Silicon Valley Flocks to Foiling, Racing Above the Bay’s Waves

SAN FRANCISCO — What happens in the San Francisco Bay every Thursday night does not look real or even possible, and it certainly does not look safe. Dozens of people skim across the waters at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, kites far ahead and their boards floating two feet above the chop of the waves. They move so smoothly and quietly that some riders are on their cellphones.

They call it hydrofoiling — or, if you’re hip to it, foiling.

And every week, the foilers of San Francisco race.

“It’s like flying,” said Ariel Poler, a 50-year-old start-up investor, standing by the winged doors of his Tesla and pulling on body armor and a helmet. “The board doesn’t touch the water. It’s like an airplane wing.

“It’s like a powder day,” he added, referring to snow skiing.

He walked into the water, strapped his feet onto the small, oddly shaped board and latched his kite onto his harness. Then he leaned back in the water like an overturned turtle. As the kite caught wind, Poler popped up and blasted toward Alcatraz Island.

The Silicon Valley elite have long loved extreme water sports (there is an entire tech and kitesurfing conference circuit). Now they have upgraded them. And suddenly, the tech world is participating in a sport most of the country has never seen.

In workshops around San Francisco and Hawaii, craftsmen and technologists are hooking hydrofoils — a lifting surface attached to the bottom of a watercraft — onto seemingly everything. Versions include a jetfoiler, which looks like a surfboard with a rudder and a tiny hidden motor; the SUP foil, a stand-up paddle board with a foil; and the kitefoil, which is like a kiteboard but has a foil.

The Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison made foils famous when he allowed them on the America’s Cup boats in 2013, leading to a panic over cost and safety. Since then, private investors around Silicon Valley have been bankrolling the technology.

“Now we all foil,” Poler said.

Just as it did for the America’s Cup, foiling adds both speed and danger.