What is Wing Surfing / Wing Foiling? All Questions Answered

what is wing foiling

Have you just witnessed someone zipping around some waves with a surfboard 2 feet above the water while holding onto a giant inflatable wing?

If so, you just witnessed the latest craze of wingfoiling – and this craze is here to stay.

What is Wing Foiling?

Wing Foiling is the art of riding a hydrofoil board while harnessing the wind’s power via a handheld wing. If you’re not familiar with a hydrofoil, we’ll talk more about that later.

For now, just know it’s a tool that’s bolted onto the bottom of the board and uses similar physics to an airplane’s wings to generate lift to get the board up off the water.

ketos windfoil 4.jpg

The wing is the other important component here. These are inflatable, extremely versatile tools that let a rider use the wind when they need it, but neutralize the wing in an instant when they don’t. The wing is also great for getting huge air!


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Wing foiling truly opens up a new realm of possibilities for water sports.

What is Wing Surfing?

Wing surfing is the art of using a handheld wing while riding a surfboards, paddleboards, or other water boards without a foil. Although we initially saw wings used for down winding or propelling larger paddleboards, I love that riders are now performing incredible acts of wave-riding and aerials on shorter, lower volume boards. 

That being said… many people are now using the phrase “wing surfing” to also refer to doing the same activity as “wing foiling”. There’s no longer any difference between these two terms in many people’s minds.

How Does a Hydrofoil Work?

I have to admit, when I first saw Laird and friends flying down 40-foot waves in 2003, I thought there must be some sorcery at work. When I also witnessed them riding virtually flat water with no added propulsion, I was baffled.

The concept of how the foil works is relatively straightforward and is not dissimilar to the airplane wing design.

hydrofoil diagram

The Mast

The mast attaches perpendicular to the bottom of the board. It is usually anywhere between 45cm and 100cm in length, depending on the depth of water and riding style. The role of the mast is to attach the board to the lower section of the foil. It also creates stability and maneuverability. 

The Fuselage

The fuselage is the section of the foil that connects the mast and the front and rear fins. The length of the fuselage will affect the way the fins react and the riding experience.  Generally, a longer fuselage will allow the rider to maintain a steady riding height with drawn-out turns and pumps. In comparison, a shorter fuselage promotes a more uneven riding height but allows for sharper turning and quick pumping action.

The Fins (Wings)

The foil consists of two fins, a front fin, and a tail fin.

The front wing has a curved upper surface and a flatter lower surface. It has a rounded leading edge, which tapers towards a thinner trailing edge. The shape of the tail fin is usually similar to the front fin.

As the foil passes through the water, it creates lift as the fins deflect water downwards. According to Isaac Newton’s third law, “for every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force.” This means that for every lb of force the hydrofoil pushes down, the water pushes back with equal force.

A larger front fin is usually matched with a larger tail fin to create balance, although some riders prefer using a smaller tail fin for a looser feeling during turns.  Mismatching the fin size will generate less lift and require more back foot pressure to balance out the front fin. Micro adjustments of the tail fin will also affect the ride dynamics.

How Does a Wing Work?

When you first see a wing, it looks slightly like a cross between a windsurfing sail and a hang-gliding sail. It took me a little while to visualize just how they work. Once you get one in your hands and feel the power generated, it becomes self-explanatory.

The wing works very similarly to a kite sail, albeit held in your hands rather than on the end of lines. As the wind blows in the wing’s direction, the wing lifts, driving the board and rider forward.

Using a Wing

It is advisable to spend a bit of time on dry land handling the wing and getting to grips with how it responds to the wind and how your changes in hand and body position will affect the wing. Once you feel natural handling the wing, you can try riding a skateboard using the wing. Do remember that dry land is a lot less forgiving for falling on than water. I recently saw some incredible footage of snowboarders carving in deep powder using wings. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with snow, that could be an excellent option for developing your skills, as well as winter cross-training.

The rider uses similar principles to a windsurfer to change speed and direction. Knowledge of the “wind clock” and “wind window” is beneficial when starting and progressing.

From a personal point of view, I found that the skills I have developed as a surfer and foil surfer seemed to cross over to wing surfing a bit more than the basic skills I had developed while kite surfing, with the wing being far easier to get to grips with than the kite.

Turning down to the wind (jibing) feels similar to windsurfing but less technical. By rotating the body and board and looking in the direction you want to travel, you simply turn the wing over your head neutrally, against the wind. Once the wing has transferred, it’s adjusted to the correct angle, and you are traveling in the opposite direction.

Things get a little more complicated with feet position, but I found this to be a natural progression. The wing allowed me to embrace my surfing style by riding backhand rather than switching to goofy. It might sound a bit silly, but I feel like I’m surfing with a big paper plane in my hands. I go wherever I point the plane.   

Another element I find comfortable with the wing is depowering. The easiest way to depower the wing is merely holding it dead flat and above my head, especially when riding downwind.

When I am riding a wave, I hold my wing by the front handle with my rear hand and allow it to trail behind me in a depowered state.

What Kind of Board Should I Use?

The great thing about wing surfing is that the type of board is down to personal preference.

It is advisable to spend a bit of time cruising on a SUP in low wind conditions to start. The stable platform enables you to get a feel for transitioning to your feet, riding with the wing, and the dynamics of changing position.

Once you are comfortable in the water, you can ride your standard windsurfing board, foil board, or kiteboard. We even see riders on conventional surfboards ripping into high-performance, surf-style maneuvers.

There are manufacturers designing wing specific boards, with the focus mainly on wing foil boards. It will be fascinating to see where the new designs take the sport. 

The Advantages of Wing Surfing/Foiling

One of the things that excited me the most about foiling was that conditions that are bad for surfing are perfect for foiling. Those near-flat days became a paradise for carving around on the foil board, riding waves that you couldn’t even catch on a longboard or SUP.

The wing creates even more opportunities.

I find the best days for wing surfing are the days that I wouldn’t even look at for surfing or conventional foil surfing. The length of ride you can achieve is unbelievable, in conditions you would otherwise struggle with.    

Wing foiling is the most incredible feeling. The sensation of glide, even on flat water, means you become hooked very early. I have as much fun riding flat water as I do in the waves.  

Because the equipment is compact, compared to a full windsurfing or kite surfing rig, travel is relatively easy. I am so excited to think that I can pack my wing in my board bag when I next travel to Cape Town. When that Cape Doctor south-easterly starts blowing, I can jump in at Bloubergstrand for an afternoon of pure fun.   

The Drawbacks of Wing Surfing/Foiling

Price

The immediate drawback would be price. Most of us are already heavily invested in the kit for our wind sport and surfing.

A wing is a significant investment. When you consider that you may need different sized wings for different wind conditions, the price can become a real factor.

If you are a kite-surfer, wind-surfer, SUP rider, or surfer, you may not have invested in a foil board. To enjoy all the benefits of the wing, I believe it needs to be combined with a foil, alongside your standard board, to explore the full potential. Meaning a further up-front investment and foils are not cheap.

Damaging the Wing

Unfortunately, I have witnessed the type of damage an untimely interaction between a wing and a foil can cause. My good friend hadn’t quite grasped that you transport the foil board upwind and the wing downwind while walking towards the water. Let’s just say that foils are sharp, and repairing a wing can be costly!

FAQs

Is wing foiling difficult?

The hardest part of wing foiling is learning to ride the foil board. You can practice this behind a boat, at a ski lake (if they allow foils), or in very small wave conditions. Once you master the foil, the wing is a relatively easy skill to learn.

Is wing foiling dangerous?

All water sports have inherent risks. Wing foiling is at the higher end of the risk scale due to the presence of the foil. Always wear a helmet when you are wing foiling, and I would also recommend wetsuits with impact vests for added protection.

Do I need a new board to wing foil?

It depends on your board. The foil puts a lot of strain and leverage on your board. If you have a reinforced finbox that’s foiling-approved by the manufacturer, then go for it. You can also pay a board shaper to install a reinforced finbox, or you might just want to bite the bullet and get a board built for foiling.

 A Brief History of Foiling

According to legendary windsurfer and all-round water-man Robby Naish, he first rode a wind foil around 1977 in the crystalline waters of Kailua. The simple, wooden design didn’t exactly inspire Naish at the time. He found the rudimentary foil to offer no real benefits to his performance.

He was equally unimpressed when Harken designed a hydrofoil windsurfing board in the late 1980s.

Flash forward to the turn of the new millennia, and Naish witnessed a group of pioneers, including Laird Hamilton, Rush Randle, Pete Cabrinha, and Dave Kalama, using the perfect ocean conditions off the island of Maui to design and test a whole new breed of surf-craft.

This group, who we affectionately called “The Strapped Crew,” following the ground-breaking 2003 movie Strapped, were windsurfing massive waves at Jaws, as well as destroying the myth that waves become un-rideable at a certain size, via jetski assisted tow-surfing.  

At this point, the guys I mentioned above, along with the rest of The Strapped Crew, really got to grips with the foil designs. Tow boards and windsurfing boards were initially adapted to include an “Air Chair” foil attachment and facilitated a whole new riding concept, not only on but above the water. I believe Rush Randle originally coined the phrase Hydro Windsurfing and Laird referred to the tow surfing as Hydro-foiling.

If you have not seen the movie Strapped or 2004’s Riding Giants, I strongly recommend you trawl the archives for a copy. It is fascinating to witness the early days of foil riding and the incredible ocean conditions those guys were conquering.

In its various forms, foiling remained the pursuit of a hard-core Maui based group for several years until its more mainstream acceptance in recent times. It was when riders realized that the foil designs not only worked in the most extreme conditions but are so much fun in smaller waves and lower wind situations that we started to see foils at our local beaches and lakes. 

A Brief History of Inflatable Wings

The time-line of wing development is quite similar to the development of the surfing foil, although the real breakthroughs in performance have only occurred in the past few years.

Pete Cabrinha first tried an early version in 1982. Just like Robbie Naish with the foil, Cabrinha found the wing to be heavy, bulky, and not performance-enhancing in any way.

There were further developments through the late ’80s and ’90s without making much of an impact.

Riders saw the wing’s potential around the same time “The Strapped Crew” were doing their thing at Jaws. However, it was more focused on high-speed skating and skiing on frozen lakes. There were still far too many limitations to “The Kite Wing” design to consider taking it on the water. A couple of companies did produce some simple inflatable wings to propel stand up paddleboards in low wind conditions, but the concept didn’t catch on.

Kiteboarding had an explosion of popularity and as the materials and manufacturing techniques improved, so too did the opportunity to “reinvent” the wing design. Super-lightweight and extra-strong fabrics are combined with inflatable frames to enable functional and durable wings, allowing riders to set new boundaries in performance and fun.

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