James Cook certainly couldn’t have tweeted a photo when he arrived on the shores of Hawaii, accompanied by the appropriate “#WTF” caption. But had the technology been available, I’m sure it would have blown up each of his social media accounts. To Cook and anybody that had yet to witness the act of riding a wave, gliding on water effortlessly and gracefully, literally dancing on the surface of the ocean, it had to at least feel like some kind of witchcraft. What kind of magic was at play here? Is this even human? Hashtag. What. The. F***?
For the most part, this is the same reaction we all give to most things Laird Hamilton does on a wave. Whether you screen grab him shooting the Malibu pier and post “#WTF” or not, your inner monologue is probably going to be a mixed bag of “I guess that’s just Laird being Laird” and “Seriously, bro?” But the truth is, I can watch Laird tow in at Teahupoo and somewhat understand the mechanics of pulling into that wave mixed with a healthy dose of superhuman fortitude it takes to stand tall in those conditions. Many of us have caught enough waves to simply get it. The motions. The technique. The application of our typical wave riding skills. Then multiply those factors by about a hundred, along with superior balance, intuition, strength, etc., and you’ve got Laird on a wave. I can at least start to wrap my head around that. But Laird Hamilton riding a foil board, on the other hand? What kind of magic is at play here? Seriously, how in the world do these things glide on top of the surface of the water? What kind of spells are being cast to make this possible? Hashtag what the f***?
But according to Collin Bangs, a production manager for the company Air Chair, foil boarding is not only easy to understand from a hydrodynamics standpoint but it’s also beginner friendly–unless, of course, you’re trying to do it on a wave, a la the Greek God of riding waves himself. “[The hydrofoil] works under the exact same principles as an airplane,” Bangs told me. “You have two wings, one in the back and one in the front as a stabilizer, and you have high pressure and low pressure areas on the wing. And as it moves through the water, that creates lift just like with an airplane.”
It even looks exactly like an airplane. The wings are shaped to deflect water pressure downward, and for those of you who paid attention in physics class, Newton’s Third Law of Motion taught you this is where upward motion is applied to the foil. The division of high and low pressure creates different levels of velocity on each side of the foil. Voila. Rider, meet air. And surprisingly, Bangs says “flying” takes place at only about three miles per hour when the proper mechanics are applied. The creation of the hydrofoil itself actually dates back as early as the turn of the 20th century, with water skiers finally putting them to use in the 1950’s. So it turns out placing these things in the face of a breaking wave is actually long overdue.
All these principles applied to Bangs’ Air Chair, where a rider is in a seated position above a board with a hydrofoil, are the inspiration for what we see from big wave surfers literally flying through sections at Raglan. The major difference, he says, is that surfing a hydrofoil is reserved for the elite of the elite. This is mainly because there’s a higher level of danger with the hydrofoil requiring a “fine” level of balance. The mechanics of guiding the board, turning, and maintaining control over the foil’s balance point are heightened. The added variable of bending at the knees creates a pivot point that makes wipeouts far more likely. “In order to make it to that level,” he explained, “you’ve kind of reached the pinnacle of everything else in surfing.” Which explains another piece of what many of us do understand about Laird and the rest of the big wave fraternity. While us mere mortals strive to excel or simply keep up with wave riding endeavors on the typical foam and glass surfboard, Hamilton is already so far ahead of the curve that the only logical next step is to explore the unexplored.
On the other hand, riding a seated hydrofoil is not only the safest water sport but also as a favorable learning curve, according to Bangs. He says skiers and mountain bikers tend to have the quickest learning curve on an air chair, while water skiers, wake boarders, and pretty much any water sport enthusiast struggling to grasp how the mechanics of how their own sport translates to sitting in a floating chair. That logic is applied simply because maintaining control while connected to a hydrofoil seems to be squarely dependent on your ability to keep your point of balance as far forward as possible. Once this is mastered, you’re flying within a day. If only the same could be said about catching waves, right?
So Laird’s magic continues. My pursuit to grasp the physics at play when Laird tows in on these hovering boards out of an X-Men movie was accomplished while he maintained his Paul Bunyan-like status. Because while getting some air on the seat of a hydrofoil may not sound like the toughest journey, apparently catching a wave with one is. Laird is still super human. The rest of us are not.