How easy is it to learn foilboarding?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen a huge increase in the amount of people getting into foilboarding.  We hear a lot of misconceptions about what it’s like to ride a foilboard as opposed to riding a twin tip or even a surfboard with a kite.  We aim to dispell some of the mystery with this blog post and hopefully give you a clearer picture of what is really going on in the world of hydrofoiling.

Background of Foilboarding in kitesurfing.

In the early naughties, a few guys were experimenting with hydrofoils in kitesurfing in Hawaii.  These were generally hand made and extremely expensive.  Carafino made the first commercially available hydrofoil in about 2004.  Way ahead of it’s time, and carbon construction, it was prohibitively expensive and difficult to ride.  It was in around 2014 that hydrofoils started appearing on the local beaches.  Mostly being the cast offs from the racing fraternity whom had just upgraded from Formula class finned, boards to foil class boards a year or so earlier.  They were fast, unstable and notoriously difficult to ride, as well as expensive, and were responsible for most of the horror stories you hear today around the beaches.  With the fear of injury from early race foils, North kiteboarding released a “safe” foil with bars between wing tips to prevent stabbing injuries.  This too was expensive and didn’t work that well.

Today, almost every manfacturer is building easy to use, cost effective and fun foils which will work in a variety of conditions. The inexpensive ones are plastic, aluminium and fibreglass construction, the better foils are manufactured from high grade aluminium and high modulus carbon fibre.  Many are modular in design so they can be very inexpensive and easy to be made more versatile when your needs change as you progress.  Many people have even built their own at home to varying degrees of success.

What does it feel like to hydrofoil?

I get asked this a lot in my position, and I still struggle to aptly convey the feeling, so I will tell you what I tell most others. It’s VERY different, everything about it is different.  For starters, there is no feeling in your feet of moving across the water, this is why many people describe it as “a ride on a magic flying carpet”.  There is no sound, it’s actually very peaceful and very quiet.  Two riders can carry on a conversation riding along together without raised voices, especially when riding downwind. In fact, it’s so quiet, when riding downwind, you can hear the tiny droplets of water that wick up the mast and fall as they splash back onto the water surface.  It’s eerie.  The speed is wierd because it isn’t conveyed by the feeling of the board chatter on the waves of the surface.  You can foil in winds so light, your non kiting partner will be happy to sit on the beach and watch without getting sand blown.  You can go anywhere fairly quickly.  You can point 20 degrees higher upwind and 45 degrees further downwind than a twin tip allowing you to explore the coast or bay you ride on.  You can cover ground you never thought was possible or was just too hard.  And finally, you can ride VERY fast (on the right foil).  It’s definitely worth the plunge, so keep reading …

What are the main differences in riding a foil to a twin tip?

The main differences between a twin tip and a foil board is the twin tip operates with two axis of movement on the surface of the water.  You have yaw, and roll (Left and right and forwards and backwards).  Yaw is an axis of rotation as if you have a vertical axis through the top of the middle of the board, so the board skews or rotates in a flat plane around the axis.  Fins go a long way to mitigate yaw and keep the board going straight.  Roll is the axis through the longitudinal center line of the board.  Roll is what makes the board change directions, carving left and right.  By shifting your weight from heelside, to toeside, you change the roll of the board to change directions.

On a hydrofoil, you have three axis of movement.  Like a twin tip, you have yaw and roll but, additionally, you also have pitch.  Pitch controls your ride height above the water surface.  Moving your weight fore and aft, makes the board pitch or raise or lower in height above the water.  Weight forward and the board goes down and touches down on the surface.  Weight back makes the foil and the board rise from the water until the wings break the surface and usually results in a crash.  This is called “breaching”.  “Porpoising” is the uncontrolled pitching of the board where the rider is unable to control the pitch, or is over compensating in effort to control the ride height. This often occurs after the initial power stroke on the kite pulling the rider up onto the foil.  If the speed is slow and the wing angle is at a high angle of attack, the wing can stall underwater and lift is lost causing the board to suddenly drop to the water surface, this then repeats looking like a porpoise.

What makes foiling seemingly so difficult to learn?

Apart from having to control the new third axis of movement (Pitch), the roll is also much more foreign to newcomers.  On a twin tip, the centre of roll is just beneath the twin tip or pretty much where your feet stand.  We are so used to carving a turn with the roll axis practically connected to our feet, that the response is instant.  When considering a hydrofoil, the roll axis is actually through the centre of the fuselage at the end of the mast.  This means, your feet can be anywhere between 40cm and 110cm above the fuselage (centre of roll axis).  Imagine riding a skateboard on top of a 1m step ladder.  If you suddenly bank your body to effect a carve turn and the axis of roll is three feet below you, well, you can imagine the adjustment required.  Once you are used to the way the turn feels, it is easy to adjust your inputs and timing.

As riders of surfboards and twin tips where we have finely tuned our muscle memory to rear foot pressure and leaning back with pressure on our heels to prevent sliding downwind, we are met with our first challenge. The Pitch control of the hydrofoil is very sensitive.  A tiny 1cm movement of your weight forward causes the board dive whilst a 1cm movement aft will result in the foil rising, larger movements result in much more aggressive changes to pitch angle and usually result in crashes.  Correct body position on a foil board is either weight on the front foot, or at the very least, even foot pressure and neutral heel/toe position.

Adjusting to the height is the other issue.  Like all of us, we aren’t used to being above the water, everything we know and love has our eyes at our normal height above the ground for stability, horizontal reference and speed.  All of this is skewed when we add the new problem of height control.  Even if you work out the body position, speed increases lift and so the pitch control is constantly varying with our speed.  To add to this complexity is the movement of water in the form of waves.  Waves are simply water moving up and down.  If your foil is close to the surface, the water movement can also raise and lower the foil.  It’s tricky!

What’s the best way to learn kiteboarding?

No matter how long you have kited, and no matter how insanely good you may be, you will be humbled by the foil, yep, you are going to be a noob all over again.  The more confidence you have in thinking you can do this without instruction, the longer you will remain a noob.  You can self learn, but it is a slow and can be a painful process.  I strongly advise that you take a lesson with our foil school.

There are two ways to learn kite foiling, either behind a boat, or under a kite.  Both methods have +’s and -‘s.  I recommend the boat on your first attempt.

The boat method

The boat method is the best and sortest method to safely get up and foiling.  By using a larger than normal soft board coupled to a large wing and a very short mast (~30-40cm), you can learn pitch control in about 30 minutes.  Once you can stay up on the foil for more than 100m, we recommend going to a 60cm mast.  Once you can stay up on the 60cm mast for more than 100m, you are pretty much right to go and have a quick lesson with an instructor who will show you how to transfer your newfound pitch controlling skills into kite powered foiling.  As it’s likely to be 15 knots when learning to kite foil, use your normal kite as you would on a twin tip.  The choppy water will require a longer mast as soon as you have the skills to do so.

The beauty of the boat is it forces you to learn proper balance over the foil.  This comes in extremely handy when you need to ride downwind on a kite.  In our kiteboarding experience, we always have the kite to pull against, this works as a stabilizer to help us balance.  Due to the lack of heavy forces and the more delicate balancing required for foiling, especially downwind, the boat method will prevent you from the walking downwind of shame, similar to when you first learned kiteboarding and you used to do the upwind walk of shame.  The boat can also set the speed for you in the perfect range for you as well as choose your direction for you so all you need to concern yourself with is the control of the pitch.

The kite method

Using a kite will make it easier to get up and have your first ride but you will employ all you know from kiteboarding and will edge the foil upwind hard as you lean against the kite.  Pitch control is more difficult as you need to learn on a longer mast to keep the wings submerged.  With little control over your speed, or direction, with no muscle memory of pitch control or balance, this method will definitely take you longer and have plenty of frustration and some nice crashes.  This method can be done with more success with an experienced foiling coach who can set you up with radio headset and can “walk you through the process”.

As a beginner, you rely on power to compensate for lack of technique.  This makes water start easier, however, half a second after you have water started and you are clear of the water and on the wing, you will have to dump all that power.  Basically you need a kite about half the size.  This is due to the foil having almost no drag when you compare is to twin tip of surfboard riding.  Too much power creates acceleration which then creates more speed and more power.  You get the idea … crash!  You need to balance over the foil rather than edge hard against it.  Edging creates more speed!

Hints and advise that will help.

  1. Get lessons, preferably behind the boat.
  2. Use beginner friendly low speed foils.
  3. Use beginner board with only the front footstrap.
  4. Wear impact vest and helmet, even low speed falls from atop of the mast, hurts.
  5. It’s good to wear a wetsuit and maybe even booties to begin as the trailing edges of the wings are sharp.
  6. Use short masts and gradually increase length as you improve.
  7. Use wave kites or dedicated foiling inflatable kites (ie none, one, two or three strut kites).
  8. Don’t learn when it’s really windy
  9. Keep your knees bent
  10. When you think you have all your weight on your front foot, put more weight on your front foot … repeat!
  11. The process is short and steep, but very rewarding.

All our staff can advise you about kitefoiling lessons, gear and technique, so what are you waiting for?  It’s a remarkable experience, and who know, it may just be your next obsession.

Darren