Al Mirel watched his son Kai fly across the Pillar Point Harbor. Well, he wasn’t literally flying, rather his board was floating above the surface, kept aloft by carbon fiber engineering.
Using a gentle, Friday afternoon breeze, Kai, 15, maneuvered his sail to catch what little northwest wind there was. On just his sixth time using this equipment setup, he pumped his board a few times then launched himself into the air.
Hydrofoiling has been especially popular in Maui, Hawaii, for quite some time. Consistent winds made the island a mecca for wind sports decades ago.
Over the last few years, the Coastside has developed its own foiling community. In recent weeks, several riders, including Kai, have taken up “wing foiling” at Pillar Point Harbor, the most recent trend in the world of hydrofoiling. Using a device made of carbon fiber and a sail that vaguely resembles a bird’s wing, participants are able to zoom around the harbor at great speeds. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, so Mirel and his son are still figuring out their equipment as well as the terminology.
“It’s funny, no one has really dialed in the name of this thing,” Mirel said.
Riding a foil is not unlike the sailboats used in the America’s Cup competition. With enough speed, the board is lifted above of the water and kept aloft by the mast and wing, which is still submerged beneath the surface. Mirel is one of the founding members of F4, a foil company based in Woodside. Chris Radkowski, another founder, was also out that day with Kai, testing different wing, tail and fuselage lengths. Both men are longtime windsurfers and raced competitively in the International Formula Windsurfing Class Association.
In 2008, the three founders wanted to create their own race fins and break away from the main supplier. In 2013, they got into hydrofoiling, specifically designed toward windsurfing capabilities. Now, it offers setups for surfing and kiting.
One positive of the wing foiling development is that it requires less gear, and Mirel noted lots of windsurfers in San Francisco have been experimenting with foils.
“Even with windsurfing, you have a mast, boom and all this stuff you have to set up,” Mirel explained. “With this thing, it packs into a tiny bundle and it comes with a pump. Pump it up, put on your wetsuit, and off you go.
Foils are an investment, both in time and money. Crafted entirely out of carbon fiber, setups from F4’s website range from just over $1,000 to more than $2,700.
The foil design for windsurfing versus standup paddleboarding is crucially different. Windsurfing wings tend to be smaller with finer edges. For surfing, the wings are larger to catch and harness more energy from the wave.
However, unlike traditional surfing, foil surfing hardly requires a breaking wave. The wing catches all the swell of the wave, meaning the wave doesn’t need a steep face. This has allowed foilers to look beyond traditional surf spots and try new experiences elsewhere.
Even for an experienced surfer such as Jeff Clark, who pioneered the famous big wave off Pillar Point known as Mavericks, foiling has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. Clark and several other ocean enthusiasts have taken to exploring waves with foils attached to the underside of customized standup paddleboards. Clark tracks the majority of his sessions with a GPS watch and claims to have clocked speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
“I’ve ridden waves my whole life since I was 5 years old,” said Clark, who used to participate in windsurfing races against Radkowski and Mirel in the 1980s. “We’ve found yet another way to use wind and waves that we would normally never surf.
“As soon as you can get the wing up flying, all the resistance is gone, and you are literally flying like a bird on a wave,” he said.
Over the last few years, Clark has become one of F4’s go-to testers. His experience and skillset provide the company with valuable feedback.
While straightforward in its appearance and ideology, surfing on foils is not a lark. The edges are sharp and move fast. Aligning the body directly over the foil and learning the nuances of turning takes time. Mistakes have consequences. But once dialed, the quiet and simple bliss of moving above the wave with no resistance is like little else.
“That’s what makes it so fun and so hard,” Clark said. “Because it’s super critical and technical. I moved my feet around and it felt like big-wave surfing on a head-high wave. The speed and critical control are there.”