Above and Beyond

Bookmark this page — the full story will be published September 1.

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Kai Lenny 9 years old
A nine-year-old Kai wears his dad’s size-eleven boots to try hydrofoiling for the first time — back when being towed by a Jet Ski or boat was the only option.

Our session begins along the famed Māliko Run, a downwind course known for its strong breezes and currents that allow paddlers of all disciplines to glide with the fast-moving ocean.

We remain close for a few minutes as Kai explains how the hydrofoil board works, but he soon spots an approaching swell and can’t help himself. He digs his paddle into the water, pushing out short and rapid strokes as the board steadily levitates. Kai pulls the paddle out of the water, and as if pumping an air mattress, pulses the front of the board with his front leg to increase the speed. He barely leaves a trail as he silently carves through the air, racing across the horizon and gaining speed with every zig and zag. Within seconds he’s nearly disappeared, his silhouette a mere dot on the horizon.

Together, the carbon-fiber board and hydrofoil weigh around twenty pounds, a pound or two heavier than a standard standup paddleboard. Kai says a GPS device has recorded him at speeds up to twenty-two miles per hour while he’s catching waves in the middle of the ocean that propel him more than a thousand yards at a time. It appears his mālolo dreams have finally come true.

“I literally feel like I’m flying. Because it’s all human powered, and I can’t see or feel the foil underneath me, it’s like someone is lifting me up through the air,” he explains.

In fact, with a little help from physics, Kai is lifting himself through the air.

“Think of the hydrofoil as an underwater airplane,” explains Alex Aguera, echoing Kai’s earlier analogy. “You need speed to get the airplane off the ground, and it’s the same thing here.”

Most important is having the right conditions, which is what makes the swift currents along Maui’s north shore ideal for the downwind standup-paddle hydrofoil. By harnessing the ocean’s energy, a rider can gain speed before leaning on the tail of the board to lift it skyward. Once elevated, the board can glide at high speeds for a mile or more.

“With the ‘wings’ of the hydrofoil, you’re basically harnessing the energy that wave is carrying. Most people think that waves are very surface, but there’s lots of power underwater,” Alex says.


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