Most people are familiar with the term “hydrofoil”, but few know of its wide-ranging use in water sports. This engineering marvel was first created to propel a boat over the waves using submerged wing-like structures.
This elegant solution allowed boats to have a higher drag-to-lift ratio which saved almost 30% of fuel consumption. Since its invention in the early 20th century, the technology of the hydrofoil has since been adopted by many different water sports, including surfing!
This new technique called “surf foiling”, elevates standard-practice surfing to new heights by utilising a foil fin to create lift, reduce friction and encourage dynamic movement through the water. Drag is drastically reduced which allows surfers to catch waves during weak swells or even waves that never fully break.
When you are surf foiling, the board rises above the water, propelled by the foil, to make it feel like you’re flying. As a result, surf foiling has completely changed the game for wave riders. This unlocks the surface of the ocean and makes any wave seem catchable!
Despite its early introduction, surf foiling didn’t really kick off until Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama pioneered the practice in the early 2000s. Over the years, the sport was continuously finessed through trial and error to create what we know as surf foiling today.
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What is a surf foil?
Surf foiling uses a surfboard with a hydrofoil attached to the underside instead of a fin. This hydrofoil is made from a variety of materials such as aluminium or fibreglass. It has a shovel-shaped front wing which cuts through the water. This is connected to a fuselage and a smaller rear wing for stability. The wings run horizontally through the water but are attached to the board by a perpendicular stabilising mast and a connector plate.
This technology has advanced further and efoils are now available which allow you to glide through the water, propelled by an electric motor.
How to go surf foiling
To start surf foiling, you need to purchase a board that has a specialised hydrofoil fin box.
Before you begin, it’s best to have a few lessons to get comfortable foiling. It’s a very weird sensation so to not freak out in the waves, you’ll have your first lessons being towed behind a board.
So, when you’re ready with your own kit, head to your chosen beach and carry your board into the water – supporting the foil above the ground as you go. Paddle into the rolling white water to set your line.
Be on the lookout for crumbling, weak waves. You only need to pick up 4-8 mph of speed for the foil to lift the board from the water. Start paddling when you see a wave coming then stand up to catch the surf and lean forwards – into the wave.
Adopt an open-bodied shoulder-width stance with plenty of front-foot pressure. If you lean back and point the nose of your board up, the foil will rise out of the water, and vice versa if you want to go down again. You can “pump” the board faster to pick up speed and rhythm. Once you have reached your desired speed, stop pumping, let the board level off, and enjoy the ride!
Surf foiling is a step up from regular surfing and you should already be confident catching waves before you attempt it. The movement is quite unique, and it may take some time to adjust to. Take safety precautions and wear a helmet when you first start. Try surf foiling on smaller waves in good weather – in fact, smaller waves are the best conditions for surf foiling! You could even start by being towed behind a jet ski or boat to get a feel for how the board moves. That way, you don’t have to concentrate so hard on catching waves and can instead focus on your technique.
Benefits of surf foiling
Surf foiling has a lot of benefits as it paves the way to a unique niche of water sports. Most important of all, it allows riders to catch small, messy waves that would usually be unfit for surfing. This alleviates the pressure of staring at surf forecasts and crossing your fingers hoping for a good swell to come along. Surf foiling also frees up access to new marine territories and allows you to tackle surf conditions that would have been a write-off previously.
There is an attraction for many sport lovers to take on this new challenge and hone a different set of skills. Surf foiling also allows for much longer rides than regular surfing. This means you can spend less time franticly paddling and more time enjoying the freedom of riding waves. When surf foiling, you can expect to ride around 250-300 metres on average. Some experienced surfers can go much farther than this and once you get the hang of it, you can reach distances up to one kilometre!
Cons of surf foiling
There aren’t many bad things about this sport, but there are a few drawbacks that make it a little hard to pick up. Surf foiling isn’t suitable for beginners and should only be attempted by intermediate or experienced surfers. In some ways, you must unlearn a few surfing techniques to adjust to the feel of the new board.
Also, the equipment costs considerably more than regular surfing which makes this sport somewhat exclusive. Unfortunately, you can’t just use a regular surfboard. The connector plate needs to be able to support the weight of the mast and hydrofoil.
Therefore, you need to buy a new board with a specialised attachment for the hydrofoil. Costs for surf foiling boards range from £1,000-2,000 – and that doesn’t include the foil or any attachments which will likely cost the same again.
Where to go surf foiling in the UK?
When you start scouting for surf foiling locations, discard your well-groomed surfer’s mindset. Instead, look for surging swells and minute, crumbling waves. Waves that are borderline un-surfable and no more than 1-2 feet in height. Avoid busy beaches when you first start surf foiling. You need plenty of space to get going and you don’t want to be dangerously weaving amongst other swimmers.
Ideally, you want a sandy bay with a swell that is surging through deep water. This creates a long, smooth ride which is perfect for surf foiling. Avoid areas with rocks or reefs and keep an eye on the tide where shallow banks of sand may become exposed. Remember that the hydrofoil extends beneath you far deeper than a normal surfing fin. Grounding a hydrofoil could cause you to fall and injure yourself or it could create some costly damage to your equipment.
There are plenty of areas around the UK to practice surf foiling, which will be similar to the best places for surfing. As expected, the long beaches of Cornwall and Devon provide great foiling opportunities – if you can find enough space.
What to look for in a surf foil?
When you are buying a surf foil, there are a few things to consider. In general, a hydrofoil with a large front wing is ideal for accelerating as you can generate a significant amount of thrust with relatively little effort. However, this bigger wing will also create more friction in the water which slows you down. A slightly smaller front wing will require more effort to get you out of the water but once speed is built up, you will travel faster.
Paddle-in surfing is the most common way to attempt surf foiling. As catching the wave is such an important part of the process, you should be willing to sacrifice a little on the speed and opt for a larger front wing. If you are going to be towed behind a boat or jet ski, you can use a smaller wing to pick up some real speed!
Surf foiling has plenty to offer for the adventurous water sports lover. Where there are hardships, there are also great rewards. After the initial investment for the board and the steep learning curve required to learn the new surf style, you will be able to reap the benefits of surf foiling.
No longer will you be limited to overcrowded surf beaches or at the mercy of surf reports. The coast of the British Isles is yours to explore. You can hunt for isolated bays with poor waves or head to surfing hot spots on days where there’s next to no swell. After all, that’s what surf foiling is all about – getting out on the waves and enjoying the immersion of being one with the ocean.
About the author
Matt is a travel writer with a passion for outdoor adventures - from catching swells to trekking through jungles and climbing mountains. He is currently travelling down the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Chile, surfing as he goes. Follow along at mattwalkwild.com.