~ A brief history of hydrofoil surfing

Kauai'i, Hawai'i

Hydrofoils have been used with personal water craft since the early 1960's. In this article we will discuss the beginnings and evolution of hydrofoils for water sports. To learn about more recent designs check out our "Modern surf foil designs" article.

     In 1963, the first hydrofoil "waterski" was patented by Bob Woodward, an aeronautical engineer from Massachusetts. The hydrofoil structure was attached to the bottom of a pair of fixed water skis with the rider towed by boat.  Bob's company, Custom Dynamics, Inc. would go on to sell the "DynaFlite" successfully for the next 20 years.

     In 1983 Woodward's patents expired and new designs began to emerge. The original DynaFlight was heavy and lacked the strength to be ridden much faster than 15 knots, so a few entrepreneurs started working with better materials and new designs.

     In the early 1980's Mike Murphy and Bob Woolley began working on the first sit-down hydrofoils, the "Air Chair" and "Sit Ski". With these designs a rider is towed behind a boat, seated in a chair above a cast aluminum hydrofoil assembly. It was stronger, more stable and lighter than the original DynaFlight. In 1984 the Air Chair Corporation opened a factory in Lake Havasu City, Arizona and began offering sit-down hydrofoils for sale.

     The Air Chair was more popular due to one major difference - when the Sit Ski was ridden too fast, the rider would get sprayed between the legs! The Air Chair's board channeled the spray to the sides avoiding the problem. The Air Chair was the first commercial foil board sold and is still produced and ridden today. 

- The Strapped Crew Stands Up -

Step Into Liquid, 2003

In the early 2000's Laird Hamilton was first seen foiling on a custom Air Chair off the north shore of Kaua'i. He had taken off the chair, strapped on a pair of snow board boots and was being towed around like a wake boarder -- on a hydrofoil. When Dave Kalama and the rest of the renowned big wave surfers known as the "Strapped Crew" saw, they all jumped on the foil and from the standing position they would soon take it to the extreme.

     The Strapped Crew initially towed each other around in calm water near Tunnels Beach and Hanalei Bay, then they took on the massive waves at the outer reefs of Maui & Kaua'i. They found that by tapping into the energy below the surface, they could let go of the line and ride a powerful wave like Jaws. They were the first to root into the energy below the surface and "power on" the foil. These absolute legends invented foil surfing by standing up and charging some of the largest waves on earth. In 2003 they were filmed in Dana Brown's "Step Into Liquid" which was seen by water sport enthusiasts around the world. 

     More attention led to more interest. Board riders from other water sports wanted in but didn't live close to large enough waves. Better materials were used, such as lightweight aircraft grade aluminum instead of cast aluminum. The result was the next wave of innovation to create more efficient wings and lighter masts. 

     These improvements meant less energy was required to get on foil. This reduction allowed harnessing the wind to provided enough power. Soon companies began to offer hydrofoils to kite surfers and wind surfers who found foils faster, smoother and more maneuverable than surface boards alone.

     For the next decade steady improvements were made to equipment and technique, but tow, wind or large waves were still required to foil board.* Then in 2016, the magician from Maui created a perfect storm of skill, gear, and internet virality into what become known as the "The Kai Lenny Video".

    Kai Lenny is an ultimate waterman. He's a SUP world champion, kiting world champion. He's the Molokai 2 Oahu record holder, and the youngest invitee to the Eddie Aikau Big Wave contest. Kai received his first foil board when he was nine years old. A gift from his father, it was a modified Air Chair with snow board boots attached, just like the Strapped Crew. He picked it up quickly but because it required towing or large waves he was limited by when and where he could ride. 

    Soon he began to experiment with new ways of "self powered" foiling. He wanted to get on foil using only the his energy, the ocean, and technique. First by attaching a foil to a SUP board and paddling out, then progressing to a short board. Working with designers and manufacturers he helped create new wings and boards that were more efficient allowing them to be ridden in waves with less energy.

"The first time I ever rode Jaws was on a foil board" - Kai Lenny

      He refined the technique over the years and in 2016 released "Kai Lenny Hydrofoil Surfing" on his Youtube channel. With over 1 million views, many have cited this video as a turning point in the foil boarding industry. In the video, Kai connects multiple waves in a single ride, and rides over open ocean swells, assisting with his own power when needed. In the video Kai demoed "pumping" -- shifting his weight using his arms and legs he directed enough of his own energy to stay on foil. Pumping allowed the water to be ridden in ways many had never seen before, no tow, wind, or wave was required.

     In the video, several new frontiers rideable water were revealed - one where riders are not limited to large waves, single waves, crowded line ups, or waiting for the wind. The concept of linking waves and riding open swell with was incredible to many who saw it. After watching the video they realized that an entirely new water sport would soon emerge. The flood of new interest led once again to entrepreneurs, manufacturers and DIY'ers to embark on the next wave of innovation in hydrofoil design. 

Ekona is part of that wave of innovation. We are working on a new design that is more efficient and maneuverable than anything available today. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media to stay up to date. 


Disclaimer: This article is for reference purposes only. Ekona has no affiliation with Bob Woodward, Mike Murphy, Bob Woolley, The Air Chair Corporation, Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama, the Strapped Crew, Dana Brown or Kai Lenny.

*a reader has noted that paipo (prone) hydro foil boards were invented in the 1990's in Honolulu. We are researching the history of this form of foil surfing and will release an updated article when our research is completed.

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