April 09, 2018
By now, if you’re a kiter or sailor, you’ve almost definitely heard the hype around hydrofoiling. People say, “You can go out in 8 knots when everyone is still on the beach,” or, “It feels like you’re riding powder.” While these quotes are most definitely true, we still come across many skeptics. The biggest reason we’ve come across for not trying: “It just doesn’t seem like it would be that much fun roaming in a straight line continuously *Yawn* I like to go out when I can do tricks.”
Hydrofoiling changed the sport of kiteboarding for my business partner Jake Hoefler and me. While it does force you to swallow your pride a bit and re-learn aspects of the sport, the rewards are well worth the trials and tribulations. Here is a concrete example of why.
The idea started as a crackpot scheme while we were working at Goodwinds at the Ritz Carlton Reserve in Dorado, Puerto Rico. Dorado is located 14 miles to the west of San Juan along the north coast of Puerto Rico. Like clockwork, every morning our good friend and co-worker Austin Waclo would say, “When are we going to foil to San Juan?” We always got a good chuckle out of it. For that was crazy. Or so we thought.
The predominant breeze in Puerto Rico is east/northeast forcing you to go straight upwind in order to reach San Juan from Dorado. Goodwinds has a remarkable layout in that it has a shallow arching barrier reef that extends a mile out and forms a protected inner bay. Within the bay there are occasional coral heads poking up so you have to keep your head on a swivel – but that just makes life interesting. This combination creates an unreal place to practice. On the inside of the reef you have small knee high chop and on the outside, on a day with swell, you have overhead peeling waves that break onto the barrier reef. The escape – A narrow channel that provides respite from the surf and leads out to the open ocean.
We had been practicing a lot on the foils the inside of the bay at Goodwinds. Collectively Jake, Austin, Danny Barnette (Another good friend & co-worker at Goodwinds) and myself had been pushing each other’s progression. We were starting to nail transitions consistently, ride strapless comfortably, and develop a natural feel for hydrofoiling to the point where we didn’t really need to think about it. It was through this progression that the upwinder to San Juan seemed like less and less of a crazy scheme and more and more like something we might actually try. Then the day came for it to happen.
We arrived at work at ten AM ready to teach lessons. Mother Nature had other plans. The wind was teetering in the low teens, too light to kite or teach on a traditional twin tip but just enough to foil. Per usual, Austin walked into work and said, “Alright boys, you ready to foil to San Juan?” Only this time was different. We all looked at each other and instead of our normal laugh Jake said, “What does the forecast look like?” We looked. It was supposed to be clear skies with building breeze so the decision was made. We talked to Phil & Karla (Bossman & Bosslady respectively) and each got the day off. Despite the butterflies in my stomach we were sending it. This was real.
We were watching the wind buoy on iKitesurf northeast of us off the mouth of San Juan harbor. It is the best predictor of the weather/wind on its way to Dorado. While wind in the low teens is enough to ride, it is not enough to go out into the open ocean. If something goes wrong, you might not be able to relaunch your kite or worse, the wind could die completely. Good luck swimming in from 7 miles out. One hour passed. Then two hours passed. We were getting restless watching the skies to the northeast over San Juan in the distance. Like clockwork, at noon, a break appeared in the clouds and the wind started to tick upwards. 12 knots, 14 knots, 16 knots, and the decision was made. Go time.
There was a pleasant mix of trepidation and delight as we put together our gear for this adventure. Each screw connecting the hydrofoil assembly was detail checked, the footstraps connecting to the board were wiggled to ensure they were secure, we even slowly walked out our lines checking each one for fraying and wear and tear. Danny grabbed his cell phone and put it in a waterproof bag, wrapping it and re-wrapping it in one of nature’s best products – Duct Tape, and secured it to his harness. We talked to the others on the beach and told them our float plan, “Straight upwind to Isla Verde, a neighborhood within San Juan, come grab us in two hours.” With that, we were ready to rock.
Jake, Austin, Danny & myself launched each other’s kites and we were off. The first leg out of Goodwind’s protected bay was like clockwork. We had each done it a million times. Dodging the reef heads within the bay we each skirted through the narrow channel and raced each other out into the open ocean in close succession. While I can’t speak for the others, my heart was racing with excitement as we flew out past giant peeling waves crashing onto the coral reef. The butterflies of knowing what was coming kept me from relaxing into my normal foiling state. Despite this, we were all cruising along and before I knew it we were well out into the open ocean.
Foiling in flat water and foiling in the open ocean are two dramatically different things. As a lifelong sailor I am used to crashing into, and plowing through, waves. I am used to spray washing across the boat hitting me in the face and the familiar jolt and rocking motion of the boat slicing through the swell. Foiling could not be more different. Imagine tracing the contour of the ocean gliding along silently, every muscle in your body completely relaxed. Tall thirteen-foot wave faces roll up before you like a mountain and with a gentle push on your back foot you fly up the face feeling slight G force as you climb. As you come to the top of the wave you transition pressure to your front foot pushing down to accelerate down the back side. It feels like a launch ramp as you build speed and you get a slight feeling of weightlessness. I equate it to riding Mother Nature’s roller coaster – gently, smoothly, flying along feeling at one with the ocean. Like a baby being rocked to sleep I felt myself getting in the groove and started grinning ear to ear.
Kiting in Puerto Rico is not like kiting in many other locations. Where you are used to soft sand beaches that offer a gentle spot to come in and land your kite, the north shore of Puerto Rico is rimmed with jagged, razor sharp coral reef. The underwater topography goes from thousands of feet deep to just a few feet deep almost instantly. This generates an incredible effect as the wave energy smashes into the coast. The swell rises into the sky, walling up, creating steep, hollow faced waves that pitch and crash down with a reverberating boom that shakes your chest. While exhilarating (to put it lightly) to ride, the sheer power of the ocean has a humbling effect. Particularly with the knowledge that the white wash can push you through that jagged, razor sharp, urchin filled coral. There is no way out if you break down. There is no margin for error. And that is always in the back of your head.
The sensations of thrill and fear were alternately washing through my body as we flew upwind in a pack. Imagine being six miles out where, in the troughs of the waves, all you can see is water all around you. As you float along silently spooked flying fish shoot out of the water and glide alongside you eventually darting back into the abyss. All you can do is scream the most genuine, “Yewwwwwwwwww” (I term I have learned to love since my departure from the corporate world) at the top of your lungs, hearing some of your best friends ripping along with you doing the same. We were making quick progress.
About forty minutes in we had cleared Punta Salinas to the East riding towards a tall radio tower that used to be much smaller on the horizon. We were alternating the lead playing around in the rollers coming towards us. The point jutted out with turquoise reefs surrounding it. Every time you would come in close to shore the breaking waves would shoot rainbow colored plumes of spray into the sky from the light refracting through the mist. We were playing a fine line, edging in along the coast, wary of getting caught on the inside and washed into the coral. We quickly cleared the second bay passing Las Cabritas marking the western edge of San Juan’s north facing harbor and the approximate half way point for the trip.
Riding in front of the harbor was remarkable. We crossed paths with giant super tankers steaming out to sea, plowing powerfully through the waves, impervious to the swell. We passed huge channel markers, their gongs clanging methodically and the sound reverberating through your body. We reached the eastern edge of the harbor arriving at El Morro, the iconic Spanish fort that has long guarded the seaward facing western edge of old San Juan. Waves were slamming into the cliffs below the huge gun emplacements blasting spray into the sky. Pastel colored houses nestled into the cliffs formed the backdrop behind it. The combined effect left me with chills, feeling like a tiny insignificant spec at the mercy of the sea.
We were racing along passing the hotels, apartment buildings, and general hustle and bustle of San Juan. My legs were shaking from two hours of balancing delicately on the board. I was close to done. Danny flew his kite to the top of the wind window and dropped gently back into the water about a mile offshore. We each congregated around him, our kites hovering in a pack in the sky as he pulled out his Duct Tape secured cell phone. I was glad for the break while he fiddled around on the screen for a bit. He pointed towards shore and belted out, “OK boys! That’s our landing spot, Ocean Park.” The waves were huge and the sun was starting to dip low in the horizon behind the tall buildings on the shore. This last and final hurdle was scary and yet somehow a relief. With that, Danny pulled on his front hand and sent the kite. He was on his way.
Coming in towards the reef the waves walled up steeper and steeper. My heart was racing as I looked down the mountain before me. I was accelerating faster and faster, hitting the upper limits of the foil, just on the brink of control. Sheeting in I watched with my peripheral vision as the top edge of the wave pitched over. A powerful boom exploded behind me and white wash swept in under my feet as I rode through the swirling underwater turbulence caused by the wave. Just a hair more and I was free.
As I came into the beach at Ocean Park with my compatriots, I felt like I was part of Navy Seal Team 6. Beach goers looked up in bewilderment as we dropped our kites onto the sand. They were eyeing our foils and asking in wonder, “Where did you guys just come from? What are those things?” Despite being exhausted we were jumping around with excitement. We had each just achieved a milestone in our kiting careers. We had just done our first, “Upwinder” through feral, unforgiving waters.
We packed up our kites, tucked them into our harnesses, and marched through the city streets of Isla Verde barefoot and soaking wet. We quickly found a bar to celebrate, Danny made the call to get picked up, and we waited for our ride, basking in the euphoria of what had just occurred.
It is hard to put into words the experience and emotions you feel on an adventure like that. We rode 14 miles straight into the wind and covered 32 miles in three hours, flying over massive waves at the mercy of nature. The reason I love the hydrofoil is because it changes what you can achieve on a kite. It makes an adventure like this possible.
With that I’ll end with a few points I feel are important to mention.
This adventure pushed the limits of what is “safe” and doing something of this scale is not for beginners. With that acknowledgement, we examined the weather closely prior to leaving and monitored the sky throughout. We told several people of the path we planned to cover and set expectations for when and where we planned to return. Lastly, we stuck as a pack ready to assist each other and brought a means of communication if something went wrong.
Now come learn to foil and have an adventure of your own!!!
Nothing good in life is possible without incurring some risk. When doing downdwinders (or upwinders for that matter…), mitigate that risk wherever possible by planning ahead, anticipating problems before they happen, and being prepared.