Is Foiling The Future of Surfing?

Mr. Adam Bennetts making small waves more fun.

The Inertia

“I think surfing will always have its core place and roots in the art of riding waves,” Adam Bennetts told The Inertia recently, “But foiling will provide the future of surfing to some degree.”

Bennetts has been described by Foiling magazine as “a foiling luminary who is blazing a well-documented and well-respected trail of progression and discovery through these halcyon days of the sport.” From around 2010, Bennetts spent a decade as a pro surfer based in Bali and the Gold Coast. In March 2019, he borrowed his brother’s foil set-up for his first attempt. He ordered his own foil the next day and hasn’t set foot on a surfboard since.

“I’m able to ride my foil like a surfboard nowadays, so I do get my surf fix from those feelings, but everything is just on steroids because you’re going five times faster through every turn,” he said. 

We were talking to Bennetts in October 2023, just a few weeks after Alex Hayes rode a wave that had been called the best barrel ever ridden on a foil board at Cloudbreak, a solid eight-foot freight train. It was yet another step in the very rapid progression of foiling. That it was done by an Australian Instagram star, YouTube celebrity and surfer, who found fame by posting a selfie surfing with a (fake) shark is, perhaps, irrelevant.

Now foils ain’t new. In 1861 the English engineer Thomas Moy installed a foil on a boat in the Surrey Canal and noted that when the vessel was towed, it was lifted “quite out of the water.” The physics hasn’t changed. The foil, shaped like an airplane wing, is tapered to allow water to flow quickly over it. At higher speeds, this action creates lift. This, in effect, lifts the boat (or board) out of the water and into the air, where there is much less resistance so higher speeds can be reached.

The design has evolved in the last 150 years. The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham-Bell, got heavily involved in the 1920s. The world’s military invested heavily in hydrofoils after World War II. By the 1970s the Soviet Union had developed the largest civil hydrofoil fleet in the world. 

In surfing terms though, it is no surprise that the technology was first adapted in the great experimental petri dish that was Maui in the late 1990s. Mango Carafino, a prominent waterman, designed and manufactured the first hydrofoils for kitesurfing. 

Laird Hamilton then began experimenting with attaching hydrofoils to surfboards. The 2003 film Step Into Liquid showed how Laird and his crew hacked the seat off an Airchair, (a sit-down hydrofoil developed in 1990 to be towed behind a boat) attached the foil to a surfboard, stuck their feet in snowboarding boots, and towed into absolutely gigantic waves.

It worked, though the need for boots and bindings delayed the progression of foiling for some years. It was not until 2006 that Carafino created a board that was user-friendly to the ankles and could be used without boots. By 2014, when the South African surfer and aerospace engineer Clifford Coetzer developed the hydrofoil wing and started the foil company Unifoil, the design was getting mainstream traction, if that isn’t quite the right word.

In the intervening years, the wave and swell riding aspect of the sport, a category called “prone” in the foil game, has slowly been building acolytes. They come from across the watersports spectrum, with surfers, wakeboarders, kite surfers, and windsurfers all crossing over. The Florida surfer Brian Finch has been there since the start, and his Foiltheworld platform has done more than most to spread the word. 

“Our sport has come a long way, and it’s great to see how foilers are now approaching waves of consequence with a high-performance surf mindset,” Finch said recently after a Unifoil team trip to Bali which featured in the creatively named Bali Movie (below). “Now we are seeing full grab rail carves, airs, lip hits, foam bangs, even a few barrels. This really felt like an old-school surf trip with everyone pushing each other to go harder and deeper.”

If Laird has never really dropped the foil torch, Kai Lenny has taken the sparks and created his foil fire. He has taken the Maui spirit of invention, coupled with immense cross-discipline talent, and worked on making more foils more transportable, maneuverable and adaptable. Perhaps no other athlete has pushed the sport towards its unknown future.  

Matahi Drollet has been leading the foil charge in Tahiti, mixing downwind, aerials, power carves and big wave slabs working with Takuma founder and designer Cyril Coste. “The technology is improving every month, and we are pushing it at Teahupo’o. Bigger waves, deeper barrels; that’s where we are headed,” Drollet told The Inertia

In the big-wave realm, French pair Tom Constant and Matt Etxebarne have spent the last few seasons exploring Nazare’s outer reaches and tackled Belharra last winter. In South Africa, Dylan Wichmann of Appletree Surfboards has been experimenting with different-sized masts to tackle “proper-sized” Sunset and Dungeons. 

And while that is at the very pointy end of the sport, it is the frictionless feeling, and the ability to ride a foil in any conditions that’s leading to its rise in popularity, and with it, better tech and progression. 

“The camaraderie of everyone got me in, where surfing is an individual thing, and when you first get that frictionless feeling, the sound, the speed, was so different and so new,” said Eric Geisleman, who in the last 12 months has picked up the sport and quickly excelled. “It’s a one-percent feeling that the whole world hasn’t tapped into yet.”

Is Foiling The Future of Surfing?

Is taking flight in your future?

The rise of the e-foils has been another element, though, so far, weight restrictions have held them back in waves. Bennetts rides Fliteboards and says while they are the most user-friendly, responsive, and lightest on the market, they still weigh four times what a prone setup weighs, making them hard to throw around on waves, even for the best foilers.

Yet even without the role e-foils will play in the future, the discipline is progressing at a ridiculous rate. Bennetts sees a future that will include a world tour with surfing-style contests similar to the WSL but with many other divisions. Surfing has always genetically spliced itself into different sub-genres, but foiling might have the longest-lasting impact. 

“It’s so much more inclusive than surfing. I can imagine it feels like what surfing felt like in the 1960s and 1970s when everyone was just stoked on learning and getting better,” concludes Bennetts. “It’s a cool era to be involved in because it’s getting exponentially bigger every week. It’s a feeling like no other on the ocean. And we are only just getting started.” 


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