Story by Lehia Apana
“I’m obsessed with this thing,” says Kai Lenny, his spread palm pulsing the front of a thick yellow board.
We’re at a narrow cove near his home along Maui’s north shore, a mecca for windsurfers, downwind paddlers, kiteboarders and big-wave riders. A consummate waterman, Kai is all of those things — his very name is Hawaiian for “ocean.” His sun-dyed hair and chiseled, tanned frame are the result of playing in these waters for most of his life.
He’s brought me here today to unveil his latest equipment: a downwind standup paddleboard outfitted with a specially designed hydrofoil. People have used hydrofoil technology for years, but have always needed a motorized craft — or, with kitesurfing, a sail — to tow them up to speed. Until now, no one has been able to do it on muscle alone.
Kai pulses the board again, mimicking the pumping action required to get it to soar from the water, then flexes his hand to simulate an airplane during takeoff.
At twenty-three years old, Kai has wasted no time proving himself, amassing seven Stand Up World Series wins (three for standup-paddle racing, four for surfing) and a runner-up finish at the Kite Surf Pro World Championships. When he’s not collecting trophies, he can often be spotted at “Jaws,” the feared and revered Pe‘ahi surf break, where waves that seem the size of skyscrapers can build to more than eighty feet tall.
Born to ocean-enthusiast parents, young Kai trained with water-sport pioneers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, who invited him to tow-surf on a hydrofoil at Pe‘ahi when he was just sixteen.
Despite his accomplishments, there was one ambition he couldn’t quite master.
“It was always my dream to fly like a mālolo [flying fish] downwind,” beams Kai, explaining the inspiration behind his standup paddle hydrofoil. “I‘d be out on the ocean and see them speeding across the water, covering these incredible distances. I was in absolute awe.”
Moments later, we’re lowering two boards into the ocean. Kai is riding his prototype: a paddleboard made by his sponsor, Naish, attached to a hydrofoil he developed with Alex Aguera of Go Foil. And me? I’m on a regular standup paddleboard. If I’m going to see firsthand how this thing moves, I’ll have to work for it.