The first time I ever saw a foil in the flesh was in 2014, working on a super yacht in Phuket. An older couple were taking turns towing each other behind a small boat. At the time I thought I wish they’d give me a go, it looked like they were really hacking at it. With the confidence of someone who was effectively a professional boat driver and cleaner, with a lifetime of dragging people behind boats on nearly anything, this looked like easy money to me. They never came back and I was too busy chasing barrels in Bali for it to cross my mind again, and so the barbed hook missed me for the first time.
The first time I tried a foil was in 2017. Clifford of UniFoil had been in touch with my dad about something to do with surfskis, and it surfaced that he was building a foil. We got in touch and offered our boat to do some towing in the river in exchange for a go. We have a few cracks at it, I nearly swallowed the foil wing whole in a jack-knife fall, and Gumby who had a few hours on it over us even managed to surf the tiny wake. My brother linked up with them the next day and had a go at surf foiling. I was already back in Cape Town as I had a new job, was recently married, was building RC gliders, and so slipped the barbs once again. I was definitely tempted as Clifford/Unifoil was even offering a local orders discount. I asked him if he had any used setups going cheap, but never heard back. Back to Cape Town I went, without space for another consuming hobby in my life1.
Fast forward to 2021, having moved to London (not conducive to anything other than indoor bouldering) and then Oxford (even more landlocked!), I found myself in a riverside apartment for the summer. A friend from Zurich instructed me to get an Axis 1150. Foiling is happening, he said. These things were not cheap, in fact they are blindingly expensive, but somehow fate handed me the only used 1150 I’ve seen listed. Some hyper aggressive scrounging and I managed to put together a reasonable, if metallurgically tired setup. I was going to learn to dockstart.
I have a theory for how to spend your time: do what is going. (what is going? Do that). This means that based on your current and near immediate future, choose your current hobbies and interests based on what is optimal for that present and future. Do what is going. Wherever you are in the world, find the thing that catches your interest, gets you excited but most importantly is appropriately selected for your life/lifestyle. When in London, bouldering & cycling are appropriate. When in Cape Town in summer, don’t hate the 3 month long 40kn gale, ditch the surfboard and get some kiting in.
The advice is to be water, dear friend. Go with the flow rather than dogmatically hounding your calendar for your next trip.
Advice easily given, and yet poorly applied. I no longer kite and so spend many months in Cape Town eeking out icy surfs while the wind nukes. In London I spent hours getting to Southampton to crew on racing yachts. You can’t reason with your own curiosity really, but what you can do is use this theory to justify something new. And so applying my theory to myself, living 100m from the river Thames, with a push from a friend, the challenge of learning to pump a foil off the dock felt like it was right.
Having not seen a foil since 2017, and with a grand total of well below 5 min of foil time, I was cautiously optimistic that I would just nail it. This being a semi-reliable hunch, as the more things you crack, the easier the incremental new things become.
Not so with the dockstart. I stand by the 30 attempts per day for 3 days2 as an approximate minimum effort to get over the first hump (not falling immediately). Your brain needs time, and especially sleep to synthesise the new experiences, and eventually you just hit a wall each day. Fascinating.
Save yourself the trouble and spend an hour behind a boat if you have never foiled before, or just go for it - learning and getting spitting mad while doing it is part of the fun.
Cracking dock starting is possibly worthwhile. It is ridiculously challenging initially, but eventually your brain just rewires itself, and you can cruise, work on efficiency, strength, technique in order to get beyond the breathless bursts and up to 1 minute flights and beyond. The main value ultimately, as jumping off the dock is a means to an end, is that it gives you the very useful sensitivity to low speed near-stall riding, and very quick feedback to the feeling of different setups. The only casualty was a few gashes from The Knives as my brother likes to call them, and a nearly toasted 4/3mm wetsuit that took the brunt of the 1000’s of times elegantly climbing (flopping seal) up the concrete jetty.
What the dock doesn’t teach you is to deal with the dynamic and turbulent sea, least of all the incredible surges of energy in a wave.
Cornwall was always the final destination, and with the foil hooks starting to bite, we headed to that rugged North C. coastline. This being Autumn, the surf started to turn on. The foil was parked. The 6’1 was freshly waxed with an Insta worthy base-coat/top-coat textured landscape, and the mind focussed itself on chasing big walls of raw Atlantic energy dragging themselves over reefs along the coast.
In the back of my mind the foil was still there, but only having the massive 1150cm span wing and a kiteboard, surf foiling eluded my invalid attempts, stuck as I was between the urge to buy a surf foil setup and the desire for a new mid-length board.
Front of mind, the mid-length won.
Foil gear sits near the “how much!?” range for most, and the inflexible nature of each bit, and incompatibility between brands, is really all just stinging nettle in a surfer’s wallet. Up to £1000 for a board and nearly the same again for the foil bits I needed just wasn’t happening, especially when a mid-length in SA costs less than a foil front-wing alone (a used one!).
Back to South Africa for December, with the pump foil still in tow, but not really getting a look in over the mid-length and a few runs of good surf, and a freakish meaty swell to light up some beaches. The kiteboard that I brought with got wet once in the sea, and a few dock sessions, but it really wasn’t working on that board, and I was loath to part with any more money.
My hometown of St Francis Bay is pretty well renowned for fun easy surf, and is high on the list for local foilers. This has led to a few grumbles from the locals at the prime longboard surf spot, frequented by all craft, all ages, and probably has become too festive with foils thrown into the mix.
The whole town is oriented to water spots, and so leaving the foil aside, I surfed my dad’s new noserider, the first time I’ve surfed a longboard with a flatter tail rocker, and it was quite perfect. Equally good was the malibu surf rescue board. I bumped into the local foil crew and chatted shop about buying one of their progression boards, and considered chatting to the local surf-pro who looked to be foil hooked, but the spots were all rammed with tourists and the surf was good enough.
Clearly the foil's hooks were slipping.
The foil does work in mysterious ways, and someone my dad knew (or knew of) had bought the Flite efoil franchise for SA, and had got chatting when he paddled past. “Don’t ask, don’t get” applies here. Turns out he was keen for people to try it out, and so the 3 brothers paddled over to the slipway that next morning for a go. Efoils are like jet skis, best to have a buddy who owns one.
The novelty was epic, but the appeal wears thin, rather it feels functional, like a jetski. And so another barb slipped, and I headed back to winter in Cornwall, ready to challenge some winter walls.
It is no secret that the North Atlantic slows down in the summer. If you’ve grown up surfing the Southern Oceans, you’d be excused for not believing quite how flat it gets. The winter months see the full brunt of the gulf-stream born storms hammering straight into the coast, month on month of swell, and the wind backing just frequently enough to give the attentive surfer some dreamy cold water moments while the tide is just so (whipping up and down its 8 metre range).
Suddenly it stops.
Late spring sees a big high pressure system parking itself in the North Atlantic and deflects and neutralises any semblance of a storm, only the odd hurricane pulse can traverse the gap. This leaves the western Europe coast, at least from a surf perspective, in a state of lake-like tranquillity. From ravaged sea cliffs to inviting coastal swims. Polarised is the word.
And so with this in store, I felt the stars starting to align, and a surf foil would start to sell itself in my mimetic subconscious. A few things needed to line up for this to work, and allow for the metamorphosis to take place.
Primarily, it was viability. Are the circumstances correct and ready? Alluding to this theory earlier, the circumstances had up until this point not been ready.
Now, close to the beach, a few GBP saved for a used board, nearly flat ocean. Perfect.
Next on the list is more subtle. The Scene.
The best stoke in life is shared stoke, and there is nothing quite like the shared froth of a bunch of people facing into the unknown possibilities of a new thing to learn. This is amplified when the thing itself is experiencing an inflection point in its growth or innovation.
One of my formative experiences was the sudden growth of downhill skateboarding in 2009, of which I and a few friends were reasonably influential (before it was a thing). This surge was triggered by many factors, technological, economical, but what lit the spark was a few video clips showing a new way of doing something otherwise quite familiar3.
Something I reflect on often about that skateboarding time is that I spent the year prior to getting involved in skateboarding working on a yacht that was doing a refit in Mallorca. The year was spent mostly discovering life as a newly minted yachty, and while I dragged along a longboard (and making a replacement when it snapped, in the lazarette of certainly one of the most beautiful classic sailing yachts in the world), I never bothered to notice that Mallorca has some of the best skateboarding in Europe, and home to the only 360deg corner I know of. Skip forward a few years and I was straight back there, amazed at how perfect the hills were.
The point is, neither skateboarding nor I was in a position for that level of attention. I had all the time in the world, but I was on an adventure already, and didn’t necessarily need nor was I looking for additional ways to hurt myself in the pursuit of adrenaline.
I often wonder what my skateboarding career would have looked like if I had pursued skateboarding with the focus I did pursue it, but starting exactly 18 months earlier, with literally every race I would come to dream of within a few hours travel.
In the end, with luck and enthusiasm to thank, we led the charge of South Africans in the downhill racing scene, and travelled to a few continents, but mostly the Alps, shooting video parts from the nascent growth, right up until 2015 when it hit a relative plateau, and my interests moved on, my ligaments grateful. Downhill skateboarding has many ebbs and flows, like skateboarding itself, but this was the first time it hit mainstream for a brief blip.
Regardless of where foiling ends, the scene is what sustains and drives the hook deeper.
Foiling is at this point. Once (still?) a kooky fringe activity, the estranged child of SUP. Foiling is slowly developing a coherent style, and eventually it may even establish a place in the line-up.
Presently, I am finding my glides along the North Cornwall coast, finding the best chip’n’rip opportunities on a low tide, up the beach away from anyone. Foiling is at a point where it is still rare enough and early enough to mean that everyone at my level (linked my first few waves as of writing this) is a likely candidate for shared sessions, shared tips and shared stoke. Myself and another Matt are now partners in bump hunting and gear tuning . A sandbar that fades into a hole is optimal, giving us an easy entry and then space to turn the massive dock start oriented foils out to find another wave.
The gear I have is enviable to someone who has no gear, while frustrating to me in it’s lack of relative performance, and causing much time lost, foil-brained to the max, in pursuit of what might speed things along, as seems to be the case with all the foilers along the North Cornwall coast, a tight knit crew with a friendly attitude, known as the KernowFoilCrew.co.uk
The best solution to the foil-froth-brain feeling is more time in the water, trying smaller waves, try try try other people’s gear, but ultimately, I have found no shortcuts.
What is clear is that the humble foil might finally be having a moment. In the greater scheme of things, people were foiling as a hobby all the way back to the 90’s - with pedal assisted foiling canoes and all manner4. Readers may wonder (if not already hooked), if now is their moment. If the water is ready. To that I would say, let yourself be drawn in. If you find yourself hooked, let the hook settle.
The rest of us that are in various states of the flow should maintain perspective. Nothing lasts forever, this too shall pass, and life will go on. That said, embracing the present is what it is about. What a special thing to be a part of. From my experience with downhill skateboarding, a combination of things lead to a plateau - gear performance plateau, saturated market, public pushback, governing body collapse, trends changing, bodies aching.
With foiling, the key risks are likely negative perceptions from surfing, and a crowded foil line-up won’t get anyone stoked - which we are likely closer to critical capacity than we realise.
A note to the other things that have their hooks but have yet to pan out, remaining on the distant horizon of possibility. To me, this is sailing, far away. These things sit waiting patiently, possibly forever, but will also sink a few hooks if the moment is right.
Foiling is here. The line-ups are probably not ready for a critical mass of new novices, and etiquette, rules, lawsuits and probably worse are likely still in store, but this post serves as a tribute to all the curious tinkerers and surfers who have bent aluminium and carbon to the current point, and especially those who spread the stoke even further.
As I write this, having completed my first 3 wave link (entirely marginal link, and after far too many attempts, and a serious limp from getting ridden over by my foil in the shorebreak), I wondered who this is for.
If you’re hooked, commiserations and joy to you, your attention span and your wallet.
If not, then this is maybe for you. Nearly everyone who got hooked was somewhat sceptical, maybe even had a go or bought a foil only for it to fall to the side. You can’t force it (you could I suppose), but when the time is right, let yourself take the bait, and run with it a bit.
Another piece of irony that foils are entirely aerodynamics nerd heaven, and I lost interest in RC planes pretty quickly because of the lack of physical challenge to complement the very interesting wing design elements - washout, foil section, dihedral, reynolds…
If you’ve never seen a foil before, don’t beat yourself up, I estimate I must have had around 1000 attempts before feeling any semblance of control.
Early GoPro on a stick pioneer, to my credit. Netsky even met me with some tickets to his SA concert.