Oregon Field Guide

The Columbia River Gorge’s latest magic carpet ride

By Jule Gilfillan (OPB)
May 2, 2021 1 p.m.

Wind sports have continued to evolve since wind surfing became popular in the 1980s

The Columbia River Gorge’s unique geography makes it one of the most consistently windy spots anywhere. The phenomenon made the Hood River area the mecca for the new sport of windsurfing in the 1980s.


“The coast has cooler air and there’s hotter air out east, so the air’s drawn through the gorge. And it’s really common in the summer to have high wind,” explains long-time wind sport enthusiast Rod Parmenter.

Parmenter has been living in Hood River since the 1980s, giving him a unique perspective on a collection of wind-driven sports that continue to evolve.

“First people came here to windsurf, and then they realized this was a great spot for kiteboarding,” he says, “and then because of the foils now, new sports are even being developed.”

He’s talking about hydrofoiling, a sport that recently exploded in popularity and re-energized the wind sport scene in Hood River.

Hydrofoils lift a craft off the water’s surface on a thin, fin-like foil that reduces drag and allows the craft to go faster.

A black and white photo of an elevated canoe-like boat over a lake with people in it.

Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini's early hydrofoil, circa 1910

Unknown / Wikimedia Commons, Forlanini Hydrofoil, Circa 1910, PD-US

The technology has been around for more than 100 years. Among its early innovators were Emmanuel Denis Farcot, a Frenchman, and Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini, both of whom began working with prototypes and obtained patents in the late nineteenth century.


More development followed in the twentieth century, with innovations mainly occurring for military uses. But hydrofoiling didn’t really grab the sporting world’s attention until the 2013 America’s Cup sailing race in San Francisco.

“That race broke the mold. It was over. Everybody was on foils the next year,” remembers San Francisco-based kite foil racer Felix Louis N’Jai. He enjoys the sport so much that he spends each summer in Hood River. But it took him a while to warm up to it.

“Full confession, I was not a fan at first because to make (a board) run flat in choppy waters, as you know San Francisco Bay is, takes a lot. And so it took me a while to master being able to go fast on that board.”

When hydrofoils were introduced, the ride was faster and smoother. But they were trickier to ride than the old “formula” boards.

A person in a wet suit stands on a board above a river, holding a sail that lifts her aloft.

Cynthia 'Cynbad' Brown wing foils in the Columbia River Gorge near Rowena.

Todd Sonflieth

“A hydrofoil is like riding a unicycle because you’re balancing not just side-to-side, you’re balancing fore and aft, so it’s a constant balance,” says wing foiler Cynthia “Cynbad” Brown. “And also, every time you add a hydrofoil to the mix, you do up your danger factor. You know when you crash at 30 miles per hour, it’s more violent than crashing at 10 miles per hour. And the hydrofoils are very sharp, like razors.”

Brown has the scars to prove it. But she loves the simplicity of using a hand-held wing to maneuver herself across the water, as well as smooth ride that results from the foil’s reduced friction.

“There’s no lines, no bar, no mast, no boom. You have this little inflatable toy and you’re flying across the water. Just like Aladdin on some magic carpet.”

Once N’Jai got the hang of the foil, he too was sold.

A person holds a large over-sized kite while leaning back on a board in the Columbia River.

Felix Louis N'Jai kite foils in the Columbia River Gorge near Rowena

Todd Sonflieth

“I really love the speed, I have to say. And now, like, I cannot tell you, like it’s so fun when you crank and you go and you are in the groove. But the tendency is when you’re riding and you’re going that fast, everything slows down. So it feels very, very peaceful, until you hit something in the water or you fall,” N’Jai chuckles. “Then you know how fast you’re going!”

Today, there are hydrofoils all over the gorge. Some are propelled by kites, some by inflatable wings and some are like stand-up paddleboards that allow a person to ride the Columbia’s swells like a surfer. There are even some that are self-propelled, just like Aladdin’s magic carpet.