Three Sessions that changed my life

Turning your hand to something new, should, theoretically, be easier if it engages areas of long-held, ingrained knowledge. However, it’s not always the case. When professional sailor Philip Muller first turned his hand to downwind foiling, much of the methodology he assumed to be correct from his years spent on the water sailing and surfing didn't apply to this new sport. Here are the lessons he discovered along the way…

Words: Philip Muller
Photos: Quinn & Dane Wilson

Downwind foiling – aka downwinding – is the modern way to do a very ancient thing, “using simple rafts propelled by the wind to voyage from island to island.” There is a certain freedom that I’ve discovered on windy days, when the swell and sea line up, where my body becomes the sail and with the foil I can go for miles and miles.

Most humans spend the majority of their time in the water within a few hundred meters from shore. I have. And as a regular waterperson, getting out a bit further has changed the way I look at the ocean. To be propped on the shoulder of a rolling swell line from energy that’s traveled thousands of miles, while standing on a banana-peel-sized piece of curved carbon just blows my mind.

Last March, I stumbled into my first downwind session with an especially all-star cast of foil experts: Jack Ho, Cole Kawana, Gage Schoenherr, Matt Cost, Dane and Quinn Wilson. Honestly, I was trying to convince Dane to go surf Seal Beach after a long day of coaching sailing. Dane was dead set on loading his boat up and motoring toward Catalina Island. We took the boat from Ballast Point to the southern tip of the Long Beach breakwall. All the boys jumped in, towed up behind the boat and started cruising back towards shore. After they scattered, I jumped in and grabbed the tow line. After a few faceplants and some coaching from the Wilson brothers, my brain and body slowly started to connect. The rest of the squad pumped, slashed, and floated their way 2.5 miles downwind to just outside the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach before the boat scooped up each rider one by one. Once in the boat, each dude brought and shared his stoke as the boat battered the chop and swell back upwind.

Learning to downwind is hard because you have to unlearn a lot of the things that you’ve been taught. I tried to use a strategic left-brained approach and failed. I was a horse with blinders on running full speed to nowhere. I had disregarded my intuition and ability to connect with the ocean. I was trying to use logic to puzzle out the wonderful chaos of the natural world.

Faulty assumption #1: Get as much speed as possible and race down the line.

This approach to wave riding has been ingrained in me after 30 years of surfing small waves in Florida. This “go fast, forward” approach presented two problems: one, speed management and two, wave positioning.

Why it doesn’t work: The goal is not to constantly build speed. The goal is to find comfort in a manageable slower speed. You’ll be surprised at how long you can actually glide and maintain flight for when the foil is positioned in the correct spot, which is on the top of the wave, just behind the crest. Another issue I had to overcome was constantly racing down the line towards a flat spot. “The point is to go down wind,” Dane reminded me, after I outran a perfectly good lump.

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I learned to only drop in if you can connect to another peak. Find peak after peak. I learned to stay high on the foil and carve around the top of the swell’s crest, almost as if falling off the backside of it. Looking around is key. To retrace yourself is to link back to the original piece of high water and ride it back downhill. There are so many factors that change the shape of a wave in the open water: depth, current, wind, inertia. To keep your eyes open as the ocean changes beneath your feet, then respond to it makes downwinding a transitive experience. It is a return to the hunter-gatherer instinct that is somewhere embedded in our DNA.

Rule #1: To downwind, you need to forget everything you know about wave riding. 

It took me countless attempts. And every time I crashed into the cold pacific water and I ate another slice of humble pie, I was starting to build a mental map of how to do this new thing. My mind was in a panic and rushed to make sense of something my body couldn’t catch up with. I recommend taking breaks and puzzling it out. In his book ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, Alan Watts claims “the root of all our problems is our desire to hold onto things. Life is constantly flowing, and we must let it.”

Such is downwinding.

In May I flew to Oahu. The summer trades were wicking the rolling lumps of Pacific swell into a lather, which crested and collapsed like a parade of maniacal elephants that crashed against the cliffs of the southern coast. It was the heaviest sea state I’ve ever experienced and yet an average Hawaiian day. Gavin Ball whipped me in off a tow line from his ten-foot inflatable dinghy. I looked beyond the crestline to the backdrop of the island resting in idyllic sunlight. I pushed weight into my heels, carving and retracing my path to face two thousand miles of blue water stretching out toward Polynesia. The expanse of the open ocean and the energy of the swell shook every cell in my body. The adrenaline made my legs shiver.

Gavin and I switched and it was my turn to tow him up. He must have sensed I was a little leary to take the tiller of his 25hp Suzuki, which was smoking at the back, “I’ve taken this beast all the way to Molokai,” he reassured me. It was harder to drive the dinghy than the foil, but at least I got to watch Gavin link a few turns down the face of another marching elephant, as he disappeared leaving me to admire the brow of Diamond Head in the distance.

Faulty assumption #2:  Downwinding is like surfing.

Downwinding is sailing at its core. Once you become competent at managing the flow of the foil beneath the water it works very efficiently. The foil will pop, drive and float. Then the main source of drag becomes your own body as it sails through space. A good downwinder is a lazy downwinder. Using the ocean’s power efficiently to connect one wave to another, but also take advantage of the wind’s power to get through the flatter sections. Gavin taught me this lesson as he masterfully carved towards and away from his island while he sought to gain or burn speed.

Rule #2: When you need speed let the wind push you, if you have speed connect to new ridgelines by riding crosswind. 

In November, the season's first Nor’easter pushed down the Florida peninsula. Quinn [Wilson], Nic Muller, Carlos Robles and I were frothing as we passed beneath the Bear Cut bridge in my 18ft boat. Once we got just offshore of Virginia Key, Carlos and Nic pumped up their wings and jumped in, foiling over the sandbar and into the swell off of Key Biscayne. Quinn and I drove further offshore. The swell was four feet at seven seconds, the wind 14 knots. We had about 30 minutes until dusk as the tropical sun sank beneath the horizon. I watched Quinn link 15 turns on one lump, as if he was charging through waist deep powder. “I felt like I could go forever!” Quinn said, grinning, as we traded helm and foil. It’s a ten-mile run from the Virginia Key to the southern tip of Key Biscayne. We reached the Bill Baggs lighthouse as the sun melted into the horizon above Key Largo.

Faulty assumption #3: What worked last session will work this session. 

I was testing a smaller tail wing on this run, hoping to find more carve and top end. The foil’s sensitivity felt pitchy at first, and it took me several attempts to sort out my foot placement. I found a narrow stance and started paying attention to the glide I could get while favoring my backside. The wind’s direction was side-onshore, endless lefts. I could gauge a few snaps on my forehand crosswind before linking long carves on my backhand as I rebuilt speed dead downwind.

Rule #3: Continue to discover what will work for “this run”.

My boy Alan Watts writes, “…music is a delight because of its rhythm and flow, yet the moment you arrest the flow, prolong a note or chord beyond its time, the rhythm is destroyed. Because life is likewise a flowing process … to work against [it] is to work against life itself.”

Perhaps there’s something to that. Downwinding is jazz. It is improvisation. The landscape of the ocean, even one mile offshore, is a fickle foreign swirl. Unrestrained by a bordering coastline the windblown surface dances in a cacophony of swell, chop and spray belied by the ocean’s depth. Three miles out it becomes a rhythmic undulation. The sheer energy of that cosmic churn is a captivating phenomenon.

To downwind on a foil is to become a human tumbleweed. To position yourself in the tumult of the sea and let the path unfold before you. You only have two options: ride crosswind or downwind. It’s a beautiful exercise of acting within the present moment. And as you hunt for the next lump and milk it for everything you can, before turning toward the next, you string together the ride of your life. I think you owe it to yourself to try it.

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