Wing Wahine

Although winging has only truly broken cover within the last two years, there’s already a young generation coming through for whom it’s become first priority and second nature. Rio Imperato, Mona Mutzenberg and Christina Naish are three Maui-based friends who epitomize the broad uptake of this fast-growing sport. We got in touch to find out why wingfoiling has become their go-to downtime option…

Photos: Frankiebees

It's easy to see how school homework might occasionally get sidelined….

So firstly, how did you three meet each other? Were you friends before you started to ride wings?

Rio: I have known Christina since I was six years old because we went to the same elementary school and we have stayed friends since. I met Mona this year because of Naish and winging.

Mona: I met Rio and Christina at one of the Naish Wing-Surfer shoots. Although I had seen Rio winging around the harbor, we hadn’t formally met until the shoot.

Christina: What Rio said!

Tell us how each of you first came to try out winging, and how those first few times on the water worked out?

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Rio: In the beginning of summer 2020, my dad and I decided that it was time to go get in the water and winging seemed like the perfect option. We had one set to share between the two of us, which basically meant we got to inch from the beach to a buoy and back. After each run my dad and I would tell each other how much better our own sessions were which made for a pretty funny and competitive learning environment. After every day on the water, I came in with a huge smile even though I could barely go in a straight line, but I was always stoked to go again the next day.

Mona: That same summer, my parents started winging. They spent a lot of their free time out winging and would talk about it all the time. I decided to watch them one day and take photos. It looked pretty fun, so I decided to give it a try. The first few times weren’t too exciting, yet every session left me craving another session.

Christina: My dad (Robby Naish) has been winging for around two years now and he encouraged me to try it this past summer. I had been to the beach with him many times before while he winged and I was eager to try it for myself. The first few times I went out in the water it was difficult to even stay on the board but with every additional time I went out, I could see myself improving and having more fun.

So what’s the best time you’ve ever had on the water. And then the worst time…

Christina: The best foiling session I have had would definitely be this summer in Kailua. Although this was towards the start of when I began foiling it was such a beautiful day and it was just a really cool experience to be able to foil around Flat Island with an amazing view of Kailua beach. The water out there feels really safe and it is really cool to be able to go out as far as you want into the ocean. Although I always have fun in the water, a specific time comes to mind when asked about an experience that I did not enjoy… It was a really windy day and I was speeding along the water when I felt my foil hit something. I was thrown off the board into the water and I didn’t even know what hit me. After this, I saw a turtle swim out from under me. This wasn’t a painful or scary experience as such, but it made me feel so bad for the turtle…

Rio: The best time I have ever had winging was definitely my second time in the Kalohi channel which runs from the Pailolo channel and along the southern coast of Molokai. I was with my dad and Keith Baxter was driving the safety boat. The wind was blowing around 25 knots and there was a decent swell which made for an epic 20-mile-ish downwinder. I could see the coastlines of Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and a hint of the Big Island. The water was crystal clear and I was finally able to let go and fly downwind comfortably for my first time. I honestly have never had a bad experience in the water. I’ve been hit plenty by the foil, sliced open by the foil, and I’ve belly flopped countless times from 15 feet up because of failed jumping attempts; but all of this means I’m having fun.

Mona: The best time I’ve had on the water was a sunset tow session with the foil. It was so glassy, the waves were perfect, and the colors of the sunset were reflecting off the water. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the week!

Christina, we’re guessing you had access to pretty much every water sport toy there has ever been as you were growing up, being as your dad is kind of the king of wind and water sports. Has his influence been the major factor in your pursuit of winging, do you think?

Christina: I would say both of my parents are definitely my main influences for my sports in the water. Since I was young, I remember my parents taking me to the beach every weekend to SUP, surf, watch one of my dad’s competitions, or even ride on the front of his windsurfing board. Both my parents have always been so influential in teaching me how to do every sport I am interested in and they always support me when I’m struggling with a certain skill. Without my parents, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am and they always push and motivate me to improve.

Maybe the most novel way to shade oneself from that constant Maui sunshine…

Rio and Mona, we understand your parents were big windsurfers too. Do you think their passion has played a part in your development in the world of the wing?

Rio: My dad, Alf Imperato, was a professional windsurfer for most of his life and moved out to Maui for the epic conditions and lifestyle. He used to be on the water day in and day out, but I came along and put an end to his previous endeavours! I never picked up kiting or windsurfing but I was desperate to get out on the water and join this amazing community because I was jealous of all the stories he told me about his ocean adventures. I became determined to learn to wing foil and it was the perfect opportunity to start and I am so grateful that we could make it happen.

Mona: Growing up, my family would go to the beach a lot. My parents would windsurf while my siblings and I would play on the beach and in the water. We all learned the basics of windsurfing as children, but I wasn’t a big fan of it. However, having knowledge of the wind ingrained into my head, it definitely helped me figure out the wing!

Maui is unquestionably the crucible when it comes to wind and water pursuits. For those of us who have yet to visit, tell us why the island is so special, and why it lends itself so perfectly to sports such as winging?

Rio: Maui is definitely paradise and a dream destination for the wind/water world. This island is so special because of its location and the community. Due to Maui being located basically in the middle of the Pacific ocean, it's totally a place of peace, beauty, and calm. This island is one place where you can explore without end, especially on the water. Every new session is an opportunity to go farther and make new friends. The water community out here is refreshing, encouraging and such an honor to be a part of.

Mona: I agree. There are many things that make Maui so special. Along with great wind and waves, this island has a welcoming community of people. Of all the Hawaiian islands, Maui has the perfect contrast between city and country. It’s neither too crowded, nor too empty in the water. Having a good crowd around is perfect for winging. Having like-minded and positive people can help you advance in the sport and have fun.

Christina: The beaches on Maui never fail to provide amazing conditions and the exposure to all of the main water sports makes it a fantastic place to learn or better yourself and your skills in a certain sport. All of the people at the beaches are so friendly and never fail to offer a helping hand landing a kite or lend out a pump if you’ve forgotten yours.

“I think society has also sort of normalized it that men are the ones that do more extreme sports, a stereotype we need to break out of. To all the girls thinking about taking up a sport, go for it!”

Understandably it’s been tricky recently, but do you travel much outside of Maui to ride?

Christina: Because of the pandemic, I have not traveled out of the state since last March. Being that I started my winging career this past summer I have not done any major trips for winging but I have gone over to Oahu many times and foiled in Kailua Bay. I would definitely like to travel in the future and look forward to challenging myself with some new conditions.

Rio: I have not traveled anywhere during the pandemic, but I would love to venture to other places in the future. I am not sure if this counts as “traveling” but I have wing-foiled and landed in Molokai, but I have not gone farther than that.

Mona: Likewise, since the pandemic hit, I haven’t traveled at all. But I would definitely like to travel in the near future…

How do you all balance your time on the water alongside education or jobs, and can you see the sea from your school/workplace? And is that a blessing or a curse?!

Christina: To be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to balance school and my other after-school sports with my time in the water. I always come home with homework and on three days out of the five-day workweek I have other after-school sports that I go to. I’m always really busy and even though I try my best to get in the water after school I usually end up just going foiling on the weekends. The view of the ocean from my school is really pretty and clear. Even though it’s in Makawao, I can see the Sprecks and Kanaha area but I am far enough away that I can’t really see the conditions which is better so that I’m not wishing I could go foil.

Mona: I recently became unemployed which allows me to go in the water more. Back when I was working, I was only able to go in the ocean on the weekends. Now that I have more time on my hands, I can comfortably balance my time in the ocean with other activities.

Rio: The water gives me a place to clear my head and be happy before I have to go back to doing homework, but it is definitely tempting to stay out and responsibility-free. It is definitely a rough balance, but with the support of friends and family, I am able to manage the workload from school which is usually around three hours a night, plus an eight hour school day. Like Christina says, we get a clear view of the North Shore, which only makes me want to get in the water more. This only leaves time to foil on the weekends, but I am looking forward to summer where the balance is weighed down completely by the wing foiling side.

At this stage foiling is still a pretty male-dominated sport, but it seems like this is changing gradually. Why do you think this is, and is there anything you think would encourage other young females to take up the sport?

Mona: Many wingers came from windsurfing or kitesurfing which are both male-dominated sports. Winging, however, has become popular at a time that revolves around the internet. In this day and age, social media seems to play a role what people do. All the calm looking videos of foiling that circulate social media can definitely convince anyone to give it a try. Along with that, people are realizing that their gender shouldn't determine what sports they can or can’t do. Seeing more girls winging on social media would definitely inspire other girls to give it a go.

Rio: I completely agree with Mona that winging is male-dominated because it is mostly made up of previous kiters or windsurfers which leaned that way. Personally, when I watch people learn, there is barely a difference in the numbers of men in comparison to women. Now that the previous kiters and windsurfers are no longer in the learning phase, more women are being introduced to the sport from its roots. Secondly, I think this sport will end up being relatively even between the genders because it is such an accessible and family friendly sport. The rigs are simple and pack away easily which definitely promotes more people to learn because there is relatively no struggle with gear unlike other water sports. Social media also plays a crucial role in popularizing female uptake within wingsurfing.

Christina: At first, foiling can definitely come off as scary and difficult and the fact that many females, both young and old, see mostly males out in the water can definitely make it more intimidating and de-motivating. As Mona said, I think social media definitely plays a big role in this gender gap, but I think society has also sort of normalized it that men are the ones that do more extreme sports, a stereotype we need to break out of. To all the girls thinking about taking up a sport, go for it! Water sports are so much fun and so rewarding once you spend time on them.

What’s your perfect set-up on the water, and what gear and which conditions would you recommend to anyone who’s just starting out?

Rio: My dream set up, which I am extremely grateful to be riding, is all Naish and includes a 20L Hover kite board (with foot straps for jumping), a 3.6m S26 Wing-Surfer, and the Kite Thrust 60 front foil on a 75cm mast. This epic rig is my favorite for speeding around the water and boosting huge airs. However, the best gear to start on would include a much bigger board and foil, with the same size hand wing. Depending on the beginner’s weight, the board could range from 110L to 175L because it allows for a stable and comforting stance which lets the beginner think more about the wind and foil. I would recommend the foil to be around 180 square centimeters which is big, stable, and lifty. Personally, I improved the most when I was learning with a 3m hand wing, 170 front foil, 125L board, and of course footstraps (because then the rider does not have to think about where their feet should go)!

Christina: My perfect setup would be a 85L board with a Jet 1250 foil from Naish and an 85cm mast. For a beginner, I would recommend starting on a SUP board and then switching it out for a foil board once you get better and feel comfortable riding back and forth. The wing size really just depends on the conditions and once you advance to a foil board your mast choice is down to personal preference.

Mona: My perfect set-up would have to be a 33L board with a Jet HA 1040 foil. As for the mast, I switch between a 75cm and 85cm to wing and prone. I swap out different parts of my set-up depending on the conditions. I would recommend a beginner winger to start in winds around 17-23mph and on flat water. For the first day I would recommend a stand-up board in place of a foil board. But once the wing is figured out, a high-volume foil board should be used with a big foil and short mast. As you advance, you will want smaller equipment to maximize the fun. It’s always helpful to have friends in the community that let you try their setup. Comparing equipment will help you find the right set-up for yourself. 

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