Flyboarding has recently popped onto the water sports scene after Frank Zapata invented the jet ski powered device that lets you hover over water (Wikipedia). The technology seems unusual at first, and there are aspects of it that aren’t exactly easy to understand just by looking at it.
Flyboards work by taking the water output from a jet ski and diverting it through a connected hose to a board with jets on the bottom. Riders strap the board to their feet, and the jets under the board push upwards as the jet ski operator increases throttle.
It might sound easy, but there are actually several different layers of things happening when someone’s flyboarding. You also have to think about the controls and how a person actually gets going all at the same time, making it a much more difficult sport than people realize at first glance.
The Step-by-Step Guide to Flyboarding
When you’re flyboarding, there are a few different steps you go through before you get in the air, and each step has different ways that physics helps you fly. Let’s break it down with these sections:
- Preparing for Flight
- Lie flat directed away from jet ski
- Jet ski operator increases engine speed
- Falling or landing
There’s obviously more to flyboarding, but let’s jump into the physics behind these three flyboarding moments. You might be surprised by the amount of science behind the popular watersport and the direct control that players have over it. Read 7 Dangers of Flyboarding for more on safety.
The Physics of Flyboards
1. Preparing for Flight
Before you can get in the air, you connect an adapter and hose to a personal watercraft (PWC), or jet ski. Then strap on a life jacket and the flyboard boots, jump in, lie flat and direct your body away from the craft. The jet ski will provide all the water propulsion that you’ll need for moving through the water and into the air, so everything depends on the ski.
Have you ever ridden a jet ski and noticed the trail of water behind you? You might know it as the wake. It’s this water that propels jet skis up to 70 mph across the water (speeds this near retirement age writer still finds exhilarating.) This is also the water that your flyboard hose takes and turns into a propulsion system that sends you thrusting up into the sky.
The water is going to shoot through 2-4 different jets on your flyboard pad, which leaves balancing and directional control up to the board rider, not the jet ski operator.
2. Swim straight away from jet ski
Before the flyboard starts propelling upwards, it’s important that you lie flat and as straight as possible while you’re floating in the water (this is much easier to do than it sounds). Keep your arms by your side and your head up. Things start getting difficult as you begin rising because you have to stay as straight and balanced as possible with half your body above the water and the other half of your body under the water.
If you’re not balanced or standing straight up on the board, then you’ll fall as you try to rise. The jets are blasting the same amount of water on each corner, and if your weight isn’t distributed easily, then you’ll start leaning towards the heavier side. Imagine how an old-time comparison scale works and you’ll understand.
The flyboard itself makes it pretty easy to do. Strong rigid boots are built into the flyboard to help you stay standing upright, which is needed when you start lifting off. Some boards have individual separately controlled boots for turning, while others have one fixed set and you tip your toes for control.
Overall, this will take most people less than 10 minutes to learn how to do, and if you’re used to water activities, then you’ll catch on much quicker. In most cases, your body will naturally go with the flow as long as you relax enough while keeping your body straight.
3. Into the Air
The journey up into the air is almost the same as beginning your takeoff, but things get more unstable once the flyboard actually breaks the surface of the water.
The PWC controls the water pressure that’s being shot underneath the flyboard, which means that the slower the jet ski motor, the less water pressure the flyboard has. This results in less thrust, and the flyboard will come closer to the surface of the water.
When the PWC increases throttle, the opposite reactions happen. The flyboard gets more thrust from the water being spit out by the PWC, which means that the flyboard is going to rise. Note that this means flyboarding almost always a two-person sport—someone has to control the PWC while the other is on the flyboard itself. Sometimes a 3rd person is used as a spotter, too.
As you begin to rise through the air, you’ll notice the jet nozzles that are pumping water out at an incredible speed beneath you. While you start your ascent, it’s important to keep your center of balance in the middle of the board to help these jet nozzles do their job.
This is where you can truly see the physics behind flyboards. The jet nozzles are quite powerful, and the water being expelled exerts significant force under you. After all, jet ski motors are used to propel 800-1,000 pounds of rider and ski 50-70 mph across the water. And resistant friction is much higher for watercraft than what is experienced by cars moving with tires on hard pavement.
The hardest part of flyboarding is getting yourself into the air and learning to maintain balance for a long period of time. As you rise, you also start to move in different directions, adding another dimension to maintaining balance.
Because the force needed to move you upwards stays constant, but the jets move further away from the water with increasing height, there are limits to how high you can get. This will vary depending on rider weight and the power of the jet ski motor. 60-70 feet is about the highest a rider can get, but height is also limited by the length of hose between the PWC and board.
Once you’re up in the air, flyboarding is a breeze, right? Wrong! While it might be difficult to keep your balance while you’re rising into the air, staying in the air and controlling where you go are just as difficult if you don’t pay attention to the what’s going on underneath you.
We’ve already talked about how important balance is while you’re rising through the air. Once you’re steady and in the air, you’ll manipulate your balance to move in whatever direction you wish to go.
At the same time, everything is still going on beneath you. The thrust is still coming from the PWC through the jet nozzle and the hose is still pumping water into your flyboard.
At this point, the water pressure is coming from the PWC as it follows you where you go with your flyboard. You can control the actual direction of the flyboard by using your feet to shift weight to turn and by leaning forwards to move. The jet ski operator has no directional control, but he or she will have most of the control over your height.
In other words, if you fly in the opposite direction of the jet ski, you can force it to move quicker to catch up with you. If you want to stop or slow down, fly towards the PWC. It’ll will slow down or come to a stop. All of the jet ski’s propulsion is directed through the flyboard hose, it has no way of moving the ski.
While you’ll have a great time flying around, flyboarding isn’t a sport that’s popular because of speed. The thrill comes from being so high up in the air and the freedom you experience while you’re soaring through the air (despite being, quite literally, tethered to a watercraft).
Controlling a Flyboard and the Physics Behind It
When it comes to controlling the board while you’re flying, there is one main way that physics works with you.
We already know why it’s important to stay balanced on a flyboard, but what if you could change your balance to control where the flyboard goes? That’s exactly how a flyboard moves around!
By adjusting your center of gravity, you can adjust which parts of the flyboard move. Having more weight on a specific area of your flyboard makes it heavier and harder to push, meaning that the opposite direction will be lighter and will start moving upwards. By not putting too much weight in any one direction, this will cause the flyboard to move wherever the weight is.
However, you have to be careful; you can flip yourself over if you put too much weight towards wherever you’re going, and you don’t want to fall that way. It’s dangerous and can hurt, which isn’t necessarily the outcome you want when you go flyboarding.
Here’s an easy guide to moving in the various directions while you’re in the air:
- Moving Forward: You can move forward by pointing your toes downwards. While this sounds inverted, it forces the flyboard to lift in the back so you can propel yourself forward with the jet nozzles.
- Moving Backwards: You can move backwards by pointing your toes up to the sky, which lifts the front of the flyboard up so you can propel yourself backwards.
- Moving Left: To move left, bend your right knee. While this doesn’t sound like you’re moving the weight too much, you’re alleviating a bit of the weight while also doing the flyboard’s job for it and putting it higher in the opposite direction you want to go.
- Moving Right: To move right, bend your right knee. While this doesn’t sound like you’re moving the weight too much, you’re alleviating a bit of the weight while also doing the flyboard’s job for it and putting it higher in the opposite direction you want to go.
These controls will begin feeling natural pretty quickly, and once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to control your flyboard better, go in diagonal directions, and shift directions quicker; it’s all in the science!
Note: Notice that the controls don’t say lean. Leaning is a quick way to land yourself in the water. Trust us, you’ll adjust your weight easily by moving your toes and slightly bending your knees. And bending your knees too much will dump you forward into the water.
The Science Behind Falling
Now that you know how a flyboard works, including the physics behind each step of the flight, there’s one last thing to cover: falling.
We already know that not keeping your balance is what causes you to fall, which can be a result of not standing well during takeoff or putting too much weight into your turns (or the dreaded results of leaning into a turn).
However, what’s the best way to fall? Since we’ve discovered that a problem in balance leads to one side of the board rising too high and your body weight causing you to fall, you’re only going to fall one way: headfirst.
This is why it’s extremely important to wear your headgear and life vest while you’re flyboarding. New flyboarders may only reach 10-15 feet if they catch on quickly. But experienced boarders can reach up to 50-60 feet. If you fall from the height, you’re going to hit the water painfully, and landing on your head can cause serious injury if you’re not wearing a helmet (source).
In case something does happen or something’s hidden in the water that you fall on, the life vest will keep you floating while your PWC operator gets you to safety. Wearing protective gear is one of the most important steps you need to take before you think about flyboarding.
However, you can pair safety gear with falling correctly to give yourself the best chance against injury from falling. If you’ve seen a diver, or know how to dive yourself, then you might already be thinking about the best solution.
Go into a dive, which is putting both hands above your head and putting your palms and fingers flat together. This will break the water once you hit it and allow you to slice into it instead of your head breaking the water followed by your chest or shoulders.
Think of it as making yourself aerodynamic, except for the water instead of air. Your arms will easily give you room to hit the water, which means you’ll go deeper underwater because you’re encountering less resistance.
Falling like this keeps you safe, so make sure to try this out.
Many people actually use their falls as an opportunity to come back out of the water without really stopping, essentially making it look like their fall was planned as they submarine under the water. This takes a lot of coordination and skill, but it’s definitely worth trying since you’ll more than likely take a tumble at some point during your ride.
Is Falling the Only Way to Stop a Flyboard?
Given the funny compilation videos you might have seen online, falling seems like the only way to stop a flyboard flight once you’re on it. However, this isn’t really true.
You can actually slowly come to water as the PWC you’re attached to slows. Be careful though, if the operator slows quickly, you may slam into the water, which is definitely not fun for your feet or your spine.
Every flyboard floats because it’s meant to give you a way to take a break without having to detach and get out of the water. By landing with the floating board and life vest, you’ll be able to rest, relax, and regain your strength before you take on flying again. Make sure to take advantage of this, but be careful if you’re in busy waters; you don’t want to accidentally put yourself in a bad position by landing.
As you’ll soon learn, flyboarding takes a lot of effort out of your body, so having this time to relax and rest makes it much more enjoyable. It’s even better that you don’t have to fall to get there.
Is Flyboarding Difficult?
For the most part, no. It sounds much harder than it is. Most people pick up on flyboarding quickly, and the more you relax the body, the quicker you’ll adjust to controlling your flyboard.
The hardest part about flyboarding deals with the physical work you’re doing. While it’s not like other watersports that cause you to directly use your muscles, you’ll start feeling how much it takes to keep yourself balanced for long periods of time. It’s more like a yoga pose on a board in the air. Let’s call it the flyboard pose. It works your core muscles.
Not only that, but moving specific parts of your body, like your toes, takes much more out of you than you realize. Not too many people exercise the leg muscles it takes to consistently move your toes, so your legs will quickly get tired.
Your core is going to stay engaged the entire time you’re flyboarding, which takes a lot more out of you than you would first realize. While it’s a great workout, it can be incredibly difficult to not be able to give your core a break. Especially if you aren’t used to working on your core muscles.
Your arms are also another area that’s going to get a nice workout as they help you maintain your balance. It’s a good idea to have your arms out while you adjust, and they’ll be handy for any unexpected bumps that cause you to stumble.
Like any other sport or muscles in the body, you’ll get adjusted pretty quickly if you go regularly. If you really don’t believe how much energy you’ll expend while you’re flying, take note of how tired you feel when you’re finished.
To make this even easier on your body, try taking breaks every thirty minutes to give your muscles time to recover. Since this is usually a group activity, rotate turns flying and operating the jet ski.
What Powers a Flyboard?
Flyboards are powered by the PWC itself, which is why it’s required to have one whenever you go flyboarding (and why you need an additional person). This is a pretty simple process.
The PWC begins moving, which will start kicking up water as it sucks it in to propel its own engine. This water, instead of creating a wake behind the PWC, is taken through the tube, which leads directly to the flyboard.
Once more water begins coming from the PWC, the pressure will increase and the water begins being evenly distributed to the jet nozzles, which begins the thrust of the flyboard. That’s how the flyboard flies!
Essentially, the power is coming from the water pressure of the water that the PWC provides. This means that you’re typically at the whim of the PWC driver, rising and falling based on how fast the PWC is moving.
Who Controls the Flyboard?
While the flyboard requires directional piloting, someone has to manually throttle the device upwards as the flight lasts, which can be done two different ways. There are two people who can control a flyboard: the flyer and the person driving the PWC.
1. The PWC Control
In most cases, the person who’s driving the PWC is going to be in charge of how high or low the flyboard is going. Since the flyboard heavily relies on the water pressure from the PWC, it’s pretty important that the PWC driver understands the relationship they have with the flyboard.
The PWC driver needs to know that they can control your height by speeding up and slowing down. This will help you in case you desperately need a break or are concerned about being too low to the water. Hand signals can help you get through this with your PWC driver as long as they know what actions to take based on your needs.
All the PWC driver has to do is speed up or slow down, which is extremely easy. You won’t even feel much of a delay, so you should be able to change altitude pretty quickly.
The operator also needs to be aware of everything going on around you. Since you can’t control how high up you are, you need someone who can react immediately if something is coming up, like a jet ski or another flyboarder. This is the responsibility of both parties, but the PWC operator needs to be paying close attention to you and your space to ensure your safety.
2. The Flyer’s Control
When you’re flyboarding for the first time, you shouldn’t have too much control over your journey. You’re going to be focusing on keeping yourself balanced and learning the careful give and take of manipulating the weight to move around. That’s enough to pay attention to without adding in altitude.
If you’re looking to pull off some crazy flips and tricks, then this type of control is a must. You won’t be able to give yourself the thrust and the water pressure you need at any given time for tricks without it, so make sure to look into it if you’re trying to step up your flyboarding game.
However, if you’ve been flying for awhile and would like to take control of every aspect of your flight, then you can look into getting an attachment that allows you to control your own height. These electronic systems can give you the ability to adjust the throttle and control the PWC itself, which means you have full control of everything.
While this is something that you can do, it’s not necessarily the best idea to take over full control, especially if you are doing so because you want to fly solo. You need to have someone on your PWC at all times, and they should be paying attention to the water to avoid accidents with other people. Being mindful of things going on in the water around you is a crucial part to water sports. Flyboarding is no exception.
The History Behind Flyboards
Flyboards are pretty recent inventions, created in 2012 by Farnky Zapata. Since then, it gained traction as people flocked to the idea of flying over water, something that everyone expected would happen after watching Marty use a hoverboard in Back to the Future. While we might have passed over that timeline, we’ve at least got the ability to fly over the water, reaching unprecedented heights!
In 2015, the flyboard hit the big screen as it appeared in the popular TV show America’s Got Talent. This immediately caused an uproar over the product, making it much more widely known than it was before.
This invention led to Zapata creating a version of the flyboard that runs off of kerosene and doesn’t require a PWC to fly. However, it’s not yet available for the public as the French military has expressed an interest in the product. You can see more about this in this National Interest post.
So you now know more about the physics behind and operation of flyboards, and you’re interested in trying it out. Since it’s creation in 2012, there have been about 2,500 units sold worldwide. A lot of those are owned by rental companies and watersports shops. The best way to get started is to book a lesson nearby or during travel to areas where they are offered. You can find these on Viator and many other tour booking sites.
Flyboarding is one of the ways of making money with a jet ski that I wrote about months ago. These setups start out at about $2,500 new, but you may be able to get a good deal on a used system. Then have fun with your new toy or use it to teach others and make a little money on the side.
Whatever you choose to do, you’ll go into it with a little better understanding. Most importantly and as always, no matter what you do, stay safe and have fun!