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Downwind SUP Foiling; find your sweet spot!

Downwind(DW) SUP Foiling offers a unique and exhilarating experience that can't be found anywhere else, unlike normal SUP'ing this sport comes with a new set of exciting challenges, just like regular foiling, DW SUP Foiling requires skills that you can learn at The Official Test Centre. In this blog, Downwinder guru Glenn Eldridge helps us navigate and understand Downwind SUP Foiling; unlike traditional paddleboarding, where the main effort comes from the paddler's strokes, downwind SUP foiling capitalises on the energy generated by the wind and swells. Glenn has created a series of workshops shaped by his six years of DW foiling experiences, hosted here at The Official Test Centre, why not step on board with Glenn in March and learn how to Downwind, you'll be having a swell time Downwind SUP Foiling; find your sweet spot!

By Emma Nicholson.

Glenn Eldridge
Glenn Eldridge is hosting Downwind SUP Foil workshops at The OTC

What’s the history of the discipline?

Glenn said: "Foiling or hydrofoiling has been around an incredibly long time stemming from military applications, but in terms of strapping a hydrofoil or foil to a small object that really came along when two worlds collided, water skiing and surfing. A Hawaiian big wave surfer, Dave Kalama, saw something called an ‘Air Chair’ when we was water skiing in flat spells, a hydrofoil strapped to a chair towed behind a boat and incredible speeds. Having never seen anything like it before Kalama realised that this could possibly work in Ocean Swells being towed behind a boat but strapped to a board instead of a chair. After experimenting for that season, the following year he and an equally legendary Hawaiian waterman, Laird Hamilton, towed into massive waves at Jaws, Maui, with the foil attached to a surf board fitted with snow boarding boots. Not only was this incredibly far ahead of its time, falling could be deadly as they had not way of quickly releasing themselves from the boots and would sink! At this time, towing into big waves was decades ahead as all serious big riders in the 80’s paddled into waves. Using a hydrofoil to do it and you may as well have just arrived from Mars. What is interesting is that an eleven year old grom called Kai Lenny took part in these sessions - jump ahead several decades and that very same youngster pioneered the modern day sport we know today, making it accessible to people around the world.

Do you think it will become the next big thing? It already is. It’s just that some areas of the world are a little slower in the uptake, for example, the UK."

When did you start DW SUP Foiling? 

Glenn said: "The year that Kai and world champion paddle boarder , Connor Baxter released a short YouTube clip of them downwinding on their carbon race boards fitted with foils I was hooked; this was in 2016, I ordered a foil set up from Hawaii and that year I forgot about everything else, except foiling of course!"

Getting the balance right!

Do you need special equipment? What equipment do you need? 

Glenn said: "Back in the day, you used whatever you could get your hands on, usually incredibly high performance foils not suited to either to our conditions or skill level. Now, there are a whole range of foils not just dedicated to different foiling disciplines, and there are a few, but also from novice to pro making the experience so much more easier and accessible. Board development has also improved radically within the last 12 to 18 months, making it even more stable to stand on the board and to paddle up, get early lift with less effort. As a broad rule, think of learning to foil like learning surf, as a novice you would be given a large, cumbersome board and most likely would go out in small manageable waves, this type of equipment and conditions, while cumbersome and hard to turn or even carry, gave a stable platform, paddled easier and allowed you to catch more waves, increasing your learning opportunities. Learning to SUP foil and choosing the right equipment is just the same. A board, will on the whole, be longer and more stable, the foil while also be bigger and slower, providing you with easier earlier lift at lower speeds which in turn help keep you on foil for longer.


"Quick side note, what constitutes a bigger and slower foil (front and rear wing or stabiliser) which would be a whole other article but for a learner looking to SUP foil an area of between 1500 and 1800cm2 (this is influenced by rider weight and what they are going to be doing i.e. downwind, surf foiling or winging) and have a lower aspect ratio (AR) – the scale for determining whether a foil is a high or low AR used to be roughly out of 10; 7.5 and under would be considered low aspect while 8+ higher. The sport is evolving so rapidly that high performance high AR foils are now 13+!.  Now back to the question, higher AR means a foil will be faster than lower aspect foils although but don’t produce the same amount of lift at slower speeds, this means you have to work harder to stay on foil or simply you come back down into the water. Lower aspect foils are better at keeping you in on foil at slow speeds but do not go as fast. Another quick note! The new wave of foils coming to market right now, 2nd Gen, are changing all of this and foils of higher AR (9+) are incredibly good at going slow now, giving you the best of both worlds to a certain extent."


Do you need a special paddle? 

Glenn said: "Not essential although, as you get better and seek higher levels of performance most will start to spend more money on carbon, making your paddle lighter and stronger. To start, having a shorter paddler helps, to get quick strokes in and to reduce hitting your foil when paddling."


Can someone who can SUP move onto DW SUP Foiling? 

Glenn said: "Yes, absolutely, the skills and techniques used in SUP cross over really well helping you to balance on the board as well as with paddling technique."

Going in the right direction!

Do people need lessons to learn how to DW SUP Foil? 

Glenn said: "The short answer, as with pretty much all sports is no. However, and this is a really big however, lessons do make a huge difference, they take some of the pain away of not knowing when to downwind (DW), what to do when you get there, what are good conditions and what set up you should be using – plus, reading the water and understanding how energy moves through it is a skill learnt over a life time. So, yes, absolutely, have a handful of lessons will reduce your learning time and increase the amount of fun you have out on the water."


What are the basic skills needed for DW SUP Foiling? 

Glenn said: "This could be an inexhaustible list but the foundations skills required would be balance - on your board when not foiling as well as when you are in the air. Being able to paddle in a straight line, paddling on one side when trying to come up on foil will generally send you off track, being able to pump your foil, recognising when to paddle, reading the ocean and traversing from one bump to another and, being fit. Another side note, literally within the last couple of weeks new products have come to market that essentially provide an assistance to foiling DW. Again considered 2nd Gen and utilising different technologies both reduce the skill level and of fitness, paddling technique and ocean skills to get going. Foil drive, uses a battery powered motor attached to the mast pushing the paddler forward for take off but importantly again as they drop back down to the water helping to lift them back up. And Lift have produced a jet board! Would you believe both will radically alter the time it takes to learn but also to have fun and will all the sport to accessible to a far wider audience. These are truly game changers."

On the foil!

What do you love the most about Downwinding?

Glenn said: "To answer this question could take a while but, I will be as concise as possible – for me DW foiling is not only the pinnacle of all foiling disciplines but also the pinnacle of everything I have ever done in my athletic career. It is also the hardest thing I have ever done but the rewards are beyond comparison. The sheer feeling of gliding over the top of the water is insane, like being on a magic carpet with an invisible forcefield pushing up under your feet. To achieve glides that span tens of kilometres you have to be completely in tune with the ocean, something I absolutely love."


What is the progression of the discipline? 

Glenn said: "Distance, speed and accessibility – foilers are achieving incredible feats within a relatively short space of time, holding average speeds of 30kph or travelling for over 200km in one go as well as how much easier it is to get started now. The progression has been so radical it is very difficult to determine where the sport will go as so much has already been achieved."


What adventures have you been on when you downwind sup foil? 

Glenn said: "Usually, it stems from getting it wrong trying to push what is possible in the UK – often requiring huge paddles from deep water (8km) back to shore. Because I am taking on several 50km plus DW this year I have to push and take on increasingly more difficult challenges. As an ex international athlete in four paddle sports, this might seem reckless but I am at the peak of my fitness and ocean skills and do not embark on my 30km plus DW without taking appropriate planning or safety equipment – I would not go on a DW in conditions that I would not be able to self-rescue. If its borderline I take water assets with me using a jet ski to follow out on the water."


What advice would you give to someone who isn’t sure if it is right for them?

Glenn said: "If they don’t feel confident enough? Or don’t feel they have the right skills? Have a lesson, go to a Centre like OTC or us down south at the Ocean Sports Centre and have a chat with their team who are all knowledgeable open and friendly and find out what first steps might look like. Having a taster session would also be ideal, giving a small insight into why foilers talk about foil brain or always frothing about foiling."


What’s the future of DW SUP Foiling? 

Glenn said: "The discipline has changed so much in such a short space of time already it would be difficult to say for sure – that said, accessibility will be the big thing, making is easier for those new to the sport to get and stay up on foil. For those who can already foil it will be going faster and travelling further in one go."


Where do you hope DW SUP Foiling will take you? 

Glenn said: "I have a few plans in the pipeline for 2024, I will be foiling across the Celtic sea, a 55km stretch of water between the Isle of Scilly and Lands End, I have already made this crossing a number of times, I was the first person to prone paddle across, and hold the fastest crossings in prone, single and double kayak as well as outrigger canoe. I also want to race at this years Molokai to Oahu, considered the toughest channel crossing in the world and considered the world championships. And finally, I would like to foil to another Country in one hit!"

Paddle power!

Here is a bit more info on what to expect at the workshops taking place in March at The Official Test Centre with Glenn;

Friday March 8th; Downwind 101; is a one day workshop, with two practical water sessions with a dry land discussion. This is for someone relatively new to the sport; can paddle up but inconsistently, occasional glides, short downwind, but mostly drifts.

Saturday March 9th and Sunday 10th; Dark Art; a two day workshop, to advance developing skills of someone who can already foil, has had limited success in DW, paddles ups are reasonable and can complete a short DW run.

The next Downwind SUP Foiling workshops are happening on March 8th; Downwind 101. 9th/10th; Dark Art 2024 at The Official Test Centre, email Glenn to jump on board For all your Downwind kit you can't go wrong with the Armstrong Downwind SUP Foil Board, click here to find out more about Downwind gear we have everything from paddles to boards; SurfDoctor.

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