Hydrofoils have been around for more than 100 years, but new applications of the technology are poised to make them the next big thing in water sports.
Easily, the hottest boat-based water sports sector during the past decade has been wakesurfing. Suddenly, you didn’t have to live on the coast to go surfing. The sport promised an endless wave that nearly anyone could ride, at speeds of 8 to 10 knots, which made the activity especially popular with older riders.
The sport’s main drawback is the need for specialized, six-figure boats that can plow up a surfable wave. Another issue is waterfront homeowners, anglers and paddleboarders who see the large waves as nuisances. Enter foil surfing, which leverages a hydrofoil’s efficiency to reduce the need for a large wake. Surfers no longer have to remain in the narrow pocket within spitting distance of the boat; virtually any boat, including those with outboards and sterndrives, is foil-surfable.
The speed needed for foil surfing is as low as 4 knots, so even a 16-foot fishing boat with a 25-hp outboard would be sufficient — and most boats have secondary and tertiary wakes that foil surfers can use. A windswept bay or lake can provide plenty of push, eliminating the need for a boat altogether. A rider can even propel a foil board on a placid pond by “pumping” (rapidly shifting his weight forward and backward).
“Foiling is the new passion sport,” says Jimmy Redmond, founder and vice president of research and development for Liquid Force, the California-based manufacturer of foil boards and accessories. “In the last four years, we have experienced over 350 percent growth in foil sales. Foiling expands your time on the water and the places you can go, and makes your playground so much bigger.”
Rigs consist of a board, a mast (usually 24 to 29 inches tall), a fin and a hydrofoil with two wings. Beginner boards are typically longer and wider, have foils with more surface area, and have masts that are shorter for greater stability. Smaller boards and wings increase maneuverability but are more difficult to ride.
Costs depend on the materials used. A fiberglass/foam board and aluminum mast with composite plastic wings is less expensive, more durable and heavier, and has a smoother ride thanks to its added weight. Beginners can purchase these boards for less than $1,000. Carbon-fiber boards and components can cost thousands of dollars; they are 10 to 15 pounds lighter and more maneuverable, but can also be more brittle.
“The demand and participation levels for foiling have exploded in the boating market over the past few seasons,” says LynDee Talmage, marketing communications manager for Ride Engine. “It’s an exciting new challenge for all water-sports enthusiasts that has often been compared to the feeling of skiing or snowboarding through deep powder. The foil turns rough water into sheets of glass, and its efficiency makes it possible to surf extremely small waves as well as the consecutive rollers farther behind the traditional boat wake.”
Windsurfing is Old School
Windsurfing has been on a steady decline for the past 30 years, with kite boarding largely supplanting it. Windsurfing is scheduled to make its last appearance at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the 2024 Olympics in France, four sailing classes are expected to feature hydrofoils.
To make the two windfoiling events a competition of athletes, not equipment, the World Sailing Council selected the iQFoil by Starboard as the equipment every athlete will use. The iQFoil consists of one board, one foil, one fin and one sail. Men’s rigs are $9,439, and women’s are $9,319 (travel bag included). For grooming the next generation of medal contenders, Starboard has a youth setup that transitions into a junior rig by switching out a few components.
Also look for the mixed Formula Kite Olympic class at the Games. It lets athletes use conforming equipment from a range of manufacturers.
No Wind, No Surf, No Problem
The latest foil board iteration is the eFoil, with lithium-ion batteries powering a propeller. Two of the biggest players in this space are Lift Foils — maker of the Lift eFoil — and Fliteboard. Credit the auto industry for doing the heavy R&D lifting on these companies’ compact, powerful products.
“Hydrofoil surfing is one of the fastest-growing water sports in the world,” says Fliteboard founder David Trewern, “and the electric evolution is only going to grow. Hydrofoil technology significantly increases the efficiency of watercraft, creating viability for electric-powered watercraft.”
Because the board is lifted out of the water, eFoils achieve an impressive level of performance. The top speed for the Fliteboard is 28 mph with a range of 18 miles, while the Lift eFoil claims a top speed of 25 mph and a run time of up to 90 minutes after charging for two hours.
Speed is handled via a Bluetooth hand controller. As with foiling surfboards, shorter eFoil boards are more maneuverable, or “twitchier,” depending on the rider’s skill level. Lift has four models that range from 4 feet, 4 inches to 6 feet, 2 inches, each costing $12,000. Fliteboards start at $12,935 and come in three sizes from 5 feet to 6 feet, 6 inches.
Fliteboard gives buyers the option to increase battery capacity from the 30 AH Sport Flitecell battery to the 40 AH Explore battery for $400, adding up to an hour and a half of riding time.
The most recent entry into the eFoil market is a Chinese company called Waydoo that offers the Flyer One eFoil, with comparable specs to the Lift eFoil and Fliteboard. The Flyer One costs $4,399.
Manufacturers say that overall, eFoils cost about the same as personal watercraft but enjoy some advantages. “Electric vehicles do not release emissions, pollutants or create noise — offering tremendous benefits for marine environments,” Trewern says. “As battery technologies develop, EVs are projected to become more affordable to produce than petrol vehicles. We expect eFoiling to grow considerably as its own sport in the future.”
Go Down Easy
One of the downsides of foiling is that the foil can complicate the inevitable wipeout. Foils are thin and rigid, and thus can cause injuries. The trick to avoiding danger is to hang on to the handle for an extra second when falling, to create distance between yourself and the board once you’re in the water. Falling naturally tends to put the rider on the board side, not the foil side of the equipment.
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.