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Wednesday 19 April 2023

Foiling Surfboards and Alt Surf


 This is an article which originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Huff,  the magazine of OzHPV inc. which I write for and edit. So this article went out to subscribers only, but I thought I would drag it out for all to see. Since it was written, the term Alt Surf has been coined for some of the different craft described below. So - um - please enjoy my writing from a few years ago. It has fairly basic layout at the moment and I will go in later and see if I can improve things.


Steve Nurse


Caspar Steinfath

Earlier this year, Casper Steinfath piloted a paddled foiling watercraft successfully across 120k of sea between Denmark and Sweden. Foiling is a bit like flying, with an underwater wing lifting most of a watercraft into the air, and away from the surface of the water. It marks an achievement for this type of craft and its pilot, and I decided to try to do an explainer for Huff.

 Caspar’s achievement came to my attention through a surfing website, Magic Seaweed. Although mainly to do with surfing and surf forecasts, surf sites like Seaweed cover all sorts of craft that make their way into the waves.  


Surfing itself started as a hybrid of arm paddling and wind energy. Wind conditions at sea give rise to ocean waves, and they are an accumulation of offshore weather. But these days many combinations of human, natural and machine energy count as surfing. There are stand-up paddle boards, wave pools with machine generated waves, foiling surfboards, kitesurfers, wingsurfers, windsurfers, electric surfboards, and surfboards towed into waves by jetskis. Foiling is quite a small part, but when famous surfers go foiling it is reported, videoed and seen, for example this video of surfing champion John-John Florence foiling as if by magic. The foils are supported on undersea currents, and sometimes these are parts of unbroken and invisible waves out at sea.


Alan Abbott prone / head forward streamliner.


Alec Brooke recumbent streamliner


Human powered foiling started in 1983, when some the first human powered hydrofoils were built and ridden by Alan Abbott and Alec Brooks.  A few years earlier, Bradham Brewster had researched and written about the possibility of the hydrofoils in a mechanical engineering thesis , and Abbott and Brooks took up the challenge of building a foiling watercraft. All had been involved with one of the fathers of the modern human powered vehicle movement, David Gordon Wilson, and Abbott and Brooks had both built streamliners for human powered land speed competitions. Alan Abbott also piloted record breaking bicycles which were ridden in the slipstream of cars.

Flying Fish 1

Flying Fish 2

Research into human powered hydrofoils was initially done by towing the submerged wings that would provide lift, allowing the powering propulsion and the underwater wings to be developed separately. Abbott and Brook’s first hydrofoil, Flying Fish 1 didn’t float, while their 2nd, Flying Fish 2 floated on catamaran pontoons. The website for Abbott and Brook’s machines is while shows some machines that have been developed since. Commercial human powered hydrofoils have been slow to come, and some of the first were driven by pumping the legs up and down. An example is the Aquaskipper which was for sale on Amazon. The Manta5 from New Zealand is a current ebike hydrofoil which costs around $9000 and brings the effort of human powered foiling down a notch or two. And solar powered hydrofoiling is now a sport, with the Netherland’s TU Delft (who also have a speedbike team) competing.


Aquaskipper foiling craft

Solar Electric Foiling craft

 Laird Hamilton pioneered the surfing version of hydrofoiling which was introduced in the 2003 film Set Into Liquid. A group of surfers, waterskiers, windsurfers and sailors developed the sport from a range of equipment. In this history of surfing hydrofoiling, the human powered versions of hydrofoils don’t even rate a mention, but having access to waterski foils from Airchair seems to have been a key step.


Manta 5


Manta 5 information showing power requirements for foiling: human and electric power


Hydrofoil surfboards now seem to be the most popular form of human powered hydrofoiling. The natural power elements can be wind from kites or handheld sails or ocean waves or currents. The human powered component can be stand-up paddling or a similar pumping technique to the Aquaskipper. But unlike the Aquaskipper, the newer surfboard hydrofoils follow the templates of surfboards and windsurfers, so aren’t seen as clunky machines. It looks like they’re here to stay, and the machines are modular with different foils, boards, paddles, inflatable wings, sails and kites going together to make a full kit.

Wingfoiling. photo courtesy Sailing World


This article really only skims the surface of the topic, but the area seemed too interesting not to mention. We’d love to hear more from Huff readers.