Learning how to windsurf with a harness is one of those abilities that opens the door to longer sessions on the water as it save you heaps of energy. At this point you will have to decide on the harness you want to get for yourself. Much like the wetsuit, it is one of those things that you will want to have your own of.
Every windsurfer has had one, and it becomes the fear of every harness user, especially at the beginning. They can be painful and dangerous. If you don’t know what I am talking about, here is a video compilation showing us that it happens to the pros.
Now admittedly we won’t be having such extreme impacts since we are not going as fast or with as much power as these guys so I hope I haven’t scared anyone away from the sport.
I will first talk about how to avoid getting catapulted and then on the best reaction you can train yourself to do if you are already flying through the air.
Preventing the Catapult
There are a few alterations to our kit and body position that we can apply:
Learn to read the wind and waves
Most catapults come through being caught off guard by a gust or wave. Learning to read the wind changes on the water and the way the chop forms will help you massively to see what is coming at you.
Go down a sail size
I used to love sailing way to overpowered. To the point that if I didn’t do at least 2 catapults in one session I wasn’t satisfied. That phase has passed thankfully but it shows that a good way to reduce your likelihood of catapulting is to get good at planing with a smaller sail.
Long harness lines
If we have too short harness lines, the reaction time available to us when something changes unexpectedly is very small. With practice we become better and it becomes more comfortable to control the sail with short lines. Until then go for longer lines which give you a bit more leeway, more range to move the sail without moving your body and greater ease to hook out.
Slalom sailers use big fins firstly to avoid spin outs from the massive sideways pressure but also to get lifted out of the water and have as little surface friction as possible. In other words, a long fin can make your board lift out of the water at high speeds (my beginner boards lift out when planing down a wave with the centre-board out). If we know how to control this there is no problem but since that probably isn’t the case, make sure your fin is not so big as to lift the board out of the water uncontrollably.
Have the foot in the back foot-strap
One of the main reasons that I recommend putting the back foot in the straps first is that this is the strap that avoids catapults more than anything else. Only having the front foot in the strap is useless as it is the pivot point over which we rotate in a catapult.
Pull the front arm close
As you notice you are being heaved forwards, pull the front arm in to take the power out of the sail. If you catch it early enough this will allow you to fall back backwards into the correct and stable position.
Push against the wind with the back hand
This can go in combination with the previous one, although I would only recommend it if you already have a little experience in lee-side sailing or some other form of sail control on the lee side of the sail.
Last Second Solution
At some point you will catapult. That’s just the way it is. Sooner or later you will be flung over the board and land with a crash or a splash. It is up to you and how you will react which one it will be and if the splash is going to hurt. The two things we want to avoid during a catapult is hitting the board with the mast or our body, and also avoid coming to a sudden halt on the sail (especially the mast).
The only real solution in this case is to sheet in as hard as we can and push the mast away from the wind. What this will do is make the sail turn downwind and let us rotate around with it so that we land in the water and ideally under the sail. This, incidendally, is also the second step to learning the front loop. I would recommend practicing this motion unhooked a few times so that you get a feeling for the motion and build up the reaction before you need it for real.
I hope this has been useful to help you prevent catapults. If you want to read more about them here is an interesting post on catapults.
My previous post on harness sailing focussed soley on the practical aspect of using the harness lines. In this post I want to give a little more insight on how to put the harness lines in the correct position.
The whole idea behind using the harness is that we relieve our arms of having to hold on. This means the harness lines should be set up so that we can technically windsurf without holding the sail with our hands. How do we do this?
Remember in my post on steering that we have a general pressure point of the sail. If our harness lines are set up to be in line with this point, we don’t need any other correcting forces (holding on with our hands). This is the reason why some people sail with their harness line clips right next to each other rather than 10-15 centimetres (4-6 inches) apart.
Some people like to put the harness lines slightly forward of the pressure point, others prefer to put them slightly behind. This depends on if they are sailing overpowered or if the wind is gusty, etc. In the end we don’t want to sail with one hand but without hands so I say, take the two minutes time to position them correctly. Here is a very insightful article by Guy Cribb on where the harness lines should be. I don’t completely agree since I believe that one should not need any hand to hold the sail. The hands in my opinion should be only for control.
How do we adjust the lines?
The best and most accurate way to determine the position of the harness lines is to connect the sail to the board and set it up upright on the shore, as close to the waterline as possible (so the wind is as similar to what we get on the water as it gets). Set the boom in the correct position and hook into the harness lines.
DO NOT stand on the board when you do this. Stand next to it.
I have seen so many people adjust the harness line position standing on the board with the fin sticking in the sand taking all the weight of the windsurfer and all the load of the sideways force from the sail. The fin can snap. Apart from this “minor” material consequence, the position is awkward and not too accurate.
The ideal would be to use a simulator as it is flat on the ground (like it will be on the water) and we can set up the harness lines in relation to how our body will be positioned on the board. As I mentioned before, this is not the case for when we stand on the board with the fin, so DON’T DO IT!
How long do the harness lines have to be?
This question is the subject of a lot of debate. Some say they have to be as long as the elbow to the wrist. Others include the whole forearm. I say the harness line length varies depending on the sail. For small sails (3.4 to 4.7) where we will be sailing a little bit more agile and the sail reacts quicker, the lines should be short (I like to have 22 cm) and for large sails (anything above 5.7) they should be longer (mine are 26 or 28 cm) so that we can really lean into the wind since we are not going to be doing much more than sailing back and forth on relatively flat water.
In the end much of it is up to your preferrence and before you go for a specific length just because someone told you to, try out a few different lengths in different winds/different sail sizes to find out what suits you best.
Once we have reached the point where we can consistently windsurf back and forth without arriving downwind from our starting point and where we tend not to fall very often, we are going to want to have longer sessions. This means we need to find a means of not getting tired. It’s time to learn how to use the harness.
What is the harness?
The harness is made up of a hook and the clothing part which fixes it in place in the region of the stomach or pelvis (this depends on whether it is a seat harness or a waist harness).
We use the harness to hook into the harness lines which are fixed to the boom. These will either be fixed or if adjustable length harness lines depending on preference. Important as a prerequisite to try to use the harness lines is that we already be used to sailing with a correct body position.
If we are not used to sailing with our hips forward and shoulders back, standing with a straight body, and instead get used to using the monkey stance, we will have trouble feeling comfortable in the harness as our body position will be completely different and we won’t be able to relax and feel in control. This is why I insist on the correct body position in my first post on how to windsurf.
How to use the Windsurf Harness
To hook into the harness lines it is important that we don’t alter the sails angle relative to the wind. We don’t want to sheet in as we try to hook in as we don’t want to get pulled forward at the exact moment in which we are “attaching” ourselves to the sail and are at our most vulnerable in terms of stability.
The idea is to bring the boom closer to our body by bending both arms simultaneously, preferably bringing our elbows down to our side (the higher the elbows are during this movement, the more energy we will be using and the less control we will have over the gear). At the same time we lean our pelvis forward, only enough for the hook to reach the lines. It isn’t necessary to touch the boom with our chest only to make sure we get in. If anything, going to far can hinder you as often times we separate from the boom again without having come near the harness line.
Sailing in the harness
This part is the one that takes some getting used to. Since the whole idea is to reduce the amount of energy we need to hold the sail, We want to practice to just lay the hands on the boom as if we were laying them on the keys of a piano and lean the sail forwards and backwards to stay on course. Don’t use your thumbs and attempt to have only your fingers or even only your fingertips touching the boom on the inside. Apart from using only the fingertips, try to focus on only pulling with one hand at a time: the back hand when we need more power in the sail because we are falling backwards, and the front hand to open the sail if we have too much power in the sail and get pulled to far forward.
How to hook out
There is a reason I advised you to only use one hand at a time while sailing if you are hooked in. The reason is that using both hands is the way to eject. Basically, by pulling the boom closer with both hands brings the harness lines closer to our body, taking away the tension in them that kept them in place, and gravity doing its thing to cause the harness lines to fall out of the hook.
It is important that when we try to hook out we focus on only bringing the boom closer and don’t move our body. The most common error is to bring the boom close but simultaneously thrusting our waist forward which causes us to hook out alright. However, the problem comes when we un-arch our back to get back into the basic windsurfing position. What I have seen time and time again is that in the moment that people bring their hips back into place, the harness hook cones back down, right into the harness lines again, completely undoing the whole effort and even making the situation more dangerous as we probably ejecting for a reason, like being unstable or wanting to do a manoeuvre.
I recommend spending a while on the simulator, getting the technique down in a controlled environment before you venture out onto the water. You want to get the feeling for how far you really need to bring the pelvis forward and fine tune the relation between arm bending and pelvis lunging when hooking in; learn to relax and practice using the arms only for positioning of the boom rather than holding on when hooked in; and building the reflex motion of getting out of the harness when you feel out of control.