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.

Windsurfing with waves neutral

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.

The solution

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.

Windsurfing with waves during
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.

The solution

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.

Windsurfing with waves after

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.