Wing foiling on a river in the UK

Why Do We Chase It?


Main image: Jim, feeling good on the river’s buttery flattness!
Photo: Stav Thraves / BN1 Kitesurfing

My feet slipped amongst the pebbles as I trudged the last few steps up the steep shingle bank to escape the reeling high tide water line. As carefully as I had the energy for, I gladly put my board down on its side and collapsed in its leeside wind shadow. Using the wing’s leading edge as a pillow, I lay on my back, arms and legs splayed out in total submission. My hooded suit was doing its job to keep me warm in the brisk autumn weather but my legs, arms and heart rate needed a rest.

This isn’t the first sport I’ve been a beginner at. I had several ‘hate this’ afternoons learning to windsurf when I was eight years old before 13 more years of total addiction. I then took up kiting in the early 2000s and had plenty more ‘why am I doing this?’ moments of frustration before the pieces of progression slotted in place.

I’m beyond the really early stages with winging. My turns and foot changes are adequate enough and I’ve seen the light of ‘darting’ the wing forward in my tacks, but every session still feels like a new journey. Rarely stylish, but always full of learning.

The onset of autumn brings very frontal and changeable conditions here in the UK. As a kiter I love this season as the usually stronger winds deliver excellent jumping conditions, while the increased Atlantic storm activity kicks up more swell here in the Channel, too.

It’s setting forth into these conditions with a wing that’s been working my body and mind so hard in the last few sessions.

I find myself here, flat out on the floor after deciding to take on a lumpy high tide under clear morning skies before the forecasted onslaught of torrential afternoon rain that would spoil the flatter afternoon low tide. If you’re a kiter you may take being able to set your kite forward in the window for granted, letting it drift you beyond the menacing shorebreak impact zone in the first ten metres off the beach. With a delicate wing in one hand and a cumbersome (and sharper than I’d probably like right now) hydrofoil in the other, the launch game becomes somewhat of an altogether different challenge. The opposition is up in your grill from the get go.

We have a growing but small crew of local wingers, pulled together by our Wingfoilers Unite Facebook group. Only Stav and Neil had made it to this session and as we made it over the beach ridge and got a look at the shoreline we stopped, pausing to wonder exactly how we’d make it out to an area clear of the waves that were pitching head high directly onto the shingle.

Stav Thraves wingsurfing on a river using the Duotone Unit and Fanatic Sky Wing
Stav’s getting pretty good. He can even sit down on the job! It’s all easy on the river though… isn’t it?!

Stav is the local wing guru and had negotiated this situation before. “Basically you need to let the wing drift behind you, hopefully it’ll float up over the water and then you prone paddle out.” Perking up, “Ah yeah, sweet. I can do that.” I respond.

“Oh wait, but you have one of those waist belts that you attach your leash to; I don’t. Do you think I’ll be able to paddle with it on my wrist?” I wondered.

“Hmmm, yeah, that could be an issue. Why don’t you put it on your leg?”
“Good idea!”

I confidently approached the water. Impatiently waiting for what looked like a gap in shoreline activity, I quickly waded to a depth where I could set the foil vertically in the water, having already let the wing drift behind me. I hastily heaved my chest against the board and started to paddle. Almost immediately I felt a big pull on my leg as the wing got caught up in the first breaking wave and I ended up in a heap in the shallows, reaching to defend myself from the hydrofoil which was now rushing by in the retreating water that was sucking powerfully back. Somehow I gathered the gear and walked back up the beach.

“Go on then, show us how it’s done, Stav.”

He did.

“Okay, fine, let’s have another go.” I said to Neil, who gallantly let me go again. This time I held the wing higher overhead for longer and managed to deal with the board with just one hand until I got deep enough to get on and paddle like mad for 15 metres or so. Made it! After a quick transfer of the wing leash from ankle to wrist I tried kneeling on the board. I haven’t yet mentioned that this was also my first session on a 5.0 Naish Hover 75 litre board that I’ve had in the office for weeks since they kindly sent it to me.

Although I was only stepping down ten litres from my F-One Rocket Wing 5’5”, once you start getting down in litres more closely to your kilo body weight (I weigh 70 kilos), it made a world of difference in those conditions. Stav had commented in the park cark, “Do you really think you should be taking that today? It’s quite onshore. Go with what you know…”

I’ve tested kitesurfing equipment for Kiteworld for over 15 years and cockily retorted. “Stav, I ride different gear nearly every session mate. It’ll be fine.”

“What could go wrong?” He quipped with an equally confident wink.

Michi Schweiger jumping on a Naish wingsurfer and Hover 75 litre
Making it look easy, Michi Schweiger shredding the Naish Hover 75L, Maui
Photo: FishBowlDiaries / Naish

The Hover is just so damn attractive though and has sat there goading me with its sleeker nose section and slender dimensions for several weeks. “Sod it” I’d thought and went with it. “Sod you” was its reaction as I completely failed to get to my feet in the undulating water. Clearly I wasn’t ready, but I wasn’t beaten. I sat on the board and feathered the wing over head, diced with the shorebreak and ran back to the van to switch up to the 85 litre F-One.

Take two. I reattached both leashes to my left ankle (I thought better to have one free leg, at least!) and quite uneventfully made my way out before reaching down, releasing the Velcro of the wing leash around my ankle, laid it on the board, placed my wrist on top and watched the wing blow back to shore as the Velco was ripped from my hands in a gust. I remember just thinking, “Oh…”

Strangely I don’t think I swore because interest in what would happen took over!

If that had been a kite, I could be in real trouble if it hit a passer by on the beach. The wing just cartwheeled a couple of times and was then forcibly ejected into the shorebreak where it was repeatedly chewed and spat out and sucked in again before I could reach it. Hats off to Naish. All seams were still in tact.

‘Christ. Right, focus and get this right, Jim…’

The session was fairly uneventful after that but the physicality of winging in such undulating and challenging conditions still surprises me compared to kiting. What I do love though is the compact nature of the gear and how self-sufficient I feel. I don’t need someone to launch or land my kite, I can ditch the power whenever I want and the 85 litre board is floaty enough that I can either paddle it in or drift in on it should I get into difficulty (or lose the wing again!).

I didn’t really build any memories for the shred banks that session, but I learnt that I’m not yet ready for 75 litres in those conditions and I’ve sort of learnt a new technique for getting out beyond shorebreak (with timing and luck on my side).

As I watched Stav nail tack after tack on the inside after pumping his way in on the wind swell from out back, the sun popped through the grey clouds and I realised how warm I still was in my hooded Mystic Legend suit. I’ve heard several outdoor lovers tell me that there’s no such thing as bad weather; only the wrong gear. I have the right suit for several more comfortable weeks this season. The question is can I overcome the challenges of commanding the wing in waves?!

Check back in in ten years when I’ll probably be struggling with another new sports journey, going back to the beginning, chasing new experiences.

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