Evan Heffernan carried $3,500 worth of carbon fiber out toward the shore at Leadbetter Beach.
“No touching the wings,” he warned. “They’re sensitive to oil. It would interfere with the flow of water.” The two wings, or hydrofoils, were attached by a four-foot-long mast under the board that Heffernan would be riding out to sea. He described the assembly as “an underwater airplane.”
Curious onlookers gathered around as Heffernan spread an elongated sail on the sand. The breeze was steady, and now he was ready to roll. He pulled on a padded wetsuit and an impact vest, then a helmet. He harnessed himself to the sail and raced into the surf with the board, securing his feet in straps. The blue sail, a giant kite, rose and filled with air. Under its pull, the board instantly lifted above the surface. Knifing through the water, Heffernan sped past the swimmers’ buoys, and so rapidly did he fly downwind that he was a mere speck outside the breakwater in a matter of seconds. He would spend the next several hours cavorting offshore, the foils sometimes breaking the surface as he pirouetted in the air.
Welcome to the 21st-century sport of kiteboarding.
Heffernan, 23, is a Santa Barbara native who learned the fundamentals of sailing with his older brothers in the Sea Shells program. He played some water polo — “It made me comfortable with myself in the water,” he said — and at S.B. High, he committed to competitive sailing. But he was somewhat frustrated by the conventional equipment.
“Evan did not want to sail the slow boats,” said his coach, Willie McBride.
The sight of kiteboarders off Leadbetter Beach stoked Heffernan’s interest. “The guidance of locals helped get me going,” he said. The activity appealed to his desire for speed, as well as his interest in cutting-edge technology.
“It was scary,” he said of his first thrill ride over the water. But he was hooked on it, and he quickly got better at it. Tracking his speed with a GPS watch, he has hit 41 knots (47 mph). In an average race, he said, foil kiteboarders go 38 knots downwind and 25-28 knots upwind.
The sport gained a classification, Formula Kite, and two years ago, it was approved for inclusion in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. Since then, it has been Heffernan’s ambition to represent the United States in that competition. That’s why he launches off the beach every chance he gets, following Malcolm Gladwell’s maxim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to perfect a set of skills.
“Evan is a student of the game,” said McBride, who also grew up in the Santa Barbara sailing community, is an alumnus of the UCSB sailing team, and has since coached the Gauchos as well as Olympic sailors. “He’s focused on what makes the foil boards go fast and how to play the tactical game in racing. It’s so fast-paced, every decision is compounded.”
Heffernan earns some income as a mobile app developer, but he needs support to fund his travels to competitions around the world as well as acquiring the best equipment. Donations can be made through his website, evanheffernan.com.
Heffernan has seen European sailors — who have dominated recent Olympic competitions — bring along entourages of psychologists, nutritionists, and physical therapists. He performs all those roles for himself.
Fellow kiteboarders at Leadbetter do help out, Heffernan said: “We keep an eye on each other in case something happens.”
Joseph Bottoms, who took up kiteboarding four years ago at 63, is inspired when he sees Heffernan going full throttle. “It’s like he’s ice-skating across the water,” Bottoms said. “I know he’s so appreciative of the experience. It’s not just the boards, the sails, lines, and harnesses. It’s the vastness of the ocean. It’s all the species around you, the dolphins, the fish, and the pelicans.”
Everybody who offers support to Heffernan “gives him time on the water,” Bottoms said. “How remarkable it would be to see Evan in the Paris Olympics.”