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


“They took it to a different level,” Parlier said. “It’s not a very cheap sport, and people here are very wealthy, so it’s a good combination.”

The man who got Silicon Valley into the sport in the first place was Don Montague, a foil craftsman and the tech world’s foiling fixer.

“They look you up, or they have a friend, and all of a sudden you’re hanging out with Larry and Sergey,” Montague said, referring to Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

At a massive former naval base in Alameda, Calif., Montague has a staff of 10 working on inflatable foils, jetfoils and giant foil boats. His investors and clients include the Google founders and its former chief executive Eric Schmidt.

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With San Francisco as her backdrop, Erika Heineken cruised above the chop on her kitefoil.

Credit
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Montague, with messy brown hair and a surfer’s drawl, had made a name for himself building kitesurfing gear, selling more than 20,000 of those boards (he claims to have named the sport). In 2013, he founded a wind-power company and sold it to Google. But a motorized inflatable jetfoil is more complicated than a simple kiteboard, so he moved from Hawaii to the Bay Area and assembled a staff of mechanical engineers and designers.

“I had to come here to build the team,” Montague said. “This is the foiling spot for America.”

Montague is a regular on the private-island and yacht circuit with people like the Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Google’s Page, whose islands are close enough to foil between. There is some competition in the small community. When Google’s Brin surfed with two girls on his board, Montague said, Branson took a photo with three.

“It’s just way better than golfing,” Montague said.

Now, once a week, Montague said, he takes Page on a four-hour kitefoiling trip, with a chase boat and a water scooter in tow. Long trips are easier by foil, since the board is not bouncing on every wave.

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Ariel Poler covering his foil with a protective case before loading it into his car. Poler, a 50-year-old start-up investor, said: “It’s like flying. The board doesn’t touch the water. It’s like an airplane wing.” Referring to snow skiing, he added, “It’s like a powder day.”

Credit
Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“There’s less wear on the body because you’re not absorbing the chop,” Montague said.

Montague’s jetfoil goes to market this spring, selling for around $5,000. His competition is the Lift eFoil, which costs $12,000 and will ship in September (with a five-month waiting list).

Just a few miles north of Montague in El Sobrante, Calif., is the craftsman Mike Zajicek, who foilers say makes the best in the world.

“To get a foil from Zajicek takes a year,” Montague said. “If he likes you.”

For the past few years, Zajicek has made his hydrofoils by hand, selling them for around $6,000 each. In total, he estimates he has sold 110 foils, and has 50 in construction. This year, the demand skyrocketed. He said hundreds are on a waiting list.

“Now the whole world is banging on my door, and I have to attempt to answer emails I have no answers for,” Zajicek said.

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