From the time I first watched Kai Lenny floating above the waves crossing the Molokai Channel, I was completely mesmerized by foiling. Of course Kai Lenny does a lot of things that are mesmerizing, but not likely to be accomplished by mere mortals. I could barely paddle a SUP, so initially the possibility of floating on a foil above the water seemed completely out of reach.
In 2020 a good friend of mine bought a wing foiling package and said I was welcome to try it any time. For about a year I told him, “yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m super interested, I want to get into that someday”. After a year of claiming I wanted to try it, but not doing anything, he called my bluff and said come over and give it a shot. And so began another wind addiction. The first day I didn’t get too far. I held onto the wing and tried riding the board on my knees, but it was a pretty pathetic attempt. I then ditched the wing and tried to ride the foil board behind a boat. That didn’t go so well either, but gave me a good introduction to crashing, which would become the majority of what I did for the next 4 months.
The hook is set
That first experience was enough to set the hook, and I decided it was time to take the plunge. I managed to pick up a used board, front wing, and fuselage, and bought a new sail/wing, mast, tail wing, and helmet to complete the package. As it worked out, I had the inflatable sail/wing before I had the full board/foil package, so I purchased a deep center fin for our SUP and started trying to learn the wing by itself. I didn’t make any real progress with that setup, and eventually just went to flailing on the full foil board.
There is a very wide range of foiling gear from beginner to advanced. Ideally you want to start with a large board that is at least 30-40L greater than your weight in kilograms. Unfortunately the used board I purchased was only about 20L greater than my weight (a lot like starting on an intermediate to advanced surfski, I knew better). This meant I had positive flotation, but the board was still a bit small and challenging for me to balance on. I spent the first 3-4 sessions just trying to stand up on the board. Fortunately the same friend that called my bluff, generously loaned me his 135L board which helped tremendously. I then spent the next 10 sessions just trying to stand on the board and move, no where close to getting it up on foil.
The majority of wing foilers I’ve met were originally wind surfers, who became kiters, and are now taking up wing foiling. I on the other hand, had never sailed, paddle boarded, windsurfed, or kited. Needless to say, it was a lot to pull together.
As I continued to devour YouTube videos and dive into the world of foiling, one theme that stuck out, was that everyone was fanatical about progressing to downwind. This was a serious motivator for me, because I felt like once I figured out the wing and foil, my 15 years of learning to link runs would pay dividends.
Doing the work
Once you start standing on the board, the next challenge is to avoid getting pushed downwind and having to do the walk or paddle of shame back to where you started. Alternatively, if you go out in an onshore wind then the challenge becomes not getting pushed into the shallow water and running a ground with your 3+ foot of drag. It takes a combination of patience and determination to get through this period of all work and no play.
During the early days when I was not able to hold a position upwind, I thought it would help to setup a downwind. I soon learned that being able to ride the foil downwind with some level of control requires a lot of skill. On my first attempt, which was only planned to be a 3 mile downwind across the lake, I struggled most of the way on my knees and ended up on the water well after dark while my wife waited at the takeout with her headlight shining and more than a little concern. Despite that incident, I was still not clued into the fact that downwind was a bad idea for me, and on a warm and windy November day I attempted another downwind. A little way into this run I had a spectacular crash and the foil flipped up out of the water and caught the wing. It shredded a good portion of the wing. I limped into shore and called my wife to come get me.
Starting to Fly
After a few cold months wrestling the foil, board, and wing, and just before our inland lake froze, I started to get some 100 meter runs on the foil. The first couple of times that you lift off on foil you feel completely out of control and generally scared for your life. It is also positively euphoric and addicting. On my first real foil tack, I managed to super man off the front and break my leg leash. By the time I realized the leash had broken the board was 10 feet downwind from me and despite my desperate attempt to catch it, I could not. Thankfully I was dressed warm and only had to swim/body drag with the wing a couple hundred meters to shore. I managed to retrieve the board and although it was dark at this point, I got home before my wife realized I was delayed. I’ve only had one incident of breaking a surfski leash and losing the boat, but this was in the surf zone so there was no need to swim for the boat. This experience was enough to give me a sense of how gut wrenching it would be to lose contact with a surfski offshore. Not something I ever want to experience.
The inland lake by my house froze in early January, and I had enough sense to know I wasn’t ready for Lake Michigan, so I put away the foil until early April when the ice melted. Much to my relief, I picked up where I left off in the spring and by early summer I could mostly stay up on the foil riding across the wind. This is fun, but still results in a crash every time you want to change direction. The next major milestone is learning to to a jibe (180 degree turn) while staying up on the foil. My goal was to master this by my one year anniversary of foiling. I can’t say I mastered it, but at the one year mark I was starting to get most of my jibes, especially when the water was flat.
A wind sports paradise
In early December I had a chance to spend four full days on the water in La Ventana on the Baja Peninsula. With steady side shore winds all afternoon at 16-20 kts, it was a wind sports paradise. I was able to make a lot of progress and started to get a feel for riding downwind on the bumps. On the last day I rented a surfski and alternated between paddling and winging sessions all day. It was really cool to see and ride the bumps from those two different perspectives. The grand finale of the trip was a short downwind at sunset on the surfski, when the wind had faded, but the swell was still rolling.
Contemplating the plunge?
I know a lot of surfski addicts are contemplating the wing foil plunge. It’s true that there is only so much time in the day and adding another addiction may simply be too much. But if you are contemplating it, below are a few of my findings on how the two sports can co-exist with each other.
- The hardest days are when you have to choose one or the other. I’m very lucky to live 2 minutes from the water, so on many of these days I’ll sneak out at lunch for a quick wing session then after work for a surfski session. On weekends, I try to do both
- There are days when the wind direction doesn’t work for surfski on Lake Michigan, but it does for Wing foiling on an inland lake.
- There are days when the wind / water / air temp are beyond my safety threshold for surfski, but I can still have fun with the wing on an inland lake.
- There are many days when the wind is not strong enough to wing, but the waves are still quite nice for surfing the bumps on a surfski.
With winging you spend a lot of time in the water. I’ve gotten a much better sense of what it takes to be dressed for immersion. Specifically I’ve realized that while the farmer john setup is great for paddling, it doesn’t do well with extended immersion. You loose a lot of heat through the armpits.
When riding the foil, you are 10 feet above the water. This provides a different view of the bumps than you get from the surfski. I’m hopeful that over time, that different perspective will improve my ability to read bumps in the ski. I’m also holding out hope that as I progress in foil downwind, my time in the ski will pay dividends.
I have no plans to back off on the surfski, and in fact, I’m planning to take a shot at reaching new levels of paddling fitness this coming season. That said, introducing wing foiling and getting back on a steep learning curve has been incredibly fun and rewarding. Similar to paddling, wing foiling is relatively easy on the body, and something I expect to enjoy well into my 70s. If you have the time and interest, you won’t regret adding this cool new sport to your repertoire!