Downwind wing foiling is pure joy but comes with a price...
Well it has been awhile... my progression with foiling continues from the learning stages on a SUP last time I wrote back in 2019. Since then I have put a bunch of time in on my buddy's Fliteboard efoil. Getting into a wave with the efoil on a glassy day and cutting the power is a blast. I fell in love with tow in foiling down in Puerto Rico (pic below) with Goodwinds. Towing on the outer reef feels like cheating. Big mounds of water hitting the reef create the perfect foil wave. I was getting rides over a minute long. We have also been back on the ski here on Amelia Island. More recently I have been consumed with the wing and downwinders. I have a lot to write about when it comes to my experiences on the wing but wanted to share the details from a downwinder that did not go so well. I had my first legit wingmare.
It was late December. We had some strong NE wind... solid mid 30s. Swell was OH with our local buoy reading 9' @ 8s. My buddy and I set up to do a 4 mile downwinder starting on the north end of the island. Being out gunned for a prior nor'easter, I had just bought a 3m wing (NAISH Matador LT) and unboxed it on the beach. My foil setup was the Takuma Kujira 750/178 stab and 85cm mast. At 200 lbs. (91 kg) the 750 is my smallest foil and it was going to be just my third session on it. Needless to say, I did not have this foil or wing dialed in yet.
Up until this point the scariest thing about wing foiling was getting in (and out of) the water through the shore pound. This picture is an example of what we are dealing with here (BTW... the winger with orange board, circled in yellow, made it out but took at least 3 or 4 of these in the process). Wading into crashing waves holding a wing, board and a foil all leashed together with raging back wash is sketch balls to say the least. Getting through the shore pound requires persistence and good timing. Getting through unscathed is pure ass luck! I won't name drop to protect the innocent but I have witnessed one of the best foilers in the business get rejected up here in these conditions.
Well on this day, I somehow made it through clean. Not sure if I timed it to perfection or just squirted through in a rip. Either way I was out and got flying quickly. It didn't take long to realize I was overpowered both wing and foil. The bumps were big and steep. I caught a few bombs but the speed was just too much for me to stay in control even on the 750. Big swell was moving downwind (heading south) and toward the shore (heading west). I struggled to find a way to scrub speed. Taking different angles on the wave nor straight-lining down the face slowed me down enough. I even started choosing smaller bumps. Combined with the tipsy feeling of the foil I breached several times.
The new wing added to the challenge. Several times I would reach for a handle and miss or it would take longer to locate the handle in situations when timing was critical. Not having the muscle memory that comes over time and frequency of use was a weakness Mother Nature was exploiting. I remember sitting on my board after a wipeout looking back at shore and being amazed at how much water was moving this far off shore. I was struggling and somehow remember thinking to myself.. "well, it could be worse."
And then it was. I crashed again and this time my board landed foil side up. Before I could react the wing had come into contact with the foil tearing a hole in the canopy. Looking back at the data from my Apple watch I was about 2 miles offshore at this time. I tried to get back on foil multiple times but was unsuccessful. After several iterations I found the best method to get back moving toward shore was using the damaged wing from on my knees. I noticed the wind had a lot of north in it making it slightly cross-off. The houses on the beach weren't getting bigger fast enough. I was moving down wind more than I was toward shore. At times there was so much water moving I wasn't making any forward progress. It felt like I was on a standing wave at times.
Eventually I slogged my way into shore just outside the break. It was in this moment I realized I was a sitting duck. Normally I try to find a channel and ride the back shoulder of a wave on foil staying high on the mast to get as close to the beach as possible. I then jump off and scramble to get out hoping to avoid getting hit from behind in the shore pound while flying the wing overhead and carrying the board and foil against the back wash. Sometimes I make it unscathed. Other times I get mowed down by the shore pound.
On this day I was at the mercy of Mother Nature. I was still a good ways off shore (I thought) but before I had time to strategize my exit I took a bomb on the head. Oddly I remember in the moment thinking how big and clean the face of the wave was as it approached. When I came up my first thought was to get away from the board and foil before the next one hit but my leashes were wrapped around the mast. I wear the Armstrong waist leash for the wing and use a SKLTN 6' straight leash on the ankle. The leashes were wrapped so tight I could not push my board away from me nor did I have enough slack to climb back on my board. I quickly disconnected my waist leash which gave me enough distance to get away from my board just before the next wave hit. I do not recall how many waves I took but they pushed me closer and closer to the beach so that I eventually was able to get out. The wing was now fully shredded (pic above) but the board and foil were fine. Back on the beach I still had a mile plus walk to get to my car. The walk of shame but nobody was out on the beach.
On my walk I reflected back on the session and thought I'd share some of the lessons learned. I will start with my Apple watch. I bought it for safety purposes as I don't wear a watch or any jewelry for that matter. The GPS tracking feature, ability to make a cellular call miles offshore, and the SOS function are great to have on a downwinder. On this day the battery was at 12% as I was walking over the dunes to pump up. The battery died 30 minutes or so into the session making it useless. Coincidentally, when I called my wife to tell her I was about to get in the water and my battery was low, she said don't go. Of course, I said it would be fine. Lesson here is obvious, I wouldn't get on the water unless I have at least 30% battery charge.
The next lesson involves my waist leash. I mentioned I was tangled up pretty good after taking one on the head. What I didn't mention is that I had removed the quick disconnect from the leash months ago after it snapped in the shore pound. While I was able to quickly unhook using the belt clip had I wasted time fumbling around trying to find the buckle or sliding the neoprene sleeve over that covers the buckle I would have been tumbled around in close proximity to my board and foil. Moreover, the Kujira foil I was using is renowned for being sharp. Lesson here, do not modify or remove safety devices. Know how they work and practice them so you are able to execute when it matters.
When it comes to the gear, I clearly took on too much too early for my skill level. In particular, these conditions were not conducive to learning two things at once - a brand new wing and fairly new foil. I had time on 3m wings including a trip to Hood River (the Gorge) in similar wind conditions but on a different brand of wing (Starboard FreeWing). My daily driver and the wing I have the most time on is the F-One Strike. Learning the nuances of the NAISH and developing the muscle memory to unconsciously reach for and grab handles simply takes time. With the 750 foil, I had not ridden it enough to get comfortable with the stability (i.e., reduced stability aka increased maneuverability). Managing the reduced stability at speed was more than I could handle. The lesson here is if my skill level is below what is required for the conditions and/or the necessary equipment (i.e., small foil and wing) then sit it out. A powerful nor'easter is not the time to sort out new gear. For me that means, pump up the kite instead. A second lesson here is keep it simple when transitioning to higher performance gear i.e., progressing to smaller foils/wings. Pick one, the smaller foil or wing, and keep all the other variables constant. While a test of my patience, I am hopeful the pace of progress will be faster using this approach.
A number of things went well. I was glad to be wearing and happy with my helmet and impact vest. Most importantly, I think, was having a buddy in the water with me. While there was not a whole lot he could do in this situation, it was nice to know someone was there if things escalated further. I took comfort knowing someone else knew I was in this situation especially early on when the houses on the beach looked really small and it did not seem like I was making much progress in that direction. I vividly remember a sense of calm when I knew my buddy knew I was in distress and was keeping an eye on me as I slogged to the beach. Lesson here, it's best to wing with a wingman.
Lastly, to my surprise, this wingmare came with some mental baggage. For days after I noticed some apprehension in my mind. My desire to go back out in these conditions had waned. I found myself questioning my abilities. Around this same time there was news a big wave surfer had died and another broke his back. Despite the fact I have done downwinders in similar conditions or stronger countless times while kitesurfing, random questions and vulnerabilities were popping into my head... am I too old, taking to much risk, do I fully understand the risks, is it worth it with the shore pound here, etc. My confidence, which I had taken for granted, was shaken a bit really for the first time. I put the 750 away and didn't even consider replacing (or repairing) the 3m wing. I immediately bought a new waist leash and made the commitment to be disciplined with my safety protocol. On the next nor'easter I went out on the kite instead of the wing... guess I was still scared! In time my mind has quieted. I now appreciate the humbling experience as a healthy reminder of the power of the ocean. A couple weeks ago I got back on the horse and rode the 750 and loved it.
I can say now that the froth is back! With the summer and smaller surf approaching my hope the next time I write is to have finally bagged some legit double and triples with my prone or SUP setups.