by Alex Fox and Jason Slezak
“Have you ever skied in two feet of powder? Then you know what it feels like to foilboard!” With those two sentences Jason Slezak inspired a nation. Endless fresh powder runs awaited us at our local beach, and we were instantly hooked. It’s been a fun learning curve and tips from the pros have always made learning easier. Kitesurfing Magazine asked pro riders Jason Slezak and Alex Fox to share some of their best tips for learning to hydrofoil.
Ideal Conditions for learning to Foilboard
Jason Slezak: Any conditions will work, as long as you size down at least two kites sizes smaller than you would ride on a twintip, when you are trying to learn. Being underpowered for your first few sessions really keeps things much safer. But if you are choosing your first few foil days wisely, then I would say smooth steady light 12 meter wind. Which on a foil is about 12-15 miles per hour for someone my size (190 lbs).
Alex Fox: Wind speed is important, but one thing to remember is that there are more ideal wind directions than others. Foiling allows you to ride in very light wind; this can pose a problem if you struggle to keep the kite in the air. If learning how to foil in sideshore conditions and you have a slight error in kite control and it crashes, then you can find yourself in the precarious situation of being stuck far from the beach. I speak from experience. If learning to foil in light sideshore conditions, always remember the golden rule: never ride further out than you are willing to swim back in. For this reason I think side-onshore wind conditions are the ideal wind direction for learning to foil.
Best kite for a beginner foilboarder
Jason Slezak: As far as kite choice goes, it’s best to take out something that you’re comfortable with. It helps if that kite is stable and relaunches easily on the lighter side of its power range. In the LF kite line the Solo (lightweight single-strut kite) works great for hydrofoiling.
Alex Fox: I wouldn’t go out and get a new kite just to learn how to foil. You’re going to be learning something entirely new. To change your kite setup on top of learning a whole new timing and balance sensation doesn’t make any sense. Go out with the kite that you are comfortable with. You need to know and understand what the kite is doing and where it is so that you can focus 100 per cent on the board.
What size kite should beginner foilers use compared to other riders on the water?
Jason Slezak: My personal general guideline is to go two sizes smaller than you would normally ride on a twintip in the same conditions. And if you are saying right now, “but it’s too light for me to ride a twintip right now.” Then that means it is perfect 12 meter foiling conditions.
What should riders look for in a freeride hydrofoil board?
Jason Slezak: Boards are very much a personal preference. Once you are comfortable and up and foiling the board only comes into play when you touch back down or when you have to limp back to the beach if you get super overpowered and/or underpowered. My personal choice is to go with a lightweight board with a track and three straps for versatility, comfort at speed, and jumping. Or strapless for freedom and surfy carving fun.
Alex Fox: I’d really say that you should be looking at volume and a turned up nose. Everything else doesn’t really matter. When you’re learning you need a board that will keep you on top of the water and the turned up nose really helps for when you inevitably rise and fall out of the water. This will keep you up on your board instead of falling and having to waterstart. When Tony Logosz created the Alien Air he designed every aspect of the board to help beginner foilers get up and stay foiling longer and easier than any other board.
Tip for handling the board/waterstarting?
Jason Slezak: One thing that we have had great success with since we launched the Foil Fish and hydrofoil program at LF Kiteboarding, is recommending that people go out for a swim. Yeah that’s right, take your hydrofoil board for a swim and get used to handling it without the kite. This is a great way to get used to keeping your feet away from the mast and wings, as they are the parts you really don’t want to kick by accident. So basically don’t kick your foil!
As for water starts, take it slow, real slow. Learn to roll up on to the deck of the board and keep it flat (and I mean flat, flat, flat on the water) and your weight more centered on the board, if not even front-foot heavy, so the board doesn’t want to roll either way on you. This stance and weight distribution is much different than your usual back-foot-heavy twintip stance, and the extra front foot pressure will keep the foil from flying out of the water unexpectedly.
Alex Fox: One thing that people find frustrating is how to manipulate the board and foil into starting position. Once you walk into the water and get into deep enough water, the difficulty really ensues. I found it so difficult to manoeuvre the board into starting position. A big misconception people have is that since they can ride a surfboard that they can start on the foil board the same way. That is impossible. You cannot waterstart on a foil by placing your heels on a flat foil setup and get up. You have to have the board on rail. An easy solution to this difficult process is using your back hand to grab the front footstrap and using your elbow for leverage pull up on the footstrap while pushing down with your elbow. This will allow the foil setup to get into the foiling water start position.
Key pointer for first runs?
Jason Slezak: Here is my ‘golden ticket’ pointer for anyone’s first foil runs: ready? Wait for it… don’t try to actually ride the foil your first time out. Just go out and try to learn to ride the board while using the foil as a giant fin/keel. This will allow you to fully understand how to waterstart and handle the board when you touch back down, make your first turns/jibs, or if you get overpowered and have to force the board back onto the water for some added drag and edge control. Getting up on the foil will happen naturally as you become more comfortable, and happens in an unweighting and re-weighting motion similar to getting over whitewater on a kite surf board in the waves. No matter how long you have been kiteboarding, just trust me, take a few passes/tacks with the board on the water before pushing the up button on the foil elevator.
Alex Fox: A good thing to remember about foiling is how dynamic it is. I often refer to it a 3D kiteboarding. All of a sudden there is a whole other dimension or axis added to the riding sensation. When starting your first rises out of the water, many people try to ride flat and just ollie to get the foil to rise. This often causes weird body positioning and alignment over the foil. My suggestion is when riding the board flat on the water with a comfortable upwind line, gradually open your hips up to the direction that you are riding and start leaning ever so slightly upwind and this will create tension and the drive to propel you upward and out of the water.
Tip for going upwind?
Jason Slezak: Strangely, unlike learning to kiteboard for the first time, going upwind on a foil is not usually the problem and not very hard at all. It just sort of happens for most people. But if you are struggling it is usually at either end of the spectrum of power; either very overpowered or very underpowered. If you are underpowered try and loop your kite to get on a foil. Try to pop up on the foil with the up stroke of the kite. This will make it much easier. Drive your hips forward towards the nose and look upwind where you want to go. If you are on the overpowered side, then try and keep your speed down and keep the kite at the edge of the wind window while, again, looking where you want to go. Our eyes always lead the body.
Alex Fox: Going upwind is the easy part. When learning, my biggest tip is to try and body drag downwind if you see yourself going too far upwind. There is such a thing as the walk of shame from upwind, and it’s unique and common in foiling.
Tip for going downwind?
Jason Slezak: This one can be a tricky. Going downwind comes with comfort. Comfort with being up on a foil and not leaning hard into the kite. When you go downwind you can get really creative with your kite flying and do all sorts of crazy loops once you are more up on your foil game. Early on just ride along and slowly start to stand tall on the board, release the tension in the spreader bar and bear off the wind. Your speed will most likely increase as you do this, so prepare for that, and start to edge the kite out of the wind window and travel more across the wind to slow down your speed. Alternatively you can fully give in to the pull of the kite and bear off hard to release almost all of the tension in your lines and ride solely on the foil. This is where you can get creative with kite looping to keep your kite moving downwind with you, but not really pulling you.
Alex Fox: Practice, practice, practice. It is tough. It’s similar to getting solid drift down the line. One thing I find effective is to put your kite slightly high and try and ride the board and foil as flat as possible.
Key pointer for learning to carve turns?
Jason Slezak: Learning to carve unlocks the door to an entirely new and amazing world. A world described with phrases like; bottomless powder, magic carpet ride, surfing on a hoverboard, and many other great descriptions. Learning to carve, just like all of the earlier steps, just needs to be taken slowly. Most people feel more comfortable trying a toeside turn first. Don’t try and lead too much with the kite, as you will accelerate downwind and outrun the kite. Rather, do your carved turn with your kite relatively high, between 11 and 1 in the wind window, so that you can dive the kite towards the completion of your turn to keep the power going and consistent.
Alex Fox: A good thing to keep in mind when doing carve turns is to make sure that you and the foil beneath your board are always in one straight line through your board. If you are leaning too far forward or too far back you will find yourself falling quite a bit. You want to make sure that you and the foil are acting as one keel through the water.
Tip for going toe side.
Jason Slezak: Toeside riding is, for some people, easier than riding heel side on their weak side. This can easily be accomplished by doing a standard surfboard style toe side water start and then popping up onto the foil. Once up maintain solid pressure on the front foot and slowly drive your lead hip in the direction that you want to go while also leading with your eyes. A good way to start is to do short toe side rides and then carve back to heel side and switch directions if and when you get uncomfortable.
Alex Fox: Start small. When riding on your heel side put the kite high and experiment with some toe leverage and slowly carve downwind just to familiarize yourself with the sensation of riding the other way. Foiling is building off of muscle memory, which you don’t have yet, so establish a nice learning curve and don’t get frustrated.
Tip for changing foot positions
Jason Slezak: I still struggle with keeping up on the foil when changing directions. So I am looking for tips on this one too! But if you want to try, I suggest placing the board back down on the water for doing the foot switch. This will allow for much more control in the early stages. Once you are comfortable with that move happening while the board is down on the water you can speed up the process and try it while elevated.
Alex Fox: My biggest tip is to think about foot placement logically in regards to your allocation over the foil. If one foot moves, where does the other foot need to be to make sure that the foil remains the same height out of the water? When you think of it logically and almost as a math problem, it starts to really click.
Jason Slezak’s extra foiling tips
Tip #1 Falling
Early on when you start to fall, just fall. Fall far, far away from your foil. Don’t try to save it, or think, “I have been kiteboarding for XX years I’ve got this!” Just give in and fall until you understand how the foil falls, or rather rolls, flips, keeps going, etc., when you fall off.
Tip #2 Decide and figure out what works for you
There are so many instant ‘foil experts’ out there already. Anyone who has foiled more than once seems to fall into this category. Figure out what and how you want to ride and then ask those same type of foilers for advice. I have seen many people led in the wrong direction because someone else is trying to force their personal preferences on a newbie. If at all possible get a board with an adjustable track, or multi-mast and footstrap position so that you can experiment. That becomes the most interesting and fun part of foiling once you are up and riding.
Funniest comment I heard yet on learning to foil…
This occurred when Brandon Scheid, Julien Fillion, Gary Siskar and I were all learning to foil on Maui. Gregg ‘Tekko’ Gnecco sat on the beach one super light wind day while Brandon was cruising around and Julien, Gary and I were just getting our first few rides. Once we were all in and re-counting our experiences for the day, Tekko came up and excitedly said, “I have to try to learn how to foil now!” To which we inquired, “Why?” “Because you all look like you just got laid for the first time,” he said. And that pretty much sums up what we have coined as the foilface. So with that said, go learn to foil and get your foilface on.
Alex Fox is the brand and team manager for Slingshot kiteboarding.
Jason Slezak is involved in R&D at Liquid Force, and is a surf ambassador at Patagonia.
You can find more tips and an archive of foilboarding articles here: Kitesurfing Magazine’s Learn to Foilboard articles.