Do you remember Laird Hamilton riding a hydrofoil board back in 2003 in Dana Brown’s film, “Step Into Liquid?” The board had snowboard boots attached and a rather rudimentary metal foil. Almost 15 years later, hydrofoil boards are enjoying a resurgence with countless acclaimed waterman giving them a try. The most notable hydrofoil board enthusiast today is big-wave surfer Kai Lenny. If you follow Lenny on his social channels or have watched his film “Paradigm Lost”, then you’ve seen him cruising in the open ocean, backflipping in small beach breaks, or gliding down the massive face of a Jaws or Nelscott Reef bomb on a foil board. We called up Lenny to learn more about the different styles and boards, as well as his thoughts on the future of hydrofoil surfing.
When did you first ride a foil board?
When I was 9 years old I got one for Christmas from my dad and Rush Randall. Actually, the first time I ever rode Jaws was on a foil board when I was 16. Laird and Dave Kalama took me up there and they towed me in on a hydrofoil for the first time. It was like 12 to 15 foot and I remember that being my first experience out there. It was a good way to break the ice I guess.
And you’ve been experimenting with it ever since?
Yeah. I feel like it was such a novelty thing back then. It required bigger waves, you needed a jet ski, and all these things. I feel like it lost steam a little bit and everyone stopped doing it. Then I started messing around with hydrofoil kitesurfing. I remember going to the beach and the waves were just so crappy–there’s no wind, the waves are barely crumbling–and I’m just going, “God, there’s this gray area in my surfing. Everything I want to do is high performance but in these conditions, I can’t do anything.” I started thinking about putting a foil on a stand-up board, and when I did I realized that I could actually probably just paddle it out on my stomach. So I left the paddle on the beach and I caught a wave. I thought, “If I can do this on this big of a board then I could do it on a shortboard.” I got a shortboard made and was working with a guy who developed a specific foil for small waves–one that had a lot of lift and was designed for slow speeds. After that, it went from being a sport that was developed for the biggest waves ever, to one that was trying ride the smallest waves, too–waves that are unrideable for any other craft, essentially.
Are there different lengths of board and styles of foil for different conditions, then?
Yeah, I actually have a little bit of a quiver going now. In regular surfing, you have big boards for big waves and then you have small boards that have more curve to kind of grovel. With foils, the length of the board is not as big of a deal. I’ll use the same board to foil at Jaws as I would in 1-foot waves. There are three main board sizes that I toy with: I have a 3’8″, which is really fun for going downwind on open ocean swells because there’s basically no board, or I could also use that in really big waves; I have a 4’8″ step up, which is good for when I’m using foot straps and towing so I can do backflips, and it has a little more surface area to catch me and get me back up to foil; then I have a 5’8″, which paddles really well, so if the waves are really big and I want to paddle in on my foil that’s kind of like my gun, essentially.
The reason I can ride such small boards is that the wings underneath create a lot of lift when you paddle. You might think of it as actually adding drag, but in reality, it’s actually creating lift. My 5’8″ with the foil underneath paddles as good as a 7’0″ sunset board–that’s because with the foil board you can have it a lot thicker. You’re not worried about having a thin board because you’re not worried about getting the rail in the water–the rail is in the air. If anything, it paddles faster because of the foil.
As for the foil itself, if you’re going to ride small waves you’re usually going to have a standard-length mast [the long, flat piece that attaches to the bottom of the board]. For me, I don’t go any smaller than 27″ tall. With that length, you can turn and you can lean over without the foil popping up. Most people learn on a 24″ tall foil, which is a good beginner length, but in smaller surf you use a much bigger wing [the base of the foil, which creates lift]. So if you’re riding waist-high waves, you’re going to use a wing that is thicker, almost resembling a shortboard rail. They’re almost that thick, which is kind of nice because if you fall it’s not going to cut you or anything. I think people picture foils as being knives underwater, but I’ve been cut up way more by my surf fins than by a foil. As soon as you move into the realm of really big waves, the wings get significantly smaller because you’re traveling at a higher speed and you don’t need as much lift. They also have to be sharper because they cut through the water. With those foils, we’re using 42″ tall masts, because when you’re going down a massive wave the chops are so big and you can go from riding the foil 6″ below the surface to 40″ below the surface in half a second. It allows us to have a perfectly smooth ride and make chop irrelevant, which is pretty much the whole point of it. Also, the taller mast allows you to do bigger flips and bigger tricks.
Who makes your foil boards?
I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with a bunch of awesome people on my foil boards, and I’m lucky to be sponsored by Nash which is a brand that makes my windsurfing, kitesurfing and stand-up paddle equipment. Also, I get some shortboards from Gerry Lopez as a part of Nash, since he works with them.
On the foil side of things, Nash makes the foils that I use every single day and I also get custom foils for testing purposes. I kind of do a lot of my own R&D, but the production stuff that I use is from Nash. It’s kind of funny because we’re at a point in this sport where it’s been around for a long time, but at the same time it feels so new. There’s a lot of development happening and I think it’s really cool. To me, the best part of foiling and the reason why I think that a lot of these top pro surfers like John [Florence], Dusty Payne, Jamie O’Brien and a lot of these guys are getting into it is because you’re so often surfing crowded spots because you’re always looking for good waves. The better the surf, the more fun it is. But you can take a break from that and go surf the worst waves on the planet and still have fun and surf it in a high-performance way. I think it’s an essential tool in the quiver for those types of situations. When the surf’s good, I go surfing, but foiling fills that void when the waves are bad. I’m a high-performance surfer and athlete so I’m not going to enjoy myself unless I’m doing something at a high level and the foil actually allows that.
[Top image: Kai Lenny with foil in hand at Nelscott Reef. Photo: Murray]