One of a Kind: The Kai Lenny Interview

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Kai Lenny’s life is one endless cycle of water-time and big waves (with a bit of snow sprinkled in too). You’d be forgiven, because you’re probably right… There’s no-one else who’s pushing foiling into the public pantheon with more gusto and smiles than this guy. So of course we had to get an interview with him for the first issue of Foiling Magazine…

Photos: Ryan Johnson / Kai Waterman Media

Hey Kai. You are a busy guy nowadays. Can you remember when foiling first began for you?

My first ever experience on a hydrofoil was back when I was nine years old, on the board my dad and uncle bought from Laird and Dave Kalama. We took out the jetski and after both of them tried it a couple times I was given a chance and instantly loved it. The snowboard boots were way too big for me, and all the way up to my knees! But I made it work and the board became mine after a while.

Has the speed that foiling has developed over the last few years surprised you?

What I love most about the hydrofoil is the fact that it’s so adaptable to all these different water sports and enhances the riding experience when the conditions aren’t great for their traditional form. Foiling is so dynamic, since it transcends everything from little chops that you would ride downwind to being powered by a sail or a kite, all the way up to some of the biggest waves in the world.

Kai Lenny

Have you discovered a few new spots in Maui which you wouldn’t have considered before?

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When I first began to reimagine the foil as a small wave surfing device, instantly waves I had driven past for years became the perfect spots for foiling. It opened up a whole new world and now that I’m traveling around the globe it is an absolute must that I have a foil in my bag since the waves more often than not aren’t epic, and this amazing thing is keeping me on the water no matter what! Waves that weren’t on anyone’s radar are now popular spots; I love that they’ve been hidden in plain sight for so many years.

How do you see foiling in the surf in terms of the style, do you think tight turns and airs are the direction it is heading in?

The natural progression is going to be do everything faster, higher, and louder. Right now we’re only beginning to tap into what is possible with what we can do in the smallest of waves. I imagine different variations of rotations as well as doubles being common practice on waves that don’t even break. With straps at first and then progress to doing similar maneuvers without them. As far as turns go, it’s going to be about laying it on a wing and getting the wing tip in the air and leaving a huge fan of spray!

Kai Lenny

When do you ride straps at the moment?

The advantages of straps are giant for sharper turns, airs and big waves. I prefer them when I am in chest high waves or anything bigger. For the smallest waves, downwind and pumping I don’t like to use them. I love to move my feet to get better leverage on the wing or relax during a long run in swells.

Using foils to ride small or poor quality surf has really given the sport impetus, but you’re still pretty focused on the bigger stuff right?

Riding big waves is without a doubt the most exhilarating and the fastest I have ever gone. All that space… it’s like dropping into a giant mountain in Alaska and just doing huge carves. I’m working on equipment now that’ll allow me to ride the waves with much more confidence and go much deeper for an even more incredible ride. There’s a huge potential advantage when everything gets dialed in, since often you’re moving faster than the wave is breaking which isn’t possibly on a big wave on any other kind of board.

Kai Lenny

Where do you see the competitive side of the sport heading?

On the competitive side no doubt there’s going to be competition for riding waves. I’m not sure just yet how big that will grow. It certainly has its advantages because the performance level doesn’t change depending on the wave quality, and a lot of time regular surf competitions need to wait for the swell to improve. Then I think one of the coolest aspects of this sport is the racing and going down wind, since it’s the fastest way to do it without a motor or sail. Then there is a lot of developments to be made to the equipment that’ll make it extremely exciting for the athletes and spectators.

In terms of R&D the sport is evolving quickly – do you think that smaller brands have an advantage in terms of being able to bring new designs onto the market more quickly?

I’m constantly thinking of how we can improve the wings, fuselages and masts that will take my performance level up another notch. Any company that can be working and testing new designs will have the advantage in the future. I believe there’s still a lot to improve on and it may be difficult for big brands following a strict production cycle whereas a smaller brand might be able to pump out more different models without those constraints.

You recently spent some time on Necker Island – sounds like fun?!

Necker is a dream island for foiling! The waves around the island aren’t great for traditional surfing but with the foil it’s a skate park. Depending on the swell direction there’s at least five good waves ranging from carving to sections to boosters.

Kai Lenny

And what can you tell us about the foils you are riding now?

I’ve had the opportunity to ride a bunch of different foils from different brands and I have to say everyone is making good foils. One of my favorites is the Hydrofoil Company designed MFC Hydros. Overall it does everything insane from downwind, small waves, medium waves through to the larger stuff. The range is big which is nice when I am traveling and need something to do it all. Especially staying light and small so I can put in my suitcase. I’ve been riding the Slingshot foils for really big waves and they make great foils as well. The Lift eFoil also performs exceptionally as well.

What’s the sketchiest situation you’ve wound up in on a hydrofoil?

Falling on my back after straightening out on a huge closeout on the outer reefs. My head found its way in between the two wings on the fuselage. The weirdest thing is that the foil didn’t hurt me whatsoever but my feet got a little tweaked from being stuck in the straps underwater. I’m lucky I’ve never had an incident where the foils actually messed me up. It has maybe given me a dead leg for a second but that’s about it. I’ve been more screwed up from my surf fins than I ever have from my foils.

You’re surely one of the (if not the?!) busiest guys on the planet in terms of your commitment to watersports. What gets you in the water for a ‘dawn ‘til dusk’ session and how many hours do you clock on the water in an ‘average’ day do you reckon?

I’m lucky to call this my job and to live in a place like Maui where I can get in the water and do every sport imaginable. I’m definitely busy since I spend most of my time sun-up-to-sun-down in the water. Depending on the conditions, I’ll dawn patrol to the beach first for a surf session, followed by a foil session, and then when the wind picks up it’s kiting or windsurfing mixed in with a downwinder on the foil, and if I can do one more then it’s a surf or SUP session. That’s one of those really good days! I hardly ever do anything less than an hour on the water with each sport. Then it’s a balance finding time to talk with shapers and designers about equipment improvements, so sometimes I sacrifice a morning or afternoon to get it dialed in with them.

Jump forward three years – where do you think we’ll be with the sport of hydrofoiling?

Three years from now I want to look back and laugh at the ancient relics of foils we were riding. From the time I first started with the reimagined foil sport to now, things have already improved so much. Give it another three years and it’ll be insane. And as for the performance, hopefully more and more people get into the sport and continue to push it in all aspects of small waves, big waves, downwind and more. I think it’s important to remember that the best places to do it are to go where no-one else is. That was the whole point of it in the beginning, to escape the crowds with your best friends or a few fellow foilers…

Kai Lenny

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