I’ve been kitesurfing for a long time. Years before there was even water relaunchable tube kites, I was flying foil kites on land and in the snow. I remember how excited I was when I first discovered there were other people who flew kites in Ithaca one winter long ago on the ice shelf at Stewart Park. Together we worked to figure out how to ride on the lake and failed tragically to stay upwind until Wing Eng finally went out on a 4.9 non-water relaunchable Blade II buggy racing foil kite and a 6′ long piece of plywood strapped to his feet with chopped up mousepads. Oh, how the times have changed.
After thousands of hours riding over almost 2 decades the sport was starting to lose interest for me. At 44 I had reached the peak of what I was able to do without seriously injuring myself. I tried lots of harder powered tricks, including some kite looping tricks and always ended up hurting myself bad enough to wonder why I was trying them. For the most part, I wanted to just get out on the water and jump 30 feet in the air and do nice slow front rolls all day long. The kites got better and better until the kites I ride today are what I really wanted to ride when I started but had not been designed yet. The Flysurfer Speed and Sonic FR kites I fly today are what I wanted to by flying back when I first started to ride. I laugh when I think about the first water relaunchable tube kite I bought, a 13.5 AR5 Naish with a wrist leash attached to a rear line and no chicken loop release. If I ever had to dump the kite, I couldn’t and it probably would have ripped my arm out of it’s socket if I did. That kite was so bad that I didn’t even sell it, I just threw it away because it was so dangerous. $2000 down the toilet. Such is life.
About 7 years ago a friend of mine, Norman from Montreal got me into hydrofoiling. The idea is that you get up on a board and the hydrofoil lifts you several feet out of the water while you zip around carefully balancing on it. I wrote another article about my hydrofoil addiction here but this article is more about the Zeeko Spitfire and how that foil has changed everything.
A big part of the appeal of kitesurfing is that it is hard, really hard. If kitesurfing is like riding a bicycle, then riding a hydrofoil is a lot like riding a unicycle. The slightest shift in your balance point can send the hydrofoil jumping out of the water or diving down into the waves and slamming to a stop. The faster you go, the more stable it becomes, but at speeds of over about 25 mph the water starts hurting pretty bad when you take a fall. If you’re not careful the hydrofoil will follow you down and I actually had one of the metal wings hit me in the helmet hard enough that it probably would have knocked me out if I was helmetless. The problem with the foil is that when you fall off then the hydrofoil keeps going very fast along the same trajectory and it generates a lot of lift while doing that. Without your weight on the top it will breach the surface and head right toward you. When I wipeout riding strapless I try to keep one of my feet touching the board if I can so I can push it away from me as I crash and burn. For the last 4 years all I have done is ridden strapless and I’ve quickly grown to love it.
When I bought my first Zeeko Blue and White hydrofoil I had looked at all the foils on the market and decided although it was expensive for a metal foil, of all the 5 carbon hydrofoils with Norman I had ridden, I liked the Zeeko the best. The Blue and White did not disappoint and even though I hit several large logs going 25+ mph and a 60mph gust of wind blew the foil out of the front strap on my car and the tail of the fuselage put a 1/2″ dent in the trunk of my car, the hydrofoil did not get damaged. There is no carbon foil in existence that could take that kind of abuse. The year I rode the Zeeko Blue and White was a great year of strapless hydrofoiling for me. I got to ride a lot in 10mph winds and on my 18 meter Flysurfer Sonic FR racing kite I was actually fully powered up in less than 10mph of wind which I never thought was possible. The foil planed quickly and was insanely stable and turned well. After a while I got bored with it and bought the Spitfire from Eugene knowing nothing about it and only reading a few short positive reviews about it on the kiting forums.
When I got the Spitfire I realized that it was a canard design which means the larger wing is in the rear and the small wing is in the front. This design is a little less stable but much more efficient than the regular hydrofoil design. I was shocked at the lack of a vertical stabilizer (think rudder on an airplane) but I went online to look at youtube videos to make sure I was putting it together right. I was very confused because both wings on the canard design generate lift (as opposed to a normal hydrofoil where the rear wing pulls down instead of up). Because there is 2 lift generating wings you can get away with using smaller wings but getting the same amount of lift as a conventional hydrofoil.
The first time I took it out I attached it to the Zeeko Pocket board which was a bad idea, as the pocket board is a very tiny board that is hard to start on in super light winds. I swapped it over to my Spleene 5’3″ plysurfboard and got up right away. The Spitfire takes more rear foot pressure when coming out of the water, but other than that it rides very similarly to a regular hydrofoil. The difference you feel is when you want to turn. When you try to turn a conventional hydrofoil it really wants to just keep going straight. Great for racing, but carving around takes some work. With the Spitfire since there is no vertical stabilizer when you start to turn the hydrofoil wants to continue to turn in the direction you are turning it. In that way, it feels much less like you are riding a train on rails and instead are carving down the face of a glassy wave.
That feeling is what it’s all about, Hydrofoiling with the Spitfire is like riding the eternal wave sliding down the face. When you surf you spend a huge amount of time trying to catch a decent glassy wave, with the Spitfire you spend all your time just ‘riding the wave’. Even with the waves and the chop beneath you, while moving at unsettling speeds, all you feel is the smoothness of cutting through the water and an eerie silence. The feeling of carving with the Spitfire is incredibly close to the ‘feeling’ of carving down a wave with a short board, which is something I have never felt on any other hydrofoil. In the last 7 years I’ve ridden Lift, Spotz, Liquid Force, Carafino & Zeeko foils.
I spent a week in Hatteras, NC riding in the 5-6′ waves and I tried the Spitfire in the waves. Riding a strapless hydrofoil in 5-6′ waves was hands down one of the hardest things I have ever done. Although my transitions are pretty solid, I am just learning to ride toeside on the hydrofoils which is much harder than it seems like it should be. Strapless hydrofoils are one of the few things I’ve found to do that are actually just about as hard to do as it looks, Mountain Unicycling (MUNI) is another.
The Spitfire hydrofoil has renewed my interest in kitesurfing. About 25% of the time I go out in lightwind and at the end of the session, I have to swim back to shore with a wet kite. This happens because I’m out riding full powered thinking everything is hunky dory, but really the wind has completely died and I’m just running on my own apparent wind. As soon as I have to do a transition the kite literally crinkles up and drops out of the sky. Even with a big foil, you need about 6mph of wind to keep it flying, without that you’re just dead in the water.
When I setup to go out and ride I always just launch one kite and then take out two boards, my hydrofoil and my 2006 Spleene Session 141 lightwind board. Yup you read that right, I ride a 11 year old board that has thousands of hours on it and has broken 3 different times, if you think that is old school you should see my chickenloops (think giant red balls), they are from 2001 and I think they work better than all the fancy new fancy chickenloop release systems, I’ve never had an accidental release. I launch the kite then decide what board to grab on my way to the water. Having the foil and the regular twintip gives me insane wind range and I (almost) never have to change kite sizes. Even if I’m flying the 18 Sonic FR which I get overpowered on the foil in over 12 mph of wind I can grab my regular Session board and just huck 30 foot airs until the winds get over 25mph (which they never do around here).
In Hatteras, I broke the Speene plysurf for a second time right in front of the mast plate when I rammed it into the sand near shore (it was already broken behind the mast and has had the foil bolts rip through the board). Although the board did not completely break, I heard the wood crack twice and I could see a bump where the front fo the mounting plate was so instead of reinforcing the board I just machined a new mounting plate from 1/4″ scrap aluminum. The new plate is several inches longer and supports the plysurfboard where it is broken much better than the old one does.
I got straps for the Spleene board and I’m going to start jumping with it. My feeling with the little strapless jumps I’ve done so far is that the board loads much more like a normal kiteboard where you are putting a lot of pressure on the back foot to load the board before you start to jump. I’m hoping that jumping with the Spitfire is everything that everyone says it will be, and that I don’t seriously injure myself in the process. The Spitfire is about as draggy as the Blue and White and it seems to have a slightly higher top speed. It can easily go as fast as you’re ever going to want to go (if you have the right sized kite) and it wants to stay there.
The Zeeko Spitfire has exceeded every expectation I’ve ever had about hydrofoils. I expect that within a year or two every single kite manufacturer will have some canard design on the market. I seriously doubt that any carbon canard designs will hold up, as there would be a tremendous amount of pressure on the fuselage if you ran it onto the shore or rocks. Although metal foils are about 3-4 lbs heavier than their carbon counterparts, they are nigh-indestructible and for me that is all that matters.
Even if you’ve never hydrofoiled before and you’re thinking of getting into the sport I highly recommend that you consider buying the Spitfire as your only hydrofoil. Although it is more difficult to ride than other hydrofoils, you will enjoy riding it so much more once you’re good at it and you will quickly outgrow any ‘beginner’ hydrofoil. I went back the other day to riding my old Blue and White and was so disappointed in it because it was far too easy to ride. Zeeko has also recently released a new wingset for the Spitfire called the XLW which is available in about a week and is designed for extreme lightwind and beginners in mind.
In the US Zeeko foils can be purchased from Eugene at Kitesurferstore.com, internationally check on Zeeko’s homepage for your local dealer. I pay normal prices and get no discounts nor do I have any affiliation with Eugene or Zeeko. I have about 400 hours on the water on hydrofoils and at around 200 hours riding the Spitfire.
Update: Spent some time jumping with the foil, never got more than about 10 feet off the ground. It pretty much feels exactly like you think jumping with a 15lb board strapped to your feet would feel like. The Spitfire has a natural ‘load the rear foot’ feeling that you don’t get when jumping with normal hydrofoils. It was fun, but I could tell if I got into it I would end up injuring myself. While practicing I hit a pile of seaweed going about 25mph and I thought I broke off both of my ankles. Strapless is the safest way to ride by far. Don’t believe the hype.