Windsurfing for Beginners – A How to Guide
While many of us are no doubt aware of what windsurfing is, you might well be surprised to learn that its origins date back to the 1940’s. In fact, it was the then 20-year old Newman Darby who in 1948 first conceived the idea of using a handheld sail and rig that was mounted on a universal joint so he could control and manoeuvre his small catamaran.
The first patents of what we now know as the windsurfer were filed and issued to Jim Drake an Hoyle Schweitzer in 1968 with the pair going on to mass produce their sailboards in the early 1970’s as the sport gained in popularity throughout North America, Europe and beyond. To further cement its popularity, windsurfing entered the Olympic stage as a demonstration sport at the 1984 Los Angeles summer games although it was not until 1992 in Barcelona, Spain that separate men’s and women’s competitions were introduced.
To this day windsurfing still remains a popular water-sport given that it caters for participants of all ages and skill levels although over more recent years, kiteboarding has quickly claimed its slice of the ‘water boarding’ market particularly amongst the more adrenaline fuelled water-sports enthusiasts.
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As should be the case with all sporting activities, and more so again when it comes to water-sports, your safety should always be a priority. While having a blast on the water is what its all about, ensuring that you get yourself back to shore is of course the ultimate goal.
Some high level considerations include:
Gear – ensure that you have checked all of your gear and make sure that it’s in good condition. Wear and tear is inevitable but it may have also become damaged when packed away or in transit for instance so play it safe.
PFD – irrespective of your experience or level of skill, its always advisable to wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when out on the water. Helmets are another good idea particularly in rougher waters as hard hits on masts, boards, floating debris or with other surfers can definitely do some damage.
Weather Conditions – check the forecast before you take to the water as conditions can change very quickly. If there are approaching storms or offshore winds, don’t venture too far from the shore or safer again, wait for more favourable conditions.
Don’t Go Out Alone – wherever possible, take to the water with a partner or in an area where there are other surfers, boarders or paddlers. Safety in numbers in essence. Always make sure that someone onshore knows where you are and how long you plan on being out for as they can raise the alarm in the event of problems.
Etiquette – understanding water safety rules and regulations and following appropriate etiquette is very important. Not only can you get fined for breaching water safety regulations, but you may also be putting yourself and others at risk. Knowing who has the right of way, staying out of boating channels, who’s in a lineup when you are out in the surf etc. will only make for a better experience for all.
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Your Board / Equipment
As you troll through various articles and blogs on the net, it can be somewhat confusing when it comes to trying to understand the basic windsurfing terminology particularly for beginners that are looking to take up the sport. There are also a whole host of board and rig shapes, sizes, designs and features so there’s quite a bit to take in.
Your budget considered, beginners are best advised to look for a board that offers plenty of volume and stability. The volume (measured in litres and based on the boards dimensions) governs the boards buoyancy and weight carrying capabilities while the stability is influenced by its width and fin system. We will touch on this separately but wider boards that offer plenty of volume are a great starting point for beginners.
Following are some of the key terms that describe the board or rig components and there function.
Mast Base (Deck Plate) – used to attach the assembled rig to the board. On inflatables or multi-purpose boards, there is normally a reinforced mounting point that the base is screwed into. On purpose built windsurfing boards, there is a mast track or channel built into the board. The base slides into this channel and is then turned clockwise by hand to tighten. The base has either a mechanical or rubber universal joint (or U.J) which allows the rig to rotate and pivot in different directions or on different angles.
Mast Extension – attaches to the base and is used to adjust the length of the sail.
Mast – detachable and normally coming in two pieces, this is the central support that the sail and other rig components attach to.
Boom – is what the sailor holds on to for support and to control the power and direction of the board – a steering wheel of sorts. Booms are adjustable so can be altered in height to suit different size riders.
Uphaul – particularly important for beginners. Attaching to the front of the boom and the base of the sail, the uphaul line is used to lift the sail out of the water.
Downhaul – right at the very base of the sail, the downhaul line effects the curvature of the mast as well as the downward tension and overall shape of the sail.
Outhaul – the line that impacts the outward tension and shape of the sail. More outhaul equals a flatter sail which makes the board easier to handle in high winds.
Battens – hard but flexible inserts or ribs that slide horizontally into the sail to help hold its shape.
Fin – also referred to as a skeg, is positioned at the tail and underside of the board. This fin helps with maintaining a course and control of the board as well as creating lift.
Dagger Board – this is the large retractable fin located in the centre of the board. It is typically adjustable all the way through to 90 degrees. When fully extended, the fin helps stabilise the board and aids straight line tracking as well as avoiding side slippage. The extended dagger board is quite useful for beginners as it also assists with sailing upwind. When fully retracted back into the board, you will be able to achieve higher speeds which is great in flatter waters where you will be planing or gliding across the water.
<< Take a look at our Beginners Guide to Skimboarding if this is more your speed >>
With beginner windsurfing board and rig packages starting from $1,000 and up, one way of dipping your toe in the water so to speak is to consider an inflatable paddle board that has windsurf mounting points. There are some high end options out there but something like the Freein Inflatable SUP / Windsurf Board is a nice way to go. You have all of the benefits of an inflatable paddle board package with the added capability of building out your windsurfer over time. Just a thought.
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Okay – scene set – history, board and equipment bases covered. It’s now time to take to the water for what will no doubt be a few spills and hopefully some good fun sailing.
1. Enter the water so that it is deep enough for the fin and the fully extended dagger board to have enough clearance from the bottom.
2. Determine the direction of the wind. Position the board so that it is facing cross wind and the sail is facing downwind. So the sails’ mast will be at a 90 degree angle to the board.
3. Position yourself on the upwind side of the board – this means that the wind will be at your back. If you were on the downwind side, once the sail is raised and the wind caught it, you would be quickly thrown backwards off your board.
4. Pull yourself up on to the board and stay on your knees. Grab the base of the uphaul line and then stand up with one foot on either side of the mast foot. You should stand along the centreline of the board which is in essence an imaginary line that runs down the middle of your board along its full length. Stand up but keep your back straight and your knees bent. It’s important that you keep your back straight as you would do when lifting any other object as its very easy to hurt yourself otherwise.
5. The sail can be quite heavy as it will be filled with water (hence the straight back and bent knees). Pull along the uphaul line hand over hand until it is out of the water. With your back straight, you should be taking the weight of the sail through your legs and arms so you are not putting undue pressure on your back.
6. Once the mast is raised into a near vertical position, hold it just under the boom with your front hand. This is the hand that is closest to the nose of your board. While you are holding the mast, let the sail swing freely. This is referred to as the start or safety position. As it will not be full of wind, you will not be exerting yourself so it should be comfortable as long as you are keeping your board across the wind with the sail downwind.
7. Now that the mast is raised and you are stable on the board, adjust your position by moving your feet back a step or two so that they are positioned just behind the mast. This will allow you sufficient room to comfortably grab the boom. With your back hand you can now lightly take hold of the boom. Don’t heave the boom towards you too fast as it can quickly fill with wind and send you forward too fast or throw you off balance.
8. Gently close the sail by pulling the boom towards you. You will start to get a feel for the power of the wind catching the sail as you open and close it (pull and push on the boom). By now you should have moved your forward hand on to the boom as well. As you gain in confidence you will be able to get a better feel for the wind resistance and gain speed by pulling and pushing on the boom more aggressively.
9. Now that you are up in position, it’s important that you continue to focus on your posture and body positioning. It is the foundation of maintaining effective control of your board.
Keep Your Front Arm Straight – your back arm will be doing a lot of the work on the boom but keeping your front arm straight is a more effective use of your energy and helps with control. It is less important in lighter winds but you will notice the benefits of a straight arm in heavier winds.
Weight on Back Foot – this helps with maintaining your centre of gravity. The greater the wind and speed, the more important this becomes.
Straight Body – not only does this help reduce the stress and strain on your back, but it also assists with keeping your weight on your back foot as well as using your body weight as a counter balance to control the pull on the sail as it fills with wind.
10. To stop or slowdown, release the wind from the sail and take your back hand off the boom. The sail will then return to a right angle to the board position just as it was when you initially pulled the uphaul to raise the sail out of the water. You can also drop the boom in front of you but remember you need to haul it up again so this can get tiring if you do this several times.
Now that we have a feel for the set up and how to catch the wind and move forward, its time to work out how to turn.
When you are static in the water and standing in the start position, if you incline the rig towards the back of the board, it will start to move up into the wind. Conversely, if you incline the rig towards the front of the board, it will move downwind. Always keep your arms extended and your back straight. The further you incline the rig, the faster it will turn so start with shallow movements until you get the hang of it.
An alternate way of turning the board through the full 180 degrees (so facing in the opposite direction), is to hold the mast in the start position i.e. the sail is at 90 degrees to the board facing downwind, and then take small steps around the board. You are in effect pushing or pulling with your feet against the deck of the board and yet the sail will remain pointed in the same downwind position. This can be done either clockwise or anti-clockwise. Once you have fully turned around, ensure that you are in the start position before you set off again.
As we continue to build on our windsurfing fundamentals, knowing how to make quick efficient turns is obviously a useful skill. Known as tacking and jibing (or gybing), these are manoeuvres where you change direction quickly so that the wind comes from the opposite side of the board. While it is a skill that you will become more proficient in over time, don’t get too worried in the early days.
As a beginner, you will likely be on a larger board that has quite a bit of volume making it more stable and easier to balance on. This means that you will be able to do the basic turn as described above. You’ll therefore be able to negotiate your way along the waterway effectively albeit much slower.
Tacking is a manoeuvre where you take the nose (bow) of the board through or into the wind so the direction of the wind will change from one side of the board to the other allowing you to head in a new direction. Jibing, is the opposite of tacking so you will be turning the tail (stern) of the board through the wind which again changes the wind to the opposing side of the board. Whether you are tacking or jibing, the boom will always shift from one side of the board to the other.
Ok, to walk it through.
1. Look over your front shoulder into the wind. Take your front hand off the boom and grab the mast just below the boom. Move your front foot forward in front of the mast and over the centreline.
2. When we make these first moves the sail lowers to the back of the board. As we are about to walk through this transition, move your head and turn it towards your back shoulder. At this point you still have your weight pushing forward through your front foot.
3. Now we need to move fairly quickly here. Release your back hand off the boom. As you continue to step around the mast, the sail will start to swing around where you will use your back hand to grab the front of the boom on the opposite side. Move your back foot to where your front foot was and shift your weight around the front of the mast and swap your feet over. You will now be on the opposite side of the board and your old back hand and back foot will now become the front ones.
4. You are now on the opposite side of the board. Look forward in the direction that you want to go. Swift the rig forward as you drop your body weight on to your new back foot. Keep the sail open and push through with your feet as the board starts to swing around and catch the wind.
5. Remember – arms and back straight and knees bent. As much as is possible, try to keep pulling on the sail against the wind as this load will help act as a counterbalance of sorts so you can keep your balance.
The following YouTube clip by Sam Ross sums it up really well – 3:01 minutes of your time well spent.
Over time as you become more proficient and manage to nail down the fundamentals, you will have far move confidence and will be able to build up much greater speed and momentum. With greater momentum and quicker movements, you will be able to maintain more power in the sail so your tact’s will become more fluid resulting in faster changes in direction.
A Quick Overview
A lot to take in but with practice its not as difficult as it might first sound.
If you are yet to buy a board then take a couple of lessons or borrow a board from a friend so you can see if its something that you genuinely want to get into. The full set-up is quite expensive so get a feel for it before you shell out the cash.
☑️ Pay attention to the location, weather and all of the necessary safety steps.
☑️ Familiarise yourself with your board and equipment and understand what is what.
☑️ Ensure that everything is connected properly and set up before you enter the water.
☑️ Position the board crosswind in the water, sail downwind and dagger board extended.
☑️ Assume the start position – feet apart either side of the mast on the centreline, knees slightly bent, back straight, mast hauled up to a near vertical angle with your front hand holding the mast.
☑️ Once your back hand is on the boom, move your front hand there also and then gently push or pull the boom to control the airflow across the sail. Keeping your hands further forward on the boom as you are learning will help reduce the sails power so baby steps as you are starting out.
☑️ You will tire easily as you are learning so try to remain relaxed and take breaks – return to a neutral or start position as needed.
☑️ Keep your head up. Just like riding a bike or driving a car, look up and in the direction that you intend to sail.
☑️ Falling is all part of the game so the more spills you take the more you will learn. Work out what may have gone wrong and then adapt or adjust as needed.
By no means an exhaustive ‘how to guide’ but we do hope this article has been useful and you were able to pick up a few of the windsurfing basics. We would love to get your thoughts as well so please feel free to leave your comments below and we will get back to you.
Until then, stay safe and get wet.