No Blue Skies

Long the UK’s favorite surf destination, the coastal county of Cornwall is now at the forefront of the country’s nascent foiling scene, with hardy foilers battling the odds that are stacked against them by some fairly hefty Atlantic weather. One group of riders in particular – the KFC – are building a foil community from scratch. Writer, photographer and KFC member James Darling explains how it all came to be…

No clear blue skies. No boardshorts. No beautiful turquoise waters lit by sub-tropical SUNLIGHT…

This is Cornwall.

The Isle of Kernow. Land of the black and white flag. Pasties. Mizzle. A long leg of England extended gingerly into the jaws of the Atlantic Ocean, where legendary fifth century healer St Piran landed and brought Christianity to the heathen Cornish. Thrown from the cliffs in Ireland with a millstone around his neck, he floated to Perranzabuloe where he set up a church and performed miracles. Now it’s home to the Kernow Foil Crew, aka the KFC. A loose collective of aeronauts (not a well-known purveyor of chicken buckets) brought together by a love of small crumbling waves and high-octane flights.

Chris texts me. “Foil session at the usual winter spot?” I look outside: it’s February mid-winter, semi-dark with curtains of rain washing across our inland valley in the onshore gale. There’s no color. Just faded browns and greens beyond the veil of grey rain and grainy skies. I cross-check the surf forecast instinctively. 10ft @ 12 seconds. 20-30mph onshore winds. Yep, it’s on.

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Cornwall KFC Cornwall KFC Cornwall KFC

Eighteen months ago – as a surfer and SUP boarder – I wouldn’t have even bothered. Our Atlantic winters are a series of storms queueing up like planes out at sea waiting to relentlessly unload waves and wind on Cornwall’s craggy north coast. Yeah, of course there are a handful of semi-sketchy spots where you can cower under the cliffs and maybe claim a few clean waves. Or you wait for the wind window between storms when the gentler south coast goes offshore. Or man up and go big at Watergate or Polzeath. T’Cribbar or ‘Leven if you’re proper crazy.

But foiling has changed all that. We can go out nearly anytime, in any conditions. Just when I thought I’d got all my surf spots wired for wind/swell/tide combinations, all the permutations and variations… foiling arrives and completely blows my world apart. Opening up a vista of unimagined possibilities – of new beaches and waves, rivers, dock starts on lakes, towing behind a boat, windwinging on flat water, tow-ins on outer reefs, e-foiling… the list goes on.

Olly texts. “Got kids sorted to get the bus back from school, work quote booked in Padstow later now, hopefully will all come together and I’ll see you guys there.” Will replies… “I’m meant to be back to cook the kids’ dinner. It’s not gonna happen.”

Ah. Foilbrain. The official affliction brought upon those that hydrofoil. You thought surf addiction was bad? Wait til you get the foil fever. Work, wives, children, family life, girlfriends, boyfriends, booze, dogs that need walking, non-foiling friends… they all go out the window. Gotta, absolutely gotta get down to the beach and fly.

There are many symptoms of foilbrain, other than the sheer need to be flying. It’s a complete obsession and those symptoms can strike without warning, at any time. If, like me, you find yourself standing in the Post Office queue and suddenly you’re subconsciously flexing your knees simulating pumping the foil like some deranged zombie… then fear not, this would be a common symptom. Gazing at soaring birds, wondering about their wing aspect ratios? I’ve stared long at low aspect buzzards in my valley, high aspect red kites at 120kp/h on the motorway… or perhaps the more raked wings of seagulls? Driven past pumping surf beaches, ignoring them, looking instead for that small, fat, backing-off foil wave? These would all be common foilbrain symptoms.

And how about that carefully accumulated rack of surfboards, that perfect quiver that covers all conditions (you thought)? Now dusty and unused. Surfing mates, with whom you used to talk barrels, bombs and epic wipeouts now can’t process your frothy tales of 500 meter flights in unlikely locations. “You were foiling where?” they ask quizzically and then drift away looking wary, unconvinced, slightly scared.

// How did we get here? How did the KFC ditch everything and  contract this all-consuming virus?

Kai is the clear scapegoat. I blame him completely. All the KFC do. 100%. The foil wunderkind for the 2020s. His emerging videos with Naish circa-2017 and ‘Paradigm Lost’ movie switched on the first lights of the uninitiated and blazed a foil trail into the mainstream glare. It’s hard to believe now with the avalanche of foiling videos on Instagram, but Kai’s early clips back then looked like voodoo witchcraft or digital trickery. What was that board? Where could I get one? Just how was he generating so much speed on so little swell? And as for pumping back out and into a second wave (or third, or eleventh) – it was mind-blowing.

If Kai blew the bloody doors off foiling, then Laird and Kalama were perhaps its original pioneers. With that tiny, wrought aluminum foil and hard snowboard boots bolted onto a tow-board, they hit up the open ocean swells off Hawaii and Maui. But it was pretty experimental and far out. Even for them, and especially back then. There is an epic sequence of Laird foiling high across a sizeable unbroken wave in Channel 4’s 2001 big wave documentary ‘Ride The Wild Surf’ – my first conscious memory of hydrofoiling. A few years back I dug out an old VHS copy that I’d taped straight off the TV. It’s still wonderful and unreal and bewitching, though the Lenny Kravitz soundtrack is too obvious. Should have been MBV, Slowdive or Mogwai. Did my 20-something-year-old-self think then I’d ever be doing this twenty years later? In Cornwall?

Kai is the clear scapegoat. I blame him completely.

Today Laird is foiling Cloudbreak, Chicamas, Nazaré… and probably those same Hawaiian outer reefs. Kalama shapes and rides some of the best SUP foilboards out there. Both are still firmly pushing boundaries. Not bad for guys approaching retirement age. But the reaction to foiling has been mixed, to say the least. Even Laird’s exploits have been questioned, scorned, derided. “Waves like these are meant to be surfed properly”, “Jittery, not flowing”, “Does not belong here”… or simply “lame.” Many surfers regard foilers with the same suspicion reserved for the paddleboarders before them, and the longboarders before them.

There are also concerns – absolutely legitimate concerns – about safety. How do surfers and foilers mix in the water? The KFC’s take on this has always been to avoid crowds, to avoid any other surfers. This has happened organically: the spots we foil are not regular surf spots because of the nature of the wave – it just doesn’t work for regular surfers. So we only see the occasional paddleboarder or lone logger. I can only remember a single incident in two years of foiling – where a longboarder dropped in on KFC newbie Jack, requiring not only a swift education on surf etiquette but also a stark illustration of what Jack’s foil could have done to him and his very pretty wood veneer Firewire longboard. Safe to say he won’t do it again.

For the most part, the KFC’s (ongoing) voyage of discovery in finding suitable foil spots around Cornwall has been the best bit. Like reliving the first days of 1950s surfing I imagine. We’ve pooled our collective surf knowledge and pioneered places that you wouldn’t bother to look at, in conditions where you’d normally opt to stay at home and huddle up in front of the logburner. Big, open rivermouth bays ringed by dark Cornish cliffs and inhabited solely by large seals. Sparkling south coast inlets, normally flat, which come alive with the small diffracted lines of giant winter swells and are still offshore in howling westerlies. And one particular pointbreak, normally the preserve of SUP tankers, where this past winter the KFC anchored up almost daily and weaved long mazy flights into the hill. I left a lot of my front wing on its reefs and Will clocked up the KFC’s first 500m waves. Onshore or offshore… it didn’t matter. It was like this was how the wave, a perennial and fickle mystery, was meant to be surfed and in return, relieved, it kept giving us better and better days.

The learning process ain’t great. It’s brutal and lonely. For me, it was like the first sessions learning to surf on a tired waterlogged foamie, years ago. Except that when you fall, you risk severing major limbs on any of the various and many sharp edges of the foil. But once you get that first, magical, micro-second flight… when the foil engages, lifts and accelerates into soundless warp speed… that’s it, you’re hooked, and you just crave more.

The good news is that the equipment is now much better, more available and more affordable than it was. The UK has no homegrown foil industry, so our closest brands are all in France and Matt at has been a constant resource for more bespoke kit. But the reality is a world away from watching sponsored riders on Instagram in their boardshorts with all the latest wings, foiling in super-blue seas. As we pull on our 5mm wetsuits, hoods and gloves in a freezing car park in February, it feels ever so slightly less glamorous. But much more gnarly.

This was when the KFC started – a Whatsapp support group for North Cornwall’s emerging flight fanatics. To begin with, it was just Chris and I, hopelessly foiling completely inappropriate spots, devouring Blue Planet Surf YouTube videos, selling our surfboards to buy foil gear and wishing we were 20 years’ younger (maybe 25 for Chris). Ski instructor Nicko hooked us up with some crucial boat foiling behind his RIB and showed us what could be done on a kitefoil, then the KFC logo designer Olly joined. Next came international kite legend Will and we found our regular, established spot… which in turn led us to Newquay locals Jan and Jack. Though I still maintain none of us has actually seen Jan foiling (Jack doesn’t count, they’re mates). But I have seen videos of him windsurfing the Cribbar (a famous Cornish big wave spot) so I’m not gonna call him out on this…

Starting at the bottom of a progression curve doesn’t appeal to everyone. Going from hot surfer to kook foiler takes a certain level of courage. But Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker, who featured in a previous issue of this very magazine, affirmed: “I enjoy feeling like a kook again – learning something new.”

Weve pooled our collective surf knowledge and pioneered places that you wouldnt bother to look at, in conditions where youd normally opt to stay at home

Maybe it’s surfers’ collective vanity, or maybe it’s the high financial cost, or maybe fear of permanent disfigurement – but the uptake on foiling has been markedly lower and slower here in the UK than it was even for paddleboarding a few years’ back. Personally, I’m with Twiggy all the way. While initial progress is slower when learning new disciplines, in the long term this broadening of skills feeds your overall ability. KFC’s Will and Jan are classic examples. Jan is an international-level sponsored windsurfer but has embraced SUP and now SUP foiling as part of his quiver of options, asserting that the skills are transferable. Will, who spends more time in the water than out of it, has leapfrogged all of us in ability despite only taking up foiling last summer – because he’s already a kite instructor, surfer, SUPer and kitefoiler. It’ll be interesting to see how Nicko, with his huge skiing background, and Jack (surf/kite/SUP) progress this summer on their new rigs.

Otherwise, we’re a rare breed. St Ives waterman Glenn Eldridge and Polzeath’s gifted Alex Murray are lone beacons. There’s a couple of good F-ONE kids from the clay country in Cornwall’s heartland, and we see the occasional visiting foiler (mainly those dastardly Devonians from across the border). And there are whispers too, of a west Cornwall coven. But that’s it. Not exactly crowded. And we’re not complaining, but a few more guys – and girls – would be fun, and most welcome.

Hit up the KFC on Instagram @kernowfoilcrew, check out Erik Antonson’s superb Progression Project foiling podcasts, or just get in touch with us if you want to talk about gear, aspect ratios or strong west country cider.

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