It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Wing Foil!

Lars Topelmann was one of the first people to windsurf in Eagle Harbor when he was 16 years old. Now 57, he’s the first person in the same harbor to try the latest water sport: wing foiling. 

“It feels like floating, like flying on water,” Topelmann said. “It’s an evolution of windsurfing, paddleboarding and kiting.” 

Wing foiling is joining the ranks of surfing, parasailing, paddleboarding, sailboarding, kiteboarding and hydrofoiling. Without much water-sports knowledge, all these variations of the word “board” or “sail” can be confusing, but Topelmann – owner of Pearl Wine Cottage in Ephraim and a lifelong water-sports aficionado – was happy to explain the distinctions among the many ways to experience the wind and water in Door County. 

To describe the mechanisms of a wing foil, it’s helpful to start at the beginning of modern water-sports evolution: sailboarding. Most people refer to it as windsurfing, considering that it requires stronger wind speeds than most water sports. A sail is attached to a board by a universal joint, allowing the sail to turn in any direction. To control it, the surfer manipulates a bar called a boom that runs across the sail. 

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“My parents would see people using these sailboards in Hamburg and Munich in the late ’70s,” Topelmann said. “They said I should try it here.” 

Another wind-dependent water sport is kiteboarding. Using a kite instead of a sail, this requires lots of clear beach and a second person to help with the launch because the long kite lines tangle easily. 

Parasailing resembles kiting. It involves equipment resembling a parachute called a canopy wing. A boat tows the wing by a rope, lifting the parasailor into the air. 

The “wing” part of wing foiling refers to the hand-held wing. The design is particularly inspired by the Wind Weapon, a hand-held sail that offers more aerodynamic control for windsurfing. A handwing in wing foiling is essentially an alternative to a sail, kite or parasail wing. It has an inflatable structure designed to mimic a kite, and unlike a sail, it’s symmetrical. There’s no mast or connection to the board. 

“It’s completely free and flexible, which is great but adds an element of technicality,” Topelmann said. 

A handwing isn’t exclusive to wing foiling. It can be paired with a basic paddleboard too. Paddleboarding entered the water-sports scene as a slower, more accessible alternative to speed-focused sailboarding. It works especially well for beginners who want to try a water sport without high wind speeds.

“People have dogs on the front of boards; people fish off of them; families use them,” Topelmann said. 

Photo by Tad Dukehart.

Paddleboards typically come in two shapes. One looks like an oversized surfboard that’s more rounded at the tip, which is ideal for making turns easily. Another board option is thinner and more narrow, intended for paddling long distances in a single direction. 

Some water sports use a mechanism called a hydrofoil, an airplane-wing-shaped attachment for the bottom of a board. 

“The airplane profile lets you go faster,” Topelmann said. “There’s no resistance.” 

The air chair is one example of a water sport with a hydrofoil attachment. A seat and foot straps are attached to a board that gets pulled behind a boat. Topelmann jokes that it’s really a scare chair because it’s fast and difficult to control. 

Photo by Tad Dukehart.

Finally, wing foiling entails attaching a foil to a shorter and thicker version of a paddleboard, resulting in a foilboard that cuts through the water in a way that doesn’t create wave action or leave foam behind like a surfboard does. The foil, rather than the board, is what floats on the water, elevating the surfer a foot or more above the water. 

So wing foiling involves a foilboard combined with a handwing. A surfer must shift weight in the lower body to control the board, placing more pressure with the front foot; and shift weight in the arms to maneuver the wing. Thanks to elevation from the hydrofoil, wing foiling’s main characteristic is the sensation of flying or floating rather than intense speed, but the sport still requires optimal wind speeds of 12 to 14 mph. 

To add even more water-sports variations, foils can be installed on the board of virtually any sport to add a new element to surfing the water: There’s kite foiling, surf foiling, stand-up-paddleboard foiling and wind foiling. 

Most water sports require a wetsuit, and location is an important factor. The Lake Michigan side of the Door peninsula is much cooler, even in summertime, so Topelmann wears a slightly thicker suit there than what he would wear on the bay side. For wing foiling especially, he wears a helmet and an impact vest because the foil is sharp and can be dangerous when a surfer falls off the board. It’s also important to have a leash connecting the handwing to the wrist and the foilboard to the ankle.

Wing foiling has not yet become widespread, mostly because of the pandemic – it’s been difficult to source materials and manufacture equipment. Until equipment is more widely available, the current total cost averages $3,500.

Coordinating the pumping of the foilboard and handwing can be tricky, so it helps to practice each skill separately. Topelmann recommends learning how to foilboard first before adding the wing, and he said getting towed behind a boat helps while getting used to the foil. For separate handwing practice, he often grabs a skateboard, perfecting his turns with the handwing in parking lots. 

“It’s not a replacement sport, but a new way to experience wind and water,” Topelmann said.