The first time I saw a photo of a hand-held kite wing was on a magazine cutout pinned to the wall of a dusty sail loft on the west side of Santa Cruz. It was in the early 2000s and well into the days of my full-blown kitesurfing obsession. The wall of faded magazine clippings represented the crazier artifacts of windsurfing, the most memorable being two rigid spar contraptions going by the names Wind Weapon and Kitewing, both images clearly dated by the sun-bleached magazine ink and the users’ neon outfits.
In an era dominated by windsurfing, these seemingly outlandish wing concepts never took off. Yet, in stark contrast, kitesurfing in its most rudimentary form amassed converts and eventually surpassed windsurfing with its new recruits, mostly due to its larger range, simple inflate and rig setup and quick learning curve. Fast forward 20 years of kitesurfing dominance and we’re now watching the handheld wings reappear on the verge of a renaissance. Almost every kitesurfing brand is racing to shove a version of the fledgling product out the door this summer or for their 2020 collections, yet a large portion of the kiteboarding user-base are scratching their heads—asking the question—how could this possibly be an improvement on kitesurfing?
If windsurfing is a sail that is fastened to the board and a kite is a sail that uses lines and a control bar to fly a canopy remotely in the sky, then the hand-held kite wing is a hybrid apparatus occupying the space somewhere in between. It’s free-floating and detached from the board like a kite, but it’s controlled by the user’s hands on a boom, much like windsurfing. Of course, the first versions of hand-held wings probably go back to early human attempts at aviation, but the most immediate ancestor was developed by Tom Magruder in the Columbia River Gorge in the mid-1980s. Called the Wind Weapon, it was a dihedral wing constructed of windsurfing materials with a long, vertical pole that attached the wing to a windsurfing board. It was a niche product that looked like windsurfing until you jumped in the air and hung from the symmetrical wing. When you look at the early footage, the awkward handling and technical skills did not outweigh the big air performance that pro-caliber windsurfers could already obtain with conventional rigs. The other early hand-held device was the Kitewing which used a completely hand-held windsurfing spar-based construction and found its application in skiing, mountainboarding and ice skating. While both were niche wing products, neither the Wind Weapon nor the Kitewing ever found mainstream acceptance outside of small groups.
“If windsurfing is a sail that is fastened to the board and a kite is a sail that uses lines and a control bar to fly a canopy remotely in the sky, then the hand-held kite wing is a hybrid apparatus occupying the space somewhere in between.”
The inflatable hand-held wing made its earliest appearances in the kiteboarding industry in 2011 when Slingshot’s co-founder and designer Tony Legosz built a hand-held wing using an inflatable kite structure, comprised of an inflated leading edge and inflated boom with webbing loops. Slingshot called it the Slingwing and in that same year, posted a photo of Tony using the wing while riding a 6’0” surfboard in the Columbia River Gorge. The wing concept made another appearance on Legosz’ Instagram feed in 2015, this time flying it with a foilboard beneath his feet, just as foil technology was on the verge of going mainstream within kiteboarding. However, despite these internal efforts, no product was launched.
While shooting product interviews during the 2018 AWSI event in Hood River, Duotone’s Sky Solbach showed me a private video on his phone of him riding a foil SUP in Maui while holding a hand-held wing. The action looked clunky but Sky seemed to be open-minded about the product that his R&D partner Ken Winner had been working on. According to Sky, Ken had been toying with versions of hand-held wings for regular SUPs as far back as 2011, an activity he enjoyed with his wife. By Ken’s account, the rudimentary wings didn’t work and he identified the board’s drag as the culprit that has doomed all hand-held wings on the water to date. In May of 2018, a video of Flash Austin ripping around Kanaha on a homemade sail batten and ripstop hand-held wing with a SUP foilboard grabbed the attention of the industry. “Flash made it look like fun and had the obvious benefit that all the other hand-held water wings never had: a hydrofoil.” In Ken’s opinion, drag, the downfall of all hand-held water wings, had been “slain,” and Flash Austin was the superhero that reignited interest in the concept. If hand-held wings are low hanging fruit, they just needed the frictionless carving potential of low-aspect surf foils to showcase their potential.
“Flash made it look like fun and had the obvious benefit that all the other hand-held water wings never had: a hydrofoil.”
When photos of a Duotone-branded inflatable wing surfaced on Facebook in the spring of 2019, the social media conversations and kiteforum.com discussion threads began heated debates about the purpose, utility and reach of the new equipment. With the veil on the Duotone product lifted, a number of other brands began releasing info on their previously under wraps inflatable wing campaigns. Slingshot had their version, Naish had a fully branded product almost ready to go, and F-One and Ozone each had non-logo’d prototypes in the works. The early videos of Sky, Robby Naish and Slingshot riders featured larger volume foilboards ranging from 90-110 liters with sufficient float to allow awkward waterstarts from the riders’ knees. Amidst the forum frenzy, windsports product guru Robby Naish released a prescient info video that addressed all the head-scratching questions, from basic waterstart technique to sizing.
The pessimist will view the industry’s race into wing foiling as ‘monkey see monkey do’, yet the optimist might view the innovators at these companies as watermen in the pursuit of fun, no matter the form. It’s quite easy to call it a fad, much like the Wind Weapon, but the true measure of these inflatable wings will be if the equipment solves problems and allows performance that neither a kite nor windsurfer can offer foilboarding.
According to Sky Solbach, he sees the wing as a foilsurfing accessory. One of the biggest problems with foilsurfing waves with a kite is line tension. Unless you have the perfect wind direction and wind speed, you often end up outrunning your kite. When kitefoiling in waves, you don’t always surf the wave the way you want—you choose the line your kite allows. Since the hand-held wing eliminates lines and allows you to flag out the wing, you can foilsurf at whatever angle you want. Unlike kites, the kite wing is a truly on-demand power source that provides pull when you want it and neutral buoyancy when you don’t.
“Unlike kites, the kite wing is a truly on-demand power source that provides pull when you want it and neutral buoyancy when you don’t.“
If you don’t foilboard, or more particularly foilsurf, there’s a chance you might not understand the application of these inflatable wings. Freeride and speed foilboarders that focus on straight lines and fast speeds likely won’t see the value in this product either. The hand-held wing is rather a product for foilboarders that seek the feeling of carving—the search for harnessing the energy of waves in the water. It’s the hunt for wave energy and constant direction changes where the hand-held wing really proves its worth. Sky is quick to point out that on a good day of waves and wind he would choose kitesurfing, but on small, flat windy days, it’s a foilboard and an inflatable wing that best taps into that surfing feeling.
In April of 2019, the flood of kite wing images on social media created intense speculation about the new wing products, yet the reaction by the online kitesurfing community seemed mixed. Posts on the forums ranged from “When can I get one?” to “Have fun taking a giant step backward.” The discussions raged about the limitations and practicality of the new sport compared to kitesurfing. Many complained about the wing blocking visual sight, having less range than kites and requiring more technical waterstarts. The diehards flamed the new technology because of its similarity to windsurfing (considered a lesser sport by kitesurfing’s purists). They even went so far as to question whether Kiteforum was the appropriate place for this discussion—insinuating that the wing doesn’t fall in the kiteboarding category. Many users couldn’t wrap their minds around why a kiter would choose this sport when the condition envelope of wing foiling overlaps with that of kitesurfing.
In the early 2000s, a friend once used the term ‘jilted lovers’ to describe the emotional psyche of the windsurfers that stayed behind when kitesurfing took off. Having once shared the adrenaline and communal stoke of obsession around a sport (windsurfing at the time), only to watch as your friends embrace the next best thing, replete with its own tight-knit community, creates varying levels of antagonism and jealousy—the same as you might expect from a jilted lover. If the early responses on Kiteforum suggest lack of acceptance, it also suggests that early adopters for kite wings may include only the most advanced and open-minded athletes of kitesurfing, or more likely those who already prone and/or SUP foilsurf.
Not surprisingly, the kite brands don’t seem to view the handheld wings as a competitor to kitesurfing. According to Slingshot frontman Jeff Legosz, “Kitesurfing solved problems that windsurfing had . . . and kiting is still at the top. Wings don’t deliver better performance, they deliver different performance with simplicity that opens doors, those that we aren’t even thinking of right now.” Duotone’s Ken Winner originally believed the wings were ideal for downwinding, but found they’re really fun for cruising around, going upwind, jibing and tacking. “Surprisingly, it’s easier to learn than windsurfing or kitesurfing—way easier to jibe than windsurf foiling or kite foiling—and it’s the absolute easiest way to get into hydrofoiling.”
“Kitesurfing solved problems that windsurfing had . . . and kiting is still at the top. Wings don’t deliver better performance, they deliver different performance with simplicity that opens doors, those that we aren’t even thinking of right now.”
For those that dream of endless foilsurfing downwinders and infinite loops carving around offshore reefs, the number of kite companies throwing their hats in the ring means substantial diversity in designs and innovation. Duotone’s product features an aluminum boom which creates a stiff interface with the wing. From Sky’s experience, the boom was one of the game changers that added a rigid feel to the product. The Duotone wing has large windows and through the design process, shifted towards lower aspect ratio wings with accentuated dihedral upsweep, making the design easier to handle.
The design team at Slingshot has focused on increasing their wing’s stability through a number of innovations they believe will deliver the best possible user experience. As Jeff Legosz explains, “Unlike kites and windsurfing sails, Slinghshot has designed the Slingwing to be pitch positive. Pitch positive wings want to fly, which means instead of searching for the sweet spot to hold the wing, it will fly regardless of where you hold it, making jibes effortless.” Slingshot is also introducing additional innovations such as a high-pressure inflated trailing edge that prevents highload tacoing/distortion and reduces the flapping sound found in earlier iterations. But most importantly, Slingshot has devised a plan to build off-center webbing attachments that increase stability and leverage against the wingtips. Using their patented split-strut design, the rear handles are moved away from the center of the boom giving the rider extra control over the wing.
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of hand-held wings is that kiteboarding now has an onboarding product that can propel young children and more risk-averse users towards kiteboarding without diving straight in.
Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of hand-held wings is that kiteboarding now has an onboarding product that can propel young children and more risk-averse users towards kiteboarding without diving straight in. How many kitesurfing families inevitably have had to wait to initiate their children into the sport until the kids have reached adolescent age? Now kids can connect with a wing, board and water and work their way up into the safety and power of kiteboarding. Kite wings are not only a great feeder product for kitesurfing, but after watching a recent video of Robby Naish surfing a SUP board (no foil) on a mushy wave, indicators suggest that the casual fun applications of the kite wing make it just another tool in the waterman’s arsenal.
Whether you call it a spinoff or just the natural evolution of windsports equipment, this is not the first time kiteboarding has helped create a sport. The relatively recent advent of foilsurfing has been directly influenced by the kitesurfing industry’s innovations in design, construction and lower cost of foilboard technology, and the inflatable hand-held wing is the perfect compliment. It’s clear from early responses that the new equipment won’t be for everyone or every scenario, but it will have broad implications for having fun in a wide variety of conditions.