Former international SUP Racer and now owner of the California/French Brittany brand 52FoilCo Greg Closier, runs through a series of precious Downwind Foil tips that will help you to get started on Downwind SUP Foiling.
Downwind SUP foil – Why do we do it?
In April 2016, Kai Lenny showed the world what he was doing on his hydrofoil: endless flying from bumps to bumps in open ocean water, something no one had seen before. A truly shocking moment and a huge game changer!
Then came the video (see below) that can be defined as the true revolution and lots of people (me included) immediately became obsessed with foiling !!
Because Downwind (DW) foiling is not as easy as foil surfing, foil kiting or foil winging, it is in my opinion, the « grail » of foiling, the most « noble » aspect of foiling.
It is challenging and you really need a good level of skill. But once you can perform, the feeling is amazing.
Dave Kalama said in a recent interview that learning to Downwind Foil was the most humbling experience of his life as a waterman !!!
The feeling of riding ocean swells is amazing, either on a prone paddle, SUP, OC or surfski, no matter the craft, it is addictive! The difference with foiling is that you go faster than any other crafts. It makes a huge difference as you are able to ride the ground swell as well as the wind swell. You also have so many options to ride the swell: because of the acceleration you experience, you can change your game all the time, go far on one side, far ahead, slow down, do 100m in a couple of seconds, etc… the choices are mind blowing!
On a surf foil, you can achieve this if you are being towed, as it is really difficult to catch bumps on a very small board, however it is doable, in fact some shapers are working on downwind-specific surf foil boards. But the down side is that when you fall, it is tricky to get back on and it takes time to find the right bumps.
You can also ride downwind using a wing, but it is not as easy as it seems, as you have to control the foil, neutralize the wing and ride the swell at the same time.
Downwind Foil : the Learning Curve
SUP foiling Downwind can be very frustrating, it takes time and you need to go step by step in order to achieve your dream.
So there are several options for DW foiling : the most popular is on a SUP and this is the one I will focus on.
Initially you need to be comfortable riding waves whilst SUP foiling. Especially catching small unbroken waves and you need to master the pumping technique.
For pumping, it is super important to understand how the foil works. Usually people tend to push on their feet thinking this is right way but it is actually the opposite, do not push on your back foot.
Once you loose your speed (due to being too far from the power phase, not enough water energy, up current, etc…), you will go down, and in order to go up again you need to lighten the load on the board, so this is the pumping action. It is important to feel the foil working, feel the glide, it is sensitive.
You need to have a good paddling technique and be able to paddle on one side because when you catch the bump you will be in the surf stance.
If you have are already experience at DW (SUP, OC, Surfski …), it is a massive advantage, you will be able to read the ocean, this will help you find the best bumps.
Downwind Foil? What Gear
You will need to be stable, you will need a board you are comfortable on, because you will have to
put everything you have into your stroke so to catch a bump.
A board with a length between 6’ / 7’ is ideal and its volume depends on your size/weight and of course your skill level. In SUP foiling you have an increased level of side-to-side stability which means you can go narrower. Keep the same volume as your classic board, maybe 10 to 15 litres more, but go way shorter.
It is easier to start with a big foil, at least 2000cm2. With bigger foil, foiling will be even easier so don’t be afraid to start with a foil that is 2500 cm2 or more.
For beginners I recommend a second hand Paddle. Put away your brand new fancy expensive paddle as you might break it ! Some people like short paddles others like longer paddles. Personally, I like 4’’ taller than me and a bigger blade to have a lot of power.
You will need safety gear : leash, pfd, helmet can be a good idea. Means of communication, ie phone, vhf or any safety communication tool.
Full wetsuit if the water is cold, you will spend some time in the water !!
Downwind Foil : what Conditions?
You need good bumps, easy to ride, with a swell that lines up well, avoid tricky conditions such as crossed swell, backwash, current or shallow waters.
The wind has to be strong enough, at least 20 knots. Before going on a classic run, I recommend to start on shorter runs (2 KM run max). If you can’t find a short run, do some upwind/down wind, it is not super fun but you need to practice ! Or if you can find a boat to drop you in the water and follow you, that is the best option.
When you are ready, you can go on longer runs. Basically you need to be able to fly non-stop for 3 minutes before you can increase the distance of your runs !
Downwind Foil Technique
First you need to find good bumps, steep enough, and to be able to anticipate water movements.
When you feel a bump is coming, start paddling, when the nose of the board goes down it is time to put strong pressure on your front foot and paddle as hard as you can !
Then you need to release the pressure, lighten the weight on the board and keep paddling so that the foil lifts up. But make sure you control your board with your front foot.
When the board is lifting, you need to put the right amount of pressure on your front foot to maintain the board level. The board may go down, don’t give up, do it again, keep moving, an intensified rhythm is the key to success.
For this critical stage, using a front foot strap might be useful, it will help you lift the board.
In flight mode, it is no time for a rest! The hard part is coming, you need to speed up, keep light on the board when you go down and keep paddling at the same time, it will make you go faster and get the inertia you need to keep your flight clean.
Make sure you stay focused all the time, lower/wider stance, look straight ahead and read the ocean to find the best lines.
A good way to learn Downwind Foil once you are really comfortable foiling is to practise behind a boat. A goal being to drop the rope and ride the wake and to pump without the paddle. Start mixing it up, pumping with your paddle. You can also try to take off on the wake boat, etc…
If you can do flatwater foiling it is a huge avantage ! Another good way to train is to find a spot where you can practise catching bumps.
Foiling Downwind can be very exhausting, at first you might do mutiple 2 to 5 minutes flights. Pumping and paddling is a lot of work, you won’t do it too long so you need to feel the foil, feel the glide, adjust your line to stay in the powerful part of the bump.
The goal is to fly for hours without stopping, it is a long road but the reward is worth it ! The ultimate goal is to fly as fast as possible, at some point you will not use your paddle at all, only for taking off, Then once you are good enough and if the conditions are perfect, you won’t do a single paddle stroke except at the start ! The fun part of downwind foiling is you can do full carving turns, which is incredible. Foiling is basically the dream of every surfer, endless waves all by yourself!!!
All I can say is : no matter how hard and frustrating it can be at the beginning, don’t give up, you will make it and you will experience one of the best feeling in the world !