Foils: The Future or Just a Fad?
This story was originally published in our Volume 10, Number 4 (Winter 2013-2014) issue. Now available online for free. Written by Brendan Richards.
At first glance the resurgence in foilboards might seem like just another kiting fad dusted off and rehashed by the current generation of riders. Judging from recent events in the broader world of sailing, foils are much more than just a fad after the USA Oracle team pulled off the greatest comeback ever seen in windsports while flying their carbon fiber catamaran above the water on state-of-the-art hydrofoils at wild speeds to clench the America’s Cup victory. However, this foil technology is not limited to multimillion-dollar boats.
Kiteboard foil design has itself undergone a major boom in development. Kiteboarder Bryan Lake drag raced the Oracle team on a custom foilboard built by Taaroa, a small foil builder from southern France. A month later Johnny Heineken, a multi-time world champion course racer, demonstrated flawless full-foiling duck tacks in a YouTube video that racked up 53,000 views in just under a month. That viral reach illustrates how the progression in foiling is turning heads. As the world’s top racing athletes and new manufacturers embrace the speed and intensity offered by foilboards it is clear that these long-shafted underwater wings will play a major role in the imminent future of racing while begging the broader question of whether foilboarding will be embraced by the general kiting population this time around.
Mango Carafino, a prominent kite foiling pioneer, was living in Hawaii when he witnessed Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama riding massive unbroken swell with a foil on obscure outer reefs. Impressed by the foil’s ability to float over rough ocean waves with silent finesse, Carafino immediately borrowed the aluminum foil from an Air Chair, the only commercial application at the time. He bolted it to a Naish mutant kiteboard, added rigid snowboard boots, and began experimenting with the pull of kites. Carafino’s greatest contribution to kite foiling was when he discovered that the board could be ridden without the large bulky boots. For Carafino, being able to control a foil with straps was like “finding water on the moon.” With his innovative carbon fiber construction Carafino was poised to profit as the popularity of kite foilboarding exploded, except interest in foilboards simmered as Carafino remained the biggest cheerleader turned manufacturer of a seemingly niche and fringe form of kiting. In retrospect Carafino admits, “I never set my sights on designing a foil that would go fast because at the early stages of engineering I was just trying to create a complex product with tiny tolerances that was enjoyable.”
Despite Carafino’s focus on creating user-friendly foils, the widespread popularity of foilboards never took off. While foiling seemed poised to earn a small yet novel footnote in kiting history, the discipline of competitive course racing flourished with dedicated athletes, sponsorships, and races staged all around the world. Although course racing directed most of its technological development towards refinement of a wide-body directional board with long vertical fins, racing’s obsession with speed encouraged small custom foil shops in Europe to build upon Carafino’s early achievements with the intent of pushing the envelope of speed and control.
When it comes to kite racing, San Francisco has one of the world’s largest concentrations of professional athletes. The first San Francisco course racer to embrace modern foils was Bryan Lake in June of last year. Lake remembered seeing long-time Bay Area kiter Chip Wasson competing with early aluminum and carbon fiber foils back in 2005. “They were only competitive in lighter conditions, and even then only on the upwind leg,” said Lake. “Early in 2013 I noticed that French manufacturers were building foilboards that were faster around the entire race course.” Leading custom foil builders such as Taaroa had developed much lighter foils with thinner high-aspect wings to increase the foil’s overall speed and handling. Since 2009 France has been the epicenter of foil development and foilboard racing. It was photos of 100-plus French foilers on a starting line that inspired the San Francisco foiling scene.
These two worlds were vaguely connected by emails and YouTube videos until October of 2013 when the St. Francis Yacht Club conjured up the California State Foilboarding Championships to capitalize on foiling’s sudden popularity among San Francisco racers. Johnny Heineken and Bryan Lake took first and second on their Taaroa foils. “It was clear that it was board handling that made the difference,” said Heineken. “Although the French racers were fast, they don’t do as much course racing as us. They stage long distance reaching type races with a focus on all-out speed. We are focused on shorter course buoy racing with a lot of tacking. If you keep your foilboard floating through a tack, you can gain ten yards over those who can’t and it allows you to actively engage in course tactics.”
The California State Championships demonstrated that foiling already has it’s divisions between foiling for speed and tactical course racing as well as separate entry-level foils designed for freeriding. Companies like Taaroa are coming out with higher-aspect foils which require greater speed to lift the board off the water but are capable of achieving impressive overall speeds with greater control. Damien LeRoy has been spending a lot of time on foils lately and said, “This is just the beginning. There are many variations in foil shape and wing placement depending on the theories of the designer and the needs of the rider.” Most manufacturers offer two or three different wings depending on whether the foil is intended for user-friendly cruising, course racing, or speed. Evan Mavridoglou, North American distributor for Taaroa, said, “Most people are interested in the beginner foils, but they quickly realize that they can’t keep them under control at higher speeds. After two or three months people are selling their older foils and looking for something with higher performance.”
Perhaps a sign of foiling’s newly-earned legitimacy in kiting, for the first time major kite brands like F-One are showing an interest in manufacturing foils. With a naval architect on their R&D team, F-One head designer Raphael Salles has been experimenting with various technologies at different factories, focusing largely on new production techniques for the vertical mast that is crucial for harnessing the foil’s power. Salles said, “The difference between custom and production foils may be how much a larger company can invest into molds. High technology leads to higher prices, which is another challenge, but if we do our best to keep the retail price reasonable there’s the possibility that it might become a fair part of the sport.” Other traditional kiteboarding companies such as Gaastra, Airush, and Axis intend to offer production foils as well. Gaastra is paying special attention to board development. “Although the shape of the board initially did not seem to be an issue, there is a big difference in how the shape, particularly the width, can help you control the foil,” said Gaastra’s Nils Stolzlechner.
France may be the hotbed of current foil development, but on the isolated beaches of Central California kitesurfing pioneer Peter Trow has been experimenting with foilboards since 2001 when he shipped an aluminum Rush foil home after a trip to Hawaii. Originally intended for towing into massive winter swells, Trow used his kite to master foiling during the flat summer months. Trow prefers the lower aspect foils on his Lift foilboard. “I can get a bit more range to ride waves and it’s nice to be able to slow down and speed up as needed,” he said. For Trow the decision between his foilboard or surfboard depends largely on the conditions. “If the surf is good and the wind is light I may go foiling, but once the wind and waves come on strong I switch back to regular kitesurfing,” Trow explained. Trow raved about the feeling of dropping in on a wave, particularly the acceleration that happens immediately as you catch it.
Trow thinks the wave riding side of foiling will remain a niche part of the sport. “The light wind ability to ride a foilboard with a 10m kite in 12 knots of wind will help it really take off in light wind areas,” he said. Foiling in flat water is not without its hazards, but foiling in the waves offers even more danger. Trow reminisced about a recent crash when he said, “The kite hit the water and the next wave sent the board straight for me like an underwater ax. I did everything I could to avoid getting hit. It barely missed me, but the foil nailed the kite and ripped it in half.” When Trow was asked if a surf lineup filled with foilboards could cause issues, he answered, “Yes, we should all be very scared if that ever happens.”
It’s obvious the current breakthroughs in foilboard technology are best suited for speed and competition with the general consensus being that foiling is the future of racing. The choice between riding a course board or a foilboard is already clear for many of the top course racers. Bryan Lake prefers his foilboard when he is racing in rough water and said, “The foil floats above the chop and the energy transfer between kite and foil is much more direct. My bar and lines are completely locked in and smooth with all my leverage and energy going directly into speed.” Most of the San Francisco racers spent the summer training on foilboards and participating in open events like the Bridge to Bridge and Thursday night races at St. Francis, yet the Course Racing World Championships just happened in November in China. This forced professional racers like Heineken and Lake to put away their foils and begin training on course boards. “It wasn’t like we forgot how to ride a course board,” said Heineken, “but we just needed to get back into the mode, log some serious hours, and focus on getting every half a percent of speed out of our equipment. The course board isn’t going to disappear anytime soon because if I want the challenge of a large and highly competitive fleet with the most talented sailors and intense tactical racing, course boards are the best option. For those drawn to the innovation and thrill of the fast paced-progression of foilboarding, there will be plenty of venues as well.”
There’s no question the current explosion in popularity of foilboards is due to the recent innovations in speed and handling which have found a perfect niche in various disciplines of racing. However, it remains to be seen if the latest incarnation of foilboarding has any long-term staying power in the broader kiteboarding market. The overall consensus is that foil development is still in its infancy. While the gear continues to be refined for racing, the promise of more affordable production foils and the allure of silently and smoothly floating above the water in the lightest winds suggest foiling might be a compelling purchase for many enthusiasts. The big deterrents for the average kiter remain the current high cost, waiting lists to purchase foils, and the awkward and humbling learning process. However, the ability to shrink one’s kite quiver while eliminating the cost of a monster-sized kite may prove irresistible. If not, there’s always the priceless experience of hovering across the water in 10 knots of wind as your non-foiling friends watch with envy from the beach.
Click here to watch the popular video of Johnny Heineken tacking his foilboard or scan the following code.