Tech

This is hydrofoiling, Mark Zuckerberg's latest extreme sports hobby

Key Points
  • Mark Zuckerberg has become a big hydrofoiler, as a recent Fourth of July photo showed.
  • While surfing requires a big wave to get going, and wakeboarding relies on a boat to tow the rider, hydrofoiling uses a winglike structure under the surface of the water to create lift.
  • You can buy a manual board, which you propel by pumping your legs, for around $2,000, while an electric foil will cost more than $10,000.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg rides a hydrofoil surfboard holding the American flag. July 4, 2021.
Mark Zuckerberg, Instagram

Mark Zuckerberg celebrated Fourth of July in unique fashion: Holding an American flag as he glided on a body of water, elevated on a board about a foot above the surface.

The Facebook CEO was hydrofoiling, which is a new type of watersport that has grown in popularity among outdoor enthusiasts -- and those with plenty of cash to spend on a piece of sporting equipment that costs thousands of dollars. 

Though Zuckerberg is mostly known for being the awkward founder of the world's largest social network and one of richest people on the planet, he's also become one of the most visible hydrofoilers out there, bringing more attention to the up-and-coming sport. 

While surfing requires the power of a wave to get going, and wakeboarding relies on a boat to tow the rider, hydrofoiling uses a winglike structure under the surface of the water to create lift. The rider uses a handheld bluetooth controller that connects to an electric motor and underwater propeller, or creates momentum manually by pumping their legs up and down, as Zuckerberg does in his Fourth of July post

"It's a hydrofoil. There's a wing under the water that I'm riding that pushes the board into the air," Zuckerberg wrote in a comment on his post. "It's a lot of fun. There's an electric-powered version that you can get, but in this video I'm riding a regular foil board and surfing a little wave."

Electric boards cost upwards of $10,000

Surfers have been toying with the idea of using hydrofoil technology for decades, but the sport didn't really take off until foil boards became commercially available in 2018, said Nick Leason, co-founder of Lift Foils, which was one of the first companies to sell them.

Prior to foil boards, Leason and his company had been selling boards for kite surfing, which uses a kite in the air to pull a rider on a board across the water. Kite surfing requires a lot of skill, however, which limits the size of the market, Leason said. Foiling is much easier to pick up, and it feels like you're gliding. 

"It's just this really unique feeling of flying over the water," said Leason, whose company is based in Puerto Rico. "You kind of feel like a pelican, or a wannabe pelican."

Puerto Rican company Lift Foils is one of the companies that sell hydrofoil boards.
Courtesy of Lift Foils

There are different kinds of hydrofoil boards.

Surf foils include the board and the foil but no motor, requiring users to create momentum with their own bodies, and typically cost about $2,000. Efoils have electric motors that let them reach speeds of 25 miles per hour and typically sell for at least $10,000. 

Although foiling requires less skill than kite surfing, the steep price limits its potential market to extreme watersport enthusiasts and people with deep wallets. Canadian company MSLR Electric E-Foil, for example, notes that many of its customers are NHL hockey players. 

"The boards are made out of such high-quality materials, said MSLR Founder and Owner Carey Missler. MSLR sells two efoil boards, the Navigator and the Player, both for $10,000. "It takes a while to custom build these boards, plus you've got your expensive components of lithium ion batteries and carbon fiber."

For Zuckerberg, who is the fifth-richest person in the world, with a net worth of approximately $125 billion, according to Forbes, money is no problem. That's why he owns numerous boards, including custom-painted and custom-built versions made by Lift Foil, Leason said. 

"That's our product that he's riding on in the video. He probably owns every model that we have," Leason said. "He's really into it. He loves it."

Zuckerberg 'was ripping'

Zuckerberg first began to post about hydrofoiling in August 2019, when he uploaded two photos of himself on a foilboard being towed by a boat. 

"Trying a new sport in Kauai with one of the best, Kai Lenny," said Zuckerberg, referring to the professional surfer. 

Leason said Lenny has been essential to the growth of hydrofoiling as a sport, trailblazing how people use the unfamiliar gear and taking the time to teach new folks about foiling. That includes Zuckerberg, Leason said. 

"I think Kai, he's like magical on a foil, and seeing all the stuff that he does," Zuckerberg said on Instagram in April. "It's sort of helped me get into the sport just watching him foil down a huge wave then turn around, go back up wind, up the wave, do a flip off the wave. It's like Oh my god. It's unreal."

In December 2019, Zuckerberg posted a video of himself efoiling while wearing a bright orange helmet. Although helmets aren't the most stylish getup, they are an important piece of equipment that experts recommend, especially for new foilers. Experts also recommend wearing impact vests. 

"The boards are made with carbon fiber. It's a very, very durable material, which means that if your head was to strike it, it could be very harmful if you weren't wearing a helmet," said MSLR Co-owner Taylor Coulthard. 

Canadian company MSLR Electric E-Foil is one of the companies that sell hydrofoil boards.
Courtesy of MSLR Electric E-Foil

Zuckerberg was caught by paparazzi efoiling in Hawaii with his face completely covered in sunscreen in July 2020. The photo became an instant viral meme. 

"I was foiling around, and then I noticed there was this paparazzi guy following us. I was like 'Oh I don't want him to recognize me so you know what I'm gonna do? I'm just gonna put a ton of sunscreen on my face so he won't know who I am,'" Zuckerberg said with a laugh on Instagram in April. "But that backfired."

Zuckerberg later poked fun at himself about the whole thing last month when he posted a cartoon version of the picture.

"The sun never stood a chance," Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook. 

But despite his awkward episodes, those in the world of foiling say Zuckerberg has actually gotten quite good at the sport. 

"It's funny that most people think that Mark Zuckerberg is a little nerdy guy behind his computer in some lair somewhere, but he's actually quite a good athlete as you see in that video," Leason said. "He's put in a lot of practice on the foil. He's doing quite well."

Perhaps more importantly for those that sell foil boards, Zuckerberg is also doing a lot to generate attention and buzz.

"It has brought some interest," Missler said. "That was an incredible shot. He was ripping. He was doing amazing."

VIDEO2:5002:50
Facebook is taking on Clubhouse, Substack with new features