One of the most fun parts of my beginner lessons is getting back to the beach at the end. No, not because I am desperate to end the lessons but because it gives my students the chance to ride a wave with a windsurf board. There is very little else that will get a beginner hooked to windsurfing than the sensation of gliding down a wave (except for when I pull them so that they start planing, which is basically the same sensation). There is however a very important element to riding a wave with big boards which will make or break the ride and that is making sure that the board does not dive underwater with either the nose or the leeward rail.
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.
A while back I wrote about the rules of right of way in windsurfing. While those rules apply for 99% of occasions, once we get into spots with waves the rules change. In this case we have to know who has priority since the end result can easily be an injury or broken equipment that could have been avoided.
Sailing out has priority over those coming in on the wave
If you are on the wave you have speed and therefore manoeuverability. People sailing out are not guaranteed to be moving because of lulls or low wind. Therefore, if you are riding a wave it is your responsibility to get out of the way. Naturally we will try to not interrupt the ride of the person on the wave. However, if there is a possible collision and you are sailing down the wave, you have to get out of the way.
The one closer to the peak of the wave has priority
When two people are on the same wave the rule has been taking from surfing where the one closer to the peak has prefference. That person has made a better evaluation on the wave and has found the point where it starts to break, the best place to surf it. Don’t go to ride a wave if there is someone already on it closer to the peak. Even if you think you are not interfering, the person on the wave doesn’t know how you are going to act and can’t plan their ride properly. Also, your wake waves make for bumpy bottom turns and mess up the waves for the cut-backs.
Don’t sail in behind the wave
This is not so much a rule as a safety measure. Someone sailing out towards the wave can’t see what is going on behind the wave (if the wave is big enough). I have seen a few close calls where someone hits the wave at speed and jump, only to find someone sailing in behind the wave.
Don´t be in the waves if you are not going to surf them
As a closing note, I don’t mean to sound like a wave hogger but there is nothing quite as frustrating as following the rules and giving away a beautiful wave to someone who just sails along it as if there were no wave. With this I mean, not riding the wave but just “running away” from the wave. If you are just going to be sailing back and forth, don’t do it in an area where others want to actually ride waves. It just shows a lack or respect towards other sailors who go out of their way to find waves only to have to watch a good wave go unridden. Waves are rare in the sense that you only get 4 – 7 in a set and sometimes these sets can take quite a while to arrive. This means that there are a limited number of waves you are going to have lining up just right on all of your tacks during and hour or two hour long session. In the same way that if you are learning how to do a power gybe you would find it annoying if there were always someone practicing the water start in the only spot with flat water and constant wind. Not a great example but you get what I mean.
If you want to get into wave riding, do so in waves that are for your level so that you can at least attempt to ride the wave you are sailing in and work your way up bit by bit from there.
Ultimately, as with the standard rules of right of way, it is all about common sense and common courtesy. The rules in waves are there to make the experience safer and more enjoyable. If you mess up (like made a mistake, didn’t see the other rider, or thought you would make it, etc.) just apologise and if you are on the receiving end of such a mistake, accept the apology.
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.