The first time you see a windfoil in action, it seems almost mystical. The windsurfers hover feet above the water riding not on their board, but on a marvelous piece of engineering known as a hydrofoil.
Not too long ago, windfoiling was a niche hobby. It wasn’t until around 2015 that companies started mass-producing and marketing foils for windsurfing boards, and the market didn’t really take off until 2017/2018.
As more and more surfers discover the incredible sense of weightless flight that only windfoils can offer, this formerly niche water sport is working its way into the mainstream.
So how does it all work? Are windfoils really as strange and magical as they seem to be when you watch them effortlessly glide above the water?
Let’s take a look at just how they work their magic.
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So What is Windfoiling?
Windfoiling (also called foil windsurfing), is the sport of riding a windsurf board with a hydrofoil attached to it. Windfoiling allows a windsurfer to sail with their board above the water. Instead of riding their windsurf board on the surface of the water, they’re actually riding the foil which remains submerged beneath the surface of the water.
Why is Windfoiling Becoming Popular?
Windfoiling is taking off in popularity for a variety of reasons all happening at the same time.
- It’s (in my opinion) an evolution of windsurfing, which has been waning in popularity. Windfoiling lets you fly in wind conditions you could never get a traditional windsurf board out in the water, and with a smaller sail. People are seeing windfoilers out on the water more and more often which helps grow the sport.
- Windfoiling is replacing windsurfing at the Olympic games in 2024.
- Manufacturers are piling into the space offering a lot more equipment at different price ranges and for different riding styles.
All of these events have helped grow windfoiling in popularity and made the sport more accessible to a mass audience.
Windsurfing vs Windfoiling
At first glance, it might seem like windfoiling and windsurfing are pretty similar. They both rely on wind in their sails to get moving, and much of the gear can be used for either sport.
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Yet because a windfoil surfer employs a hydrofoil to lift them above the water, the actual experience of riding the board feels completely different.
Suspending the board above the water creates a much smoother ride. It’s easier on the body, allows for an exceptional degree of control, and creates a unique feeling of flying.
Most of this is due to the huge reduction in drag that comes from lifting the board out of the water. Instead of having the entire mass of the board resisting the flow of the water, the highly efficient shape of the hydrofoil minimizes the surface area contacting the water.
From the perspective of the windfoil surfer, this creates two substantial advantages over typical windsurfing:
- Requires less wind: Traditional windsurfing requires a fair amount of wind power to get a decent ride. Because hydrofoils eliminate so much drag, windfoil surfers can get up to much higher speeds with far less wind than traditional windsurfers. Experienced windfoil surfers can get flying with less than 10 knots of wind, though for beginners conditions of at least 12-15 knots of wind are recommended.
- Smoother Ride: The smoothness of a windfoil flight helps to minimize the impact on your body, making windfoil surfing a much more gentle and relaxing experience than traditional surfing or windsurfing. Riding on a windfoil requires much less balance and core stability than riding a surfboard, meaning it is overall far less physically demanding.
Anatomy of a Hydrofoil
While there are some different hydrofoil designs you might encounter, the typical hydrofoil found on a windfoil setup is usually composed of four key parts:
- Front Wing: The front wing is the largest of the hydrofoil’s wings and is responsible for generating most of the hydrodynamic pressure that lifts the board out of the water.
- Back Wing: A smaller wing on the back of the hydrofoil creates some additional lift, but primarily it exists to provide balance and stability.
- Mast: The mast is a bar that attaches the hydrofoil to the board itself.
- Fuselage: The fuselage connects the front and back wings and provides a central mounting point for the mast. Since it is beneath the water, it has a hydrodynamic shape that minimizes drag.
The mast attaches to the bottom of a windsurfing board. When you see windfoil surfers gliding above the waves on what looks like a metal post, you’re seeing the mast holding the board aloft using hydrodynamic pressure generated by the hydrofoil!
During a windfoil flight, the mast is typically the only part of the hydrofoil visible. Most of the action takes place underwater, where the front wing and back wing glide through the water and generate lift. Meanwhile, the fuselage holds the whole assembly together.
Now lets dive a little bit deeper into each component of the foil.
The Front Wing
The most distinctive part of the hydrofoil is the front wing.
Since it is responsible for generating most of the lift, the size and shape of the front wing have the biggest impact on how the windfoil performs.
A large front wing helps to generate extra lift, making it easier to get the windfoil board flying even in low winds and at low speeds. A large wing has a lower top speed than a smaller wing, so racers typically prefer small wings for high speeds and fast turns.
Beginner windfoilers should start with a large front wing as they learn the basics, and then they can tweak their setup from there.
Many hydrofoils offer a selection of interchangeable front wings, allowing you to select the best wing to meet a given day’s wind conditions or your riding preference.
The Back Wing
In a hydrofoil, the back wing acts as a stabilizing element that balances the force generated from the front wing.
Generally, back wings aren’t tinkered with that much or even talked about that much in the windfoiling community. While there are a variety of different designs and sizes, the overall impact they have on the ride isn’t as important as the front wing. I suppose in the future, that may change.
The angle of the back wing can be adjusted to fine-tune the lift and stability of the hydrofoil and adjust for wind conditions. Angling the back wing upwards provides more lift and stability, while a more neutral angle minimizes drag and can speed things up.
Though it may seem that the mast merely attaches the hydrofoil to the board, it has an important role to play as well.
The mast is carefully shaped to minimize drag, allowing it to efficiently cut through the water during flight.
Not only is the shape important, but the height of the mast is also a key factor as well. A taller mast gives you more clearance above the water and gives you more freedom over just how deep your foil is in the water.
A shorter mast is less intimidating for beginners as you won’t be so high out of the water and it can be preferable if you’re riding in an area with shallow water.
How Hydrofoils Work
The more you spend time trying to find an explanation of how exactly a hydrofoil works on the internet, the more you realize no one seems to really know!
The best explanation I can give is that hydrofoils generate lift due to the water that flows over them accelerating downward. Below is a video which tries to explain some of the principles at play.
If you have an easy and simple way to explain how exactly a foil works in water, feel free to reach out!
Drawbacks of Windfoiling
As exciting as windfoiling is, there are a few drawbacks and challenges when compared to windsurfing.
Most of the drawbacks of windfoiling are inherent to the equipment itself.
Compared to traditional surfing or windsurfing, windfoil setups are more expensive to get started due to the cost of a foil. Most foils run anywhere from $800-2000+ depending on the company and materials (carbon and aluminum being the main choices). Though they are durable and built to last, as with anything meant to go into the ocean, they require some regular maintenance and upkeep.
The prices of foils have been coming down significantly each year, though. Also if you’re a windsurfer already, you may be able to use your existing gear. Your sails should work just fine, and your regular windsurfing board might work for windfoiling, but only if it has a reinforced fin box.
The wings of the foil can also be rather sharp. Take care to avoid making contact with them as it has the potential to lead to injury to both you and your hydrofoil! This is something to keep in mind when wiping out or bailing off of a windfoil. The best advice is to hold onto your boom during a crash as it should keep you safely away from the foil.
Is Windfoiling Difficult?
With some instruction, most beginners can get their first flights on a windfoil after just a few hours in the water but having basic windsurfing skills is recommended before foiling.
Whether you’re an old pro at surfing and windsurfing, or you’re completely new to water sports, just about anyone can pick up windfoiling with a bit of time, effort, and coaching.
Although prior experience windsurfing can translate to windfoiling, it’s important to remember that windfoiling is its own sport entirely! The dynamics and control necessary for flying on a foil are quite different from riding on the water, so you will have to learn some new skills to improve your windfoiling chops.
Generally, windfoiling is quite safe. Because it can be performed in pretty calm conditions, it is arguably safer than many other forms of surfing with massive waves.
However, some safety equipment is recommended, such as:
- Helmet: A helmet will save your noggin from any impacts from your board, hydrofoil, or anything that happens to be underwater.
- Impact vest: An impact vest is extremely useful to mitigate the impact from “catapulting” off the board — something you can expect to do frequently as a beginner and occasionally as a veteran!
- Boots/water shoes: Although not as necessary as a helmet or impact vest, water boots are recommended to keep your feet safe from the hydrofoil wings or anything sharp on the seafloor.
- Wetsuit: Even in warmer climates, many windfoil surfers prefer to wear a wetsuit to help protect them from the hydrofoil blades or any obstacles in the water.