Windsurfing, also known as sailboarding, funboarding or wave-sailing, is a popular sport activity involving a sail and surfboard to move above the water. Although it is a recognized Olympic sport since 1984, it mainly remains a non-competitive past-time in coastal areas. Obviously, windsurfing distinguishes itself from traditional surfing primarily through the use of a sail and the great dependence on wind. While modern boards have greatly increased the possibilities of other forms of surfing too, the arise of windsurfing first allowed boarders to ride extremely large waves. Apart from the ability to master extreme waves and reach high speeds (with records of over 90 km/h), windsurfers can also perform a wide range of freestyle moves, including jumps and spinning manoeuvres.
Although the first known windsurfing board was developed as early as 1948, it was not until the 1980s that popularity of the activity took a flight, making “sailors” or “board heads” (as windsurfers are usually called) a common beach sight. Although that popularity dropped somewhere in the 1990s, a small revival seems to be taking place and plenty of destinations in the world offer a variety of windsurfing facilities.
It’s easy to see that windsurfing combines characteristics of both traditional surfing and sailing. Although the sport requires the development of specific techniques, traditional surfing skills can make learning a bit easier. Many sailors in fact have pretty decent surfing skills too.
Although wind conditions are a determining factor in windsurfing options, the right equipment allows sailors to move in wind speeds from near 0 to about 50 knots (>90km/h). Beginners will usually take their first steps in very light winds of under 10 knots. Recreational sailors without professional gear generally prefer winds of 15 to 25 knots, which are perfect for skimming over the water (planing).
The two main pieces needed for windsurfing are of course a board and a sail, although a number of accessories are standard equipment as well. As a rule of thumb, smaller boards and sails are used to reach higher speeds. Take into account that windsurfing equipment has been the subject of rapid developments over the past years, seriously improving user friendliness. Although it is quite possible to buy second hand pieces, carefully consider buying them if they are 3 years old or more, as you might miss out on new developments that make windsurfing easier. Of course, this is especially true for beginners.
Boards and gear
In the 1970s and 1980s, windsurfers were classified as either shortboards or longboards. Longboards were usually longer than 3 meters, with a retractable daggerboard, and were optimized for lighter winds or course racing. Shortboards were less than 3 meters long and were designed for planing conditions. However, this classification by length has become obsolete, as new techniques, designs, and materials have taken the sport in new directions.
Most modern windsurfers (1990s and later) are derived from the shortboard design, and are intended to be used ideally in planing mode, where the board is mostly skipping over the surface of the water, rather than cutting through and displacing the water. Planing is faster and gives more maneuverability, but requires a different technique from the displacement mode (which is also referred to as slogging or schlogging). Generally smaller boards and smaller sails are used as the wind increases.
While windsurfing is possible under a wide range of wind conditions, most recreational windsurfers prefer to sail in conditions that allow for consistent planing with multi-purpose, not overly specialized, free-ride equipment. Larger (100 to 140 liters) free-ride boards are capable of planing at wind speeds as low as 12 kn (6 m/s) if rigged with an adequate, well-tuned sail in the six to eight square meter range. The pursuit of planing in lower winds has driven the popularity of wider and shorter boards, with which planing is possible in wind as low as 8 kn (4 m/s), if sails in the 10 to 12 square meter range are used.
Modern windsurfing boards can be classified into many categories:
Freeride: Boards meant for comfortable recreational cruising (mostly straight-line sailing and occasional turning) at planing speed (aka blasting), mainly in flat waters or in light to moderate swell. They typically fall into the volume range of 90 to 170 liters. The so-called freeride sailing movement diverged from course racing as more recreational sailors chose to sail freely without being constrained to sailing on courses around buoys.
Formula Windsurfing Class: Shorter boards up to one meter in width, for use in Formula Windsurfing races. See below for a more detailed description.
Wave boards: Smaller, lighter, more maneuverable boards for use in breaking waves. Characteristically, sailors on wave boards perform high jumps while sailing against waves, and they ride the face of a wave performing narrow linked turns (bottom turns, cutbacks, and top-turns) in a similar way to surfing. Wave boards usually have a volume between 65 and 105 liters, with a length between 215 and 235 centimeters, and 50 to 60 centimeters in width. A general rule is for a sailor to use a wave board whose volume in liters is about the same as the sailor’s weight in kilograms – more volume providing additional flotation for sailing in light winds, and less for high winds, where less volume is needed to achieve planing. In recent years, the average width of wave boards has increased slightly, as the length has shrunk, while the range of volume has been maintained the same more or less—according to board designers this makes wave boards easier to use under a wider range of conditions by sailors of differing abilities. The most common sizes of sails used with wave boards are in the range of 3.4 to 6.0 square meters, depending on the wind speed and the weight of the sailor.
Freestyle boards: Related to wave boards in terms of maneuverability, these are wider, higher volume boards geared specifically at performing acrobatic tricks (jumps, rotations, slides, flips and loops) on flat water. Usually 80 to 110 liters in volume, and about 203 to 230 centimeters in length, with widths frequently in excess of 60 centimeters. Freestyle boards began to diverge more noticeably in design from wave boards in the early part of the 2000 decade, as aerial tricks (the Vulcan, Spock, Grubby, Flaka, and related New School maneuvers, almost all involving a jump-and-spin component) became the predominant part of the freestyle repertoire, superseding Old School moves, in which the board did not leave contact with the water.
Slalom boards: In the past, the key feature of slalom boards was merely speed, but it has been proven that maneuverability and ease of use are as important as speed in order to get you around the slalom course faster, and therefore modern slalom boards are shortboards aimed at top speed, maneuverability and ease of use.
Speed boards: In essence an extremely narrow and sleek slalom board, built for top speed only.
Beginner boards: (Sometimes called funboards) these often have a daggerboard, are almost as wide as Formula boards, and have plenty of volume, hence stability.
Racing longboards: Mistral One Design, or the Olympic RS:X class race boards.
Tandem Board: The most popular tandem board is the ‘Starboard Gemeni II’.
There are many attempts to bridge the gap between any two of these categories, such as freestyle-wave, freeformula, and so on. These attempts are often successful in their own right, but every shape has its specific strong points and disadvantages. In short, a board with a lot of scoop, rocker or tailkick will turn more easily and respond to footsteering, but top speed and upwind performance will suffer. A board with a straight mid- and aft waterline will plane earlier, thus giving good upwind performance, but will not footsteer without the sailor actively shifting weight. In 2013 a Norwegian inventor Sundin Gjessing patented a prototype board which changes its tail shape with a footswitch – an attempt to combine speed and turning ability into one hull. The board has not been put into production. The original Windsurfer board had a body made out of polyethylene filled with PVC foam. Later, hollow glass-reinforced epoxy designs were used. Most boards produced today have an expanded polystyrene foam core reinforced with a composite sandwich shell, that can include carbon fiber, kevlar, or fiberglass in a matrix of epoxy and sometimes plywood and thermoplastics. Racing and wave boards are usually very light (5 to 7 kg), and are made out of carbon sandwich. Such boards are very stiff, and veneer is sometimes used to make them more shock-resistant. Boards aimed at the beginners are heavier (8 to 15 kg) and more robust, containing more fiberglass.
Modern windsurfing sails are often made of monofilm (clear polyester film), dacron (woven polyester) and mylar. Areas under high load may be reinforced with kevlar.
Two designs of a sail are predominant: camber induced and rotational. Cambered sails have 1–5 camber inducers – plastic devices at the ends of battens which cup against the mast. They help create a rigid aerofoil shape for faster speed and stability, but at the cost of maneuverability and how light the sail feels. The trend is that racier sails have camber inducers while wave sails and most recreational sails do not. The rigidity of the sail is also determined by a number of battens.
Beginners’ sails often do not have battens, so they are lighter and easier to use in light winds. However, as the sailor improves, a battened sail will provide greater stability in stronger winds.
Rotational sails have battens which protrude beyond the back aspect of the mast. They flip or “rotate” to the other side of the mast when tacking or jibing, hence the rotation in the name. Rotational sails have an aerofoil shape on the leeward side when powered, but are nearly flat when sheeted out (unpowered). In comparison with cambered sails, rotational designs offer less power and stability when sailing straight, but are easier to handle when maneuvering. Rotational sails are usually lighter and easier to rig.
A windsurfing sail is tensioned at two points: at the tack (by downhaul), and at the clew (by outhaul). There is a set of pulleys for downhauling at the tack, and a grommet at the clew. Most shape is given to the sail by applying a very strong downhaul, which by design bends the mast. The outhaul tension is relatively weak, mostly providing leverage for controlling the sail’s angle of attack.
The sail is tuned by adjusting the downhaul and the outhaul tension. Generally, a sail is trimmed more (flatter shape) for stronger winds. More downhaul tension loosens the upper part of the leech, allowing the top of the sail to twist and “spill” wind during gusts, shifting the center of effort (strictly, the center of pressure) down. Releasing downhaul tension shifts the center of effort up. More outhaul lowers the camber/draft, making the sail flatter and easier to control, but less powerful; less outhaul results in more draft, providing more low-end power, but usually limiting speed by increasing aerodynamic resistance.
The disciplines of windsurfing (wave, freestyle, freeride) require different sails. Wave sails are reinforced to survive the surf, and are nearly flat when depowered to allow riding waves. Freestyle sails are also flat when depowered, and have high low-end power to allow quick acceleration. Freeride sails are all-rounders that are comfortable to use and are meant for recreational windsurfing. Race sails provide speed at the expense of qualities like comfort or maneuverability.
The size of the sail is measured in square meters and can be from 3 m2 to 5.5 m2 for wave sails and 6 m2 to 15 m2 for race sails, with ranges for freestyle and freeride sails spanning somewhere between these extremes. Learning sails for children can be as small as 0.7 m2 and race sails up to 15 m2.
Buy or rent?
Anyone who is serious about windsurfing will soon desire their own gear, as it will best fit their needs. The choice between different kinds or sizes of sails and boards depends on the sailor’s weight, skills and preferences, making it quite worthwhile to purchase pieces that match your interests. However, keep in mind that real beginners will take their first lessons on a beginner’s board, which is more robust and designed to help you find balance. Therefore, consider renting at least your board and sail for your lessons (often the materials are even included in course prices). If you’re at all serious about picking up the skills, you’ll soon enough progress to higher levels, requiring different boards. It often pays off to discover your basic interests and preferences before making large investments in equipment you might have to abandon quickly as you develop your skills.
Sail – Sails vary in size, depending on the skill level and preferred activities of the sailor. Sailors engaging in high speed windsurfing or races typically use large sails of 6 to 15 m² in size. These sails are often “camber”-induced, which means that plastic pieces are placed in the sail to better keep it in an aerofoil shape. So-called “wave sails” are significantly smaller, usually measuring 3 to 6 m². They are augmented too, making them suited to withstand strong waves. Free ride and freestyle sails have sizes somewhere in between, and are often the sail of choice for recreational sailors as they are fairly easy to handle and can be used for different purposes. Wave, free ride and freestyle sails are usually not camber-induced, but rather are so-called “rotational sails”. They only maintain their aerofoil shape in a leeward position, when they catch full wind. In order to tack or jibe, these rotational sails need to flip from one to the other side of the mast.
Board – Modern boards are usually under 3 m in length, but they are usually measured in terms of volume and width. As with sails, skill level, weight and main activities of the sailor determine which board is most suited. As an indication, most wave and freestyle boards weigh no more than 7 kg, while boards for beginners are significantly heavier, up to 15 kg, to improve stability. Such boards for beginners are also equipped with a daggerboard.
Mast and wishbone
Free-rotating joint to connect the rig (sail, mast and wishbone) to the board
Harness – Optional, attaches the sailor to the rig. Usually not for beginners.
Fin – Especially used for “sailing” (see below)
Proper footwear, e.g. rubber surf slippers
Buoyancy aid (often just optional, but note that some destinations (especially inland waters) might require that you carry one).
Sunglasses are more than just a luxury in many places, since on the water, the brightness of the sun can be far stronger than on the adjoining land.
There are two basic ways to move forward on a sailboard. When moving in minor winds (