Used in combination with a foilboard, surfboard, SUP, skateboard or a mountain board under your feet, the practice of wing riding has found plenty of niches in a remarkably short period of time. Steve Palier investigates the short but colourful history of this hobby we now call winging!

WORDS: Steve Palier

Wingsurfing has landed at spots around the world while its imagery has invaded social networks and specialized websites. Everyone is talking about it. Even those who were initially most sceptical can’t seem to resist. Before we find out how far this new discipline can go, it would be good to understand a bit more about its origins.

THE IMAGES THAT CREATED THE BUZZ

Flash Austin, March 2018

The first wing foil video images appeared in March 2018. The first clip showed a guy flying above the water, towed by a handmade wing made of fabric pieces assembled onto pieces of tube, which he held at arm’s length. His board was a SUP with a foil mounted on to it, which appeared voluminous but quite manoeuvrable, considering the ease with which the rider looped gybes without losing too much speed.

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Who wasn’t amazed by these images quickly relayed onto the web? The rider was Flash Austin, world kitesurfing star in the early years of the sport. A month later he dropped another video clip, filmed by a kitesurfing friend who was following him. He used the same board but this time his new wing, named the 'Wind Weapon', had evolved to something more similar to what we see today. It was more compact with a deeper profile, better stability and was made of flexible tubes.

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Flash explained to me:

“I had already planed on water with a skimboard and the soft door of my Jeep in 1989. Later, in 1995, I combined a small traction kite and a skimboard on the water. I slid down the embankment and into the water and was able to keep going. Sometimes I would kite down the coast for miles and just walk all the way back. From that moment, kiteboarding was all I wanted to do. Mid-2015, I woke up from having a really vivid dream that I was flying like a bird in the air on the crest of a wave, with a handheld type of wing and foil. I remembered I had an old kite that had been in the closet for years, which was flat with a frame made of carbon fibre tubes. I laid it out on the living room floor; it seemed perfect for building the wing. It was of course too big to be able to hold, so I grabbed a razor blade, cut everything down to get something workable in my hands and glued it together. The surface area was small, about 3m² and the whole thing was a little flimsy, but it looked like what I was aspiring to create.”

THE DISTANT ORIGINS

Wind Weapon

Bird Sail

Kite Wing

So are Flash Austin’s exploits at the origin of this new sport? In my research I went a long way into the past. Whoever had already invented windsurfing had also had the idea of using a kind of wing on a board.

Jim Drake was certainly a pioneer in this field when he landed in Kailua in 1982 during the Pan Am Cup, with a huge wing which he handed to windsurf champion, Pete Cabrinha.

If you look a little further, you might even find French origins in wingsurfing. In 1982 Roland Le Bail invented the 'Bird Sail'. In early videos on the web we see him using it to sail on a windsurf board, with rollerblades on the beach and also to ride up ski slopes! His wing was more elongated than Drake’s and was certainly still too technical, too cumbersome and especially too heavy to be able to develop as a watersport.

Our investigations then led us to the famous 'Wind Weapon'.

The 80s windsurfing generation will certainly remember this incredible wing. Shot at various spots around Hood River in Oregon, USA, images started appearing around 1987.

Invented by Tom Magruder, it was more or less a fabric wing with an aluminium frame, mounted and connected to a windsurf board by a mast end. Although this version was ultimately unsuccessful in terms of its future, it was possible to nail some great jumps while flying over a long distance.

A YouTube video from 2007 featured some guys testing a 'KiteWing'.

At the time, this rigid aluminium tube wing was used by riders equipped with skis and ice skates on frozen lakes. In the video they try the 4.8 metre wing using a mountainboard on land before taking on stronger winds on the water with a windsurf board, a SUP and finally a directional kitesurf board, at the same spot where Flash made his video.

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Although the guys couldn't go upwind, they did manage to ride relatively fast but struggled to get the wing out of the water after each fall. It seems there are no other traces of this type of wing in the years that followed…

Slingshot's Tony Logosz, Hood River, 2015

THE RECENT ORIGINS

THE RECENT ORIGINS

Slingshot's Tony Logosz, Hood River, 2015

In April 2019, Tony Logosz, co-founder of the kitesurfing and foil brand Slingshot, claimed he'd already created the first modern wing in 2011. In archive photos on the brand’s website we discover a small compact wing that looks similar to Flash's wing, but indeed has an inflatable structure. Similar to a kite it was also very light! At that time, the four metre 'Slingwing' seemed to lack the power to tow a man on the water and go upwind, though.

Tony Logosz was already developing inflatable wings in 2011. The missing ingredient to upwind planing? The hydrofoil...

“The disadvantage at the time was just a problem caused by the friction of the board on the water.” Logosz comments. “So we set Slingwing R&D aside until more recently. It was only with the evolution of the foil – and more specifically the development of large, low-performance foil wings with a lot of lift and speed – that we saw there was something to work on without the friction.”

Logosz was out testing his inflatable prototype again on a windsurfing board on a foil in 2015 (main 'Recent Origins' header shot above). It worked! However, they still didn't go into production and there are no videos, just pictures.

“I think at the time, the Slingshot version didn't catch on because the foils were still not yet ready for use with this type of wing,” says Alex Aguera, designer for the Go Foil brand.

Kai Lenny confirms, “The foil was really the conduit to make it work on a higher level. Before that, the inflatable wings couldn’t get you on a plane with a normal board unless it was nuking!”

This is where kitesurfing plays a huge part; without the evolution of kitesurfing wings and their inflatable structure in the 2000s, it is certain that modern wingsurfing would not exist today. On top of that we have the evolution of the foil to thank, with larger front wings that led to the reappearance of handheld wings in 2019.

What interested us was how this sport has developed since the Flash Austin videos in 2018, and how this new toy has been able to reach the market so quickly.

Balz Muller, Tarifa Wing Pro December 2020 Photo: Wing Foil World Tour

THE (MORE) MODERN ERA

THE (MORE) MODERN ERA

Balz Muller, Tarifa Wing Pro December 2020 Photo: Wing Foil World Tour

We contacted Christian 'Pacifico' Barcellos, who I had been following on Instagram (@onemauiday) since the summer. A Brazilian waterman living in Hawaii, he appeared to already be very involved in the sport, regularly posting short videos on Instagram, testing many types of wings from different brands on Kanaha beach in Maui, the same spot where we'd first seen Flash in action.

Once again, we are drawn back to Hawaii.

“Wingsurfing, as we know it today, didn’t become possible until after Alex Aguera made some very wide foil wings adapted to downwind runs for SUP.” Pacifico believes. “Inspired, Flash Austin then cut up an old kite wing and assembled it with a few tent poles to test on a SUP board equipped with a foil. Everything snowballed from there.” At the same time, at the same spot, Ken Winner was testing kitesurfing wings.

Ken Winner Photo: Toby Bromwich

DEVELOPMENT

DEVELOPMENT

Ken Winner Photo: Toby Bromwich

Ken Winner was a windsurfing champion in the 80s. Today, as one of the chief designers of kites and wings for Duotone, he is probably the one who made the first design that appeared on the market with an inflatable wing. A wing he developed with the help of the former pro kitesurfer, Sky Solbach.

For Winner, it all started with two types of inflatable wings, already designed and tested in October 2010. “Sky Solbach and I had tried them on SUP boards and finally found that they weren’t very well developed.”

After seeing Flash on his SUP foil board powered by his handcrafted wing in May 2018, Winner got back on his computer, reopened his old files and designed a wing that was not too different from what many brands currently offer. It was fully inflatable, about 2.5m² with handles on the central strut.

KEN'S PROTOS: October 2010

Always take a paddle: 2011

Utilising software: 2018

“When I started using this type of wing, I was just looking for a way to fly over the water when I was on a downwinder on a foil,” remembers Ken. “Immediately, I realized that, thanks to the foil, I was able to fly with it.”

Alongside Solbach, they then tested 20 - 30 prototypes, fine-tuning the details of the first wings which had no windows, an overly flexible inflatable strut, too-narrow a leading edge and no battens! “We quickly changed and improved everything before adding a PVC tube instead of the central strut to stiffen the whole thing,” Ken reveals.

At that time, Alan Cadiz (co-owner of a windsurf school in Maui/Hawaii) became interested in the project and tested Winner’s wing. “Alan helped by connecting a rigid handle on the leading edge, extended by a boom tube and gave me valuable feedback on what he liked and didn’t like. I knew about the inflatable wings that I had tried in 2010 and 2011, but I didn’t learn that Tony Logosz had done something similar until later.” says Winner.

ENTER KAI

A true waterman skilled in windsurfing, surfing, SUP, kitesurfing and newly adept in the foil discipline, Kai Lenny was attentively observing this new toy in full development.

“When I saw the guys doing wing foiling on Maui at that time I quickly realized the potential of the sport. I instantly wanted to do it and see where I could take it.”

THE LAUNCH

Robby Naish, early 2019 Photo: Frankie Bees

THE LAUNCH

Robby Naish, early 2019 Photo: Frankie Bees

Summer 2018: witnessing all this on the beach, Pacifico says: “I was about to try Ken’s prototypes when he sent me a text message saying I should wait a few months, because he didn’t want anyone to see or measure the wing.”

The project was already in production. The first images of Duotone’s 'Foil Wing' were released on the web in spring 2019 – one year after the first Flash Austin videos – and the wing is announced on the world market with a major boost in marketing, videos, demos and tests at dealer meetings.

The rush to production ensued. Naish reacted first with its own wing design, followed by Slingshot then Ozone, Takuma, Gong and F-One. Everything moved very fast.

“I have to say it’s impressive how quickly other brands jumped in.” says Winner. Robby Naish doesn't mince his words. “I was pretty sure that the commercial space would get crowded quickly. What was amazing is how some brands had commercial wings, basically un-tested, where nobody at the brand could even ride them yet, but they were selling them. As a result, there's a lot of pretty crappy stuff around, but it is what it is.”

Today, two years after the blast was launched by Flash flying above the water on a foilboard with a piece of handcrafted cloth in his hands, there are already over 30 brands offering inflatable handheld wings on the market.

THE FUTURE

Trent Carter and Wyatt Miller, Baja-Mexico Photo: Eric duran

THE FUTURE

Trent Carter, Baja-Mexico Photo: Eric Duran

Now approaching spring 2021, the sport has already evolved to be enjoyed on various devices, from the simple SUP board for beginners, to the very short foil surfboard for surfing ocean swells, while also transferring well to the longboard skateboard, mountainboard and snowboard.

Several disciplines are already emerging. The first wing races on foilboards took place in Hawaii last summer with riders like Kai Lenny, Nathan van Vuuren, Titouan Galea, Balz Müller, Annie Reickert and Philippe Caneri among the initial pack to launch freestyle tricks and insane jumps. The early pioneers, such as Alex Aguera and Robby Naish, promote long surf rides on a foil in Hawaiian waves with super compact boards.

Highly addicted and already pushing the limits of this sport, this is how Kai Lenny sees the future:

“If wingsurfing hadn’t quite found its place in between both kitesurfing and windsurfing, it has now and it’s a sport that’s here to stay because it offers the potential to both surf and fly in a completely different way to either of those sports. I am now looking forward to seeing how the equipment will evolve because that is currently the limiting factor. In two years’ time, I am convinced that we will make wing foils that work alongside very high performance wings.”

According to Flash, this sport will really take off. “The potential is boundless. Like a storm that is coming and you can’t stop it; the evolution of foils converging on a collision course with the revolution of handheld wings. That’s why I called it the ‘Handheld Wind Weapon’.”

“The sport will probably grow with a new group of wind addicts, as it is another form of being able to sail and foil,” says Aguera. “The new wings are an easier way to teach someone how to sail and foil. It's easier to learn than windsurfing or kitesurfing for someone who has no experience of either.”

Ken Winner thinks it is difficult to say which will be the most popular way to use this new toy. “The learning progression is relatively easy. I also think this sport will progress to very high levels of speed, jumping and freestyle performance.”

Photo: Matt Georges

F-One CEO, Raphaël Salles bets a lot on this new discipline.

“Wingsurfing will become a sport in its own right with its own practitioners from different horizons. It already attracts and gathers different profiles with kitesurfers, windsurfers or surfers, but also people who had hung up their watersports boots, as well as those who have never practiced any of these sports. Moreover, the wing can be practiced on many more spots than kitesurfing or windsurfing. So it has a pretty promising future.”

F-One CEO, Raphaël Salles bets a lot on this new discipline.

Photo: Matt Georges

“Wingsurfing will become a sport in its own right with its own practitioners from different horizons. It already attracts and gathers different profiles with kitesurfers, windsurfers or surfers, but also people who had hung up their watersports boots, as well as those who have never practiced any of these sports. Moreover, the wing can be practiced on many more spots than kitesurfing or windsurfing. So it has a pretty promising future.”

Photo: FishBowlDiaries

As for Robby Naish, he thinks that the discipline will move towards competition.

“I think it is going to be very big. The simplicity and accessibility is too hard to argue against. I see wing foil racing becoming important. I would rather race on a foil using a wing than on a windsurf foil or kite foil.”

As for Robby Naish, he thinks that the discipline will move towards competition.

Photo: FishBowlDiaries

“I think it is going to be very big. The simplicity and accessibility is too hard to argue against. I see wing foil racing becoming important. I would rather race on a foil using a wing than on a windsurf foil or kite foil.”

Witness of the evolution since the beginning, Pacifico believes:

“The foil is what takes this sport to the next level, but there are many other ways to enjoy a wingsurf wing.”

Witness of the evolution since the beginning, Pacifico believes:

“The foil is what takes this sport to the next level, but there are many other ways to enjoy a wingsurf wing.”

“At a windsurf beach in Maui, there are already just as many people winging as there are windsurfers.” says young wingrider Bobo Gallagher. “If all this is only the beginning, it is likely that wingsurfing will very quickly become as popular.” In any case, the future of this sport is already on the way and, as Flash Austin says,

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

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