Wing foil may be the coolest water sport to hit the beaches in years. And if you’re lucky enough to live by the ocean or on a big lake, you may have already caught a glimpse of this cutting-edge approach to riding the waves.
It may even look a little baffling at first. People soaring two feet above the surf with inflatable wings? How is that even possible?
This aquatic miracle is actually achieved by combining a surfboard or a paddle board with a couple of other technologies. And no, it’s not the same as windsurfing or kiteboarding! It’s something different all on its own.
To catch you up to speed, we’re going to explain the ins and outs of this new wave sport and why you might want to try it yourself. But first, let’s explain what wing foil is and how it’s different from other water sports.
What is Wing Foil?
The easiest way to explain wing foiling is by breaking it down into two parts. Foil is actually short for hydrofoil, which is an underwater fin, shaped like a wing. You’ve probably already seen hydrofoil boats that use this technology to lift the hull out of the water, which makes it possible to decrease the drag while increasing the speed of the boat.
The hydrofoil used on boards is the same idea as the one utilized with boats, just on a smaller scale. The foil is actually what lifts the surfboard or the paddle board above the water. And just like the hydrofoil used for boats, hydrofoils can also be attached to the underside of boards.
The wing part of the wing foil term refers to the hand-held structure that helps you harness the power of the wind. In windsurfing, a sail attached to the board and controlled with a bar is used to harness the wind. In kite surfing, you’re attached to a harness which, in turn, is connected to a large, high-flying kite.
Unlike either of these wind sports, wing foil employs an inflatable wing that is completely handheld, meaning it attaches neither to you nor the board. Many athletes find this appealing because of the freedom and the flexibility that it creates. Put these two concepts together and you have wing foil, a sport that’s often described by enthusiasts as flying through the water!
But nothing will give you a better idea of what wing foiling is like the way that a video can. Take a look at this wing foil footage. After you view these clips, we think you’ll understand why so many people are becoming obsessed with wing foiling.
Wing, Foil or Both?
While wing foil is the new craze for wind and water adventurers, these two components weren’t developed together. The first foils for water boards surfaced in the late seventies and early eighties, but they never truly took off due to their poor design.
In fact, it wasn’t until the new millennium that big-wave pioneer Laird Hamilton and other members of his crew devoted their time to the art of wind foiling. Along with his team, including Rush Randle, Pete Cabrinha and Dave Kalama, the four of them started designing and testing new foils in Maui.
Foiling was pretty much an insular sport of this hardcore group for several years. But when surfers began to wake up to the fact that foiling could be done in low-wind and low-wave situations, it started to take off in mainstream circles.
An Oh-So-Brief History of Inflatable Wings
Similar to foils, the technology of wings developed slowly over a series of decades. Though surfing pioneer Pete Cabrinha remembers giving them a try back in the early eighties, he found them to be too heavy and bulky at the time.
Though their design continued to evolve in the late eighties and well into the nineties, these wings failed to make an impact until recent years, at which point more advanced manufacturing techniques of the present time have allowed for a reinvention of the concept.
Now made with super lightweight yet strong materials, inflatable wings have finally evolved into a high-performance enhancing tool. And they’re not just used on the water! Check out this video of snowboarders harnessing the wind with inflatable wings as they sail over powdered snow.
Why Try Wing Foiling?
So, why should you get on board with wing foil? Here are a few reasons why many wind and water sports enthusiasts are riding the new wave.
You Don’t Need High Wind or Wave Conditions
Unlike surfing, you don’t need big waves or perfect conditions to have fun wing foiling. You can take off with about seven to eight knots of wind on swells that won’t ever break. If you’re a surfer, this means you can enjoy the water when conditions aren’t ideal. And if you’re intimidated by big surf, this is your chance to try a sport with lower waves and a lower fear factor.
Not only can you launch in very low-surf or just swell conditions, but the foil and the hover wing combine to give you a much longer freeride than the one offered by traditional surfing. Though nothing can fully equate to the thrill of big surf, there’s something very cool about becoming one with the water and the wind during a nice, long freeride!
The Equipment Is Minimalist
When compared with windsurfing and wind surfers or kiteboarding and kiters, front wing foiling is definitely minimalist in terms of the required equipment. Forget big or heavy sails, harnesses and footstraps. All you need is the foil, which you’ll attach to your board and inflate via the front wings.
And because the equipment is much lighter, it makes it easier to travel. In fact, if you happen to choose an inflatable board, you can even get all of your gear into one board bag! However, you will have to decide if you are interested in high aspect or low aspect wings. A high aspect wing is a bit faster than low aspect foil wings, so keep this in mind when searching for equipment and before making your first purchase. Make sure the foil wing that you choose will be able to fit in your board bag as well.
No Strings Attached
For those of you who feel uncomfortable with the idea of wearing a footstrap or being strapped into a harness line and possibly dragged away by a large kite, boardsports might be too daunting for you. This is similar to what happens with kite surfing, so the wing foil sport could be your chance to try a less intimidating wind sport.
Since the wing is handheld, you can lower it at any time. And you can also ditch your board at any moment, though you will want to wear an ankle leash so that you don’t lose it altogether.
Launching Is Easier
In kite foiling or surfing, not only do you need a buddy to help launch you, but you also need to have a large and clear space free of people or other obstacles. But with wing foiling, you can hit the surf all on your own without needing a minimum amount of space. No fuss involved!
Wing Foil is an Awesome Workout
During the pandemic, many workout junkies were forced out of the gym and into other sports or at-home workouts. Wing foil will not only get you outdoors for a healthy shot of vitamin D, but it’s also amazing in terms of exercise. Since it engages your arms, legs and core, wing foiling is a full-body workout that will make you forget that you’re even working out!
Wing Foil Is Your Chance to Be a Pioneer
Because wing foil hasn’t been around all that long, this relatively new sport is your chance to be on the cutting edge of the world of exercise. Plus, there’s a lot of opportunity to freestyle as well. There are still records to be broken and tricks to be discovered. But who knows! Maybe you’ll even have a trick named after you one day. And years from now, when the whole world is wing foiling, you can say you’ve been around from the very beginning!
The Zen of Wing Foil
No two days on a body of water are ever exactly the same. Wing foiling challenges you to become familiar with the changing conditions of both wind and water, forcing you to learn how to go with the flow of whatever each situation brings you.
Some may call that a water sport, but it can also be looked at as a practice in mindfulness. Something that could spill into your life outside of the water, too. That’s pretty cool!
Getting Started with Wing Foil
Wing foiling is worth a try. Take it from avid foiler, Dmitri Oster! In his own words, “one of the benefits of riding and progressing on a foil wing is that it typically gives the rider an incredible feeling of accomplishment that is felt directly in the body…this also has a great and positive impact on one’s self-esteem as the body and mind are very much connected.”
If you’re vibing with the idea of wing foiling, there are a few things you should consider. Here is what you should keep in mind when starting out!
What’s Your Level of Experience in the Water?
If you’re a complete novice or you have little experience when it comes to water sports, the easiest and safest way to learn how to wing foil is by taking a class. An experienced instructor will help you get a feeling for the wind and the water before sending you out with all of the gear you need for your first ride.
The wind range is important to keep in mind. Often, these courses will be broken downwind into various parts. Most classes will teach you how to handle the wing while still on the shore. You’ll learn how to catch the wind, turn the wing and carry the wing so that it doesn’t blow away or break entirely.
Once you’re caught up to speed, many courses can help you get on a board with the wing but without the foil. That way, you can refine your technique and get comfortable with wing surfing on its own.
In the next step, you’ll leave the wing behind and get a chance to use a board with just the foil. It may be shaky at first, but with a little determination, you’ll soon find your balance. During the final phase of instruction, you’ll put the wings and the foil together, allowing you to enjoy the full experience of flying over the water.
If you’re an inexperienced surfer, kite surfer or wind surfer, yet you decide not to take a class, make sure you at least learn how to engage in the sport by practicing with someone who has a bit of experience. As is the case with beginners, breaking the learning process into various parts, like they do in a formal class, should make the learning curve easier to maneuver.
Whether you have a lot of experience with wind and water sports or not, there are some special safety issues to keep in mind with wing foiling.
Other than the usual concerns of surf and wind conditions that apply to any water sport, your board will also have a foil on it, and foils are sharp. That’s why a helmet and a wetsuit with an impact vest are usually recommended for people engaging in wing foiling.
You’ll also have to be careful not to puncture the wing with the foil while transporting your equipment. This is something a wing foil class can definitely help you with! And no matter the level of experience you have in the water, never practice this sport alone. Be sure to go with a buddy every single time!
Because wing foiling is only beginning to gain in popularity, the equipment is constantly evolving. If you’re new to water sports, you may want to consider renting before making an investment in your board, foil and wing size, not to mention the helmet, wetsuit and impact vest.
If you just can’t wait to buy your own board, remember that like surfing, a bigger board will give you more stability. That’s why many people choose to learn on a standup paddle board or a SUP foil board. If you’re already experienced with downwind and water sports, you can go with a smaller board which, as you know, is easier to maneuver and turn.
Will You Need a New Board to Wing Foil?
Will you need a new board if you already have one? Well, that depends. The foil will definitely put more strain and leverage on your surfboard.
But if your board is foil approved by the manufacturer and has a reinforced finbox, you can go for it. If not, you may want to consider investing in another board or having your current board modified with a reinforced finbox.
Choosing Your Wings
Wings come in various sizes, with the most common spanning anywhere from three to six meters. Which size you choose will depend on various factors including your weight and the strength of the winds where you normally practice the sport. Light wind will make it easier to practice than much stronger winds.
Wings between four and five meters in length are generally recommended for beginners. If there are upwinds and the winds are generally strong in your area, a smaller four-meter wing will give you more control. If the upwinds in your area are generally light, a larger five-meter wing will give you more power.
Also, keep in mind that young kids will need a smaller three-meter wing. And adults who weigh more than 155 pounds will also want to consider a five-meter wing, though they may potentially prefer a larger one, depending on conditions.
To boil that all down, smaller wings give you less power but more control, making them very good for windy conditions. On the other hand, larger wings give you more power and lift but less control. As such, they are recommended for low-wind conditions.
Foils come in many different shapes and sizes. Again, the size that you choose will depend on your level of experience. If you’re a beginner, a shorter foil will allow you to get up without the need for a lot of speed, which is about 10.12 kilometers per hour. This will allow you to learn at your own pace, both at lower speeds and in smooth waters.
Taller foils, which are about 70 centimeters or larger, have been viewed as best for choppier waters and higher speeds. These are best for experienced athletes who may want to navigate challenging circumstances.
If you stick with the sport for long enough, you’ll probably go through a few equipment changes along the way. However, you don’t have to invest too much to begin with, as you can consider buying a secondhand foil to save a few bucks as you first start out in the world of wing foiling.
Whether you’re a total beginner curious about wing foiling or you’re an experienced water-and-wind athlete looking to change things up, the art of wing foil is one of the newest, most exciting sports out there. Not only can it be practiced under many different conditions, but the sensation of gliding over the water is incredibly enthralling.
Be sure to seek instruction from those who know what they are doing, whether that is via a wing foiling class or experienced wing foilers. Either way, we’re sure that you’ll be happy and flying freestyle in no time at all. And who knows! With a little bit of luck and some serious determination, you might even set a new record!
You might also be interested in: How to Pick Up Surfing as an Adult (10 Things Every Novice Needs to Know) f