In April 2016, SUP magazine published Kai Lenny’s exclusive footage of the first-ever downwind SUP hydrofoiling. It was spectacular: Lenny gliding smooth and fast above rolling bumps, harnessing the force of the sea. It was supernatural and cutting edge, an avant-garde hybrid between our favorite pastime and levitation. At the time we weren’t exactly sure what we were looking at. But we knew it would be part of SUP’s future.
“It’s a foilboard -- sort of like you see in kiting and windsurfing, only designed for standup paddling,” Lenny filled us in later. “It’s like flying.”
The clip went viral and foils have since popped up in the water everywhere you look. What’s the deal?
A foil is, in essence, a miniature underwater airplane attached to a mast that’s connected to the bottom of a boat or board. It has a fuselage, two wings in front and a stabilizer in back that create lift and generate speed from the water’s potential energy. As wind carries an airplane into the air, swell carries a foil through water and, after a wave is caught, enables its rider to literally fly above the surface atop the mast and board.
As standup paddling was practiced for centuries in various forms before the reckoning of “S-U-P,” foiling was around long before this reincarnation.
The first foil was invented around the turn of the 20th century and developed over the decades as a means to efficiently speed up boats. Foil water-skiing followed in the ’60s and they eventually found board sports in kiting, windsurfing and tow-in surfing. Legendary Hawaiian watermen like Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and Rush Randle pioneered the foil in those sports as a niche wonder many admired but few would try. The foil’s popularity boomed in other sports as well; this year’s America’s Cup was the first to require all countries to compete on foil sailboats.
“Most of the engineering for SUP foiling comes from years using foils in kiting,” says Alex Aguera, GoFoil founder and innovator of the first downwind SUP foil. “When Kai asked if I could make him a downwind SUP foil, I played with a few designs. We turned a 12’6″ into a 10’4″ and put the foil on it. He took it out and within an hour he was flying along doing unimaginable things.”
Beyond the feeling of flying, the lure of foiling is two-fold: unprecedented speed and the ability to ride the formerly unrideable. With equal paddlers pitted against each other, a 7-foot foilboard will outpace a 17-foot unlimited downwind SUP in any form of windswell. Tiny waves and rolling swell can be foil-surfed with unmatched speed and performance.
“[Foiling] is sort of terra-forming the conditions to suit our needs,” Lenny says. “It’s a means to ride in a high-performance way on small waves that don’t usually allow you to do high-performance things.”
The feats SUP foiling achieved in its short history are astounding: This April (a year after he broke the mold), Lenny beat the time he set standup paddling from Molokai 2 Oahu by almost an hour on a SUP foilboard. Elite paddlers like Zane Schweitzer and Austin Kalama are regularly landing airs in 1-foot surf. And foil shapers like Aguera have evolved the technology by leaps and bounds; Lenny’s surfing foilboard is now a remarkable 3’8″.
“It will continue to progress, but the technology and the performance have already come a long way,” says Aguera.
The high-performance contraptions do pose safety concerns, however. Foils, particularly in any form of crowded water or when used by novice paddlers, can be hazardous.
“I’ve seen injuries from people falling off and hitting their heads and heard about surfers’ boards getting chopped in half by foils,” says Sean Poynter, pro SUP surfer and one of the purveyors of progressive SUP foiling. “The risks are there to match the reward of flying, but safety measures can mitigate the risk.”
Chief among those measures is foiling in areas that are clear of other people. And that’s not a big ask -- the beauty of foiling is its ability to go places where other people can’t.
“You can ride waves that no other craft can ride,” says Poynter. “It opens up doors to having fun in ways only foils can access. Riding them in uncrowded areas shouldn’t be an issue.”
While GoFoil was the first, manufacturers worldwide are now dishing out foils to eager paddlers who want to fly. Brands like Naish, Starboard and F-One have all come out with their own signature models. Many paddlers predict it will soon have its own class in the world’s top SUP races.
“I think eventually everyone will want one in their quiver because it lets you surf the unsurfable,” Lenny says. “It’s never going to replace traditional standup paddling, but it could be the new Formula One.”
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