She Flies: Wingfoiling women riding high

Andy Rice explores a women's wingfoiling collective that's making waves

She Flies women's wingfoiling collective

A wingfoiling group for women, ‘She Flies’, is inspiring women to take up this fast-growing sport.

One of the most active members of ‘She Flies’ is Rachel Dobrijevic, a teacher from Emsworth. A lifelong sailor and an active member of Hayling Island Sailing Club, Rachel saw the fun that her husband Dave and eldest son, 15-year-old Hugo, were having on their boards and decided she was going to give it a go herself.

“Hugo was only 13 when he started winging and took to it straight away, and it’s been an absolute whirlwind for him,” says Rachel as she has watched Hugo’s rapid progress with pride and admiration.

“Within two months of taking up winging he was offered a sponsorship deal and he’s gone on to win the national championship two years running.” Inspired by Hugo’s passion for his new-found sport, Rachel was keen to give it a go too, but admits her first foray into wingfoiling wasn’t so easy.

“I bought a crossover board which claimed to be good for wingfoiling and for windfoiling (windsurfing on foils) too. The reality was it was very compromised for winging and I didn’t get on with it at all. But when I bought some brand new kit at last year’s RYA Dinghy & Watersports Show and decided I was really going to work hard to get up on the foil, it all started to fall into place.

“That was lesson #1: get the right kit. Don’t bang your head against the wall trying to work with compromised gear. Borrow or buy the right gear for your size and skill level.”

She Flies women's wingfoiling collective

Taking flight

As a lot of newcomers to winging discover, there is a moment when it all ‘clicks’. For Rachel it came quite quickly because of two years’ windfoiling experience already in the bank. She remembers that moment, the epiphany of becoming someone who can actually wingfoil.

“I remember going down to Hayling Island Sailing Club and heading out down this stretch of Chichester Harbour that we call ‘The Trots’. It was beautiful, flat water and I foiled all the way, about 500 metres, and I was screaming so loud that everyone could hear me at the club! I was absolutely ecstatic to be flying along with just a wing and a board.”

Rachel has been addicted ever since. But she was disappointed to find how few women were wingfoiling, so she decided to do something about it. “For a long time I was the only female foiler at my club. There are a lots of foilers there – lots of wingers, lots of windfoilers – but they were all men. And I'm fine with that, I grew up with a twin brother and I've always raced against men. But not all women feel so comfortable [with that] as maybe I do.”

So Rachel got talking to some friends, Katie Ward and Rowena Hammal. “Once the three of us got on the water, everything changed. As a female, being on the water with other women is a different kind of vibe to being the only woman out with lots of men. It's a hard thing to explain, but it just kind of lifts the session. You might shout or whoop at each other and no one cares. It’s like the enjoyment level goes up.”

She Flies women's wingfoiling collective

Female focussed

As Rachel started gathering her own group of women in the Chichester Harbour area, she signed up to ‘She Flies’, an organisation founded by a kitesurfer, wingfoiler and all-round watersports enthusiast Josie West.

“Josie set up ‘She Flies’ to bring together women in extreme sports. From the moment I met her and saw the brand and what it stands for, I loved it. It’s about extreme watersports, about pushing women to do more than they think they can. It’s female focussed because women have different ways of learning.

“Men might be more comfortable just buying some kit and just doing it, going out and making lots of mistakes and getting it wrong until they work it out for themselves. Whereas women in sport, a lot of the time they will want to ask lots of questions first, and kind of sort things out in their head a lot before they take that first step. And nine times out of 10 they're more likely to do that if it's with other women in a safe and supportive environment.”

As interest has ballooned, Rachel has started to organise women’s wingfoiling weekends, the next of which is 20-21 April 2024. All 45 places are already booked, although she plans more later on in the season.

If you’re thinking about dipping your toe into this new sport, Rachel pleads: “Just do it! I think women can make a lot of excuses, put everyone before them, you know, make sure the husband, the kids, whoever else is doing stuff and not actually focusing much on themselves.

“It’s OK for us to be a bit selfish and get some enjoyment out of life. So make the decision that 2024 is the year you’re going to get on a board and get into winging.”

Find out more about She Flies.

Take flight on your own winging adventure with RYA Wingfoiling courses and find an RYA centre running winging courses near you.