The centreboard (or skeg) is a tool which causes some confusion after a few hours of heaving learnt how to windsurf. Many people are unsure about when it is necessary, useful or a hinderance. This article aims to explain how and when to use the centreboard to get the most out of it.
One of the biggest hurdles for beginners coming to El Médano is the ocean swell. Getting through the beach break is hard enough (which I have explained here) but windsurfing in waves and getting back to the beach is usually a big problem.
What is the problem?
You see, the swell comes into the bay in the same direction as the wind, side onshore. This means that when we are sailing away from the beach, the waves come from the front. Not much of a problem as we have the whole length of the board as well as our stance to reduce the impact of the waves. When returning however, the board is positioned so that the wave comes from the side, even a little from behind. What happens then is that the wave hits the board from the side and pushes it along about 0.5-1 meter (2-3 feet). For us this is like someone pulling a rug from under out feet: our feet get pulled away with the board and our shoulders are thrown backwards.
There is a simple solution to this rug-pulling effect: sheet in with the sail. In other words, do as you would do if the wind suddenly dropped. Sheet in to get more power in the sail so that you get held/lifted up with the wind. A very important thing to remember is KEEP THE FRONT ARM STRAIGHT. I have written before on the importance of keeping the front arm straight and this is one of the occasions in which it is VITAL to focus on keeping the front arm straight. Our instinct will be to pull both arms close to the body as in ony other situation, if we are falling backwards or want to pull ourselves up, we bend both arms. In this circumstance, we must force ourselves to do the counterintuitive: bend only the back arm and keep the front arm straight.
For me it is always a key moment of joy the first time that a student manages to overcome the urge to bend the front arm as is rewarded by the wind keeping them up.
That’s only part 1 of the problem, now comes part two
Once the wave has gone through from underneath us, the board goes back down on the back of it. This means that the rug is now pulled (to a lesser extent) in the other direction causing our shoulders to lurched forward.
It’s simple, just the opposite of part one: sheet out. Basically take power out of the sail. This way, since our shoulders are already leaning back, we will not be pulled over forwards uncontrollably.
Note: I am not saying you have to let go of the back hand completely. We don’t want to lose control of the power in the sail. Of course, if we react a little too late, we will have to let go rather than allow the sail to pull us over into the water. The idea is to just reduce the power in the sail by, let’s say, pulling less.
A constant task
These two movements will have to be done constantly, alternating between one and the other as the waves come at you non-stop. You will probably have a breather from time to time if the wave set has gone through (for ocean swell).
Windsurfing like this is not the problem, the problem is getting into the windsurfing position
As I tell every student of mine, once we are in the windsurfing position, counteracting the motion of the waves is not that hard to get the hang of as it is the same type of sail control that we need anyways in on flat water, just more exaggerated. The real problem is getting into the basic windsurfing position. I have explained how important it is to internalize the mast, feet boom sequence in my first post on how to windsurf.
Essentially, as long as the sail is touching the water, we have some resistance on which to hold on to and once we have both hand on the sail (one on the mast and one on the boom or both hands on the boom) we have control of our body position through the wind powering the sail. The problem is the split second in between these two stages.
As soon as the sail leaves the water, we are only dependant on our balance, which in the waves is not that easy to maintain. Therefore, our objective must be to overcome this balance phase as quickly as possible and get into the basic windsurfing stance. I describe the correct process in my first post on how to windsurf.
Look at the wave!
This may seem either like common sense or as something irrelevant but let me tell you, very few people actually do this. Once I actually get them to do as I say, they are able to see the wave and know at which moment to pull out the sail without getting hit by a wave in the most inconvenient time possible.
I hope this short guide to coping with waves has been helpful and that next time you get the board pulled away from under you, you at least know what is going on and (at least in theory) know what to do about it. It then just becomes a matter of learning to pull or let go in the correct moment and the correct amount.
Have you had trouble with waves making life difficult for you when windsurfing? Has this guide been useful to you? I would love to know how you get on.
Over the years I have been able to differentiate the 3 stages of sail control that people go through in windsurfing before one can say that they have control of their sail. I call them the step-dance, the hula-hoop and the windsurfer. They basically describe how you react to the changes in your body position that is affected by the wind and waves. I will go through these to help you determine at which stage you are at and what you need to do to get to the next level.
Level 1: The step-dance
This is the first stage. This stage describes the most natural reaction we have to getting pushed or pulled around as is the case on a windsurf board in the early attempts. Every change in our body position is corrected by moving our feet around. So if a gust hits us we get pulled forward and to compensate that displacement we move one foot or another. Good thing that we start off with a big, wide board. Overcoming this stage is the greatest limiting factor to being able to move to a smaller board.
Level 2: The hula-hoop
Once we learn to feel the changes in the sail pressure and our body position sooner we no longer need to move our feet. However, while we keep the feet in place, we still haven’t got the reaction to a gust or a lull down fast enough and so we move the hips either forward or backward to maintain the centre of gravity over the buoyancy of the board. In this stage we are still using the sail only for forward propulsion and not yet for stability.
Level 3: The windsurfer
The final stage and the way we should be windsurfing. People that have reached this level are easy to spot as they show no hectic movements on the board. As the gust hits them the simply sheet out in time to release some of the wind pressure in the sail so that they don’t get pulled over. They may even lean back with a straight body and sheet in to use the extra power.
So there you have it, the three stages of sail control that I have been able to differentiate. It is one more aspect that I can point out to students to show them that they are progressing when they feel that they haven’t improved. If you have any other subtle differentiation that you have noticed I would like to read of it in the comments.
One thing that happens almost at least once per lesson is that my student is pulled by the sail more than expected, rather than letting go holds on to the back hand and is forced to step towards the rail with one foot. This sinks the rail and ends ups tipping the board over and falling in.
This leaves them in the water and with the board upside-down. I have seen endless combinations of how people have tried to flip the board back the right way up. From the correct and effortless way to completely inefficient passing through only managing through raw strength. Here I will explain the ways to avoid and the best way to do it.
How not to do it
Push upwards from the water
This is the least efficient way as we are trying to lift a heavy board around a large axis against its buoyancy without having solid ground under our feet. Thats a bit of a mouthful to say that all we really do is push ourselves underwater since we sink easier than the board.
Rotating the board with the arms like a steering wheel from the bow or stern
The correct way
Here is how to do it properly:
- Turn the board so that the mast is at 90° to the board
- Go to the center of the board (at the position of the mast foot).
- Get onto the board (yes, on the bottom side of the board)
- Grab the far end and put your knees onto the close end
- Lean backwards onto your knees, pulling the far end towards you util the board has turned
Things to avoid in the correct way
Do not try to turn it towards the mast
If the mast is in the way, no matter how heavy we are leaning onto our side with the knees, the board will not turn. Also, make sure the mast really is at nearly 90° to the board. If it is in line with the board it will make turning it more difficult than it has to be.
Don’t let go of the board before it is turned completely
When we have turned it more than half way, some consider the job done and just let go. I recommend to hold onto it until it has flipped over completely with us under water and then just pulling ourselves to the surface that 0.5 seconds later. By letting go of the board you lose control of its position with respect to you. This means that it can either flip back into the wrong position or even worse, keep turning towards you faster than you expected and hit you on the head. Just hold on all the way.
A tip for the correct way
As in all aspects of windsurfing, we want to see how the wind can help us save energy. In this case this occurs if the mast is pointing into the wind. In this instance, when we lift the far rail, the wind pushes against it from the other side, making it flip over easier and faster. This is a useful tip for the lighter sailors like children.
Depending on your level you should be using one type of up-haul or another. In the initial stages, when we rely a lot on the up-haul to maintain our stability on the board when lifting the sail out of the water, we need a rope that is not elastic. If we lift the sail up with and elastic rope, the control over the sail will be greatly reduced as when we pull the sail towards us, some of that energy is lost in the elasticity of the rope.
These are a rigid rope that is attached to the boom and has an elastic rope that goes from the center of the up-haul rope to the mastfoot. Since there is a loose piece of rope dangling near the mast base they are not practical for high speeds, especially with choppy water as the loose end will be flapping around and hitting the sail all the time.
Once we can do the water-start we are less reliant on the up-haul. We may only need one in circumstances where the wind drops so much that we cannot do a water-start any more. For these cases we use an elastic rope as it will be close to the mast the whole time that we are sailing and not be a nuisance.
The downside to this is that when we lift the sail we don’t have a direct response of the sail. This means that when we start to lift the sail, the rope stretches first and then starts to lift the sail out of the water. If as we are lifting up the sail, a bit of chop hits us, or a small wave, or we just lose our balance a little bit, we have a harder time to stabilise ourselves with the weight of the sail because as we pull, we first stretch the rope instead of the rope being pulled taught right away and helping us catch our balance again.
Until the water-start use a non-elastic rope as it will provide you with more control over the sail when hauling it up. After learning the water-start you should get an elastic one just in case you need it.
One of the most exhausting parts of windsurfing in the initial stages is getting on the board after every fall in the water. And it wouldn’t even be all that frustrating if we were just falling in when windsurfing at speed. However, when we fall in because of a stupid little detail when lifting out and positioning the sail, then annoyance is piled on top of exhaustion.
One of the most common senseless falls I have come to witness time after time is when people try to lift up the sail with their body weight but not in line with the mast. Let me show you in this image:
If we lean backwards, we will need something to hold us in the same line but in the opposite direction. In the basic T-position this is usually no problem.
The problem tends to arise when the sail is lying with the mast nearly parallel to the board. Often I have seen people try to lift the sail out from this position with the same foot stance as when the mast is at 90 to the board. While this is possible with a little experience or luck, it is hardly the correct way to cope in this situation.
Imagine the blue arrow is our body weight leaning backwards and the red arrow is the weight of the sail pulling downwards. If these two are aligned we are in equilibrium. However, if they are not aligned, we are leaning backwards with nothing pulling us in the opposite direction yo hold us. We are expecting the sideways pull of the sail to hold us which it can’t.
The solution is to turn our foot position so that our body and feet are facing the mast. Only in this way will the sail allow us to balance by leaning back.
It is important to remember that this foot/body position must change as the sail position changes. The second error I have seen is when the first part of the foot position was adopted well, but when the sail got flipped over by the wind, they didn’t follow the mast with their foot orientation and were knocked off balance and into the water again.
In short, have your feet facing the mast at all times and be prepared to adjust when it is moved by the wind.