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Foilboards fun but not cheap

Proners vs. wingers

Former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Cameron Trickey with his e-Foil. Trickey recently eFoiled from Oceanside Harbor to Mission Bay to raise money for Special Olympians.
Former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Cameron Trickey with his e-Foil. Trickey recently eFoiled from Oceanside Harbor to Mission Bay to raise money for Special Olympians.

Like skateboarding, snowboarding, sailboarding, and kiteboarding before it, foilboarding sprouted from the promiscuous seed of surfing. While foilboards and surfboards appear similar if observed from the deck, their bottoms differ radically. Surfboards have fins. Foilboards, true to their name, have foils. And it is that foil that makes all the difference, lifting foilboarders over the water’s surface rather than leaving them to glide upon it.

King’s Paddle Sports Co-Owner, Dave Daum with one of his latest custom foilboards.

Legendary waterman Laird Hamilton is credited with inventing the foilboard about a quarter century ago. Because of his efforts since then, together with those of fellow Mauians Dave Kalama and Kai Lenny, foilboarding has become a legitimate sport. But in the beginning, it was a primitive thrill ride achieved by attaching snowboard boots to surfboards, which were themselves bolted to 35-pound metal foils. Some feared the thin metal bars might function as accidental guillotines. In Hamilton’s case, it nearly served as a deadly anchor. Perhaps this helps explain foilboarding’s failure to take off — if it’s dangerous for a pro, what chance does an amateur have? But since those barnstorming days, foilboards have become much lighter, safer, and higher-tech, so that now, there are maybe 10,000-15,000 foilboarders worldwide. That doesn’t really compare to surfing’s 20-35 million, but it’s something.

Foilboarding would almost certainly attract more participants were it not for its nearly vertical learning curve and the $3500 required for the basics. Another thing that holds the sport back, according to Hall of Fame skateboarder Henry Hester, is “not being able to mix and match equipment. That held snowboarding back for a while, too. It took off once snowboard binding mounts became universal, and all bindings fit all boards.”

Those stumbling blocks have helped dampen youthful enthusiasm, leaving it primarily to their parents, grandparents, and other old-timers. But what the young sport lacks in age diversification, it compensates for in having five sub-categories: winging, proning (wave riding), e-foiling, stand-up paddling, and downwinding. Here, we will consider the first three.

I spotted my first prone foilboarder about five years ago. (I won’t say exactly where, because I was surfing at the time, and surfers generally prefer to keep quiet about their favorite spots. Let’s say North County.) A proner drifted into the lineup. Like almost everyone who sees it for the first time, I wondered where the motor was. How else could that board keep moving? It turns out that pumping the board engages the foil, and so lift can be sustained indefinitely if there is a skilled operator at the controls.

After chipping into a wave so insignificant that even the fittest longboarder could not catch it, the proner rode to shore. That alone was impressive enough, but when the wave ended, his ride did not. After pulling out over the top of the wave, the proner pumped back into the lineup and began doing laps: catching waves, riding them, and pumping back out in an endless surf-stoked rotation. The hypnotic movement conjured up not a little jealousy within me — and, I assume, the other surfers, still waiting to catch their first wave of the day.

Generally, proners (foil boarders who ride waves) and wingers (foil boarders propelled by wind, waves, or both) are not hassled by surfers. At least not to the degree that kiteboarders and stand-up paddlers are. This may be because many surfers are, deep down, drawn to foilboarding. But, warns Hester, “There is no “ah-ha” moment” once you decide to try it. “It’s all baby steps. There is no verification; for me, it was nullification. You learn it slowly, in micro steps, and it can be very frustrating before it becomes fun.”

Dr. Steve’s latest King’s foilboard.

Hester should know: a master of surfing and skateboarding, he’s dallied with everything from surf matting to mountain biking, and he knows that sometimes, things end painfully. For instance, “the time I tried running slalom cones at La Costa’s Black Hill and ended elbow deep in asphalt.” Gliding above the water sounded like a more serene alterative. And yet.

If proners are the foilboard version of surfers, wingers are more closely related to sailboarders. A wing foil is a thick, short surfboard with a foil on the bottom that is propelled by a wing (sail). Imagine a small sailboard where you are the mast. Wingers differ from their other close cousins, kiteboarders, by their lack of a long line attached to a kite (wing). While winging is among the fastest-growing subspecies in foil sports, it requires something San Diego often lacks: wind. A winger needs wind like a surfer needs a swell. The local upside: because breezes generally hold off until mid-morning in San Diego, wingers can sleep in much later than their surfing compatriots.

That brings us to a recent blustery afternoon on Mission Bay. About 40 wingers have gathered in anticipation of winds gusting up to 14 knots, which is substantial for San Diego. Hester is here to learn winging, and it turns out he wasn’t kidding about the micro-steps on the road to mastery. He mentions that this is his eighth attempt, and that only today did he manage to get to his feet — and then, for only around ten seconds. Hester’s progress is typical; he may even be slightly ahead of schedule. The good news is that once he learns to stand, it’s a relatively short hop to spending countless blissful hours in an activity that, according to some, feels as good or better than surfing.

Having surfed for over half a century, I am accustomed to that good feeling, and also to having it interrupted by hostile tribes of locals on specific beaches. Wingers, by contrast, tend to welcome outsiders like me. The first ones I meet are Tim Alcacio and Ken Kimball, who introduce themselves and instruct me in the fine points of their favorite sport before offering to teach me the rough points, which means actually getting in the water and sucking mud for a few weeks. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to guard the waves, but I personally have not encountered such a welcoming vibe in surfing since, well, forever.

Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves on the bay today, even though most of the neophytes — the ones who can stand, anyway — do nothing fancier than taking long, straight passes across the water, an elementary move affectionately known as “mowing the lawn.” A few of the more skilled operators lay their boards on rail at high speed or huck big airs. Once airborne, the foil’s wing allows the winger to be suspended momentarily, like a predatory bird about to dive upon its prey, before dropping down again.

Perhaps the best winger in the group is Eli Kwitman. Kwitman, who grew up as a snowboarder in the Pacific Northwest, was never involved with surfing or wind-related sports. “When I first began winging two years ago, I thought the sport was impossible,” he recalls. “Even after realizing that I had the foil on backward, I spent the first two months dragged around on my knees.”  Now he floats over the bay at high speed and jumps up to three feet into the air. It’s enough to give a body hope.

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Australian-born Cameron Tricky has been foilboarding for about a year, and he tells a similar story. A former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Tricky possesses a knack for all things athletic, and became interested in foiling “after seeing my friends have fun in the ocean on even the smallest swells. But foiling was difficult to learn, frustrating, and challenging, especially after doing well in other sports. You would think that having surfed and paddled would be helpful, but foilboarding is a whole different balance game. There are many different things working, and you have this foil to contend with, something none of us have ever experienced. When you start, you might ride for 10 to 15 seconds and think you’re cruising along just fine when you’re suddenly down. Even when you think you’ve mastered it, the ocean throws you a curveball.”

Tricky rides an e-foil, which is powered by a battery-driven propeller. As with other sorts of foilboarding, the learning curve is one limit, “but price is the main factor. You will spend $8000+ for an e-foil. It might be better to buy it with a few people and spread the cost with some of your buddies. And because there are so many electronics on an e-foil, you’ve got to wash the entire system out with fresh water after each session. Occasionally, you’ll also need to spray everything with an anti-rust lubricant.”

Wingers on a relatively windy afternoon in Mission Bay.

One thing Tricky likes about the e-foil “is that you can power it or let it go on its own authority, like a hybrid car.” But either way, he doesn’t need much in the way of waves, which helps keep the surfers friendly. “Surfers needn’t worry that we will take their waves. We tend to stay away from them, and look for waves they’re not interested in. That’s one thing that’s unique and peaceful about this sport.” Another unique factor, though less peaceful: “I’ve had a few races with dolphins. I can get up to around 30 miles per hour, but dolphins always win.”

One of the North County design centers for water sports enthusiasts is Carlsbad-based King’s Paddle Sports. Owned and operated by Dave and Rhonda Daum, King’s recently expanded their business beyond custom stand-up and prone paddleboards to include foilboards. King’s does not manufacture the entire board, but Dave meticulously shapes each one for those connoisseurs desiring a custom ride. When I talk to them, Dave and Rhonda are joined by friend and internationally known foilboarder Dr. Steve. A pioneer of foilboarding blessed with an inventive mind, he regularly collaborates with the Daums on foilboard designs.

Dr. Steve: “I began foilboard surfing after seeing a video of the Hurley brothers years ago. I learned in the worst conditions, and getting up and going took a long time.”

Rhonda Daum: “Learning foiling is like riding a one-wheeled bicycle. You want to keep your upper body still and not lean too hard on your back foot. It’s different than surfing.”

D.S.: “I think it’s harder for those who have surfed a great deal to figure it out, as they rely on surfing muscle memory. I surfed for about 40 years before I started foiling, and when you have a surfing mindset, it isn’t easy to get out of that. Foiling differs from surfing in terms of balance, what kind of wave you want, and how you take off. Younger kids get it more quickly. They don’t have to unlearn all that.”

Dave Daum: “For me, foilboarding is less physically demanding than surfing once you figure it out. Most foilboarders are older, but the kids are unbelievable.”

D.S.: “When snowboarding was starting, there was an inhibition to do it because it wasn’t skiing. I see similarities with foilboarding, where people say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna kill yourself with that thing.’ But I’m a doctor, and I’ve done some research and found that foil surfing injuries and the injury rate are not much different than with surfing. Anytime you start a new sport, your injury rate is higher. Once you learn and you know how to fall, the injuries decrease.”

R.D.: “If you think like a surfer and attempt to correct your balance and get back on top of the board, you can fall on the foil.”

D.S.: “You do learn to correct, but you can’t correct the same as you would on a surfboard.”

D.D.: “One thing I like about foilboarding is that the speed is much greater. A wave may be moving three to five miles per hour, but we’re doing ten on a foil.”

R.D.: “It’s like pelicans zooming across the water.”

D.S.: “The increase in speed is because you have less resistance. Once the hydrofoil is above the water, the only resistance is the wing, versus a surfboard, where you always have five or six feet of board in the water, causing high resistance.”

After watching and talking with San Diego’s foilboarders, I find myself both tempted and apprehensive. This isn’t like learning to surf 60 years ago. It requires more than youthful exuberance, a beat-up plank, and a pair of trunks. But just when I have convinced myself that I am too old to try, I recall those wingers, rising from the water and floating over it like pelicans. I imagine the feeling, and find I think it’s worth any cost.

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Former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Cameron Trickey with his e-Foil. Trickey recently eFoiled from Oceanside Harbor to Mission Bay to raise money for Special Olympians.
Former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Cameron Trickey with his e-Foil. Trickey recently eFoiled from Oceanside Harbor to Mission Bay to raise money for Special Olympians.

Like skateboarding, snowboarding, sailboarding, and kiteboarding before it, foilboarding sprouted from the promiscuous seed of surfing. While foilboards and surfboards appear similar if observed from the deck, their bottoms differ radically. Surfboards have fins. Foilboards, true to their name, have foils. And it is that foil that makes all the difference, lifting foilboarders over the water’s surface rather than leaving them to glide upon it.

King’s Paddle Sports Co-Owner, Dave Daum with one of his latest custom foilboards.

Legendary waterman Laird Hamilton is credited with inventing the foilboard about a quarter century ago. Because of his efforts since then, together with those of fellow Mauians Dave Kalama and Kai Lenny, foilboarding has become a legitimate sport. But in the beginning, it was a primitive thrill ride achieved by attaching snowboard boots to surfboards, which were themselves bolted to 35-pound metal foils. Some feared the thin metal bars might function as accidental guillotines. In Hamilton’s case, it nearly served as a deadly anchor. Perhaps this helps explain foilboarding’s failure to take off — if it’s dangerous for a pro, what chance does an amateur have? But since those barnstorming days, foilboards have become much lighter, safer, and higher-tech, so that now, there are maybe 10,000-15,000 foilboarders worldwide. That doesn’t really compare to surfing’s 20-35 million, but it’s something.

Foilboarding would almost certainly attract more participants were it not for its nearly vertical learning curve and the $3500 required for the basics. Another thing that holds the sport back, according to Hall of Fame skateboarder Henry Hester, is “not being able to mix and match equipment. That held snowboarding back for a while, too. It took off once snowboard binding mounts became universal, and all bindings fit all boards.”

Those stumbling blocks have helped dampen youthful enthusiasm, leaving it primarily to their parents, grandparents, and other old-timers. But what the young sport lacks in age diversification, it compensates for in having five sub-categories: winging, proning (wave riding), e-foiling, stand-up paddling, and downwinding. Here, we will consider the first three.

I spotted my first prone foilboarder about five years ago. (I won’t say exactly where, because I was surfing at the time, and surfers generally prefer to keep quiet about their favorite spots. Let’s say North County.) A proner drifted into the lineup. Like almost everyone who sees it for the first time, I wondered where the motor was. How else could that board keep moving? It turns out that pumping the board engages the foil, and so lift can be sustained indefinitely if there is a skilled operator at the controls.

After chipping into a wave so insignificant that even the fittest longboarder could not catch it, the proner rode to shore. That alone was impressive enough, but when the wave ended, his ride did not. After pulling out over the top of the wave, the proner pumped back into the lineup and began doing laps: catching waves, riding them, and pumping back out in an endless surf-stoked rotation. The hypnotic movement conjured up not a little jealousy within me — and, I assume, the other surfers, still waiting to catch their first wave of the day.

Generally, proners (foil boarders who ride waves) and wingers (foil boarders propelled by wind, waves, or both) are not hassled by surfers. At least not to the degree that kiteboarders and stand-up paddlers are. This may be because many surfers are, deep down, drawn to foilboarding. But, warns Hester, “There is no “ah-ha” moment” once you decide to try it. “It’s all baby steps. There is no verification; for me, it was nullification. You learn it slowly, in micro steps, and it can be very frustrating before it becomes fun.”

Dr. Steve’s latest King’s foilboard.

Hester should know: a master of surfing and skateboarding, he’s dallied with everything from surf matting to mountain biking, and he knows that sometimes, things end painfully. For instance, “the time I tried running slalom cones at La Costa’s Black Hill and ended elbow deep in asphalt.” Gliding above the water sounded like a more serene alterative. And yet.

If proners are the foilboard version of surfers, wingers are more closely related to sailboarders. A wing foil is a thick, short surfboard with a foil on the bottom that is propelled by a wing (sail). Imagine a small sailboard where you are the mast. Wingers differ from their other close cousins, kiteboarders, by their lack of a long line attached to a kite (wing). While winging is among the fastest-growing subspecies in foil sports, it requires something San Diego often lacks: wind. A winger needs wind like a surfer needs a swell. The local upside: because breezes generally hold off until mid-morning in San Diego, wingers can sleep in much later than their surfing compatriots.

That brings us to a recent blustery afternoon on Mission Bay. About 40 wingers have gathered in anticipation of winds gusting up to 14 knots, which is substantial for San Diego. Hester is here to learn winging, and it turns out he wasn’t kidding about the micro-steps on the road to mastery. He mentions that this is his eighth attempt, and that only today did he manage to get to his feet — and then, for only around ten seconds. Hester’s progress is typical; he may even be slightly ahead of schedule. The good news is that once he learns to stand, it’s a relatively short hop to spending countless blissful hours in an activity that, according to some, feels as good or better than surfing.

Having surfed for over half a century, I am accustomed to that good feeling, and also to having it interrupted by hostile tribes of locals on specific beaches. Wingers, by contrast, tend to welcome outsiders like me. The first ones I meet are Tim Alcacio and Ken Kimball, who introduce themselves and instruct me in the fine points of their favorite sport before offering to teach me the rough points, which means actually getting in the water and sucking mud for a few weeks. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to guard the waves, but I personally have not encountered such a welcoming vibe in surfing since, well, forever.

Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves on the bay today, even though most of the neophytes — the ones who can stand, anyway — do nothing fancier than taking long, straight passes across the water, an elementary move affectionately known as “mowing the lawn.” A few of the more skilled operators lay their boards on rail at high speed or huck big airs. Once airborne, the foil’s wing allows the winger to be suspended momentarily, like a predatory bird about to dive upon its prey, before dropping down again.

Perhaps the best winger in the group is Eli Kwitman. Kwitman, who grew up as a snowboarder in the Pacific Northwest, was never involved with surfing or wind-related sports. “When I first began winging two years ago, I thought the sport was impossible,” he recalls. “Even after realizing that I had the foil on backward, I spent the first two months dragged around on my knees.”  Now he floats over the bay at high speed and jumps up to three feet into the air. It’s enough to give a body hope.

Sponsored
Sponsored

Australian-born Cameron Tricky has been foilboarding for about a year, and he tells a similar story. A former pro Australian Rules Footballer, Tricky possesses a knack for all things athletic, and became interested in foiling “after seeing my friends have fun in the ocean on even the smallest swells. But foiling was difficult to learn, frustrating, and challenging, especially after doing well in other sports. You would think that having surfed and paddled would be helpful, but foilboarding is a whole different balance game. There are many different things working, and you have this foil to contend with, something none of us have ever experienced. When you start, you might ride for 10 to 15 seconds and think you’re cruising along just fine when you’re suddenly down. Even when you think you’ve mastered it, the ocean throws you a curveball.”

Tricky rides an e-foil, which is powered by a battery-driven propeller. As with other sorts of foilboarding, the learning curve is one limit, “but price is the main factor. You will spend $8000+ for an e-foil. It might be better to buy it with a few people and spread the cost with some of your buddies. And because there are so many electronics on an e-foil, you’ve got to wash the entire system out with fresh water after each session. Occasionally, you’ll also need to spray everything with an anti-rust lubricant.”

Wingers on a relatively windy afternoon in Mission Bay.

One thing Tricky likes about the e-foil “is that you can power it or let it go on its own authority, like a hybrid car.” But either way, he doesn’t need much in the way of waves, which helps keep the surfers friendly. “Surfers needn’t worry that we will take their waves. We tend to stay away from them, and look for waves they’re not interested in. That’s one thing that’s unique and peaceful about this sport.” Another unique factor, though less peaceful: “I’ve had a few races with dolphins. I can get up to around 30 miles per hour, but dolphins always win.”

One of the North County design centers for water sports enthusiasts is Carlsbad-based King’s Paddle Sports. Owned and operated by Dave and Rhonda Daum, King’s recently expanded their business beyond custom stand-up and prone paddleboards to include foilboards. King’s does not manufacture the entire board, but Dave meticulously shapes each one for those connoisseurs desiring a custom ride. When I talk to them, Dave and Rhonda are joined by friend and internationally known foilboarder Dr. Steve. A pioneer of foilboarding blessed with an inventive mind, he regularly collaborates with the Daums on foilboard designs.

Dr. Steve: “I began foilboard surfing after seeing a video of the Hurley brothers years ago. I learned in the worst conditions, and getting up and going took a long time.”

Rhonda Daum: “Learning foiling is like riding a one-wheeled bicycle. You want to keep your upper body still and not lean too hard on your back foot. It’s different than surfing.”

D.S.: “I think it’s harder for those who have surfed a great deal to figure it out, as they rely on surfing muscle memory. I surfed for about 40 years before I started foiling, and when you have a surfing mindset, it isn’t easy to get out of that. Foiling differs from surfing in terms of balance, what kind of wave you want, and how you take off. Younger kids get it more quickly. They don’t have to unlearn all that.”

Dave Daum: “For me, foilboarding is less physically demanding than surfing once you figure it out. Most foilboarders are older, but the kids are unbelievable.”

D.S.: “When snowboarding was starting, there was an inhibition to do it because it wasn’t skiing. I see similarities with foilboarding, where people say, ‘Oh, you’re gonna kill yourself with that thing.’ But I’m a doctor, and I’ve done some research and found that foil surfing injuries and the injury rate are not much different than with surfing. Anytime you start a new sport, your injury rate is higher. Once you learn and you know how to fall, the injuries decrease.”

R.D.: “If you think like a surfer and attempt to correct your balance and get back on top of the board, you can fall on the foil.”

D.S.: “You do learn to correct, but you can’t correct the same as you would on a surfboard.”

D.D.: “One thing I like about foilboarding is that the speed is much greater. A wave may be moving three to five miles per hour, but we’re doing ten on a foil.”

R.D.: “It’s like pelicans zooming across the water.”

D.S.: “The increase in speed is because you have less resistance. Once the hydrofoil is above the water, the only resistance is the wing, versus a surfboard, where you always have five or six feet of board in the water, causing high resistance.”

After watching and talking with San Diego’s foilboarders, I find myself both tempted and apprehensive. This isn’t like learning to surf 60 years ago. It requires more than youthful exuberance, a beat-up plank, and a pair of trunks. But just when I have convinced myself that I am too old to try, I recall those wingers, rising from the water and floating over it like pelicans. I imagine the feeling, and find I think it’s worth any cost.

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