The Foil Scourge Is Here
A story of flying knives, fear, and embracing your hypocrisy.
I went for a bodysurf on a fun, mildly gooey, chest high day last week.
The surf wasn’t especially conducive to playing dolphin. Crumbly lips, no real power behind the swell. A total lack of closeout micro-barrels into which one could stuff their head for a peek-and-pretend. It was the type of idyllic Hawaiian day that cries out for retro-longboards, straw hats, and some transplant dork strumming a ukulele in the shade of a naupaka bush while his buddy shoots pics for their destined-to-fail t-shirt company’s Instagram feed.
Real pretty shit.
Easy living and crystal clear water. The scenario people expect upon deplaning.
I was swimming, rather than riding any one of a number of craft which would have been more suited to the conditions, because I’d broken my body in half at our local skatepark a few weeks prior. Long story short – when you’re creeping on forty you need to warm-up before trying shit you had on lock a decade ago. Or don’t, and enjoy a lengthy period of hunched-over, lower back screaming, misery.
With the help of ice packs and anti-inflammatories the pain gradually subsided. There were still occasional twinges if I tried to stand on one foot, or twisted quickly at the waist. But I felt confident I could finally, at the very least, enjoy a long swim on a beautiful day.
Alongside everyone else, I’ve been watching foils pick up popularity. They’re freakshow craft, to be sure, but the first time I saw someone hauling ass across an unbroken swell I understood the appeal. I was watching from the deck of my dive partner’s Whaler as we motored into Nawiliwili Harbor and marveled at the amount of speed the rider was able to wring from the garbage mush that breaks in front of Duke’s.
It’s not for me, I have enough hobbies already. But it clicked as a fun way to enjoy subpar conditions. One more tool in the kit, one more way to play in the ocean. The little surfer-jerk voice in my heart will always knee jerk hate on a new craft, but I’ve battered him to a whisper with middle-aged apathy. I remind him, each time he speaks up, “You ride a hi-performance log. You’re no better. Half the lineup fucking hates your guts.”
Over the ensuing months I witnessed an ever-increasing number of foils appear on our island. Blades sticking out of the back of passing Tacomas, grown men sitting far outside and learning to snatch scraps of rolling swell. I’d assumed foiling was difficult, but the ease which people pick it up indicates otherwise. But I really don’t know. I still haven’t tried it and have no plans to change in the near future.
One man who has become quite devoted is a lifeguard at my local beach. Short of stature, built from marble, he is deeply tanned and truly talented in the ocean. He is friendly, saves lives at a barely living wage, and has the in-and-outs of our local beach absolutely wired. I’ve watched him dismantle waves on shortboards, longboards, SUPs, and, recently, foils. He’s the kind of surfer who paddles out on a shitty day and magics into a firing peak that pops up out of nowhere. The type who makes bad surf look fun and good surf look sublime.
As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned the right to do whatever he likes. And on this day he chose to ride his foil on an inside peak with the pack. He was joined by two additional fellow foilers – one very able, one on his way there.
After popping on my swim fins and taking a few strokes I realized my back still hurt. Not in an agonizing way, more like a sprained ankle after a couple months of recuperation. Time to put some weight on it and work out the kinks. Slowly. Softly.
I was still slightly inside the peak when he picked up a wave. It was a lined-up right and he began to fly. I was in his line and reacted instinctively. Swim toward him, dive under. Just as I’ve done a million times before when sharing a lineup while bodysurfing.
I’d taken two strokes when it dawned on me- there was a four foot long sword attached to the bottom of his board. I have no idea what depth it sits at while someone is up and riding. Can I safely swim under it? Probably not. The consequences of failure are too high.
I took another stroke toward the shoulder, then froze. What would be an unrideable section on a normal craft, somewhere I’d be safely out of the way, was actually directly in his line.
I have no idea whether it’s possible to scrub off speed or make a quick direction change on a foil. What I’ve witnessed makes me think there are no brakes. No stomping on the tail to avoid a collision. No dumping forward momentum on your heels and bogging at a moment’s notice.
I was a deer in the headlights, wrapped in cold flashes of fear on a warm and sunny day.
That split second felt like minutes, until I eventually snapped out of it and swam towards the beach. Three strokes put me safe and sound as he tore past hovering above the ocean’s surface.
For the rest of the session I tried to give the trio a wide berth. I swam down to the next peak, only to see them pumping toward the horizon, in my direction, after catching a wave. It was nearly impossible to stay away from them, they could cover distances no other surf craft can. They weren’t being greedy. They weren’t being rude. But they presented a problem I couldn’t solve.
It’s not that they didn’t know what they were doing. It’s that I didn’t know what they were doing. Their presence introduced a set of variables for which I was totally unprepared. It was like waking up to learn the United States had decided to begin driving on the left hand side of the road. The vast majority of the actions we take to avoid danger are hardwired into our brains. Reactions are made instinctively based on a lifetime of experience. Being aware of a change does nothing. It’s not until we’ve internalized the rules that we can actually make use of them.
This is something I’d already learned in Australia. The fact that I escaped the country unscathed was pure luck alone. Each trip across the street involved a glance in the wrong direction before blithely stepping into the path of oncoming traffic. Strolling down the sidewalk involved constant near collisions with my fellow pedestrians. “Walk on the left,” I’d tell myself, before invariably drifting to the right.
It’s like that corny old joke about an old man driving to work. His wife calls his cell and says, “Honey, be careful! The news says that someone is driving the wrong direction on the freeway.”
“It’s not just one,” he replies. “There are hundreds of them!”
It’s part of the human condition – we often hate the things we fear. And we love to fear the unknown. So it’s no surprise that so many people hate foils. They’re a disruptive element in any lineup and are undeniably more dangerous in a collision than any “traditional” surfboard.
And I know we shouldn’t hate. It’s an ugly emotion, one that takes rather than give. It drags down the spirit and will turn a sunny sky to thundering rain. Like softboards and SUPs and bodyboards before them, foils aren’t going away. The surf world needs to learn how to deal with them.
I just can’t see how that’ll happen. Foils have a place in the ocean, a reason for existence. They’d be rad, and I’d be happy, if they stayed confined to far outside, to downwind runs, to novelty sessions among their own kind.
But they won’t. The temptation to join general lineups is too high. They’re a locust scourge in the distance and they’re heading our way.
Surfers, as a rule, myself included, are insular, judgmental, dicks. It’s a flaw in the culture that drags us all down. A personality trait we’d do well to change.
But not this time. Not right now.
Fuck them for screwing with my scene. Fuck them for making me feel fear. Fuck them for my sore back.
Go find a spot where the waves don’t break and leave the rest of us alone. You assholes are going to kill someone.
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