(Reuters) - California surfers are literally taking wave-riding to another level, surfing not on but above the water on hydrofoil surfboards.
Harnessing the “foiling” technology more typically seen on racing catamarans in sailing’s America’s Cup, the surfboards appear to fly above the water thanks to a fin attached to the bottom of the board.
“You feel like a little kid,” said professional athlete and stuntman Chuck Patterson, who rides a custom short board with a aluminum and fiberglass hydrofoil.
He said part of the appeal of foil surfing, or foilboarding, is that several people can “share” a wave, instead of taking it in turns.
“Today we went out and it’s probably the worst conditions and we had a blast.... It ends up changing the game of being in the water,” he said.
The foil is like a wing that extends into the water under the surfboard. Acting much like a wing of plane, it causes the board to lift out of the water as it gains speed, propelled by an ocean swell.
Since there is less drag because of reduced contact with water, surfers on hydrofoil boards can ride any wave at high speed, even one a surfer on a traditional board would pass up as too small.
Dave Daum, founder of Kings Paddle Sports in the Southern California beach town of Carlsbad, said it all started when a member of a surf racing team wanted to attach a hydrofoil to his board with snowboard bindings.
“He took it out into the water, proceeded to catch a wave, fell off, and nearly drowned. And at that point, we said it’s too dangerous,” he said.
Daum said he put on his engineering cap to design a custom hydrofoil board. While he started his business making and selling stand-up paddleboards, he has been receiving more and more requests for custom and off-the-shelf foilboards.
The foils, which are specifically designed for surfing, sell for around $1,000, with specially made surfboards adding another $600-800.
Increased speed, combined with the foil’s sharp metal blade, have led to the sport gaining a reputation as dangerous. That hasn’t put off musician Tim Foreman, who took up foil surfing in December.
“I’m still learning and it’s a really steep learning curve. The first three or four sessions were extremely humbling. It’s kind of dangerous,” he said.
For stuntman Patterson, the sensation of foilboarding reminds him of another adventure sport.
“It feel kind of like snowboarding in pure powder where it’s just effortless and you’re floating free or you know feel like you’re flying pretty much half the time,” he said.
And just as the rise of snowboarding in the 1980s and ‘90s shook up the ski slopes, the early adopters of foilboarding say their fledgling sport may take the surfing world by storm.
Reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman