The Robby Naish Interview

There are precious few human beings on this planet who’ve had such a rounded, root-and-branch involvement in so many watersports that went on to boom in popularity like Robby Naish has. So if there is someone you can trust to take his company to the technological forefront of the foiling game, the consumate watersport legend himself is one of them. Even a broken pelvis and a broken foot didn’t stop him from embracing this brave new world…

Hi Robby. Let’s start at the beginning – what are your first recollections and experiences of foiling craft?

The first time I ever tried a hydrofoil was in about 1977 in Kailua. A friend of mine named John Speer made a really cool wooden hydrofoil with four big wings for a windsurfer. It worked reasonably well but was no faster than a normal board at the time. More recently was about 20 years ago when we all started playing with Airchair foils both for tow-in surfing and windsurfing. Rush Randle was killing it on his windsurfer foil back then… But it never really caught on. I converted a wave board and used an Airchair foil… tried it a couple of times and lost interest. Same goes for tow-in surfing… The idea of surfing with snowboard boots and a jetski just did not do it for me.

What do you think are the main drivers behind the current explosion in the popularity of foiling in its various formats?

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As is often the case, everything has its time. And I guess the time for foiling just came to be. The technology has been around in very much the same format for decades. But with stand up paddling and kitesurfing for example, I think people are more open minded than they used to be. Social media and the internet also contribute. In the days when you needed to see something in a magazine or in person, and eventually maybe in a video somewhere, things took a lot longer to understand and catch on. The internet makes it instantaneous. You can really see the potential of something pretty quickly. And trends seem to come and go much more quickly now than in the past… Again, as a result of social media.

The foil range is pretty much completely new. Can you talk us through the options for Surf and SUP foiling?

Our 2019 Thrust is a great line, but for 2020 pretty much everything is new. Our modular system continues so that one can interchange wings and masts and fuselages between sports and between years, so nothing is outdated. But the changes and evolution for this year are substantial. We have all-new wings as well as a new fuselage, new back wing connection, new rear stabilizers, new mast lengths and a new Abracadabra with a tool-less option. The changes go so far as wing covers coming standard, new hardware and tool, and a killer new padded quiver bag that comes with each complete Jetfoil setup.

And in terms of the Surf and SUP board line-up, you have some different shapes and some different constructions on offer as well…

As new as the sport is, there is already a lot of specialization going on, especially if you take into consideration kitesurfing, windsurfing, wing foiling, surf foiling, and SUP foiling… And all of the different variations of riding within those sports, be it speed, recreational, tiny waves, downwinders or pumping. That being the case, and even though we do not participate in all aspects of foiling, we have a very large offering of boards. We are not involved with racing at this stage in any type of foiling, but are focused on recreational, all-round, and of course wave riding. In this realm there are a lot of styles and ability levels that need to be covered, and thus equates to our fairly broad range of boards on offer, whether they are crossover or dedicated purely to foiling within the sports.

What are your options for foiling close to home on Maui?

There are several reasonable spots on Maui, but we do find ourselves driving and venturing out into places that we wouldn’t have previously. The southside has several spots in the summertime, though none of them are anything close to world class for foiling, all being fairly short rides compared to other spots in the world. The North Shore has a few spots as well that offer decent north and east swell options, though wind is often a factor since this is Maui. But onshore wind is not a problem when foiling. Overall it is not a foiling paradise, but we make it work pretty well. On the downwind side though, Maui is as good as it gets.

Do you see ‘downwinder’ foiling becoming popular? What are the prime conditions and equipment for this?

Yes, for sure. Most of the top guys here that would have historically been doing downwinders on 14 foot and unlimited stand up paddleboards are now foiling on most of their downwind runs. Anywhere with a decent wind and a long enough draw to create some good wind swell or even big chop will work for downwinders, especially now with the larger wings that are available. Of course, the more wind, the better the run. But the really good guys like Bernd Rodiger can stay on a glide the entire length of Maui’s North Shore, even in pretty moderate conditions.

The Abracadabra system you have in your 2019 line-up makes life a whole lot easier. Why had no one else thought of this and do you have any kind of a patent on it?!

Yes, the Abracadabra certainly makes getting your foil on and off your board a lot quicker and easier. I think it is super dorky to drive around with your foil sticking up in the air, so this was a priority early on for us. The engineering was not as simple as one might think. It took quite some work to get it right, but the system is awesome in its final form. We did not patent it, as similar technologies have been used in other applications and the way patents now work, if something is not really new and novel, it is not defendable. You cannot just take technology from one industry or product and use it in another for the first time and claim that it is a new invention. So we left this open and I am sure that others will find similar solutions. But they will discover that it is not as simple as it seems!

What do you think about eFoils? Have you tried one and what do you see the main market being for these?

I guess there is a customer for everything. But I am not interested in them. My good friend Don Montague has been working on one for several years now and is finally nearing production. It is a rich guy toy for sure, which is OK, but not my area of expertise. There are too many little things that can go wrong for me to get into that, as the guys that are currently selling any eFoils are finding out. A two dollar part can create a warranty nightmare on a $6000 product. Ouch. No thank you. I also like the fact that we are a company powered by wind and waves. No batteries required and no gas needed. But like I said, there is a customer for everything, and I am sure that they are a lot of fun when they are working properly.

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?

As with everything, there are different styles. I am certainly not into the “performance” side of foiling, with airs etc, but then again I’m 56! there are a couple of guys that are pretty impressive, but the vast majority are not. Taking advantage of small waves and rolling swell with laid out carving turns is more where I think foils are really at home. In order to ride at a performance level, one must ride a bit more performance-oriented wave… And that becomes problematic when foil boarders and surfers begin to share common territory. Even a very good foil surfer will make mistakes and it is a bummer when those mistakes can bring others into real danger.

What about riding big waves?

Absolutely. Big waves, small waves, long waves, boat waves, wind waves. Especially big waves that don’t really break. Or getting out on the shoulder and riding the big open faces suits a foil board quite well. But in the world of Instagram, you will soon see guys trying to foil at Teahupoo, Nazaré and the right at Jaws because it will create exposure, and likes, and views. It’s all good. Social media aside, pushing the limits is fun!

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

Hopefully nowhere for a while. There is certainly no hurry, beyond racing of course. But I am sure there will be pumping sprint races along with the downwind races and likely some foil surfing wave events on the near horizon.

You’ve probably clocked more water hours than anyone else on the planet – has it been strange having a ‘new’ sport come into your life?

Not really – I have been fortunate to have several new sports come into my life over the last several decades. From surfing and sailing to windsurfing and everything that that sport became, which is really like several different sports. And then of course kitesurfing, which I was part of from the very beginning. And then stand up paddling brought a whole new world of excitement and exercise and opportunity. Now it is foiling and everything that it brings to all of these sports that I already love. So it has been fun. The very beginning was a little bit tough for me because I broke my pelvis right when the foiling experimentation began, so I missed the first half year or so of being out there, followed by many more months after that with a broken foot. My acceleration to a top level of performance took longer than it normally would have. But that challenge was probably healthy for me and now I am right where I want to be, and riding at a level that I am quite happy with and having a shit load of fun. At 56 years old I am very lucky to have been able to experience a life of sport the way that I have. Being able to be part of the growth of several different sports in terms of both the riding and the development of the equipment has been amazing. Lucky I am, and thankful. But hopefully not finished either.

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