Technology

Meet the man who cycles on water

© Manta5
A car is a motorboat, and a motorbike a jet ski, but what's the on-water equivalent of a bicycle? We talk to the innovator who could have the answer – the world's first hydrofoil bike.
Written by Ally KoehlerPublished on
Growing up in England, Guy Howard-Willis used to source parts from the local rubbish dump to build bikes with his mates. He's always wondered why you can't simulate everything you can do on land while on water.
The distinct lack of options for a would-be water cyclist had long played on his mind – until one day, he swapped wondering for action. Six years on, his Manta5 Hydrofoil XE-1 bike is making waves around the world.
Using the same hydrofoil technology that lifts America's Cup yachts out of the water, Howard-Willis's electric motor-assisted XE-1 bike enables riders to travel at up to 20kph across the waves. It's even attracted a pre-order from the Crown Prince of Dubai (he's taking three). But how did this, New Zealand-based dreamer become a doer? For the most part, he says, it's nurture, not nature.
A photo of Manta5 co-founders Guy Howard-Willis and Roland Alonzo.
Manta5 co-founders Guy Howard-Willis and Roland Alonzo
Born into a military family in Birmingham, England, Howard-Willis was a kid on the move from day one. Starting his education in Germany, living in army camps all around Britain, and attending an agriculturally-focused school in Kent made him resourceful. Working on cross channel ferries for 12 years then fuelled his interest in all things marine, but it wasn't until he made his way to New Zealand, in 1975, that his inner entrepreneur sprang forth.
"I started up a furniture business," Howard-Willis explains. "And when I'd done that for a while, we began building a type of hospital bed for people who were paralysed. It was quite a rewarding job in many ways. We brought motors in from Germany, and anyone who had a neck injury received funding from ACC (New Zealand's accident compensation authority) for one of our beds, which gave them a lot of independence."
He went on to found web-based outdoor and adventure gear store Torpedo7, and sale site 1-day. But the aqua-bike was a concept he just couldn't shake.
"You could look at a car and say the parallel of that is a motorboat. You could look at motorbike and say that it's equivalent is a jet ski. But when you look at a bicycle, there really isn't any equivalent other than the kind of pontoon bikes you see floating around at resorts. I thought that you could go a lot faster than that using your own power. That's when I came up with the idea of using foils to raise the bike out of the water.
"I used to draw sketches of what I thought a bike would look like – I did that for quite a while," he admits. "I'd go to sleep at night thinking about how it would all work, and how you'd pedal and turn the prop. But I think there's a saying, isn’t there? If you want your dreams to come true, you have to wake up."
So, prompted by a conference speaker, who asked whether delegates wanted to spend the rest of their lives wondering whether their ideas might work, he considered the two ideas he had in his head and decided to pursue the bike.
Convincing Tauranga-based bicycle designer Roland Alonzo to come onboard wasn't quite as easy. A fear of water and inability to swim means he may never actually ride his own creation, though Howard-Willis remains certain they'll bring him around. "We’ll baptise him yet," he says, laughing.
Funded by the sale of Howard-Willis's Torpedo7 site, the pair worked in secrecy from everyone apart from their wives for two years, until they knew they were certain they'd cracked it. That moment came with prototype three, and a submerge launch in the local swimming pool. From there, they could hardly contain it.
"Sometimes as an entrepreneur, people can put you off," Howard-Willis says. "If they don't see what you see, they don't understand your vision, and it won’t make any sense. The other reason was, if it didn't work, and I'd put all this money into it, I wouldn't have told anybody."
Woman carrying the Manta5 Hydrofoil XE-1 to water.
Pre-orders are rolling in for the Hydrofoil XE-1
Now the bike's out in the open, and pre-orders are up at over 12,000, with the greatest demand coming from the United States, Europe, and Dubai (despite its hot, dry climate). First deliveries are expected in mid-2019, and the next step is a lightweight, manual version.
This is when Howard-Willis believes the bike will come into its own, marking the birth of a new sport, and cementing the Hydrofoil bike as a new Kiwi icon.
As for that second idea inside his head, will it ever see the light of day? No stranger to a secret, "I think it will," is all he'll say.