Compliant lift-generating surfaces have widespread applications as marine propellers, hydrofoils and control surfaces, and the fluid–structure interactions (FSI) of such systems have important effects upon their performance and stability. Multi-phase flows like cavitation and ventilation alter the hydrodynamic and hydroelastic behaviours of lifting surfaces in ways that are not yet completely understood. This paper describes experiments on one rigid and two flexible variants of a vertical surface-piercing hydrofoil in wetted, ventilating and cavitating conditions. Tests were conducted in a towing tank and a free-surface cavitation channel. This work, which is Part 1 of a two-part series, examines the passive, or flow-induced, fluid–structure interactions of the hydrofoils. Four characteristic flow regimes are described: fully wetted, partially ventilated, partially cavitating and fully ventilated. Hydroelastic coupling is shown to increase the hydrodynamic lift and yawing moments across all four flow regimes by augmenting the effective angle of attack. The effective angle of attack, which was derived using a beam model to account for the effect of spanwise twisting deflections, effectively collapses the hydrodynamic load coefficients for the three hydrofoils. A generalized cavitation parameter, using the effective angle of attack, is used to collapse the lift and moment coefficients for all trials at a single immersed aspect ratio, smoothly bridging the four distinct flow regimes. None of the hydrofoils approached the static divergence condition, which occurs when the hydrodynamic stiffness negates the structural stiffness, but theory and experiments both show that ventilation increases the divergence speed by reducing the hydrodynamic twisting moment about the elastic axis. Coherent vortex shedding from the blunt trailing edge of the hydrofoil causes vortex-induced vibration at an approximately constant Strouhal number of 0.275 (based on the trailing edge thickness), and leads to amplified response at lock-in, when the vortex-shedding frequency approaches one of the resonant modal frequencies of the coupled fluid–structure system.