Sky Solbach on Foiling, the SkyFoil and More

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Foiling is taking over our minds. Every sport is exploding with a new resurgence due to the uptick in popularity over the foil. We caught up with Fanatic foil team rider Sky Solbach, designer of Fanatic’s SkyFoil, to ask some questions about stand up paddle surfing’s greatest new innovation. Here’s what Sky has to say:

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Sky Solbach returns to the heart of surfing by learning, shaping and designing the SkyFoil by Fanatic SUP. Photo by: John Carter

Here’s What Sky Has to Say:  Difference Between SUP & Surf Foiling

Can you describe what it’s like to foil compared with regular SUP or surfing?

Foiling allows you to ride a really small board on a tiny wave and have tons of fun.  It just opens up so many more places and conditions. You simply don’t need great conditions anymore and you can get really excited about one foot surf!

On the wave you are very connected but in a different way to surfing. You almost have to relearn where to find power on the wave. At the very top of the wave, almost at the back of the wave, you find a lot of speed and power, where on a normal surfboard you would probably be falling off the back. There are lots of new sources of energy on the wave that you wouldn’t normally know existed because they are underwater and you wouldn’t usually be able to access them. When it comes to riding, it’s kind of trippy because you can drop into a wave, get way out on the shoulder or the flat section and do this big carving cut back with all this power on basically a lump of water that isn’t even breaking!

It’s totally crazy, it feels like doing a cut back on a six foot wave, but actually you are on just a tiny lump of water. It’s a really cool sensation.

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Foiling allows take off and riding the wave to offer a very different experience as foilers tap into the energy of the wave that rides beneath it. Photo by: John Carter

Foiling:  The Take Off

With the foil, you don’t really want to take off in the steepest section. You are taking off in a different position,  usually further out or further in. You can actually just sit on the inside, ride the white water and it doesn’t matter that you are in the wrong place because as soon as you are comfortable to get on the foil, you can easily pump out past big sections of white water to the position you want to be in.  So overall, positioning is a lot less critical.

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Designing the foil board is radically different from a regular surf board as it is the wing beneath the wave that affects the motion and direction of the rider. Photo by: John Carter

To Foil … or Not to Foil?  What is the Difference?

When would you choose to regular SUP or surf?

When the waves are good, go regular surfing. When they are flat or not great, foiling makes those waves feel perfect.

Assuming you can already SUP or surf, how much more difficult is it to learn foiling?

Once you know how to SUP or surf I think foiling just adds a new dimension to it. It is a bit different, when you first start dropping into a wave and the board starts rising out of the water. It takes some time to get used to but it opens up a whole new world of possibilities and conditions. Particularly having a lot more fun in smaller waves.

You don’t need to have any special strength or fitness. It’s mostly about technique and positioning on the board.  When you are learning you can play a lot with foot positioning.

If you stay forward on the board it holds the board down and as you step further back it encourages the foil to lift, so when you are learning you can stay forward a bit more until you are comfortable enough to step back and let it fly and eventually you will find your sweet spot.

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Small, mushy waves are optimal for foiling, making not-great surf days totally fun again. Photo by: John Carter

What are the ideal conditions for foiling?

The most ideal would be a wave that breaks a big distance from shore (you want to have a long ride) and maybe just feathers a bit to let you get into it and after that turns into a rolling swell.  For foiling that’s perfect because it allows you enough push to get onto the wave, but then once going you just have to ride the swell to ride for big turns and carves with plenty of power for the foil.

The other really good aspect of foil boards is, when you get to the end of your ride, you can actually kick out and keep the board foiling all the way back out just by pumping it with your feet up and down.

If you do kick out and decide to paddle, you don’t feel the influence of the foil at all.  It just feels like a regular board to paddle.

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Sky has been working with Fanatic SUP to develop the SkyFoil, a range of boards to either SUP or surf foil to keep you out there where we know you’re #addictedtowater. Photo by: John Carter

Let’s Talk About Design:  Foil Dynamics

What are the main design differences between a regular SUP/surf board and a foil board?  

The foil boards are as compact as possible. So they are much shorter than a regular board, which has a lot of benefits when you are foiling. Firstly, it fits in the wave a lot better, particularly because you are often riding smaller waves on the foil. If you have a really long board what happens is the nose is almost hitting the flats in front of you whilst the tail is dragging on the crest behind you, so you don’t really have enough room to maneuver on the wave.  By having a much shorter board, it gives you a lot more space on the wave. It makes a huge difference.

The other function of it being short, particularly for SUP, is that you are facing forward to catch the wave. When you get on it, with a short board, you can simply leave your front foot where it is and rotate your back foot behind you to get in the surfing position. With a longer board you would have to take some steps back which makes the balance and transition a lot harder.

The Sky SUP and Surf range has a bumper in the pad above the center line, so you can feel easily that your foot is in the right place. The shorter length also makes the board a lot less physical when it comes to pumping it up and down to generate lift from the foil.

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Different wings for different conditions is Sky’s recommendation for increasing your quiver. Photo by: John Carter

The other factor is the bottom shape, which is pretty different.  The SUP board has a 45 degree bevel on the rail which has a couple of functions. It keeps the rail up and out of the water when you are doing a banked foiling turn.  It also creates a sharp point, which gives it a better release when hitting the water and reduces the wetted area resulting in a softer touch down.

Because the board is designed to foil, it doesn’t need to have all the engineered flex characteristics of a regular planing board but it does need to be stiff and light. This gives a much more responsive and reactive ride underfoot.

Choices:  How Many Foils Does One Need?

Would a good foiler have a quiver of boards for different conditions or is it more about changing the foil?

I would say for me, I just have one foil surf and one foil SUP board and then simply change the foil. Most people are going to buy these boards for smaller conditions, so one board is definitely going to do the job, but you may want to have a few different wings for different conditions. For example, one for steep waves, one for not such steep waves, one for down-winding, whatever. That’s kind of where you would build your quiver, with your wings.

Where and with whom did you do the testing for the Sky SUP range?  

We developed the Sky SUP Foil board range on Maui last winter. With such a huge variety of foil waves around, there is usually some kind of wave to foil somewhere or at least some strong wind for doing down wind coast runs. I did most of the early testing together with Ken Winner as well as various local surfers and later on in the process also involved Airton Cozzolino.

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Smaller board footprints (2′-3′ range) are optimal for foiling in order to ‘feel the wing’ as it rides the energy of the wave current. Photo by John Carter

How Foiling Relates: Surfing, Windsurfing and Stand Up Paddling

In terms of versatility of the SUP foil equipment, do you find there is less need for an extended range of kit when you compared surfing & windsurfing, kitesurfing? And if so, does this help concentrate your efforts in R&D? 

The incredible thing about foiling is that you don’t need good waves. In fact, you don’t even WANT good waves. The best foil days are when the waves are small and crumbly and slow. The simplicity of foiling and lack of gear needed to have a lot of fun in mediocre conditions makes it an amazing sport on it’s own. It is also a great compliment to other sports like surfing and wind sports where you ideally want to have good waves and the right wind.

In terms of R&D, yes, it’s easy to focus on the finer details when you don’t have a such a huge range of equipment with a lot of moving parts and you don’t need to find the perfect conditions to test your latest prototype.

For you, what is the deciding factor between going for a sup foil session and a surf foil session? 

I like to mix it up, but for me it all depends on the spot. I really enjoy the feeling of flying over the water on a small surf board because it’s the ultimate feeling of freedom.  However, the SUP gives me much greater access to a variety of waves that are difficult to prone paddle out to on a small board. The outer reefs on Maui are perfect for foiling and there’s no one around but they are pretty far from shore, so I usually take the SUP when I go there.

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Learning to fly is a whole new art and way to experience the power of the ocean’s energy. Riders of all abilities, fitness levels and ages are enjoying the benefits of an innovative new sport to keep them on the water, longer. Photo by: John Carter

Foiling Gone Mainstream:  How About That?

How excited are you now that foiling is sitting comfortably in the mainstream product offerings in the industry, and seems to be accepted and understood by a much broader audience?

I’m personally really pumped on foiling and having so much fun on the water and I think the main reason foiling has been so well accepted is that it just makes sense. It’s hard to argue that it’s not a great sport when you see guys and girls getting minute long rides and doing big swooping turns on 1 foot waves that would not even surf-able on a long board. I don’t think there are many people out there who would say that gliding effortlessly across open ocean swells for miles at a time is not a fun thing to do. There’s a lot of potential still to explore on the foil and I look forward to it every day.

Written By: Sky Solbach, Fanatic SUP team rider

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Evelyn O’Doherty
Evelyn O'Doherty, owner & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0, worked her way up the ranks in the world of stand up paddling. A former surfer gone rogue, Evelyn stepped onto a SUP for the first time in 2009 when a plaguing neck injury kept her out of the water from surfing. Discovering the core benefits and expanded perspective on the water that stand up paddling brings, Ev immediately was hooked. She became a strong SUP racer in the North East and a year-round SUP surfer, gathering multiple top brand sponsorships including becoming a team rider for Starboard SUP and a national ambassador for Kialoa, as well as celebrating all aspects of the sport with additional brand ambassadorships including lululemon athletica, Clif Bar, Cobian, Kaenon & Indo Board. Her love of watersports and commitment to advocacy in preserving our marine environments led to a short film made with The Nature Conservancy as part of their Clean Water initiatives on Long Island, NY, called "A New Perspective". Evelyn just keeps paddling. Today, she's stepped up to take over the helm at Standup Journal after having worked for the magazine for 2 years as senior online editor. Her dedication and belief in the power of print to immerse readers in the watersports they love even if they don't have access to the water in a daily existence plus a powerful desire to spotlight the amazing people doing rad sh*t on the water is what drives her vision for Standup Journal 2.0. Evelyn welcomes the conversation about how to make the magazine benefit as many people as possible and encourages feedback, letters to the editor and communication at editor@standupjournal.com . Now, as owner/publisher for Standup Journal., Evelyn continues to live in East Hampton NY where she has daily access to the water. When the swell is working, you can find her in Montauk rattling around in her Ford Ranger surfboards hanging out the back headed for points East.