Learning to Windsurf

There is a general perception that windsurfing is a difficult sport to learn. The evidence seems to support this view. Of those thousands whom I have watched struggling to learn the sport, less than one in ten actually go on to take it up as a regular activity. I do not believe I have come across any other sport with such a high dropout rate. Is windsurfing really that difficult to learn? Or does a large part of the blame lie in the way it is taught?

In the early days of the short history of windsurfing, the approach to teaching it was to treat it as just another form of sailing. This attitude persists to this day in many training centres. Hence the focus is on learning the different points of sailing, how to steer the board by using the sail as opposed to using the tiller and rudder on a sailboat. What the two have in common is that both are powered by the action of the wind on the sail. Other than that, the two disciplines are as different as night is from day. For one thing, you do not keep falling out of a sailboat the way a beginner falls off a windsurfing board. Within certain limits of wind conditions, a sailboat is inherently stable. When the wind pressure on the sail increases, this causes the boat to heel over. There is less sail area presented to the wind which results in a reduced force pushing the boat over. A position is reached when the heeling moment of the wind on the sail is exactly balanced by the righting moment of the boat. There is dynamic equilibrium.

There is no such equilibrium in windsurfing. In winds stronger than about 8 knots and also depending on the size of sail used, the rig is actually pulled to windward over the sailor. The force of the wind will try to push the rig upwards towards a vertical position. This will increase the sail area presented to the wind which will in turn increase the wind force on the sail. At the same time the sailor is being pulled to a more upright position to leeward. The whole setup is therefore inherently unstable. If the sailor does not take any action to counter this, he will be pulled over completely to leeward and end up in the water. The image below illustrates the main difference in the two disciplines. The left half of the picture shows a sailboat heeling away from the wind. The right half shows the sail of a windsurfer being pulled over into the wind. As explained earlier, this makes it inherently unstable.

If it is so unstable then how does a windsurfer stay on the board without constantly falling off? He does so by creating his own equilibrium. If the force on the sail becomes too strong and he feels himself being pulled over to windward, he eases the sail out. If the force on the sail is too weak and he feels himself falling backwards, he pulls the sail in to increase the wind force on the sail. If the wind is too weak and this action is not enough to stop him falling backwards, he changes the position of the centre of gravity of his body either by crouching down or by moving his whole body inwards towards the centre of the board. These two actions are performed constantly for the whole time that he is sailing. It is done unconsciously and becomes second nature for an experienced windsurfer. The adjustments are not always obvious and are often imperceptible. The sail does not just provide power to drive the board. More importantly, it helps the windsurfer maintain his balance on the board. If you have ever seen experienced windsurfers trying to sail shortboards in very light fluky winds, you will see them falling off frequently as if they were beginners. Windsurfers need the wind in their sails to help them balance. It is unfortunate that this aspect of windsurfing is seldom explained to the beginner as it is probably assumed that he will intuitively find it out for himself. People who participate frequently in sports and are more agile, discover this very quickly by themselves intuitively, because they have a natural aptitude for such things. Most others discover it slowly over weeks and months of practice. The learning process can be greatly accelerated if the beginner is taught right at the start to concentrate on this aspect of learning by practising control of the sail on dry land.

To further amplify on this argument, I would like to draw a parallel with the sport of kitesurfing where the beginner is taught how to control the lifting force of the kite by pulling down on the control bar to increase the power of the kite and pushing it up when it becomes too strong. He has to practise this so that he can do it automatically without thinking. The student is advised not to get onto the board in the water until he has mastered control of the kite. Just as kite control is central to learning how to kitesurf, sail control is central to learning how to windsurf and the student should be encouraged to practise this thoroughly before getting onto the board on the water. He will then be able to concentrate on balancing with the aid of the wind on the sail and not be overly concerned by the pitching and rocking motion of the board especially in choppy conditions. It is not always possible to teach windsurfing in sheltered waterways where the water surface is reasonably flat. Very often windsurfing lessons are conducted in the open sea and the right approach can make the difference between a beginner enjoying the learning experience and one giving up halfway in disgust.

Learning to Control the Rig

From the moment a beginner climbs onto a board on the water, he assumes that he has to balance on the board while at the same time cope with the task of holding up the heavy rig (sail, mast & boom) which is all the time trying to pull him into the water. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the rig and the force of the wind on the sail that will help him balance. So the first thing he must do is to learn how to handle and control the rig.

To practise rig control, you should pick a spot of ground that is level and preferably with grass growing on it so that the bottom of the board will not be damaged. Remove the fin or skeg from the board so it can be placed flat on the ground. Try to get hold of a rig with a sail that is fully battened but preferably not cambered. This is much more stable than a soft sail and hence much easier to control. Attach the rig to the board and start practising holding it up against the wind feeling the pull as you sheet the sail in and out. Both hands should be on the boom. If they are correctly positioned, you should feel an equal pull on each arm. If you have been taught to hold the mast with one hand and the boom with the other then you must drop this habit immediately. Stand on the board in the normal sailing position and find out what you have to do to stop yourself from being pulled forward as the gusts hit the sail or from falling backwards when the wind weakens. Re-position the board so its nose is at various angles to the wind. You will find that your sailing position has to change slightly in each of the new positions in order to feel comfortable. Do not carry out this exercise on a simulator. The simulators I have seen are badly designed and do not simulate the behaviour of a board on the water. They wobble uncontrollably and swing wildly when the rig positions are altered. This will distract you from what you are trying to do.

When you feel that you have gained sufficient confidence in handling the rig then you can try doing the same thing on the water. It will of course be more difficult because the board will start turning into the wind or away from the wind and you will have to adjust the position of the rig to counter this. However, the practice on land will have given you a great deal more confidence in handling the rig. More importantly, you will learn how to use it to help you keep your balance on the board even if it is rocking up and down in the waves.

One thing I have noticed very often is that most beginners have a fear of falling backwards into the water and pulling the rig down with them. They think they will be smothered by the sail. Experienced windsurfers always pull the rig down with them when they fall backwards into the water. There are many reasons for doing this. One is that this will ensure the mast or boom will not fall onto any part of the board and damage it. Another reason is that they want to hang onto the rig for as long as possible in the hope of catching a sudden gust of wind that will pull them back up, or in order to be in a favourable position to do a water start. It is very important to overcome this fear of falling backwards because you will eventually have to learn to commit the weight of your body to counteract the lifting action of the wind on the sail.

Tacking vs Gybing

I always watch with interest a beginner who is ready to turn around and sail back in the opposite direction. Most will choose to perform a tack. These are the ones who have gone through a windsurfing course. A few will choose to do a gybe. I always conclude that these latter are the ones who have learnt on their own. Why do I say that? Because I believe that gybing is an easier, more intuitive manoeuvre and therefore those who have learnt on their own prefer to do this. Tacking requires a windsurfer to face the rear of the board with his own back facing the direction in which he was travelling. When he finally turns round again on the other tack he often becomes disorientated. Tacking also requires the windsurfer to tilt the rig to the rear of the board in order to turn the board around. He leans forward to do this and at the same time straddles the lower part of the mast with both his legs. This is when most beginners come to grief and end up in the water. To make matters worse, some training boards have their mast foot positions placed too far forward and, coupled with a sail that is much too small makes turning the board around extremely difficult even for a competent windsurfer. In spite of this, most instructors will still insist that beginners learn to tack before they learn to gybe.