A Complete History and Guide to Hydrofoil Surfing | News | Lift Foils
walking on a beach with a hydrofoil surfboard

Hydrofoil Surfing – The Complete History and Guide

If you Google hydrofoil surfing, most top hits show super HD pictures of talented athletes riding in unbelievable locations. It looks like a new sport that’s just gaining traction now, but the truth of the matter is that the technology that supports it has been evolving since the late 19th century. Initially invented for boats in order to make them go faster without having to use more fuel, the basic components of the design and the automatic upgrade that it provides for traditional water-craft experiences are tried and true.

That’s right: people have been trying to get to the next level of hydrofoiling for over a hundred years.

Because the feeling’s that good, and it gets better the closer you get to it.

So in case you’re  looking to foil, we’ve created a brief intro into the different types of experiences so that you can choose the best adventure for you.

 

First of all: What’s a hydrofoil?

Wikipedia describes it as a “lifting surface, or foil, that works in water.” Basically, it’s a wing-shaped underwater fin that lifts whatever craft it’s on out of the water when it reaches a minimum speed. This significantly reduces drag which in turn increases speed.

 

A Brief History of Foil Surfing

The first iterations of this technology came about in the second half of the 19th century in order to increase speed in boats without having to use more fuel. The design was interesting enough to be explored by the likes of Alexander Graham Bell (in case you need a refresh, he invented the telephone) and his chief engineer, Casey Baldwin, who ultimately pioneered the creation of the first passenger and naval hydrofoil boats using the previous designs of Italian inventor Enrico Forlianini. In the sixties and seventies, hydrofoils made their way onto more recreational activities like water skiing and knee boarding. Big names in the sixties, seventies, and eighties include Walter Woodward and Lucas Emmanuell (water skiing), Henry Buxton (water skiing), Mike Murphy (water skiing, knee boarding, the Air Chair), Bob Woolly (also water skiing, knee boarding, and Air Chair), Mike Mack (“the Mackstrap”, essentially a heel-strap for your board), and Brad Barnett (Air Chair).

It’s probably worthwhile to note that most of the early innovators in this field were also big into the sports that they were trying to upgrade. From the start, the process of creating, testing, and fine tuning was carried out by people who were working hard to find the best way to play. By the time the hydrofoil made its way to surfing, wind-surfing, and kite- surfing, the previous generations’ had made their own trial-and-error a way of life. The big names in early foiling- Laird Hamilton (surfing), Kai Lenny (stand-up paddle surfing and surfing), Mango Carafino (surf-board hydrofoil pioneer), Austin Kalama (SUP), Neyl Pride (wind-surfing hydrofoil), Robby Naish (windsurfing), to name a few- are all synonymous with the limitless quest for the enhanced version of their sport, no matter how impossible it seems at first.

The latest and most advanced version of the hydrofoil, the eFoil, came into existence much in the same way as its predecessors. Father-and-son team Nick and Michael Leason started a company of hydrofoils and boards that allowed them the room to try and get at what they thought was missing from their adventures. After much trial and error, Nick finally came up with the first hydrofoil powered by a battery pack and maneuvered through a wireless remote. This has taken the seamlessness of the hydrofoiling experience not only into new scenarios but also into a whole other level. 

A quick timeline of some major events in hydrofoil history, in case you go to trivia night:

  • 1898: Enrico Forlanini gets the first patent for the design of the “ladder” foil system
  • 1908: Alexander Graham Bell and Casey Baldwin begin experimenting with the hydrofoil boat
  • 1919: Bell’s hydrofoil boat HD-4 sets world marine speed record (114 km per hour) which stands for two decades
  • 1950s: English couple build the White Hawk, the first jet-powered hydrofoil watercraft
  • 1960s: Walter Woodward invents the first waterski hydrofoil
  • 1973: Mike Murphy and Bud Holst develop the hydrofoil kneeboard
  • 1979: Joop Nederpelt designs the first windsurf hydrofoil
  • 1984: Bob Woolley creates the first sit-down hydrofoil
  • 1990: the first Air Chair is sold
  • 2003: Laird Hamilton brings hydrofoiling to the masses in Dana Brown’s Step into Liquid
  • 2004: Mango Carafino makes the first hydrofoil for a kiteboard
  • 2016: the world is taken aback by the footage of Kai Lenny Stand Up Paddle hydrofoiling in Hawaii
  • 2017: Lift Foils makes the world’s first eFoil commercially available

About the foiling experience

Technically, you can hydrofoil with almost every watercraft: boats, surfboards, wind-surf boards, kite boards, and hydrofoil boards. There’s even a hydrofoil bike! They all offer a different way to ride on waves or flat water, but they have one thing in common: they allow you to glide over the surface, increasing speed and eliminating drag. Maybe this sounds like a small thing, but trust us, once you’ve felt it, you can’t unfeel it.

Here’s a quick breakdown of all the different ways you can get out there, regardless of your level of athletic expertise:

Foil surfing:

The best thing about surfing with a foil is that it allows you to ride waves you’d never think were surfable. The wings of the foil push down against the water, propelling the board up, and since this can happen at speeds of as little as three miles per hour, your ride becomes much faster with the decreasing friction. According to Kai Lenny, “it is the ultimate equaliser for crap and crummy surf. When you are going downwind for 10 miles it feels like you are cruising on a pointbreak.” (We recommend reading the whole interview, as his is the ultimate insider’s perspective).

Kite foiling:

The same as with surfing, the magic of kite foiling happens when the board increases its speed and lifts out of the water, but with the kite, the speed is generated by both the water and the wind. This makes the biggest advantage of kite-boarding with a hydrofoil the fact that you can get out there and have fun much closer to the shore and with much lighter winds. It also makes riding upwind much easier and eliminates a lot of the chop and the sound.

Wind foiling:

As with kite foiling, you can reach higher speeds with less wind when you’re windsurfing with a hydrofoil, which in turn allows you to use a smaller sail. The windsurf board is lifted over 2 feet over the surface of the water, meaning that you not only get to play with the upwind and downwind control, you also get the added bonus of using your body to control the board’s altitude. Fun fact: The 2024 Olympics will require windsurfers to foil.

SUP foiling:

Made especially popular by Kai Lenny the first time he took a SUP foil downwind, this sport has become increasingly popular in the last 3 years. There are two ways to do it: downwinding and surfing. Downwinding takes some practice and requires you to be in optimal physical shape, but surfing is easier and allows you to ride waves for much longer than you could without the foil (not to mention surf waves that you usually couldn’t). Alex Aguera, Go Foil founder and inventor of the first SUP downwind foil board, says that “the technology and the performance have already come a long way,” so you should expect smaller and lighter equipment to consistently join lineups.

Wing foiling:

Wing foiling is essentially a hybrid of windfoiling, kitefoiling, and SUP foiling. You hold on to a wing that is unattached to your board with both of your hands while riding a short stand-up paddle hydrofoil board. Because the wing is so close to you and the board is so sturdy and wide, this sport allows you to manage your ride with a lot of stability and control. It also allows you to switch between going upwind and downwind without having to be a professional athlete.

eFoiling:

Perhaps the most sci-fi of all the available hydrofoil experiences, the orignal eFoil uses an advanced lithium-ion battery to power a silent electric motor that’s mounted on an all-carbon fiber hydrofoil. All of this is controlled by a bluetooth remote. In a sense, it is the purest hydrofoiling experience as it needs neither water currents nor wind to allow you to glide over the surface of any body of water. You can foil on flatwater or in swells, you can be a professional athlete or a complete amateur: the possibilities with the eFoil are endless.

 

So now that you’ve picked your foiling poison…

Now you know the basics- that the hydrofoil improves your ride with less drag and greater speed, that it allows you to fly over the surface of the water, that it allows you to explore places and waves that you never thought you’d be able to explore on a board. It’s time to think about what equipment you’re going to choose when you decide to get out there. That’s where we come in.

If there’s anything that we can deduce from the history of hydrofoiling it’s that the people who are constantly evolving the product are the people that are also using them. Many of the pioneers of the sport came up with prototypes because they realized they needed them out on the water, blurring the line that separates the fine tuning of the experience from the fine tuning of the product. At Lift, we are those people. We’re obsessed with what we get out of what we create. This is why we can’t stop working to consistently make it better.

If you’re looking to buy a hydrofoil as a way to upgrade your windsurfing, kitesurfing, or SUP surfing experience, we’d always recommend starting your quest with the people who started feeding the frenzy: Robby Naish, Mango Carafino, Alex Aguera, Kai Lenny, Laird Hamilton, etc. Laird uses our foils. He gives us constant feedback. The Lift lineup of eFoil boards come in four shapes and sizes: the 4’4 Pro with 170 Classic, the 5’0 Sport with 170 Classic, the 5’6 Cruiser with 200 Classic, and the 6’2 Explorer with 250 Surf. Pro or novice, it doesn’t matter, we’ve got something for everybody.

 

What’s next for foiling?

There seems to be no end in sight for hydrofoil enthusiasts. Not only is the sport growing at lightning speed, it’s also bringing more and more innovators and inventors into the mix. We’re really happy to be a part of its history and to continue working towards its never ending possibilities. Stay tuned and let us impress you.