If you’ve gone to any beach with a bit of surf this summer, you’ve probably seen a surfer or two rising out of the water and floating across waves. Foiling has exploded in NZ, but for those of us still yet to give it a go, Steve Dickinson provides us with a few tips to get started…

The America’s Cup yachts have brought foiling to a whole new level. Everyone now knows what a foil is, how they work and what they do. But foiling is not a new science – it had early and unusual beginnings. There is a degree of controversy over when the first boat foil was used, but it could date back to as early as 1906. However, foiling for surf/fun has its roots in 1963. The first hydrofoil “water-ski” was made by an American aeronautical engineer. The hydrofoil structure was attached to the bottom chair, and then on to a pair of fixed water skis. The rider was towed by boat, like a water skier, but he rose out of the water on the foil.

Roll forward forty years into the early 2000s and Laird Hamilton was first seen foiling on one of these chair designs foils off the north shore of Kaua’i. He had removed the chair, added a board, strapped on a pair of snowboard boots and was being towed around like a wakeboarder on a hydrofoil. It was clumsy, but it really was the beginning of surf foiling. It was in this period that Laird came to New Zealand and was secretly surfing around Raglan. This was the beginning of this new craze. Led by Lairds, a lot more of the cutting-edge big wave guys started using foils, the equipment and technology got better and the sport started to boom.

It was not long until riders on foils were towed into the massive waves at the outer reefs of Maui and Kaua’i. The big wave surfers found that by using the energy below the surface, they could let go of the line and ride any wave, even one as powerful as Jaws. They were the first to really find the power beneath the surface.
Enter Kai Lenny, the ultimate waterman. He is a SUP world champion, kiting world champion, windsurf world champion and big wave award winner. He is the Molokai to Oahu record holder, and the youngest invitee to the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Contest. When he was a kid, Kai received his first foil board – a modified air chair with snowboard boots attached, just like the like Laird’s. He picked it up quickly but because it required towing or large waves, he was limited by when and where he could ride. Surprisingly, the first wave he ever caught on a foil board was at Jaws (of which he is now the renowned master).

Kai soon began to explore new ways of “self-powered” foiling. He wanted to get ‘on foil’ using only his power. First, he attached a foil to a SUP board, paddled out, and then progressed to a short board while riding waves. Working with designers and builders, he helped create new wings and boards that were more efficient, allowing them to be ridden in waves with less energy.

Now go to any beach in New Zealand, wave or no waves, and people are foiling, whether that be windsurfing foils, kite foils, SUPs or wing foils, which have gone crazy over the last two years.

No matter what the craft, once a rider is foiling there is no wake or drag, which allows riders to travel at far greater speeds. For example, the current America’s Cup boats can go four times faster than the wind on low wind days. Last November, the NZ yacht was clocking over 120km – the pursuit boats cannot keep up!

Getting started

If you want to experience foiling for yourself, it is easy to learn but hard to master. It’s a very delicate sphere of balance and movement. Firstly, I would say get a lesson or two. But if you choose go ahead and buy a board and find a beach with some medium sized waves, stay away from any other surfers or swimmers. You can ride everything; it does not matter what the conditions are like. The best way to get started is to find a spot with small waves in the one-to-two-foot range where you have a bit of space to practice.

The goal is to paddle with the white water and then when you stand up, you will have all the power you need to ride the hydrofoil. But just try belly-boarding for a while before you jump up.

Using a jet ski or a boat to tow you will help you learn the basics and will make it easier to adapt to the board. Once up and riding behind a boat, you can drop the rope and simply ride the wake.

The Foil Board Setup

The place where you attach the foil to the board depends on your weight and height, and what you’re about to ride. If you are a small surfer and need extra lift, you are going to position the wing forward in the box. A larger rider should move it forward, too. Ideally, as with surfing, place the traction pads where your feet should be. They work as a guide to your stance.

The trick is to find the sweet spot, which generally translates into having your back foot near the back of the board and over the mast stem, or maybe a little bit behind it. If you want to start pumping or make a tight radius turn, you can always step back a little bit further, and be right on the kick tail pad. Aim for a shoulder-width stance with a lot of front foot pressure – the front foot is for balance and the back for turning. It sounds simple but it’s not!

The rest is trial and error, so get out there and start practising!