How to choose your foil
Top tips from Progression’s Rob Claisse as delivered in Kiteworld Issue #95!
Rob Claisse has been kiting for 18 years and has become fully addicted to foiling. In pulling together Progression’s latest series of instructional videos that are based around educating new and improving foilers, he has ridden as many different foils as possible in order to create a structured, easy guide to help people learn this new discipline. He has also helped the BKSA write their foiling syllabus. So, if you’re thinking about buying a foil; either new, or tempted to go cheaper second hand, who better to ask for a foiling 101! This is part one, we’ll bringing you the rest of the series soon!
Words: Rob Claisse
First off, a lot of brands state that foil ‘X’ is brilliant for beginners and intermediates… and advanced riders, too. That’s a huge claim! Foiling, more particularly beginner and freeride foiling for the masses, hasn’t been around very long. If you learnt to foil even as recently as just two or three years ago, you had to be a determined and above average rider because the wings were so fast and hard to ride. New equipment has generally got easier and there are a few products that have made things a lot easier (I teach a lot on Shinn’s P-wing – surface area: 1,150 cm²), but the range is still narrow. So what I’ve focused on doing is working out what does and doesn’t help a beginner, with the focus on getting riders to a good base level as quickly as possible.
The first thing is to be honest with yourself! There are a lot of people who find kiteboarding really difficult. They might not have the opportunity to get out very often, or have much experience of other similar sports, so they don’t find improvement comes very quickly. On the other hand some people with more experience can learn quite quickly through stubborn doggedness.
So the scale I work on when advising or coaching people is: the more kite handling experience you have, the wider the range of equipment you can learn on and the wider range of conditions you’ll be able to initially ride in. Good kite handling ability will allow you to handle strong wind and choppy water, or lighter winds where kite skills become more important. For example, better kite skills also help you get used to a foil that needs more kite power to get it going.
The lower level of skills that you have, the more specific you have to be about what wind range and sea conditions you can go out in to have the best chance of quickly getting over this initial learning hurdle.
I’ve done experiments with friends who have been riding regularly for 16 years and are quite analytical riders. I’ve given them a mid-range foil and they’ve managed to get up and ride both ways within 45 minutes. On the same board a much more basic rider took five days.
So, be honest: how good a kiteboarder are you and how much opportunity do you have to get out on the water? How good are you at relaunching your kite (you’ll be back to doing quite a lot of that)? How good are you at riding under- / over-powered? Generally how quickly do you improve? These all have the biggest impact and if you have no perception of where you are on the scale, then you need something beginner-focussed.
SURFING AND STYLES
Up until the last 18 months or so, foiling was all about racing, going super fast and cranking upwind for miles before gritting your teeth and blasting downwind again. If you couldn’t tack or gybe it didn’t really matter and now there are a lot of people who have learned to ride on race kit, but still can’t tack or gybe. For them, the foil they should now be stepping back to is very different to what a beginner wants, and there are now some great mid-range foils out there to help learn those turning techniques. Once cracked, those riders can then return to their race kit and reapply their knowledge. But I do advise a step off the race kit for a while.
Don’t worry about buying something that you think you might out grow if you’re just a beginner; you could be riding around on a really stable beginner wing for a year quite happily, ultimately trying to carve and make foot changes. One thing worth mentioning is the current trend of surf foiling and bigger wings. We’ve got to a point where there’s a big movement towards bigger, slower, more carving movements and a lot people will stay in this sector for a long time because there’s a lot to learn and enjoy.
In my experience, however, although they’re big and seemingly similar, most true surf wings don’t cross-over that well for the real beginner, especially for the early sessions. Surf wings generate a lot of lift which comes on at slow speed, which can be good, but until you’ve got control of your initial board speed, that lift can come on far too quickly. Also, as most riders are coming from relatively mushy-feeling twin-tips, something that’s less directionally aggressive and a with a bit more ‘yore’ (lateral movement) will feel a bit more natural. The beginner will also find some surf wings quite unnerving as it’s very different to be riding something that needs such little power from the kite. Feeling more locked in against your foil will be more familiar (like edging), which is why a foil that rides slowly and won’t accelerate beyond a certain point, is nice. Some surf foils can go quite fast.
If you feel like you’re a fast learner and have lots of kite handling experience, then you can consider your spot and conditions a bit more. We can now kite in strong winds and some of my favourite conditions are around 25 knots, but you’ve got to have good experience of riding a small kite to even think about going out in those winds. What is your sea state generally like? There are wings that are specifically better for those conditions, so it’s probably a good idea to look for wings designed to be ridden in those conditions in your case.
Ultimately, when assessing someone my scale comes to three things: experience, conditions and equipment. All three of these need to blend together for you to have the best experience. (There is also the fact that you may already have a strong idea that you want to be a surf-style foiler, a racer or a tricks rider – in which case, this will dictate your shopping requirements more clearly.)
We have an easy way of comparing kite sizes. If someone’s on a nine metre C kite and you ride a wave kite, then you know you can probably get away with a seven metre in the same conditions. In foils we can kind of do the same. Using surface area allows us to get a very rough idea of a wing’s speed and stability, but it doesn’t tell us about the shape, thickness or chord length. There are also more subtle details, like rake and twist, but for now we want to keep it basic, like kites: wave / freestyle / big air.
So looking purely at surface area, most averagely sized people’s first foil will be between 800 and 1,000 square centimetres. If you’re much heavier than 80 or 90 kilos, you may want to look bigger than that. There have also been lots of developments in the rear wing (usually referred to as the stabiliser). You can achieve different feels with different stabilisers, but don’t worry about this for now, the front wing is more important and in the early stages you’ll be pairing your front wing with whatever stabiliser comes with that.
For a long time 500 to 600 front wing sizes were the norm, but they are hard to learn on because they require more power from the kite to get up to foiling speed and they also drop off the foil quickly if you lose power in your kite. Generally speaking (and not taking into account pure surf foils, as these are also big), the more surface area, the slower the front wing will be which makes it far easier to learn on. The lift will come on slower and you’ll have more time to think about what you’re doing with your kite and feet. Surf wings go up to 2,000 cm², which can be hard work for kiting, but surf wings around 1,200 – 1,400 can be okay. For racing, front wings go down to around the 550 – 700 range if you’re looking to go fast. But there are a whole range of race wings with lots of subtle shaping refinement. Some will be fast and technical, others a bit slower and easier.
The spectrum of styles are:
Surf style to race style.
Low kite power riding style to high kite power riding style.
As a beginner, you’ll feel most familiar in the middle.
FINAL THOUGHTS FOR PART ONE
Be honest about your own ability when you’re about to start shopping for gear and learning.
Go for a large wing, but not as big as the biggest surf wings.
If possible buy something from the last 18 months that fits as close to the top end of your budget as you can, but don’t be lured by sexy skinny carbon.
Foiling these days doesn’t have to be hard, but it is challenging. Taking it slow in the beginning will pay off in the long run and that comes in the way you learn, the methods – with a coach or videos – and not rushing that. Alongside that you must pick the right kit and the quickest progress comes by initially going for something that is very tailored to a beginner or entry level foiler. Even if you want to eventually be a racer, you will get to that point quicker if you take something that’s easier to ride in the first place.
So if a product sounds like it does everything for everyone, it’s perhaps not beginner-focused enough for you, depending on where you see yourself in the learning spectrum.
One way to get around this initial stage is book one or two sessions with a foiling coach who will hopefully have good, suitable equipment for this stage.
Basically a good approach would be to be prepared to spend £1,000 / $1,300 for a complete set-up if you’re going second hand and get something big and stable. Don’t worry about looking like a beginner; as I mentioned, surf foils are super fashionable and all really big! If you look after your gear you might sell it again for 70 or 80% of what you paid for it in a few months time, but you’ll be a foiler! At that point you can then make a choice and think better about what might work for you. All the conversations online will start making (a bit) more sense. The most important thing is to set a budget you’re comfortable with, and then go right up to it.
Next instalment, we’ll look at materials, board styles and volume, mast trends and some of the key products that Rob has tested.