Kai Lenny on the Hydrofoil Surfing Revolution

Ed Temperley

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Updated 1901d ago

Surfing might be on the cusp of its most profound change since the introduction of foam and polyester. Yes it is the hydrofoil, and no, it isn’t half as crazy or hyperbolic as it initially sounds.

Spend 45 minutes with Kai Lenny and you'll quickly realise that the absence of limits on the range of a hydrofoil will result in an exponential increase in the global supply of waves. The whole ocean becomes our playground, and all on a foil board the size of a a skateboard, which apparently makes a barely there mush-burger feel like a performance wave.

Let Kai enlighten you...

What does today look like for Kai Lenny? Will you get in the water?
For sure, probably just some downwinders on my hydrofoil. During the summer I'll be out there every day.

Those videos blew our minds when we saw them in the MSW office. We need one of those right now, was the sentiment. Are they really that good?
It’s pretty awesome because it is the ultimate equaliser for crap and crummy surf. When you are going downwind for 10 miles it feels like you are cruising on a pointbreak.

Are you on one wave, or are you transitioning between different waves in the ocean?
You are transitioning between different waves but it feels like one wave. Imagine if you were going down the line in Malibu, keeping a high line and then it white-waters in front of you, and you have to come back to the power, as if you were heading down the line making sections.

How does the power feel when you connect into a new bump?
Most ocean open downwind waves are only about chest or shoulder high, sometimes just overhead on the biggest ones but with the power hitting the foil it feels twice as big. You are just flying downwind. You could theoretically foil the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean, if your legs could take it.

That would be some commitment. Particularly after watching Chris Bertish cross the Atlantic.
Yeah we’ll leave that to Chris [laughs]. It’s kinda cool because it exposes pointbreaks which don’t normally exist, you can start off on one point here on Maui and end up on another.

"Kai foiling at 9-years-old." Recalls Martin Lenny. "My really good friend bought a foil board when Dave K. and Laird placed an order with the board builder. We tried our best to learn but we gave up as we were getting beat up pretty good. Kai asked if he could try and immediately had the foil stabilized and he rode a wave. Barkley (my good friend) was on the jet ski with me and he commented that Kai just didn't know how hard it is to do the sport."

© 2022 - Julia Schweiger

Are we going to see hydrofoils all around the word in the surf? I know kite surfers are loving them, will surfers too?
The thing for me is that a foil is an equaliser for average surf. It makes surf which is unridable into a high performance experience which suits me.

Will it come to lineups everywhere? I think it's not meant for normal surf lineups. What I’ve always envisioned for the foil was the ability to leave the crowds and go to places which are unsurfable. Even if people can see you there they wouldn’t have the ability to follow you, unless they had a foil themselves.

As surfers we are seeking the best waves, either alone, or with our buddies and foil really allows that. I never surf with people with the hydrofoil and I don’t think they belong in crowded lineups because they are far too good at making 1ft mush feel like a 6ft Trestles wave.

It doesn’t replace anything, it adds to what makes surfing so great. It makes blown-out surf feel great. And it’s too hard for beginners to get in to, but competent surfers can use them for sure.

That’s interesting because it’s one thing which never happens in surfing. Adding to the supply of of quality waves is a concept us surfers are not used to. We guard our finite resource and secrets jealously.
There are waves on Maui I am surfing which I never knew existed and I’ve lived here my entire life. We all know surfing is getting more popular, but selfishly as surfers we always want to surf the best waves we can with no one out.

Just thinking about that, the hydrofoil solves some of those issues. And maybe when the good day comes and you are on your 6'2" people will be stoked and share waves more [laughs].

In terms of design, is the hydrofoil design finalised? Or is it still progressing?
The hydrofoil designs are progressing so fast. I’m working with Naish and some designers who are looking to create an extension of that shortboard feeling. Right now we are probably in the equivalent of the 1970s shortboard revolution. It is still early days. The stuff I am riding now in comparison to a year ago is 100 times better. And there are 1000s of ways to make it different, so in two years who knows where we will be?

To the left is an early design of a foil, and to the right is where we are now. A lightweight Naish foil which can fit in a suitcase.

To the left is an early design of a foil, and to the right is where we are now. A lightweight Naish foil which can fit in a suitcase.

And what about functionality? How is it paddling a foil board into a wave?
What I’ve discovered recently is you can use a much smaller board because the foil creates so much lift. A 5'5" paddles like a 7 footer.

My current board is a 3'8" board which paddles like a 5ft board because of the foil and that’s pretty much all I use now. I can bring it on the plane and put it in the overhead. My foil comes apart and fits into my suitcase which you could bring on the plane but it's a lot of crap to carry. My foil board is as big as my skateboard and I think that’s hilarious and you could paddle Belharra on a 7ft board which feels like a 10ft gun.

Just like Laird told us at the end of Riding Giants? Foils are the future of big wave surfing?
No I don’t think it is the future of riding Jaws but certainly somewhere like Belharra or an open ocean wave, Laird certainly had it right there.

You set an open ocean 50 mile distance record recently. How long did that take?
I think it took 4 hours and 15 minutes, but once you are out there amongst the swells you are getting up to 30mph and time flies by. It's pretty crazy.

So how did that come about? Did you just come up with the idea of breaking the record over a beer or a chia smoothie?
It came about as an idea with Red Bull which aimed to give something back to the environment, I always feel as if I’m taking a lot from the ocean every day and I want return the favour in a way and to raise awareness of the plastics in ocean. Here in Hawaii we are hugely affected by it and we said, "let’s do a state-wide beach cleanup, a massive one which picks 50,000 pounds of trash". And in the process if we could possibly get people to become aware of all the sources of trash from North and South America and Asia etc.

In Hawaii we are surrounded, squeezed in-between all these trash sources. It’s one thing to remove the plastics from the ocean but unless we stop it at source then the problem will never end. Micro-plastics are a massive issue and it feels like at the moment unless we stop production somehow we are in a boat which is sinking, and we are trying to bail out the boat with bucket instead of plugging the hole.

Whilst I've always picked up trash from the beach on a larger scale this is pretty fresh and new. And what I’m doing isn’t a massive thing but it can hopefully help in a small way.

Sure, lineups are populated by annoying people, innocents, knowing felons, and too many litres in the wrong hands can decimate a lineup. 

But Kai on a SUP here? Hard to argue against it.

Sure, lineups are populated by annoying people, innocents, knowing felons, and too many litres in the wrong hands can decimate a lineup.

But Kai on a SUP here? Hard to argue against it.

© 2022 - Ryan Moss

Can you tell us a bit about your cross-disciplinary approach? One day you are surfing and another it is a foil or SUP. Where does that come from? And do you find the surfing world to be a little close-minded in its predominantly single craft vision?
It all comes down to being from Maui. You know we have some amazing surfers like Matt Meola, Albee Layer and Dusty Payne and Ian Walsh and those guys. But it is really windy here and good for kite surfing and wind surfing and growing-up I was surrounded by guys Laird Hamilton and Robbie Naish and Dave Kalama.

My inspiration to not just to surf, but to partake in all these other sports, and I definitely had some friction and people didn’t get it – even here in Hawaii. But now around the world it now feels like people accept this is who I am, and I think what helped me legitimise myself was the big wave stuff. You know, proving that I could surf Jaws and Mavericks and all these other waves and be competent [laughs]. Verses, kinda a kook, because they expected a wind surfer / kite surfer / standup paddler to be a kook at surfing.

And surfing is the groundwork for all these other sports which are a discipline of surfing. It’s windsurfing, it’s hydrofoil surfing. The whole point is to ride waves to the best of my abilities in all conditions and sometimes surfing on a shortboard isn’t the best way to ride a wave – because the waves suck. Or if the waves are blown-out, all I do is add a sail or a kite, an underwater wing or a paddle. It keeps my face smiling which is why I started doing it in the first place.

The Alpha short, restaurant ready after your latest island hoping hydrofoil. 

Check them out here

The Alpha short, restaurant ready after your latest island hoping hydrofoil.

Check them out here

© 2022 - Hurley

How about your equipment choices. What can't you do without? And will you wrap up on a downwinder? It sounds chilly to me like you’ll need a coat, even in the tropics?
No coats on a downwinder [glad we cleared that up]. At Jaws we’ll use inflation vests and wetsuits to hold that inflation vest down.

And if I am cold and we are kiting or something, then a wetsuit top will do but I’ll pretty much use the same shorts all the time. In one day I’ll use the same shorts for 12 different sports or something.

And actually, it is funny, and I’m not just saying this, but those new Alpha Trainers are probably my favourites because of their adaptability, plus they fit well with no rash. And when I’m going downwind on a foil having those pockets to carry a snack, or a phone, in case I need to call someone to take me up the coast which is really helpful.

At the same time I can just zip those things up and go shortboarding, and they don’t get in my way at all. Then when I'm back on land they don’t look bad when you go into a restaurant. They look like boardshorts but they are just that little bit more functional.

So you’re not going to get refused entrance to your favourite restaurant?
The good news is it's pretty hard to not get let into a restaurant on Maui because it acceptable to wear no shoes or shirt. But for example if I cross between islands, like if I go from Molokai to Oahu on the hydrofoil and I'll just throw on a t-shirt and head into a restaurant and it looks like I have walk shorts on – and that’s sick. I love that.

[laugher] These sound ideal…
It is ideal. Any time I’m having to having to transition between anything which is not on the water, changing shorts is a waste of time.

Are you a weather geek? You are out there on the water the whole time checking the wind and the forecast. Are you checking whether it is an El Nino year?
I go with the flow but I’m definitely aware of what’s going on. I kind of have to keep track of when the Big Wave Tour will be on because you only get 72 hours notice which could be anywhere in the world. I’m constantly checking the wind a lot because i need to know if I should be bringing my kite or windsurf equipment, or my foil. I end up travelling with six board bags, minimum, very rarely do I have less than that.

Other than that I’ll look at the palm trees and read the clouds and see what the weather is setting up to be that day. Even in the colour of the water I can tell if a swell is coming. I’m really lucky to have been adapted to the water since I was a little kid and I can really tell what a day is going to bring.

The only time I’m really focussed if a swell is coming is if I’m travelling, or there is a Jaws swell coming, and I need to prepare my week to set that surf up. Fortunately here on Maui it is so small I can get anywhere in an hour so it's easy to be in the best place at the best time. And of course I use magicseaweed because that is the most accurate.

Nazare training,

Nazare training, "this place in't meant to be paddled."

© 2022 - Helio Antonio

So you have 72 hours to get to Nazare for the Big Wave Tour, can you tell us what that looks like?
I’m just not a big wave surfer as you know and I have so many commitments, pretty much when every big wave event has been green-lit, I’ve been somewhere completely random. I’ll have to fly home or get someone to pick up my guns, you just never know.

For Puerto for example I was in Fiji on a family vacation on Namoutu, it was 12ft and perfect, and I dropped everything and rushed to Mexico, to a place I’d never surfed before. You are totally jet-lagged. It’s pretty wild and definitely adds to the experience but makes it hard to compete when you don’t have time to practise in a lot of locations. You can’t just come here and get the waves you’ll compete in, and these events came early in the year. It was the just like Nazare, I’d never been there prior to that I couldn’t get there early to figure it out.

Now I’ve been to both those places I have it better dialled in and know what to expect.

Nazare is on the other side of the world and leaving Jaws, which is kind of the Mount Everest of big wave surfing is so tough during winter, even though I wanted to. When I arrived there it was a full-on adrenaline pumping experience. So fun. But I learned a lot in the days following the competition.

So you hung around for while there after the event?
Yeah there was a bigger swell a few days after the comp and I hung around. I ended-up towing, paddling and got some awesome rides, and I also got some poundings you would not believe.

If you are trying to paddle out there you will get destroyed whether you catch a wave or not. If you are just sitting out the back you will get caught inside eventually, and if you catch a wave then you are going to kick out and get pounded anyway. Meaning if you are there then you may as well catch a wave because you will get pounded regardless [laughs]. That’s just the way it goes out there.

It’s pretty cool because I don’t think it is meant to be paddled, but it is, because us humans are pretty tapped – I think we all enjoy the thrill of riding a wave and getting wiped out.

However, if you don’t have a ski on you out there then it is tough to surf it properly. I love surfing big waves but I don’t think it is important enough to die over as there are so many things I want to do.

So with all your commitments are you happy the Big wave Tour has gone down to three slots?
I wish the BWT had more than 3 slots for sure. I’d love to see Mavericks in there and Waimea but I’m just so happy to be on the tour and competing on it. I feel like i become a better athlete and a more aware person after competing in it as I will push myself against the best of the world. And you have to rise to the occasion.

But in-between all that I’ll be having a ton of fun surfing anywhere and everywhere, from glacial lakes to Pipe, which is rad. I’m very lucky.

Ed Temperley

MSW editor. Instagram @edtemperley