What is Foil Surfing? All About the Evolution of Surf

what is surf foiling

Once on the fringe of popular surf culture, hydrofoil surfing is now quickly becoming the main event in the ever-evolving sport.

Foil surfing (or surf foiling) is the sport of riding a surfboard which has a hydrofoil attached to the board instead of a fin. This allows the surfboard to fly above the water. The surfer is essentially surfing the foil but riding the board.

Foil surfing offers a whole new edge and excitement to surfing. After all, it’s a completely different approach to riding waves in that it allows you to ride above the waves (you’ll see what we mean in just a minute!) 

If you’ve never seen a hydrofoil surfboard before, they’re definitely peculiar at first. However, once you come to understand them it’s definitely something you’ll be itching to try out.

But first, you’re going to want to read this.


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Introducing the Hydrofoil Surfboard

So, what exactly is a hydrofoil surfboard, and what’s its purpose?

Simply put, a hydrofoil board—also referred to as a foil board—is a surfboard with a hydrofoil that extends below the board and into the water. The hydrofoil component completely replaces the fins of a traditional surfboard, allowing the board to rise above the surface of the water at varying speeds.

The hydrofoil itself is the lifting surface in the process. It’s similar in appearance to the aerofoils used by airplanes, only the technology is designed for use in the water while keeping the board above the water.

With a hydrofoil surfboard, rather than sliding and slicing through the water’s surface with your board making full contact, you’re actually riding the foil through the water while the board hovers over the water. The technology also enables you to ride waves that were once deemed unsurfable—but we’ll get to that stuff later.  

Hydrofoil technology may feel like it’s just suddenly emerged onto the scene, but it’s actually a technology that’s been evolving since the late 19th century. The initial invention of the hydrofoil was meant to enable boats to move faster without having to use up more fuel.

The basic design of the hydrofoil and the overall improvement it brought to traditional watercrafts is what paved the way for the technology to enter the world of surfing and other water sports. 

The biggest names associated with hydrofoil surfing are Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama. Of course, there are many big names in various water sports and the boating industry that sit before Hamilton and Kalama on the timeline of the evolution of the hydrofoil. However, it was the famous big-waves surfer and co-inventors of tow-in-surfing who brought hydrofoil surfing to its fruition circa 2003.  

According to Laird and David, it all began with mucky conditions and an air chair. The official foil board made its debut to the masses in Dana Brown’s 2003 surf documentary Step Into Liquid. You can check it out in this brief clip of the documentary.

How a Hydrofoil Works

Hydrofoil surfing is one of those things that look effortlessly cool and seem just as effortless to master. However, the truth is, you actually have to be able to surf pretty well to begin with. You’ll also need to have an understanding of how a hydrofoil board works.  

Hydrofoiling is a totally different animal. Hydrofoils and foil boards alike were more or less designed to react to the water, lifting you out of it rather than allowing your board to get pushed by it. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the hydrofoil parts and physics:

hydrofoil diagram

You have the mast, fuselage, front wing, and back wing that make up the physical foil. The mast is the piece that’s attached to the bottom backend of the board, where the fins are usually located. It extends perpendicularly to the fuselage, which extends horizontally with the wings on either side.

The back wing is small and acts as the stabilizer while the front wing is much bigger, with a thick, curved fender-like appearance that tapers off to a thin trailing edge and then eventually a flat underside. The easiest way to picture this setup is by envisioning an airplane, minus the cabin and fan wings. Then picture it attached by a thick, rectangular bar (the mast) to the actual surfboard-style board. 

The physics behind the hydrofoil board is rather complicated. There are actually several different scientific laws that explain what makes the board stand above the water on its own as well as how it picks up speed. 

The general consensus is that the curved top of the front wing as well as gliding through the water at an upward angle causes the water to accelerate downward beneath it. Then there’s Newton’s third law which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction created here is the water shooting downward and producing an upward force that lifts you out of the water. 

Sprinkle in some hydrodynamics, inertia, kinetic energy, and the person shifting their weight atop the board and you have foil surfing. Since these kinds of things are better understood with a visual, here’s another video to check out for some clarity.

Foil Surfing Vs. Traditional Surfing

Like we mentioned before, foil surfing is a whole different animal compared to traditional surfing.

Arguably the greatest advantage of foil surfing is that it’s much more efficient in terms of catching waves. You can quite literally catch any type of wave using a foil board, but they’re especially advantageous for much smaller waves and the less favorable slop that you otherwise wouldn’t bother getting out of bed for.

That equates to more days in the water.

Foil boards also provide you with a much longer ride than a traditional surfboard ever could. Experienced riders typically surpass the 300-yard mark per ride, and they end up catching multiple waves without coming down simply by learning to “pump” the board. 

For those interested, pumping the foil refers to the rhythmic movement—i.e., the weight shifting—that allows you to transfer energy to the foil. This is the technique used to propel the foil board across flat water or back out to the surf to catch your next ride.

However, foil board gear is much more expensive compared to regular surfing. For starters, you’ll likely need a whole new surfboard if the one you have doesn’t already have a reinforced fin box that can handle the stress of a foil attachment. It goes without saying, you’ll also need the hydrofoil set up to attach to your board—plus a helmet if you’re just starting out.

It’s also important to note that foils are on the sharp side, which means you’ll need to take care when transporting your gear from house to car to water. 

Foil Surfing FAQs 

Is Foil Surfing Difficult?

Foil surfing can be difficult starting out, but an experienced surfer can get the gist of it within a few hours. If you can have someone tow you behind a boat or jetski when starting, you’ll quickly learn how to adjust the angle of the foil which will speed up the learning process.

I would suggest learning the basics for surfing before going to foil surfing. Any surfer can learn to foil, so it’s not too hard!

Is Foil Surfing Easier than Traditional Surfing?

Foil surfing is much harder than traditional surfing. Once again, the physics are just different and attention to safety must be paid. 

Is Foil Surfing Dangerous?

Compared to regular surfing, this is a yes and no question.

For starters, hydrofoils have sharp trailing edges on the wings could cut you pretty easily. Accidentally kicking one of these is a serious concern, as well as what happens if you have to bail off the board and it goes flying.

That being said, most people foil in much calmer waters/waves than traditional surfing. In that regard, the wipeouts may not be as dangerous since you won’t be pummeled by a 10-foot wave (unless that’s where you’re riding your foil)!

How Much Does a Foil Surfboard Cost?

Foil surfboards are expensive, ranging well into the thousands for a complete setup. The cost will vary depending on the type of foil board you’re looking into and whether or not you’re attaching a hydrofoil to a board you already own.

For a beginner’s foil surfboard, you’re looking at spending a minimum of a thousand bucks.

Can I Foil Surf Behind a Boat or Jetski?

Yes! One of the unique advantages of a foil surfboard is that you can use it to paddle into the surf on your own or hitch a ride via tow. 

Foil surfing behind a boat or a jetski is actually the best way to learn if the option is available. That way, whoever is driving can help you maintain a constant speed which will allow you to focus on gaining stability and learning how to ride the foil, without having to worry about maneuvering or paddling into a wave.

Ready to Try Foil Surfing?

Foil surfing is probably the most exciting innovation to surfing yet. It’s an entirely different approach to riding waves that offers up a completely different sensation out on the water. 

Of course, if you’re going to try out foil surfing, make sure you level up your regular surf game first. Hydrofoils bring a more complex science into the water, so you’ll need all the pre-practice you can get. 

And don’t forget your helmet!

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