How I Learned The Difficulties And Dangers Of Foiling The Hard Way
A cautionary tale.
Two weeks ago I reported on a very serious piece of news, being Joel Tudor’s unambiguous opinion on foilboarding, which read: “If you ain’t kai , laird or Jon Jon ….fuck off with these dangerous things in crowded lineups – you donkeys are gonna kill someone” [sic].
I then proceeded to share, and occasionally poke fun at, notable opinions from both of sides of the foil debate, which I found eerily reminiscent of America’s gun-based hysteria. In this metaphor Joel Tudor represented the safety-minded, foil-law advocate left, and the West Coast Foil Club played the NFA-backed, freedom-toting right.
Amidst a flurry of online responses, including a very direct threat from someone who didn’t appreciate his foil being called a “penis-compensation toy”, the WCFC’s Senior Foil Officer, an ex-big wave nut and current tiny wave enthusiast, Evan Slater, reached out with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“You want to come foil with us?”
One week later I met Evan near Huntington Beach Pier. As I started to pull on my wetsuit, genuinely excited for the novel experience to come, Evan spoke in a hushed tone, “No. Not here… Joel has eyes in these parts.”
The next thing I knew Evan put a pair of Hurley Phantom Boardshorts™ over my head, threw me in the trunk of his Prius and drove around town in a highly disorienting fashion. After who knows how long, my kidnapper finally stopped the car, opened the trunk, and removed the Phantoms so I could see what was perhaps the worst beach break in all of California.
“Where… are we?”
Evan explained that this was the WCFC’s “secret spot”; that they surf here most mornings and every day at lunch, and that I must never reveal its whereabouts.
“That won’t be a problem,” I assured him. “I can’t imagine anyone would come here by choice.”
It was, after all, only the WCFC and local meth-heads that frequented this obscure parking lot. Just the way they liked it.
I was then introduced to Ryan and Jeff Hurley, sons of Bob, also Hurley execs, who are the WCFC’s co-CFOs (Chief Foiling Officers). They hooked me up with a foilboard (a chubby 4’2” with an eagle on the bottom), gave me a couple pointers, and sent me on my way.
No more than two steps from the parking lot, I had already done something wrong.
“You hold it like this,” Evan explained, positioning the board backwards under his right arm (wax-side out), allowing the foil to go out and around his midsection, while holding the bar in between the dual wings with his left hand.
This was the first of many things I would come to learn about foiling, all of them the hard way. I’ve detailed the rest below, so that should you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, you’ll be better prepared.
Foiling really is hard.
John John said, Kelly said it, I think even Laird said foiling was difficult, but still I didn’t believe them. In my mind, there was no way that with 20 years of surfing experience, anything involving wave and a board could give me that much trouble. Wrong. Foiling is incredibly challenging, so if you’re not already an above-average surfer, it’s probably a waste of money and time. If you are an above-average surfer, I’d recommend chucking whatever expectations you have into the Pacific garbage patch and focusing solely on survival.
…Because it’s extremely dangerous.
Every time you take off on a wave, the foil–which I might remind you is a heavy, 3-foot long, right-angled sliver of carbon and aluminum–is out to kill you and anyone else within a 300-meter radius. As a beginner, chances are you’ll get launched into the air (what foilers call a “breach”) and come down right on top of, or at least very close to, the foil. Worse still, if you manage to fall away from your board (and aren’t wearing a leash), that sucker is designed to ride the rest of the wave without you, making it liable to kill any man, woman, or child in its path. You could of course wear a leash, but this will naturally increase your personal odds of being struck. So for the sake of you and everybody else in the water, foiling is best performed for a crowd of none.
Taking off is confusing.
“The worst thing you can do,” Jeff told me in the parking lot, “is to try to take off from the top of the wave.” I quickly found this to be true. On a foil, steepness of wave is directly correlated to the likelihood and severity of a breach. Ideally, you want to catch the wave from “underneath”, pop up quickly, and get all the weight over your front foot. This is somewhat confusing, because weighting forward on a drop would typically lead to a nose dive, but on a foil it’s almost impossible to pearl. You’re essentially trying to mitigate that initial breach, which can only be done using a forward lean. Evan explained the feeling best: “It’s kind of like a backside barrel stance, with your chest and all your weight leaning over that front knee.” Though you don’t need to grab.
You shouldn’t try to “surf” the foil.
My best rides, which consisted of rising slightly out of the water and going in a straight line, were made possible only when I stopped trying to “surf” the foil. As a beginner, your goal should be simply to ride. This means getting as low as possible and staying extremely centered over the craft. Any bit of leaning (what a surfer might call a “turn”) will cause you to get off-balance and lose control of the foil, resulting in at least a wipeout or at worst the dreaded “kickflip”, which is when the foil launches out of the water with a brilliant twist, akin to the notorious Spinner shark in both appearance and danger. To mitigate this risk, if you feel like you’re gonna fall, it’s recommended you just go with it as opposed to “over-correcting” for your mistake.
Tiny waves are exciting… and terrifying.
As I laughed at the pitiful waves from the parking lot, Evan was quick to set me straight. “It’s gonna feel like Nazare to you out there,” he told me. “Just wait and see.” I soon found myself excited to catch barely-breaking peaks, and terrified of any wave above one foot. These crafts get going significantly faster than a surfboard, and as a wave increases in size and power, so does the height and speed with which you’ll be ejected from the foil. My advice is that if you plan on taking up this sport, you should start on a tiny, gutless day. The tinier and gutlessier the better.
You can learn pretty quickly.
I can’t speak from personal experience on this one, but the Ryan, Jeff, and Evan have all be foiling for under a year, and they have it pretty well dialed. The Hurley bros can already do that hop-from-one-wave-to-the-next thing, and Evan, despite being a self-proclaimed “linear foiler”, has an obvious command of his craft. This also comes back to the fact that they’ve been doing it every day, which helps to quickly build muscle memory. “Despite the conditions, I’m here every day,” Evan told me. “Everybody else’s ‘worst winter ever’ has been one of my best.”
It’s addictive as hell.
Exhibit A: The West Coast Foil Club, which surfs pitiful beach-break conditions twice a day, every day, laughing the whole time.
Exhibit B: The world’s best surfers–like John, Kelly, and Joel–who can’t seem to get enough of the things
Exhibit C: Me, who is totally itching to go back.
Speaking of, it’s looking flat tomorrow boys. Are we on or what?
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