Ryan McDonald

Foil Surfing Floats on in Manhattan Beach

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Jason Shanks, owner of Nikau Kai Waterman Shop in Manhattan Beach, says foiling allows him to explore waves that would otherwise go unridden. Photos by Brad Jacobson

by Ryan McDonald

On a small day in late winter, Jason Shanks got a good lesson in the risks and rewards of hydrofoil surfing. The owner of Nikau Kai Waterman Shop in Manhattan Beach had brought his foil board down to the south side of the Manhattan Pier. There was no one on the beach, and only one other surfer out. When that surfer exited and Shanks had the water to himself, he decided to take off his leash. He had been foiling for a while at the point, but it was his first time trying it without a leg rope. He was having a great time, and the lack of drag from a leash helped. But when he fell on a wave, he came up from the ocean and watched the board sail above the surface all the way in to shore, like a horse who had bucked its rider and lit out for freedom.

Hydrofoil surfboards have a wing-like hydrofoil bolted to their underside, allowing surfers to move along a wave several feet above the ocean’s surface. The sport is exploding in popularity  The Instagram account West Coast Foil Club shows surfers, including local pro Dane Zaun, putting the device through its paces. Web clips from Hawaiian charger Kai Lenny give foiling the look of magic. In one, Lenny rides a wave, remains standing after it peters out, and pumps his legs to return to the takeoff spot and start the whole thing over again, bypassing the drudgery of paddling.

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But the new technology has also earned detractors, many of whom are concerned about the danger it poses to others in the water. Some say that the sharp “wing” of the hydrofoil could badly wound or even kill another beachgoer. According to surf publication Stab Magazine, Anglet, a coastal town in southwest France, recently passed the first ever foiling ban. “The practice of any activity that may present a danger to the public is strictly prohibited, especially activities using foils,” said Anglet Mayor Claude Olive in a statement quoted by Stab, which half-jokingly referred to foils as “aquatic guillotines.”

Shanks and others who have embraced the sport say that it opens up new frontiers for surfing, allowing for fun sessions on small wave days and at places that would normally go unridden. And they are trying to instill a spirit of responsibility in others, in hopes of preventing a California crackdown that could strangle the nascent activity.

“I’m doubling my wave count every session. I’m stoked out of my mind,” Shanks said.

The foil helps surfers float above the surface, creating an added dimension to rides.

Like starting over

Ted Robinson described foiling as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a watercraft.”

The South Bay native and Hermosa Beach Surfers’ Walk of Fame inductee had tried an older version equipped with snowboard bindings — “really kind of prehistoric,” he said — but really started to get interested in foiling about a year and a half ago when a friend got a newer model. The advance in technology made it more accessible, but didn’t make it easy.

Indeed, Robinson said the challenge of foiling is what has made him so interested in it.

“I completely couldn’t do it at first, so that got me excited,” Robinson said. He compared it to “going from riding a longboard to trying to stand up on a boogie board.”

Shanks compared foiling to “like starting over.” He first tried it while on a trip to Maui visiting big-wave pioneer Dave Kalama. He had seen clips of it, and was thinking that it might be “the next big thing in surfing.” Kalama took him to an isolated spot. It was, he said, the perfect place to learn: the surf was small,barely breaking, and only five other people were out. All of them were foiling.

Just getting to one’s feet is difficult. Shanks began by getting towed behind a Zodiac. Kalama was adamant that it was the best way to learn, and Shanks said he would recommend it to anyone starting out. Without the initial help from the ski, riders are at the mercy of the wave to determine their speed. Robinson, who paddles and pops to his feet like he would on a traditional surfboard, said that he fell constantly at first.

Shanks, who uses a paddle like a stand-up paddler, said that the difficulty doesn’t disappear once the ride has begun. Unlike traditional surfing, in which people can shift their weight to slow down or speed up, tiny movements on a hydrofoil can result in being tossed into the water. Robinson agreed, noting that while most of the power for maneuvers in traditional surfing comes from the back foot, in foiling the front foot is much more active.

But once a surfer has it down, the rewards of foiling are immense. It presents both the challenge of the new, and the ability to chase down waves that might otherwise be unreachable. Robinson said given the mostly small conditions of the last six months, 85 percent of his days have been spent foiling.

“My whole deal is, ride what the day calls for. Foiling has reinvigorated me. I feel like a kid again,” he said.

Shanks said one of the best things about foiling is it allows surfers to explore different parts of the wave. Because the board picks up energy below the ocean’s surface, a rider can be far out in front of the curl, a position where a typical surfboard would bog down. In theory, Shanks said, this means he could be foiling on a wave without disturbing someone riding a shortboard behind him.

But in practice he doesn’t do that. In fact, he tries to avoid going out where dodging other surfers would even be a possibility. He’ll take the board out on small days near the Manhattan Pier, but has a self-imposed rule that he won’t ride it in ways that could endanger other people in the water. He’s gotten one negative comment from a surfer, but said that for the most part people have been understanding.

“Everyone gets that I’m not trying to be near them. I try to pick out the mushy spots,” he said.

Robinson has a similar approach.

“Rule No. 1 is, never take it out if someone is in sight of me,” he said.

Surfers say that foiling is attractive because its challenge recreates the feeling of surfing for the first time.

In Demand

There are currently no local rules against foiling. But L.A. County Lifeguard Captain Remy Smith said that while there is nothing set down in an ordinance, guards are aware of the risks that they pose, and pay special attention when they see someone with a foil step into the water.

Smith compared the situation to when stand-up paddleboards first became popular. He said it comes down to dutiful monitoring by the guards. In the event a person brings a foil out where there are other surfers in the water, surfing etiquette will hopefully keep the person on the foil in line.

“If there are 20 guys out on shortboards, and a stand-up paddleboarder goes out, he’s going to have to follow the etiquette. We’ll talk to him about etiquette before it gets out of control. With foils, there’s nothing we can enforce, we’ll let them know, and maybe ask them to move down the beach.”

Smith said that there have been no reported incidents on foil boards on county beaches. But as was the case with stand-up paddleboards, there is a concern among surfers that foils are especially dangerous because they will be embraced by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Smith had just returned from a vacation in Hawaii when he spoke. While there, he said he saw several people foiling, some of whom were inexperienced in the water.

“It’s dangerous. And a lot of the guys doing that haven’t been through all the steps as surfers. It’s something we’re looking into,” Smith said.

Although foiling is clearly rising in popularity, others say it isn’t being driven by starry-eyed kooks.

“We’ve definitely sold enough to have it be worthwhile to carry. Nothing crazy. I don’t think we’re starting a foil movement. But it’s a conversation piece,” said store manager Cody Dufur, store manager at Huntington Surf and Sport in Huntington Beach, one of the first places in California to carry foil boards.

Robinson said that he would recommend foil surfing only to “expert-level surfers.” And, according to Dufur, that is mostly where interest is coming from — what he characterized as “the type of guy who does a trip to [Indonesia] every few months.” Dufur said that not only is foiling difficult to master, but it is also expensive. A setup can run close to $2,000.

At Nikau Kai, Shanks said, interest is definitely growing. A foil hangs suspended by rope in the window of his Manhattan Avenue storefront. He said Nikau Kai will periodically hold foiling “clinics” on small days in uncrowded areas of Palos Verdes.

And even though he knows the growing market represents a business opportunity, Shanks said he has held back out of a desire to be responsible.

“People are constantly asking me if they can rent them. That is something I will never do,” Shanks said.

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