The first time I ever recall seeing fin foils was when Carl Ekstrom made a pair of metallic ones for the Morey/Pope timed noseriding contest in Ventura. It was in the mid-‘60s, and these little metallic wings were designed to be attached to a fin to hold down the tail for prolonged noserides.
Within a year or two surfing had changed in response to the “Shortboard Revolution,” a temporary lapse of sanity that completely abandoned boards over 8 feet and noseriding along with them.
I didn’t see a foil for another 20 years. Then, it was attached to the bottom of Cheyne Horan’s Laser Zap Surfboard. Horan, who had adapted the concept from Australian America’s Cup winner, “Secret Keel” designer Ben Lexcen, enabled the single most significant departure from the norm since Mark Richards won consecutive world titles on twinfins.
Horan’s keel differed significantly from Ekstrom’s foils in that Cheyne’s fin offered the board elevation, where Ekstrom’s foils were meant to hold it down.
When the Laser Zap faded along with Cheyne’s repetitive bid for a world title, the surfing world reverted to their traditional tri-fin form.
It’s been more than a decade since Encinitas surfer/designer Mike Caldwell built some impressive fins that he claimed lifted his board from the water. He offered to let me try his fins, but I was skeptical and close-minded at the time and so missed out on what could have been a new direction in surfing.
Genius designer the late Terry Hendrix made a futuristic kneeboard using foils that look like those on the rear ends of a racecar. Again, he offered to let me try his board, and again, I shut myself off from exploration.
When Laird Hamilton and company rewrote surf history by riding above the wave on nothing but a cushion of air, I, along with the rest of the world, finally took notice. I mean, you really couldn’t help but see that something new was happening on in the waves.
Those early foils, however, were extremely heavy and required the use of snowboard boots and bindings to stay attached.
As such, they could prove hazardous, and a fall could send you to the bottom of the ocean where you had to struggle to free yourself from something that acted like an anchor, if not a grave marker.
Since those first experiments, keels have caught on in some corners of the world and waves are being ridden by standouts like Tom Carroll and Kai Lenny on them in a manner not previously imagined.
I recently had an opportunity to try a foil again, this time in the form of a board made by Andy Tyler. True to form I passed on the chance, this time, not because of a closed mind but because the board, which measures a little over 6 feet in length, is a bit small for me.
At this writing, several manufacturers are building foil boards locally with varying amounts of success. They look fun, challenging, and, at times, dangerous. If you do try them, please keep in mind that the foils run deep and have the potential to injure riders paddling out severely.
Above all, keep an open mind. Just make sure it’s not open at both ends.
Top: An interesting foil adaptation by La Jolla surfer Andy Tyler. Photo by Chris Ahrens