Stab Magazine | The Problem With Surfing: Hydrofoils

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The Problem With Surfing: Hydrofoils

Fun or foreboding? If your name isn’t Kai or Laird you might need to think again.

style // Jan 28, 2018
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Hydrofoils: we first encountered them in the surfing world almost a decade ago, watching Laird Hamilton cut apart all varieties of oceanic terrain upon his keel propelled sled. (See Endless Summer II.)

At first, the Hydrofoil appeared to be a fun, novelty invention which avoided surface chop and allowed you to surf waves a standard board could never handle.

More recently, we’ve seen Hawaii’s all-round waterman, Kai Lenny, take to Laird’s foil-surfing invention, pumping into and out of 11 lumps of swell in a row. We’ve seen him traverse open ocean lumps and even share waves with Julian Wilson in our ‘Nu Church of Surf’.

Hate paddling? Just buy yourself a foil!

Both Kai and Laird make riding a hydrofoil look incredibly fun, and awfully easy; whilst the former in that statement might be true, the latter certainly is not. In truth, they’re outright difficult.

Kelly Slater had difficulty coming to grips with the hydrofoil contraption on his first experience 18 months ago:  

“[Kelly] attempted three waves. To me it showed how much of a talent Kai really is, if the best surfer in history was having issues with this craft…”. Rod Owen told Stab.

“Kai Lenny has us all fooled, he’s a magician on this craft.”. That’s what Kelly had to say about the topic.

After a few years of Hydrofoil exposure, and growing consumer availability (if money is no object – they might set you back a couple of grand), we’re slowly but surely starting to see these craft in local lineups.

And let’s just say the people typically riding them aren’t Kai or Laird (particularly the bloke who almost severed my spine on his SUP-foil just last week).

When SUP’s first started to take off, they were despised for their wave-catching ability, the weird dynamic of having a guy towering above the lineup on a 12-foot board and a massive paddle, and there were, and still are, serious concerns for people’s safety when SUPs hit the lineup.

Yet the SUP remains unaddressed in terms of restrictions and imposed legalities – other than the death stares received from those floating on shorter boards.

The same safety concerns are now amplified with the rise of the Hydrofoil, but the implications are even more disconcerting, with the addition of a massive, knife-like rudder, toeing the boundaries of the board-boat dichotomy.

A few years back our fears surrounding foils were unfortunately realised, when surfer, Yu Tonbi Sumitomo suffered serious facial wounds after a collision with a hydrofoil board. An incident which terrified the ever level-headed Jamie Mitchell, enough to voice his opinions around the hydrofoil trend.

“Foils are dangerous…very dangerous, and do not belong in the surf zone with the masses and general public.” Jamie posted to his personal Facebook account. “In my opinion foils are for open ocean swells, outer bombies and places where there are no people or very few people doing it together”.


Yu Tonbi Sumitomo’s face after a ‘foil vs. head’ collision. Photo. Jamie Mitchell’s Facebook

With the number of these surf-craft starting to increase, it’s only a matter of time before we start to see more injuries of this nature, and certainly worse—something none of us want.

It may therefore be time to think about the questions Jamie raised.

Is there a strong case to be made, for implementation and enforcement of licenses for hydrofoils, restrictions on where they can be surfed, or a complete relegation of the equipment to open ocean swells?  

Around 7 or 8 years ago, there were rumours of surfing being banned at Bondi Beach altogether, or at the very least relegating surfers to the southern end of one of the world’s most iconic sand strips.

At this stage, there’s been no such limitations placed on Hydrofoils, however, Sydney lifeguards have previously asked foil-boarders to distance themselves from large crowds, as well as reiterating the precarious nature of their craft.

If a foil can take on this rock unscathed, imagine what it would do to your dome.

There have now been discussions of a Hydrofoil ban at popular beaches within the Sydney region, which may be considered by the Sydney Council in the near future. The Council may see it as a necessary step to ensure the safety of swimmers and ‘normal’ surfers – particularly during the busier summer months.

This however, like many things, may be easier in theory than application, as a local lifeguard pointed out:

“It’s just something we have to deal with and it is borderline impossible to ban a certain type of craft from the ocean; a cop isn’t going to want to come out and fine someone for riding one, nor is a council ranger.”

These restriction suggestions may bring to mind terms such as ‘Nanny State’, but you’ll be begging for your Nanny when one these boner blades dices through your X-mas sled (or, like poor Sumitomo, through the base of your skull).

Should you need a certain proficiency level to ride them? What would the license exam entail? Should Foiling be outright banished to the open ocean from which it came, past the shark nets, out there with the other boats?

Or should we just learn to get out of the way when a foil comes flying by?



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