The foil revolution as surfers riding high
Story by Beau Flemister. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

Ask any foilboarder to articulate the sensation of “foiling,” the newest genre of wave riding to sweep Hawai‘i’s waters, and chances are you’ll get a different answer from each one. But maybe that’s because the feeling of riding swells on a board that hovers above the water, lifted by a wing-like foil below the surface, is just something … else.

As it happens, I’m about to experience that something else for myself, as I head out to Kahana bay on O‘ahu’s lush northeast coast with a surfing buddy named Scotty. Like an increasing number of traditional surfers, he’s crossed over into the foil realm and isn’t looking back. Buzzing with excitement, he attempts to give me a point of reference.

“Have you ever snowboarded deep powder before?” he asks. I shake my head. “OK, well have you ever slack-lined?” No again. “Dirt-biked?” I tell him I’ve operated a Vespa and he says, “So, foiling is like dropping into Waimea bay … on a Vespa.” I’m not really sure what he means by this, but I go with it.

This is another common thing I discover about foilers: bizarre hyperbole. Scotty refers to our lesson as my “journey,” his eyes alight beneath a floppy felt hat that complements his Merlinesque beard resting over an ancient Motōrhead tee. I can’t help noticing that his toenails are painted black.

Foilboarding, or foiling, is the newest variety of wave riding to take off in Hawai‘i’s waters. Wing-like hydrofoils lift surfboard and rider off the surface of the water and into a smoother, faster ride.

When we come around the corner into Kahana bay and Scotty spots the tiny, weak surf rolling in, he gasps, “Oh my gawd, it’s perfect out there!” And nearly veers into an ironwood tree. “The foil does a really good job at catching nothing,” he explains, sensing my confusion. As he pulls into the boat ramp parking lot, we can indeed see foilers zipping about the bay, levitating over the surface and accelerating inexplicably on the small, rolling lines.

The crew in the parking lot greets Scotty as—whaddaya know—“The Wizard.” One of them hands me a board and accompanying hydrofoil, and Scotty hurriedly screws the setup together. I barely have my boardshorts tied on and can’t quite figure out how to hold the awkward craft when I rush down the boat ramp to follow The Wizard’s lead.

The dynamics behind a hydrofoil are basically the same as those of an airplane; it’s just that the physics happen underwater instead of in the sky. The foil’s front and rear wings (connected by a tube literally called the fuselage) create lift, much like a plane’s wings. As the board above gains momentum with a swell, the foil lifts it off the water, decreasing drag and allowing greater speed. By pumping the board up and down, riders can even generate enough momentum to remain hovering above the water as they cruise out to the lineup to catch another swell line.

While foiling is generally done on smaller waves, there’s something that attracts renowned big-wave chargers like the North Shore’s Kohl Christensen. “There’s a weightless feeling to foiling that is terribly addictive,” Christensen says.

The first prototype of a hydrofoil was designed about 120 years ago to lift a boat out of the water while in motion, reducing hull drag. After early development by inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, foils were incorporated into record-setting speedboats in the early 1900s and later used on passenger and military craft. It wasn’t until about twenty-five years ago, however, that members of Maui’s “Strapped Crew” of extreme tow-in surfers started attaching hydrofoils to surfboards and using them to ride big ocean swells. Getting the idea from an invention for waterskiing called the “Air Chair” (a hydrofoil mounted beneath a small chair with a seatbelt, towed behind a boat), they modified it so they could stand upright.

Soon the Crew—Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Mark Angulo, Pete Cabrinha, Darrick Doerner, Brett Lickle, Rush Randle and Mike Waltze—began towing each other into bigger and bigger waves, quickly realizing that the foil allowed them to slice through surface chop far more easily than a normal surfboard. “For me, foiling is surfing’s next evolution, it’s the apex,” says Hamilton, the Strapped Crew’s literal fearless leader. “And if you want to evolve, you’ve got to fly.”

But make no mistake: Foiling is not without serious dangers. Beginning foilers commonly roll the board over and risk getting hit by the foil, not to mention the danger of being cracked by someone else’s rig. Grievous injuries have occurred, usually through impact with the bladelike “mast” that connects the foil to the board. I nearly bludgeoned my hip just carrying the setup to the beach.

Though hydrofoils were first developed more than a century ago to lift speedboat hulls out of the water and reduce their drag, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Maui’s famed “Strapped Crew” of big-wave tow-in surfers began experimenting with riding swells on them.

For a time, foiling remained a novelty practiced by an elite few until its popularity caught fire with the global kitesurfing community. Kiters the world over began to mount foils under their boards. Alex Aguera, a professional kiter and designer for popular manufacturer GoFoil on Maui, is credited with developing the modern foil profile, which is still the standard.

Then just a few years ago another Maui boy, superhuman wind-, kite-, stand-up and big-wave surfer Kai Lenny, unleashed the foil’s true potential by riding them mounted to smaller boards that can be paddled into waves. And thus began the foiling craze of today.

Kai being Kai, he didn’t stop there. Riding a stand up paddle (SUP) foil, he’s recently slashed as much as an hour off cross-channel race times between islands, essentially connecting ocean swells to hover continuously the whole way without getting his toes wet. How does he do it? “There’s no drag,” he explains. “It’s pure speed, no resistance. And we’re still just scratching the surface; it’s evolving so fast that by this time next year what we’re on now might be considered terrible.”

Paddling the short, thick board behind my spirit guide Scotty toward the middle of the bay, I watch a few of the more adept riders stroke into the small swells. They lean forward and suddenly levitate off the water, accelerating freakishly as they glide above the surface of the bay at speeds doubling, if not tripling, those of a normal surfboard. Like seabirds flying low over the surface, they cast silent shadows, their dark twins following every maneuver. Some, like Aaron Eveland—considered one of the best foilers on the island—pump seamlessly out of one swell into another continuously, a maneuver known as “connecting the dots,” which isn’t possible for regular surfers.

Keeping a safe distance from the pack—proper foiling etiquette for every beginner—I wait for a swell. When one comes my way, I paddle furiously, stand up, mistakenly lean on my back foot and pop up out of the water awkwardly on the foil. Moving too slowly to maintain balance, I fall, nearly toppling onto the foil, which suddenly rolls upside down. Even having surfed my whole life, this is definitely a different and difficult beast.

After a few more similarly unsuccessful tries, I watch somewhat enviously as Scotty floats serenely across a cosmic plane, soaring over to help me. He coaches me to lean forward more. Another wave comes through and I heed his advice, lifting up with the swell’s forward momentum and finding my balance, toes gripping the deck of the board for dear life. And yet I continue to hover, floating down the line, feeling the odd, cushion-like stability of the foil’s wings somewhere beneath me. A feeling like, dare I say it—flight?

“You’re flying, simple as that,” says Dave Kalama, one of the original developers of the modern foil during the ’90s as a member of the Strapped Crew. “Maybe you’re not flying high—more like two or three feet above the water—but that doesn’t negate that sensation of flight. There’s a sense foiling gives you of defying the laws of gravity, of freedom and speed, that is so attractive.”

“Foiling feels like floating on a cloud,” says Lenny. “You don’t feel the chop; everything is quiet and smooth. It feels otherworldly, sci-fi, and it kind of defies your imagination because you can’t really see what’s lifting you out of the water. I think it’s the closest thing to feeling like a bird that you could possibly do for the price.”

Not that the price is anything to scoff at. An entire prone foil board setup might run you around $2,400 out of the shop. That’s three or four times more expensive than an average new surfboard. On the other hand, it’s considerably cheaper than a pilot’s license, and foiling equipment prices are said to be leveling off somewhat as the sport booms in popularity.

Building off the kite foil craze over the last decade, paddle foiling setups, most of them constructed out of carbon fiber composites, are being produced by a host of brands, notably Lift Foils, GoFoil, Cloud 9, The Hydrofoil Company, Naish and many more. Increasingly, local surfboard shapers are starting to craft the actual foilboards, too, like the North Shore’s John Amundson of Amundson Customs, one of Hawai‘i’s leading foilboard makers. Even shapers like Jon Pyzel, the man who makes two-time surfing world champion John John Florence’s board quiver, now shapes foil-boards under his label.

By pumping up and down, expert riders like Chris Johnson and Aaron Eveland can remain hovering above the water as they cruise out to catch another swell line, a maneuver known as “connecting the dots,” which isn’t possible for regular surfers.

I try for a few more waves—on some unable to even achieve liftoff; on a couple of others floating down the line precariously, leaning into a turn and feeling the foil gather speed. “The thing about a foil is that, unlike a surfboard where you might lose speed when you turn because of the drag, a foil accelerates on turns,” says Brett Lickle, another original Strapped Crew member. “Not only can you catch swells, but also rip currents that you can’t see—really any energy or vibration in the water. They’re so dynamic.”

Eventually, I paddle back in to the boat ramp, still unsure how to carry the board correctly beneath my arm—perhaps the most humbling experience of the day. But when I look around, I notice that the parking lot is abuzz. Several pro surfers on the world tour have come to test the foiling waters, and all around the lot clumps of foiling enthusiasts are checking out each other’s equipment.

This is something relatively unusual in the surf world, which generally has a well-deserved reputation for exclusivity and territorialism. (Hence the bumper stickers that read, “If you don’t surf, don’t start.”) In contrast, foiling seems refreshingly convivial. Because this genre of wave riding is so young, there’s an air of camaraderie and experimentation. To a soundtrack of stoke-fueled hoots and hollers emanating from the bay, I watch as this tight-knit community loiters around the lot tinkering with each other’s setups, talking shop, pantomiming their most memorable rides and generally humming with the newness of it all.

“Surfing lineups around the world are getting more and more crowded every day,” says Lenny, “but with foiling you can always go somewhere and be alone with your friends. You’re often by yourself, since you’re riding waves that a lot of surfers might not look at.”

As we pull away from the beach, various members of the tribe bid The Wizard adieu with loose shakas. On the way home, Scotty and I debrief, continuing the word search to describe the sensation I had felt on the bay. He goes for a tech approach, saying, “It’s like regular surfing is XY, but foiling is XYZ. There’s another component that you’re using, opening up extra RAM in your brain’s hard drive.”

For myself, maybe I’ve earned a little cosmic foiler-speak. From now on, if anyone asks me what foiling is like, I too will reply cryptically, “Have you ever been skydiving … on a Vespa?” HH