There is a lot of talk flying around about hydrofoil windsurfing being the future of the sport, but does the performance live up to the hype? Adrian Jones and the Clones test-drive the British made hydrofoil: the iFoil.
“I’m not kidding when I say the iFoil makes the Millennium Falcon look dated!"
Length – 240 cm
Width – 94 cm
Volume – 140 litres
Weight – 13 kg
Website – www.ifoil.co.uk
Action photos: Paul Griffiths. Product photos: Courtesy of KinoHutorok.
He dabbled at windsurfing right back in his early school days, around 1982, and now describes himself as a ‘weekend warrior who can gybe 50% of the time’. Knowing the effect that hydrofoiling has had on performance dinghies, he has been keen for some time to bring this technology to windsurfing. He knew, however, that the foils that have worked so successfully on dinghies would not work in the same way on lighter, faster, less stable windsurfers.
It was whilst working on surface-running foils for another project that he found what he believed to be the answer for windsurfing. Under the banner of Tomahawk Foils, and in conjunction with co-designer Jonathan Howes and Mark Wagner, they started developing the iFoil project. That was six years ago and since then they have spent what he describes as ‘literally thousands’ of hours on the water testing and developing this iFoil project. They have had some real expert help as well in the form of the UK’s top RS:X sailors and Olympic medallist Nick Dempsey. All of who seem to be raving about the board.
The first question is who is this board actually for?
Don’t just take my word for it though. Lay this board on a beach anywhere, and just watch how many windsurfers, kiters, dinghy sailors, bird watchers and dog walkers flock to it. It has a draw-factor that Linton is all too aware of: “Pride of ownership. You can’t underestimate it by any strength of the imagination. People will be proud to own one of these. It’s something I identified as an issue in windsurfing. People get a new board and it’s great for the first few days, but after that it gets a few scratches and then there is really no pride of ownership. For some people that’s a big thing. If it wasn’t, no one would be driving VW vans with alloy wheels on!"
Linton may be right and it could well be an important factor that we might be losing from windsurfing these days, but it’s not the draw-factor of this board that will ultimately make or break it. It’s the way it performs.
The first question is who is this board actually for? Linton explains: “The board has been designed for anyone who currently sails freeride or race gear. The buzz from hydrofoiling is, in my opinion, 10 times better than the feeling of planing. I hope the iFoil is something that will provide this buzz with relative ease, but also something that can keep pushing the rider as much as they want as they progress. The average windsurfer still wants to feel like they are a bit of an adrenaline junkie and that’s what this will offer them: more excitement on flatter water."
The iFoil, according to Linton, has been designed as one board that can go through virtually every wind condition from the lightest to the strongest. In the future his aim is for it to be a one-design board shape. A shape that is capable of getting the rider home in any wind condition, light or strong. From this base point, different foils will be sold to tailor the board’s foiling characteristics to different conditions and requirements. You can really tell that Linton has a passion for making windsurfing more accessible and more exciting. He is trying to develop a board that can be sailed in the lightest of winds, perhaps even out of a marina or harbour if desired and then foiled right up the strongest of winds on a hull that is safe, but also exciting and eye-catching to boot. It’s a bold ambition, but a worthy one.
I have to admit to being quite inspired by my chat with Linton. Perhaps harshly, before I met him, I thought I might be about to meet an enthusiastic mad-professor with big plans, but only theory to substantiate it. However, the truth is that Linton is clearly a very clever guy, with a massive amount of experience in hydrofoiling and a very clear vision of what he is trying to achieve. The iFoil is certainly no subtle, incremental development for the freeride market; this is a massive step-change with a stunning product that has already received a huge amount of development.
In his own words:
Well, the anticipation was certainly built, Linton had delivered the pitch to me and all that remained now was to try the board out!
ON THE WATER
I have to say, it’s been a long time since I was this excited about trying a new piece of windsurfing gear. What would it really feel like to foil a windsurfing board?! I was about to find out!
The first challenge was reaching the water with it. It’s not heavy, but it is big and to carry it with the rig attached requires a reach around the bottom of the board to grab the centre foil. In its full carbon livery, the board looks such an impressive bit of kit that I was absolutely paranoid about damaging it. Linton reassured me that it’s built to withstand ‘real use’ and causing a few scratches to the ends of the foils or fin are just part of the course, as with any board.
Launching in flat water is easy, you just have to be deep enough for the 700 mm rear fin to get clearance. Launching in shore break is a bit trickier! We managed ok going in backwards in about waist high waves, but Linton was keen to point out that this board has been designed to potentially launch from more sheltered areas and sail out to the conditions.
As the wind was a little on the light side, I ignored this advice completely and tried to ease the board up with a bit of sail wiggling, as I would on a freeride board. What a waste of time!
Beachstarting was easy. Certainly no harder than a regular freeride board and, in fact, probably a bit easier thanks to the board’s excellent stability. The stability is the first thing you notice when you stand on the board. The weird ‘sting ray’ style shape, with it’s anteater nose, gives the impression that the board will be a nightmare to balance and sail until it is foiling. However, because the board has so much fin and foil area under the water, there is such a dowsing effect that the board becomes much more stable than an equivalent freeride board with just a single rear fin. It’s incredibly stable in its pre-foiling stance, a trait that was most noticeable and beneficial when tacking and gybing.
The next thing you notice, again before you even get foiling, is that all that fin area helps you get upwind very quickly. It is much more effective at making progress upwind in light airs than a freeride board would be off the plane.
To get up and foiling, Linton had pre-warned me to stick my front foot into the footstrap and just let the board do its thing. He mentioned that I would feel the board go through several stages of lift (as the foil is ventilated) until it reached full hydrofoiling position. He said that it might take fice seconds or so at first, but just let it go through those stages.
As the wind was a little on the light side, I ignored this advice completely and tried to ease the board up with a bit of sail wiggling, as I would on a freeride board. What a waste of time! Pumping the sail just unsettled the foils and left it stuck in some mid-land between displacing and foiling. No matter how hard you try, the board won’t foil because the foils need to be settled to begin to work properly.
So on reflection, I took his advice and waited for a gust. As the gust hit, the board speed increased and with it, the whole hull started to lift. As soon as it started to lift, it became quite manoeuvrable and easy to luff into wind or off it. The key is to really hold it steady and straight whilst keeping the rig still. Through this process it felt quite draggy and ‘squirrely’ in the water, but then all of a sudden almost like it just popped out of the water, the drag went, the board became instantly stable and directional underfoot and everything just went incredibly light. It’s a completely unique feeling and really quite addictive! I even found myself dreaming about it that night – and that never happens!
As soon as the board reached that ‘released’ stage, the speed instantly increased. At first I found it really exciting and I have to admit, a little unnerving. It wasn’t the speed, which is fairly similar to a regular freeride board, and it wasn’t the extra height off the water, as I had already convinced myself that it was safer at this height where the chop won’t affect you so much. I think the unusual feeling was standing on a board that behaved and responded so differently to a regular board.
I was quite surprised at how conventional gybing felt. It’s not easy to foil around the whole gybe, but it’s definitely quite doable.
A regular board would be bouncing and rattling across every single piece of chop. The iFoil is not a completely smooth ride, you certainly feel the bigger pieces of chop and swell but it does seem to iron out the rattily bits. I think the most unusual sensation is that we are used to boards that trim from front to back i.e. the nose lifts in gusts and when going over steep chop. The iFoil doesn’t do this. In fact, it is specifically designed not to do this, with the front and rear stabilisers keeping the main foil at its most efficient angle of attack.
The feeling of gliding is sensational. It’s a lot quieter and smoother than a regular freeride board and being a foot above the water does make it feel like you are riding some kind of futuristic hover board.
I was quite surprised at how conventional gybing felt. It’s not easy to foil around the whole gybe, but it’s definitely quite doable. Gybing on the foil felt a lot like gybing a wide freeride board, where you actually do as much pulling up with your front foot as you do pushing down with the back one. I liked the challenge of gybing it a lot. In some ways, once the technique is sussed, it could be easier than carve gybing, as the foil tends to eliminate a lot of the chop that would normally slow you down through the gybe. Gybing off of the foil was extremely easy, thanks to all the stability the board has. If you can slam or flare gybe a regular freeride board, you will have no problem with this.
Myself and the test Clones have had roughly half a day riding this board so far and there is no doubt we are on a learning curve. This isn’t a board you can just jump on and master right away. It’s a board that is relatively easy to get onto the foil with, so long as there is sufficient wind, but to master how to sail it and get the best speed from it will take time.
After a few hours on the board, I was easily able to get it foiling within a few seconds from standstill, in a fairly smooth transition. Once you get the technique dialled, it just clicks and becomes quite straightforward. If there is enough wind to plane without pumping on a 120-litre freeride board, then there should be enough to get this foiling.
When it came to top speed however, I can honestly say that I was never able to fully commit to full speed on it. I could cruise around at 70-80% effort very easily, but when I tried to fully commit, I basically scared myself! It was scary, because I haven’t yet got the feel for the control or have full trust in what the board is going to do. We had quite choppy conditions and I found that as the speed increased, the foil would skip off the top of a piece of chop (which is what it is designed to do) and each time it became airborne, it would get faster until I felt it skipping so much that I would have to sheet out and slow down a bit. I think this is a result of the difference in board trim between the iFoil and a regular board. On a regular board, the nose pitches up a bit, which helps you resist the sail pulling you forwards and gives you a more familiar feeling of safety and control. Because the nose can’t lift on the iFoil your only option is to trust that the board will behave itself. And trust isn’t built in a day!
Aside from the whole experience and sensation of foiling, which is awesome, this new learning curve is a lot about what makes the iFoil so appealing. It’s definitely still windsurfing, but not as we know it. Linton described this board as ‘the thinking mans freeride board’ and I get that. It’s technical. But it’s very, very rewarding.
For £5,000 there probably isn’t going to be a gate rush of students and new-age travellers snapping these up, despite the obvious appeal of the LED lights. However, if you’re the sort that works hard to play hard and you want something that is truly extra-special, windsurfing boards don’t come any more special than this.
HOW IT WORKS
Ignoring the bow foil and the aft stabiliser, the main foil is doing all the work over a long wingspan and it’s simply the pressure differentials between the upper and lower faces of the foil that provides the lift. The clever thing about this foil is that without any mechanical input whatsoever, the lift is reducing very naturally by introducing ventilation to the top face of the foil, so at the time when the foil is just about to go onto the surface of the water, the whole top face of the foil has been completely ventilated. This means that it has become a non-lift face, which then just works off the lift from the bottom of the foil as it breaks the surface. The whole point is that you don’t get a sudden loss of lift as the foil breaks the surface.
No other foil you will have seen operates like this. Most other hydrofoils have to be under the water, otherwise as soon as they touch or even sniff the surface, the result is catastrophic failure of lift. The other problem with sub running foils is that there is no roll stability; therefore with a normal windsurfing stance you would end up simply pushing the board over. You would have to stand on top of it and keep it level in both pitch and roll angles.
With this one, as the foil rises, it goes through stages of lift and once on the surface of the water, there are no bad characteristics of the foil, so it’s all just speed from there. This foil has been designed by Jonathan Howes who has spent most of his career in the aviation industry. He even certified the A380 airbus to fly. It’s a very canny bit of kit.
The bow foil governs the angle of attack of the main foil. On this particular foil, the angle of attack is extremely critical. So the bow foil stops a decrease in angle of attack on the main foil (nose dipping). The aft stabiliser has the reverse effect of stopping the increase of angle of attack of the main foil (nose lifting), so you end up with a sort of unicycle feel where if it’s being sailed perfectly, the bow is a couple of inches above the water and the aft stabiliser is in mid-air and that’s when you are getting the best from the foil. The reality is that the bow foil will be locating onto the water on a regular basis to keep everything stable and trimmed, particularly as forces change in the rig from gusts.
We will have a further update on the testing of the iFoil, coming soon!