiting. Say, for someone who wants to jump, or cruise in light wind. I think in the coming years we envisage three models.
IM: Wingfoiling and its rapid progression is really exciting. How has Ozone’s journey in that area been?
DZ: I remember in 2018 seeing the first wing, from Naish I think, and we felt, ‘My God, that looks super-boring’. But we made a prototype wing. It was too small and we couldn’t really get going. In the end Rob Whittall and I were running along the lagoon towing Torrin Bright [Ozone product manager and tester] to get him up on the foil, and then he had enough apparent wind for the wing and foil to work. When he got back he just said: ‘Guys, this is amazing!” We made more prototype wings, and once we were able to go out to Manawa in the waves, I realised, “This is the future!” It’s fun doing something for the first time. People love to learn new things. It’s a simple set up and something you can do everywhere, where kiting may not be possible. I thought people might have been put off by the hassle of the foil, but not at all.
IM: To go back to kites, the Ozone R1 V4 kite is the category leader on the Formula Kite race track. It’s one of the kites registered for competition for the Paris 2024 Olympics’ cycle. How long did it take to come up with the V4 design and was there a lot of pressure because it cannot be changed until after this upcoming Games?
DZ: It took two or three years to get from the R1 V3 to the V4. But the biggest project was the R1 V2, which evolved into the V3 and the V4 with small refinements. On the V4 we reduced the number of bridle lines, increased the cell count, and fine-tuned the internal structure to squeeze every gram of performance out of the existing and well-received R1 project. We tried some higher performance things, but didn’t want to go too crazy. We wanted accessible performance. If you have very high performance, especially with a sharper profile, it becomes too demanding for the riders. In laboratory conditions you may have an advantage, but it’s quickly lost on the track. We always focused on testing in competition with [French riders] Nico Parlier and Axel Mazella. With a field of 50 or 100 riders, it can be very turbulent in the ‘wash’ from other kites, unless you’re out in front. We had some prototypes that looked more high performance with a sharper profile. Going upwind and downwind they were a little faster, but when conditions were more prickly or gusty, or it switched off by a just a knot, then the advantage was gone. We really tried to keep the V4 accessible with ease-of-use, that’s why it’s well received. The best can ride it well, but also novice racers.
IM: How do you leave it all behind and switch off?
DZ: I still do a lot of sport and a fair bit of paragliding, biking, road cycling, hiking, and trail running. Basically anything that gets me out in nature, which I love. As well as Mauritius, I base myself in Switzerland as much as I can to be outside, climbing mountains. That really helps me switch off and widens my horizons. The world’s small, but it’s very big. The air you breathe up there is fresher and cleaner.
IM: You get that from paragliding too, I guess? How long have you been flying?
DZ: I’ve been paragliding for about 10 years. It’s a very easy way to go flying. You just put a rucksack on your back and go. You don’t need anyone to help you. The canopy is really similar to race kites, so many of the kite racers have got into paragliding. They picked it up very quickly.
IM: You also like to do some long-distance road cycling? DZ: The last I did was in 2020, racing from Vienna to Nice, through all the Alps. It was 2,200kms, with 25,000 meters of elevation gain over six days. It’s unsupported, so you carry everything you need on your bike. There are just three turning points you have to round. It’s called bike packing racing, but you have minimal gear. There’s no tent and a camp fire in the evening. It’s just riding all the time, stopping for three or four hours a night in just a sleeping bag, covering 250kms to 400kms a day. It’s really rewarding, but you go through so many mental stages. One day you’re higher than you can get on any drugs, the next is worst than the worst hangover. It can all happen in minutes. Physically it’s OK, but mentally it’s tough. When you’re climbing up Mont Ventoux in 40C in July, constantly dripping with sweat, you’re asking yourself: ‘What am I doing here?’ But you just keep going, and it’s worth it in the end