Windsurfing Through Waves

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My home spot is El Médano. It is where I learned to windsurf and where I have been teaching for the last 9 years on and off. In that time I have seen hundreds of people keen of getting on the water and having a great session suddenly experience a frustrating fight for even getting on the board and sailing for more than 10 meters. I have seen experienced flat water windsurfers take a severe beating and break gear on many occasions. The reason is that they never had to face a shore break, much less such a constant one as here. And it really isn’t all that hard getting through the waves, all you need to know is how.

We need to take into account that regardless of whether you are positioning the board for the beachstart, the waterstart of just plain sailing, the method to get through a breaking wave is the same. The biggest fight that I keep witnessing is to do the beachstart. The reason is that the waves tend to come non-stop, with a space of 1 to 5 seconds between them. Here are the three basic things you need to take into account when going through a shore break wave:

Go through the wave at 90°

This is the biggest factor to take into account when sailing through a wave, broken or just steep. The wave is a mass of water that is moving towards you that will try to push us along with it, and if the board is not perpendicular to the wave, the bow (which is the first point of contact of the wave on the board) will be pushed/dragged along by the wave. The result is a loss of control. If this happens while positioning the board for the beachstart or the waterstart, all our positioning efforts will have been undone. If this happens while sailing, the result is either a way too fast luffing up to the wind, or a very entertaining catapult (at least for all of us watching :))

The faster the better

As mentioned before, the wave has a lot of inertia, meaning that when it hits us, it will try to push us with it. Hitting it at 90° is one part of the equation, however, unless we have some energy of our own to counteract the waves’ energy, it will in fact push us backwards. While handling the board for the beachstart we can lean against the wave with the gear to stop it from pushing us over although pushing the gear into the wave about a meter before impact is more effective. If we have to waterstart in steep/broken waves, pushing towards pushing the board into the wave like with the beachstart can make the difference of having to lay out the gear correctly again or not. When we are sailing, try to pick up some speed between the waves so that you are not at a standstill when the wave hits you. The faster you are going, the less the wave is going to affect you.

Bend your knees on impact

As I mentioned above, the wave will slow us down in some measure. In the same way that if we hit a curb with the bike or get a stone under the wheels of a skateboard, if our weight centre is high up, we will be more likely to fly over forwards. The solution in windsurfing is to bring our upper body lower by bending our knees just before hitting the wave head on.

One more thing:

Another little tip you can implement is make sure you have the weight on the back foot so that the bow comes up a little and the board can go over the wave naturally and not necessarily underneath/through it.

This advice is mainly for the conditions in El Médano where the wind usually comes side-on. With offshore winds, the advice is still pretty much the same with the small additional hint that we must remember to open the sail right after the wave because the difference in height before and after the wave makes the air speed up, which feels like a sudden strong gust normally resulting in a silly twirling fall over the lee side.

I hope this has provided some insight as to why your efforts in waves have been more challenging, exhausting (maybe even frustrating) and that you are now equipped with the knowledge of how to overcome even the bigger whitewash.

The Beachstart – It’s the BACK foot, NOT the FRONT foot first!

Some people have been told to put the front foot on the board when doing the beachstart and the waterstart but I find this an akward thing to do as we will be positioining the board with our hips turned so that we are facing the same direction as the board and once we are on the board we will be facing the same way. Tha back foot is going to be closer to the board and all we have to do is lift it to one side and on to the board. If we want to put the front foot on you have to move the body facing the back of the board or move the leg across the front of our body. It makes no sense.
How to Windsurf – The Beachstart

How to Windsurf – The Beachstart

Pulling out the sail to start windsurfing is for beginners. Real windsurfers do a beachstart by just stepping onto the board from knee-deep water and gliding away. However, it isn’t as easy to learn as it looks. Anyone who has given it a try for the first time will have noticed that there is more to just putting your foot on the board and getting up (although it actually is just that once you know the technique).

The beachstart, like the waterstart is predominantly technique. The beachstart (when done correctly) consists of 95% technique and 5% wind. The 5% is actually just so that the sail doesn’t weigh us down. The main components in terms of technique are the same for the beachstart as for the waterstart so it is important to get the beachstart technique right to avoid creating bad habits which will later have much more negative impact when we move on to the waterstart.

So let’s get to it. First off let me describe the beachstart as simply stepping onto the board the same way we would get on to a high step: by putting our foot on the centre of the board and leaning our shoulders forward so that our body’s weight centre is over the board and then push ourselves up with the leg. As you can see, in theory we don’t need wind in the sail to do this. That being said, let’s break the theory down a little bit more.

Board Position

First of all, board position. Before we try to get on the board we must have the board set up on the correct course. It should be somewhere close to the beam reach (90º to the wind) or sightly more downwind. The reason for this is that if the board is pointing too far upwind the wind will be acting against us. Then again, if the board is pointing too far downwind we can have too much power in the sail so that we can no longer hold it or get catapulted over the front.

Board control

In order to get he board into the correct position we must learn to control the board through the sail. The control of the board for the beachstart and waterstart are different to how we steer while windsurfing. In this case we need to use pressure on the mastfoot through our sail control to position the board correctly rather than lean the sail forwards and backwards. Let me explain.

We always want to control the board through the sail. There should be no need to touch the board with our hands… ever. The only time we touch the board is when we put our foot on it. To make the board turn downwind we must push with the mast hand towards the mast foot. When we want the board to turn upwind we must pull the mast to the wind (or towards us as we are going to be standing upwind). We can also use the back hand as a lever if we push in the opposite direction than the front hand (pushing to the mast foot or pulling towards the mast top, always without adding wind power to the sail).

An important note: Do not pull down with the back hand when controlling the board as it will make the board try to sail away or pull the sail down backwards. Use two fingers. We only want to make sure the wind comes under the sail pulling it up slightly and not heaving us up uncontrollably or pushing us down.

So much for the board positioning, which is what I have found to be the most challenging part of the beachstart due to waves and current. Although if you are learning this in flat and clam water you might find it easier. For those wanting to learn how to beachstart in waves and sail through breaking waves I will write a post on that in the future.

Doing the Beachstart

Now it is time for the actual getting up on the board. As I mentioned earlier, the beachstart is like getting up on a high step. In order to achieve this maneouvre there are three main components in our body position that we must apply.

How to Windsurf - Beachstart

1. We must stand close to the board. It is easier to get on the board if the distance of our weight displacement is 40cm rather than 80cm

2. Now we put our back foot on the board. Some people have been told to put the front foot on the board but I explain why this is wrong in another post.

3. Keep the front arm straight. This one is absolutely crucial. By all means avoid bending your arm as doing so will greatly hinder your progress. Read more about this in my post The Golden Rule Of Windsurfing.

4. Lean forward. Get your body over the board. This is another aspect you want to get right. Avoid trying to get on by thrusting your hips forward over the board. The only this this will do is to leave your shoulders (and therefore much of your weight centre) upwind of the board. This is good when we are sailing and want to counter the pull of the sail. However, for the beachstart we WANT to be pulled forwards by the sail and onto the board.

Beachstart sequence

So to recap:

– Board 90º to the wind
– Step on like on a high step
– Stand close to the board
– Front arm straight
– Back foot on centreline of the board
– Shoulders forward keeping the boom horizontal
– Close sail only as much as necessary
– Normal windsurfing stance

Before heading into the water and giving all this a shot I would first practice all this on a simulator. The simulator is not going to move around as much (if it does it is usually because you are pulling too much with the back hand when positioning yourself). It allows you to get a feeling for what the motion should look and feel like. This allows you to be able to be familiar with the final component of the beachstart already so that all you have to focus on is the board control.

That is all for the beachstart for now. Please let me know in the comments if this post is useful to you, if you have any questions or if you think it is missing anything.