Riders pump their legs to generate momentum, bouncing until the wave’s motion propels them forward and upward.

They soar, as their board floats not in the wave — but in the air, above the ocean’s surface.

Foil surfing — or foilboarding or hydrofoiling or just foiling — is an increasingly common sight at beaches in Southern California and around the world.

But it’s a still-new sport that draws wonder from perplexed onlookers who stop to see how this strange-looking contraption works: the wing-like foil under the board cutting through the water, lifting the board into the air, while the wave pushes the rider forward.

Although it could be considered a cousin to traditional surfing, foil surfing is significantly different from riding a standard surfboard or stand-up paddleboard on a wave.

It’s also much harder, giving a new thrill to dedicated wave riders who are exploring and experimenting with this cutting-edge craft.

Manhattan Beach foilers

Jason Shanks, owner of Nikau Kai Waterman Shop in Manhattan Beach, first tried foiling in Fiji four years ago, towed behind a Jet Ski. It was there he ran into Dave Kalama, also credited with early foil designs, and Kai Lenny—Hawaiian waterman, who helped him figure it out.

Shanks now regularly drives two hours south to San Onofre State Beach to find crummy, soft, small waves.

“This is totally new, it’s like starting over. For someone who is bored with their surfing or not finding any new challenges with it – you get that same stoke,” he said. “It’s as addicting as regular surfing, but it’s different the way you ride the wave. It really opens your eyes to new opportunities.”

While a two-foot, high-tide day normally would have a surfer turning around to do house chores instead, those conditions are ideal for foiling.

“I don’t even look at conditions, because it doesn’t matter,” said Shanks.

Typically for foiling, waves need to be mushy, cresting for a long time without breaking, so longboarding or beginner spots such as San Onofre State Beach, Bolsa Chica and Doheny, as well as stretches of Malibu, have been hot spots in the past year.

New surf spots are opening up too, including an area in Fiji long regarded as only a beginner spot. Now, it has a new name, “Foil Gardens,” Shanks said.

The area of San Onofre where most foilers can be found, beyond where stand-up paddlers are restricted to, is farther south in a spot now called “Nukes,” because of its proximity to the nuclear plant.

Foils are also popular in deeper ocean waters, on lakes behind boats and even down river. Lenny recently released a video showing a new sport called “wing surfing” that uses a hydrofoil board. The rider hangs onto handles attached to wings, making it possible to soar.

Is it safe?

Shanks said it’s best to learn foiling behind a boat, and his shop sometimes holds clinics for customers. He said newcomers to foiling should not take the boards out at their regular, crowded line-ups.

“It makes a lot of people who aren’t familiar with it nervous about it, and I think that’s fair. Part of it is an education process for the rider and the person near it – safety first and that comes with education,” he said.

As foil surfing gains in popularity, there’s an increased worry about the dangers not just for riders, but for others in the water who could cross paths with a solid, sharp foil.

Bondi Beach in Australia has outlawed them, as has a small surf town in France.

Locally, the city of Huntington Beach is starting discussions about whether foiling should be prohibited in busy areas.

SEE FOIL SURFING SAFETY TIPS HERE 

Huntington Beach Marine Safety Chief Mike Baumgartner said there have been reports of injuries to foil riders.

“There will be plenty of time for people to voice their opinion on it. We want people to enjoy the natural resource we have as safety as possible,” he said.

“So it’s a balancing act,” he said. “If they are using them in the middle of the most densely packed area of the surf line where the chances of interaction is high, we will be forced to deal with it.”

Manhattan Beach surfer David Rodriguez argues that foilers shouldn’t be allowed in popular areas, after he saw a rider near the busy pier on a recent day. If that continues, he said, he may take his concerns to the City Council to ask them to restrict foilers from coming within 300 yards of piers or jetties.

“Foils are more like boats and wave runners for relative risk,” he wrote in an e-mail.

For the most part, foil surfers who know what they are doing are safe — but as with any sport, newbies who are fumbling around can cause some damage, Patterson said.

“The good riders have to help educate and regulate,” he said.

Foil evolution

Ted Robinson said he feels like a kid again, looking out at two-foot mushy waves at San Onfore, smiling as he talks about his morning foil-surfing session.

Robinson has surfed since he was five, traveling the world as a top competitive surfer and riding every kind of board out there.

He tried the first version of foil surfing 20 years ago, when it was introduced by big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and a tight group of surfers. Back then, surfers would have to clip into boots as if on a snowboard and get towed in with a watercraft.

“They were really crude,” Robinson said.

That is, until Kai Lenny started blowing people’s minds a few years ago.

Lenny, recently inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame at age 26, is one of the best big-wave surfers, windsurfers, paddleboarders — arguably best-anything-on-water riders. He was a team rider, testing out innovations for Naish, a company that has made windsurfing and kiteboarding foil boards, for about eight years.

“He definitely was the one who really pushed it out to where it is now,” said Chuck Patterson, who was doing research and development for Naish.

Lenny started posting videos showing him charge big waves using a foil and crossing long channels floating above the water using foil boards.

Foils historically have been used in everything from airplanes to competitive racing boats.

“A lot of it came from the aerodynamics. The foiling switched to the hydrodynamics with the sailboat racing, the catamarans,” said Patterson, who splits his time between San Clemente and Maui.

“I think the science has been out there, but not put into the sport part of it – the windsurfing, kiting and the surfing that we see here,” he said Patterson. “It’s neat that we’re using more of a science now to be able to ride waves.”

Patterson said foil surfing is still new enough that people often ask him how it works.

“You look at it and go, ‘Wow, it’s amazing, I want to try that.’ But it’s pretty difficult. It takes a lot of time and patience,” he said. “A lot of people who hurry into the sport are the ones who end up getting hurt.”

A new way to surf

Dave Boehne, co-owner and boardmaker for Infinity Surfboards in Dana Point, remembers seeing a video of Lenny 2 1/2 years ago, when he chopped a race board in half and attached a foil to it.

Boehne contacted the company that made the foils, GoFoil, to get his hands on one. He was put on a wait list because the company couldn’t keep up with demand.

Once he built his own board, Boehne showed up early morning before sunrise at San Onofre, hoping no one would see him as he tried to figure out how it worked. But it caused such a buzz on the sand, he said, that 20 people trailed him at twilight to watch.

“First wave I catch, I almost die,” he said on a recent day at the same stretch of beach. “The thing flipped over and barely missed my head. Five more times, same thing happened.”

He called Lenny for some tips.

About his 10th session, Boehne said, he was getting the hang of it – when he got whacked by the foil.

“It sliced behind my ear and came across my face,” he said. “That was it, I quit.”

In the following months, as others started to pick it up and get better at foiling, Boehne knew he had to give it a try again – this time, wearing a helmet and pads for protection.

“That’s what people were doing,” he said.

Fast-forward two years, and Boehne said he’s so addicted to SUP foiling — which incorporates a paddle to help get into waves — he does it 75% of the time he’s out in the water.

At his shop, he said, customers are starting to seek out foil boards.

“We were one of the first in California to dive in. Now, it’s becoming a bigger part of the business,” Boehne said.

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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