Outer Banks: ON A WING AND A PRAYER
From black lava to black underwater shadows, Fabian Muhmenthaler likes to venture places where many wouldn’t.READ MORE
If you have come to foiling from a surfing background (or even if you haven’t) there are surely few wave sport enthusiasts amongst us who haven’t heard of the former world champion Australian surfer and style master, Tom Carroll. Plenty of us have had our lives in the water shaped by riders of his ilk (Ed: me amongst them…). Tom has always retained a broad-minded appreciation of all facets of board riding, and tentatively moved into foiling in the early 2000s, fully committing a few years ago. Now, it’s a full-time passion. Friend and journalist Paul Burnett sat down with him to find out how this all came to pass…
Photos: Sam Baker (unless specified)
So as this isn’t a traditional surf mag, why don’t you introduce yourself and let the people know some of the things that make Tom Carroll the legend that he is…
Ha! Ok. I’m 59 years old. Started surfing when I was 7. I became a Pro Junior Champion when I was 15 years of age. That catapulted me to competing on the world tour and I became a world champion when I was 22 and 23, consecutively. I then lost my world title to Tom Curren.
Bloody Curren haha…
Yeah. Curren turned into quite a force. He was already a world champion in the amateurs. I had to kind of stamp my ground before he came in. I also watched Occy come on and I thought “these guys are amazing surfers, I’m going to learn a lot from these guys, but I want to nail it as much as I can.” I was already very competitive by nature, just through the crew I grew up with. I got myself nine years of consecutive Top 5 places and surfed the tour for 14 years, stepped off and started working with Quiksilver a little more closely. They were my sponsor… still are. They sponsored me from 14 years of age, so it’s been a long time.
That’s a journey isn’t it? 45 years.
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Certainly back then it was “You’re a shortboarder, you’re not going to do anything else…”
Yeah. You couldn’t longboard. Like a longboarder would get beat up and told to go in at my local break. Body boarders too. It was really heavy. I never really got it because I liked the idea of just riding a wave, and what it gave me. It was a lot more than just competing and stuff for me. But down the track, I got on to windsurfing, kiting. The windsurfing thing kind of came and went, and then I tried kiting and almost killed myself at the end of 1999. Robbie Naish supplied me with a bit of gear, and I got dragged up the beach. I didn’t get dragged. I actually gouged a trench… like something you’d have to dig with a shovel. I gave up that moment. But I was always looking at different ways of doing things and enjoying the adventure of it all. In 2004, I was really interested in what Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton were doing with the foil, but I didn’t like the idea of strapping in with boots.
Yeah. That was really dangerous wasn’t it?
Yeah. I really like Dave. Laird is a classic too, but I was closer with Dave and we’d done a couple of trips. He used to help Laird a lot in the big tow-in days and he’d say “you’ve got to try this foil thing. It’s going to blow your mind. It goes faster than anything else you’ve ever tried. You go straight through chop…”. So, I actually had a go. Actually, the first time I had a go was with Ross Clark-Jones… and almost died.
Yes. There always seems to be stories with Ross that finish with “And I almost died.”
Haha yeah! I got one wave but I’ll never forget it. It was probably about a four-to-five foot wave and we were shooting for the Storm Surfers show… We were trying to put a trailer together and we got the boots on and we got dragged around Palm Beach closeouts. We had one of these alloy foils, similar to the Airchair foil, but makeshift. My initial feeling, after getting stuck in the breaking waves with that thing, I just said “Nah! I’m not going to do this shit.” But as soon as I saw Kai Lenny doing that pump around a few years back…
Aw that! That’s everybody’s story isn’t it?
Yeah. And also a shot at Maliko on that little yellow board – jumping up and then just foiling a bump. That’s when I went, “That looks so dreamy and accessible…” and he kinda got me. I had to do that.
So, moving on from the pre-foil Tom, when did it actually change your life?
At the ISA World Surf Paddling Championships in 2016 they were doing distance paddling around the islands and Kai Lenny was there with his GoFoil setup with that yellow board. He goes “Come on, I’ll take you out on the ski, let’s go.” and I thought, “I’m going to nail this! I’m going to be the world champion at it.” That fucking baseline shit. And then reality hits…
And it hits hard.
I just kooked out so badly. It felt so foreign. Kai and I were out at Swimming Pools off Namotu, and it was a little onshorish and I was dreaming about getting up on a Swimming Pool’s wave and just being able to glide along on it. I thought, “No worries, I’m going to be able to do this. I’m going to nail it.” I had a couple of runs where I was going along ok and I was on the rope behind the jetski, but as soon as I let go of the rope, I’d last a couple of moments and try and surf the thing and then I’d taco… BOOM, and just clip it, or just jump away from it. Just narrowly missing it.
I swear as you get older it takes so much longer, it’s like the information just has to come through the body, reverberate almost, like an echo through the muscle tissue, into the brain. Feel, remember, feel, remember… It’s like that. Then the body has to get the feel and relax a bit more.
I think the worst guys to teach are guys who have been surfing forever because they’ve got their muscle memory and they know what they think they want, which is exactly what they don’t want on the foil, in some respects.
And that’s what I realized that day. I came in and realized that I needed to get rid of surfing if I was going to learn to foil. I realised how different it was going to be. I can’t surf it. I’ve got to actually learn to foil. So, I ended up tapping into GoFoil to get a setup. But I had a really screwed up knee by then and I went out and surfed the Eddie Event.
You surfed the Eddie with a screwed-up knee?
Yeah. I paddled out with Jamie O’Brien There’s a sequence I’ve got of me just getting lifted up, literally, and then just plonked over the back of the wave. I got blown over the back like a little light guy. I’ve got nothing to me when it comes to those elements. I’ve got to be really pushing down on the front leg, but I couldn’t. There was no power in it at all. I realised then that I needed to go look at a replacement knee. So, I went home and did that. At the same time I had the foil sitting there, and I realized with that knee I couldn’t get up and foil. The knee wasn’t going to let me. So, I spent 2017 pretty much recuperating from knee surgery, and I was just getting ready to try the foil, but then I went snowboarding and injured my shoulder, which also needed surgery…
Ha! Old people! So at what stage were you able to get back on the foil?
I had shoulder surgery. I came back from that, and I was doing one of the Kalama Camps. My knee was fine, my shoulder was fine. I though, I’m going to dig deep and I’m going to get into this. So, I went out and I was determined to do it on a SUP. And Dave Kalama, the best teacher in the world, he was there to kind of guide me along. So, we’re doing what we call the Foil Garden which is right inside Wilkes Passage. It’s just a refraction. Probably about a 500m ride, some of them. A really good place to get some length of ride then paddle back out. And sort of reconfigure the brain a bit. That was the end of 2018. Then I went to Hawaii early 2019 and took that stuff with me and spent a couple of weeks foiling with Barton Lynch. I borrowed a board from John Amundson… I’m really thankful for that because it got me going. But I was going out in the worst conditions. It didn’t even look like it was a wave, but we’d go out there and have the best time. It was like we were grommets again.
I remember John Pizel came out on a Lift on one of the nicer days. I looked down through the curve and as a surfer I just thought that looks like it would work to me. John said, “Yeah. Have a couple of runs on it.” So, I paddled out and the first couple of runs it just clicked and I went “Oh my god, this is next level.” It actually felt smooth on the turn and the way the wings were set up. I didn’t know much at all, it was just that feel. So my eyes twisted towards the Lift Foils.
Also, before that I’d had a trip to Fiji and Paige Alms was there. She had the Lift Foil setup, and we organised a tow foil session. We had already been doing tow foiling when I had my Cloud Nine setup. I’m very thankful to Cloud Nine. I still have that S24 setup, it’s really cool to teach people with.
They have obviously outgrown it with their new stuff which looks really good.
Yes. The new stuff is really looking good.
So how big was it on that session?
It wasn’t that big at Namotu. Three-to-four foot, nice smoothish faces. I couldn’t believe how nice the foil felt. I tuned in with Nick from Lift there. He sent me a little setup and it was a really superior foil. I’ve still got that setup too.
You could really bank those turns.
Mmmm. It has a lot to do with that rear tail for me. I’m still learning so much. But I love the continuous froth of you and I going out in anything and having “Best Evers” every session.
You’re currently riding Armstrong. How did the transition to Armstrong come about?
At a Kalama camp. I started connecting with Freedom Foil Boards and they sent me a couple of different boards. I put the Lift on the tow-in board and I really started to feel the sensations of the Lift Foil. I was going “Wow, I’m getting proper arcing turns now.” And then I was looking at all the gear in the shed, just studying it, and the Armstrong stuff just started to catch my eye for a number of reasons… the way it all fit together.
Beautiful piece of engineering isn’t it?
Yeah. The way it all sets up. So, I had a go on it, I was using the 1050 with the 232 on the back, I think it was. Those guys were using it for kiting but I just wanted to tow. Matt from REAL Watersports put me in contact with Armie, and he said, “I’ll send you a whole setup…”. So I’ve got a Lift setup. I’ve got a Cloud Nine setup. It’s absurd. But now I’ve signed an agreement with Armie because that’s how they wanted to do it, and I thought, I’m up for that!
So tell us about the KDMaui tail wing that you’ve got and how it goes with that setup.
It’s definitely different. I’m starting to learn more about the variables. I had the HS850 on the front, the 70 fuse, with the 85 mast. What I would consider a good tow setup. I put the 13” KD on the back instead of the 212 I would normally, and as soon as I’d go into the turn it felt really good. I’d bring it up and then there’d be this crazy connection. All of a sudden, I’ve got these little concave-turned-down tips… instead of dipping up, it allows it to be a little softer in transition from what I’ve noticed. It was a super slick tail. No drag at all.
The beauty of where we are at the moment is that we are so early in the curve… I reckon if we were to relate it to surfing, we’re in 1983, Simon (Anderson) has just paddled out at Bells and changed the world of surfing with a Thruster. We’re at that level where the Thruster has changed the world and I think we’ll be going into a period of incremental change. It’s going to be so fun to watch that I reckon.
Yeah. Who knows how people are going to foil? We’re returning to the crest and looking for wedges, bumps and jumps and hitting things, winging it and getting to the air and they’re doing flips and stuff. But to see them getting the feel right so that it’s smooth and clean… For mine the movement towards evolving it is towards a smoother, uninterrupted turn, that you can transition in and out of without any weirdness and actually increase the freedom in transition so that you don’t have to think anymore. You don’t have to hold back. You can just glide it. I’ve had a couple of nice feelings on the Armie. Fast and beautiful.
Cool… So, tell us about the foil boards that you’re making.
I’ve always loved making boards and designing boards. I did my own stand-up paddleboard brand, and still do. It’s a very small offering. I’m not trying to rule the world, but it’s something I’ve got going. These designs are from the influence of Blaine Chambers from Hawaii. I love that Maui culture. The Maui culture to me is the ultimate. You can see what comes out of there. Like Laird and Kai and all these amazing surfers. Guys who use the wind and the waves. For me it’s the ultimate place on the planet for real innovation and stimulated design work around riding waves. All that Hawaii area, but Maui is producing some really amazing humans.
They’re sort of forced into aren’t they. Cause if you are only going to surf, you’re turning off by the time the trades turn up, then you’re watching all your mates kiting or foiling, and you’re going “Hey wait a minute!”
Yeah… that makes sense. And they’re not closed off. Here in Australia, they are so closed off. I’ve always like to find different ways to surf, and those guys seemed to express it the best to me. Why get caught on one thing? Foiling, like what we’re doing… towing into that stuff, it’s like snowboarding, and design work comes with it.
AXIS Foils have a board they call the Tray and it literally looks like that. It’s about an inch thick and it’s pretty much flat.
Yeah. I’m really interested in how boards go. What they do. It’s really interesting to me to make a functional foilboard and see what’s working. It’s super open. There is no set thing.
Yeah. You think it doesn’t matter because you’re riding the wing. But then you find out it does…
So, I spoke with Adam Bennetts the other day about what style turns him on and what he wants to do. He was saying he’s right into long arc turns and hitting turns at speed. He said he appreciates what the guys are doing with straps but that’s not where he wants to go. As far as you’re concerned where is it that you want to go style wise?
I’m pretty basic. I’ve done the strap thing but unless I want to go big on the tow, I don’t think that straps are the way I want to go. I like being free. Being able to move my feet around the board at little bit. I like the idea, same as Adam…
I appreciate what guys like Paul Cooper are doing, his ability to pop it out of the water is pretty much second to no-one at the moment but it’s not where I want to go. Maybe it’s just an old person thing?
I think it’s just physical capability. If my body was saying you can hit the air, I’d probably be doing it, but I just don’t have that confidence in the body. I think if maybe I landed something funny, I think I’d jeopardize my knee. I just don’t want to have that. I snapped my prosthetic out of my femur… The Dr reckons I’m mad. He sees me on Insta, and he says “Carroll! What are you doing?”. So I just love that carving arc and the continuous ride and focus on that.
I’ve always loved a cutback and I love that feeling. I’ve said many a time that you can do the best cutback you’ve done on a one-foot wave. Which is just a beautiful thing.
Yeah. And who knows, five years ago we didn’t know this was going to come up. Who knows where we are going to be in another five years? Especially with things moving so swiftly. People are just going to keep coming up with new things. If the design work can happen it will become more accessible for people.
“I love that Maui culture. The Maui culture to me is the ultimate. You can see what comes out of there. Like Laird and Kai and all these amazing surfers. Guys who use the wind and the waves.”
I’m in two minds on that one. You were talking before about surfers and their closed mindedness as a general disposition and we all know that the learning curve is super steep and so the average surfer needs to be prepared to be a gumby for at least three to four months…
What about the young kids right now? They’re kind of doing it. And then they’re going to grow, and the next generation are going to be even better. But you’ve certainly got to put a lot of time into it.
Fair enough. I would say then maybe in ten years rather than five years… cause our generation of old farts just aren’t happy to change. They’re not watermen. They’re surfers.
Maybe they need to get themselves some shares and get themselves an efoil. Ha!
So, Thomas what do you want to leave people with? What are the Thomas Victor Carroll’s insights into foiling?
Do it safely. Do it with as much safety as you can. There are so many new breaks, we don’t even know. There’s a whole new world opening up of places to foil and how to apply the foil. If you’re a surfer and you are just enquiring, look for people giving lessons. James Casey is doing them here on the Northern Beaches… don’t try to do it on your own. You’ll just never get there with the time frame that we expect with anything in this day and age. We just want everything “now” these days. Get behind a jetski or boat and put the hours into it. Dedicate hours into reprograming the body and mind and then you start to feel it. If you are a surfer, take surfing out. Reprogram your mind to foiling and then put surfing back in over the foiling after you’ve got it. I think that’s the key. And all of a sudden, a whole new world opens up. A whole new world of ocean action.
And we’ve only really spoken about prone and tow foiling… You’ve taken up the wing. How’s that going for you?
I haven’t done it for a while. We’ve had a run of swell. But I’m back out there. I’m a little bit shy of the surf. But I can jibe, maybe three or four jibes. I need to be able to it really easily before I can go out in the surf.
And how’s your wing on the wrong side of your body going? On the switch?
Yeah. That’s the hard thing. And there’s all this finesse that has to happen when I’m coming around to that side. I still haven’t got the mechanics of that yet. I get maybe two of those if I’m lucky.
I was out at Makaha the other day and Ed was out there with the wingding. He’s doing really well
Once you’ve got the wingding going you can play all over the place. It’s a whole new thing. A whole new world.
What wing are you using?
A 4.2m Armstrong, which feels good.
I saw on Banzaigrom’s page the other day that the brand he uses starts with a wing as small as 2.5m. That must be for some mighty strong wind.
I have been out when it was too strong for the 4.5. It blew me off the water. One nor’easter off the Boatshed at Palmie but for the most part here the winds are either pretty calm or blown out, so you need a couple of wings.
It’s an expensive sport if you’re doing it.
Yeah. I know.
Maybe not for you. You bastard.
Haha! I’m so lucky. Luckiest guy around.
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