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Manly racing to embrace wingfoiling revolution

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Barry Thom didn't really know what sort of response the Manly Sailing Club would get when they advertised some fairly low-key wingfoil racing recently but it's now left the commodore knowing they need to incorporate the sport into their club activities.

As many as 26 wingfoilers lined up at Manly a fortnight ago, including the likes of former Olympic windsurfing champion Tom Ashley and Shayne Bright, another top windsurfer in his time, as well as New Zealand kitefoiling representative Hugo Wigglesworth. Three-time Olympic medallist Barbara Kendall was on the start boat but itching to get among the action.

But most of those who showed up were people Thom had never seen before. From what he can tell, most were surfers, standup paddleboarders and those who had just fallen in love with the relatively new sport and keen to see what it would be like to go racing.

"We got a surprise with how many people turned up," Thom said. "People are being drawn from a wide spectrum and it seems to have sparked people's imagination."

Manly will host another race session at 1pm this Sunday afternoon and, as long as the weather plays ball, even more could show up this time around. 

Ashley will be back and has encouraged a few of his mates to join him. The 2008 Olympic gold medallist first tried winging about a year ago and went to Manly to race in show of support for what they were attempting.

"The racing was super-fun," he said. "I would say surprisingly fun. 

"The placings were very much determined by who could stay on their equipment, and I crashed a bunch of times, but you can see the more you do it, it actually leans itself to good, tactical racing."

There have been suggestions wingfoiling could even become an Olympic sport one day but a lot of water needs to flow over the foils before that happens. 

There are a number of pockets of active wingfoilers around the country, and the Nelson Yacht Club have noticed an increase in membership since offering wingfoiling lessons at the club.

The relatively low cost of entry, portability of the equipment and easy storage all appeal and many of the top Olympic class and youth sailors go wingfoiling for both fun and cross-training.

The Manly Sailing Club are well placed to take advantage. They have gone through something of a revolution over the last few years following the involvement of the likes of Thom, Sir Russell Coutts and Harold Bennett and has seen membership go from "about 10 or 11 to 122" over the last seven years.

The club often favour less traditional boats like the O'pen Skiff, RS Feva and windfoiling and Thom says they are now working out how they incorporate wingfoiling.

"A couple of things became obvious to us," Thom explained. "When there was a fresh northerly, there would be anywhere between 20 and 40 wingfoilers who just appeared from who knows where. 

"The second thing was that when kids came in after a long day of coaching, the next thing you know they were out for the rest of the day winging. It’s obviously something that’s fun to do and it seems as though there could be something of a shift in terms of what getting on the water means.

"I’m at the point of saying, 'we want to provide for you, what do you want and what does it need to look like for you to come back next week and have another go?'"

The good thing is they have plenty of knowledge and experience around the club to draw on and they can also look to what is happening overseas. They can also use the winter to plan what they offer next season.

Manly intended to run only two Sunday sessions of wingfoil racing but might now look to hold some more over the winter. As Thom said, "this is becoming a phenomenon".