Sensi-bilia WingSurfing
Photo by Vincent Bergeron

Sensi’s WingSurf Experience

SENSI-BILIA (from KW issue #101)

Pro Kiteboarder, Sensi Graves, gives WingSurfing a go and recounts the trials of grazed knees and a bruised ego in her regular column for Kiteworld Magazine. The hype would have us believe it’s a cinch. What’s her verdict? We track her movements as she crosses over into the world of the Wing.

WORDS – Sensi Graves

I pulled myself onto the board one more time, exhausted and spluttering water. My knees were banged up from kneeling on the board and my arms were tired from lifting, pulling and holding this new fangled contraption called the ‘wing-surfer’. It was my first session and, suffice to say, I didn’t make it back to the beach. In fact, during my walk of shame back to the launch, pulling that big board and dragging the wing on the wrist leash behind me, I didn’t even think I’d have the energy to try another downwind slog that day. Yet, over the course of the next few days at the AWSI trade-show in Hood River, Oregon, seemingly everyone, myself included, was trying the wing-surfer. It was foil frenzy all over again.

Sensi-bilia WingSurfing
Sensi’s initial experiences were with the Slingshot Slingwing, here she is posting with the Ozone Wasp at the AWSI event in Hood River, back in August
Photo: Crystal Veness

So, what’s the deal with these things?

The wing-surfer was developed as a new generation of wind sports, meant to supplement windsurfing and kitesurfing. This, however, isn’t the first time hand-held wings have made an appearance. In the 1980s, American Tom Magruder developed the ‘Wind Weapon’, a rigid sail that rotated freely on a windsurf board. Unfortunately for Magruder, the wing never took off (pun intended!). Albeit, the idea was still out there, waiting for someone to run with it again.

In the 2000’s a few (never made public) working prototypes were produced. Finally, just last year we saw massive interest and traction with the wings when Robby Naish posted a video that garnered 237k views and almost 1,500 shares on Facebook. The wings were here to stay.

Offering simplicity at its core and an ‘all you need is the wing’ motto, these things are easy to put together, travel with and try. The purpose of the wing-surfer is to allow for greater access to wind sports, based on the premise that people who are too intimidated to try kiteboarding will be less intimidated by the wings. Despite having a heavy bout of skepticism for this theory, I’ve already had two, fit, older, non-windsport participants tell me that they’d like to try wing-surfing “because it looks easier than kiteboarding”. But the real question remains: is it?

Hear from Sensi

Back at the beach and after a full night’s rest I was ready to try the wing again. This time I went into it with more confidence. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get on the foil right away and that I needed to give myself enough room to get going. Therefore, I walked as far up the beach as I could to enable plenty of room for downwind manoeuvring. To get started on the wings, you paddle the board out into the wind, hold the wing up and in front of you while kneeling before slowly making your way up onto your feet as you angle the wing further in front and overhead. The windier it is the better, and day two was much windier than my initial trial, so I was actually feeling pretty good.

I held the wing with confidence as I made my way to my feet, slowly working the angle of it to ‘catch’ more wind as I tried to pick up speed. The wing requires that you first start on the board and then pump to get on the foil (although you’ll see wingers on SUP boards without foils – but rarely going upwind). This is why you’ll see almost everyone on giant boards (somewhere between 95-135 litres) , so they can stand with ease. ‘Wingers’ who are able to progress to smaller boards are granted more manoeuvrability, but very little stability.

The real trial with the wing is holding it into the wind. I have no windsurfing background and felt like a real kook as I attempted to find the sweet spot to get enough speed in order to feel comfortable enough to try and pump up onto the foil. Throughout my second attempt this proved unmanageable. The wing tip kept dipping in the water, which would then cause it to catch and flip over and out of my hands. From there, I would fall off the board, have to haul myself back up, flip the wing over (which is cumbersome to deal with while you’re kneeling on a board), position my hands again, balance on my knees and slowly make my way to my feet. Soon enough I was heaving with exhaustion and found myself downwind at the sand bar. Again. My trials were done.

Feeling frustrated and defeated I promptly deflated the wing (for easier carrying), tied it up in the leash and slung it over my shoulder. The giant board with the heavy foil attached found its place on my opposing shoulder and I trudged back, all the way back, to the beach. While this may be less gear than kiting, it sure was heavy.

The theory with the wing is there. It does require less gear than kiting (harness optional, and no lines) and it does allow for ‘anyone’ to try it; much like any newbie can paddle out on a surfboard. However, after walking back to the beach my second time, I felt demoralised. Not being able to get up on foil meant that I couldn’t stay upwind. Not going fast enough to foil also meant I had trouble balancing and that I was constantly battling with the wing to keep it from dipping in the water.

Yet, simplicity is touted again and again as the core concept behind the wings. During a Slingshot presentation at the AWSI trade show, I overheard windsurfing team manager and winger extraordinaire, Wyatt Miller, lamenting on how easy these things were going to be for shops to stock (less room), rent (easy lesson potential), and sell (anyone can do it). It seems as though the concept is only gaining tracking. While chatting with Matt Nuzzo, co-founder of leading US retailer, Real Watersports, he let on that “the things sell themselves”. Customers call in, talk about how much they want a wing, convince themselves they want one (with no help from Matt or his sales team) and order it right then and there.

Retaining the novelty factor in mind and recalling my drive to actually do this thing, I couldn’t stop after my walk of shame. The whole thing is supposed to be “simple and fun”. How could I not get this? On my third attempt, I decided that I needed boat support. Therefore when I got too far out, or too far downwind, I could just hop in the boat for an upwind lift. With my boat support ready to go I made my way back out, paddling until I reached the wind line and then started on my knees. As I made my way to my feet, I focused on staying balanced. I got used to letting the wing flatten-out and therefore depower and I was able to use my front arm as more of a lever. This time I could feel when I literally ‘caught’ the wind.

Sensi-bilia WingSurfing
How it should look! Photo: Slingshot

It turned out the third time was the charm and I was able to pump enough to get on foil and start cruising to stay upwind. It took all of my concentration to maintain this. Despite the fact that the wing is ‘easy on the arms and very lightweight’ I was soon tired enough to stop my upwind jaunt and wave the boat to come pick me up. I was elated though because I had winged! Or become a winger! Or gone winging! The terminology might not be decided on, but it sure felt good to get it.

The prevailing industry idea that this is the most simple and accessible wind sport yet remains to be proven. I found the wing to be challenging, cumbersome and hard to do. However, thinking back to when I started kiteboarding, I had to overcome those same obstacles. While my initial reaction of ‘huh?’ in response to the wings might not have entirely gone, I find myself now wanting to keep trying.

The allure of something new has overtaken my frustrations. One thing is for sure: a new frenzy is upon us and the wing-surfer has certainly provided a boon for the windsports industry.

Sensi Graves specialises in competing on the Kite Park League. She is sponsored by Liquid Force and Ride Engine and also runs her own bikini brand, Sensi Graves Bikinis – click through to see the latest range

WSW is a hub of useful equipment and technique features / videos for wingsurf and other hydrofoil related board sports.

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