Windsurfing: A Primer

How to Hit the Water and Ride the Wind, and What to Bring Along When You Go

From the coastline, windsurfing looks artistically effortless—indeed, witnessing an expert cut and pull against the wind, arc into an aerial, and then land the board with a splash may have planted the first seed. But before you set off to brave Oregon's gorge, familiarize yourself with basics.

Longboard Sailing
The sport of windsurfing started decades ago with longboards, plastic 12-footers that weighed 40 to 50 pounds fully rigged. Though slow to turn, they were reasonably stable, and fun in moderate conditions.

You can learn how to sail a longboard in light to medium winds at any lake or beachfront resort that has a boardsailing shop nearby. Expect to spend 15 to 20 hours on the board before you have mastered most of the basic techniques. Many shops offer a two- or three-day program for around $150 including board rental. By all means, try two or three days of longboarding before you book an expensive boardsailing vacation.

The Shortboard Challenge
If you enjoyed the longboard experience, you'll want to move on to shortboards—the speedy but tricky thoroughbreds of the sport. Since a shortboard is very unstable, you cannot simply stand on it and haul the sail up. Instead, it must be waterstarted. Waterstarting requires patience, the right conditions, and a good instructor. Float upwind of the board, and then kick the nose downwind so that the wind blows across it. Then haul the mast over the board so that the top end points into the wind, with the boom resting on the back of the board. As the wind starts to fill the sail, place one foot on the board, keeping your body in the water. Grab the mast with your forward hand, the boom with your back hand, and let the wind haul you up on the board. Once you get the hang of it, waterstarting will seem easy, although it is frustrating at first for everyone.

In three to five days you will be able to waterstart well off the beach and tentatively come back in. After a week or so you should have secure two-way waterstarts, and be able to use your footstraps properly. After 10 days you'll be able to sail fast in a straight line using your harness and footstraps. After two weeks many sailors are starting to make a few jibes, but this is not always the case.

There is no substitute for time on the water. Learn your skills one at a time, and don't expect to be a pro tomorrow. Two weeks in Maui or Aruba will teach you enough that you will start having fun, and to be able to sail your own shortboard when you return home. Maui is your best warm-water training site, followed by Aruba, the eastern Caribbean, and Baja. Package vacations usually include lessons, unless otherwise noted.
What to Bring
On a package tour, it's not necessary to bring much of anything except a light wetsuit and gloves and booties. The equipment you will rent, especially in Hawaii, is likely to be better and newer than what you have at home. If you bring a board, make it an eight-foot to eight-foot-10-inch wave board, nothing bigger. Your package will cover rental of a larger nine-foot to nine-foot-eight-inch slalom board for you to use. For locations with variable winds, consider bring sails as well—a four-foot-five-inch and five-foot-two-inch are the most versatile for tradewind conditions. You probably won't bother to sail with anything bigger, and if you really need a three-foot-nine-inch or foor-foot sail, it's easy enough to rent one. Most windsurf rental shops offer a two-sail or one-sail package, which permits you to exchange sizes as needed. Don't bother to bring a mast, even a two-piece. Do pack a large board-bag; it will come in handy when you're driving around looking for the best wind.

Gear Transport
Boards under eight-foot-six-inches can usually be shipped as part of your regular baggage allowance at no extra charge, or for a nominal fee. Larger boards may be subject to a significant surcharge. (And some airlines have a surfboard-only policy, so you may want to remove the footstraps to avoid surcharges.) Use a padded board-bag and cushion the nose, tail, and rails with foam tubing. If your board is particularly fragile, bubble-wrap it nose to tail. If you plan to take a mast, which we don't recommend, make sure it's a two-piece. Many airlines refuse to ship a full-length mast, no matter what you pay.

Buy extra insurance for your equipment. The standard insurance offered by most air carriers will not cover the cost of the board alone, much less your whole inventory of sails and gear.

Health and Medicine
The three major boardsailing health hazards are sun, staph infections, and coral cuts. At a typical windsurfing resort, you'll be spending eight hours a day in intense tropical sun. Be smart. Wear a hat and sunglasses. Use a high-neck lycra skinsuit or shorty top to keep the sun off your shoulders and neck. The best sunblock we've found is AloeGator. It truly lasts for hours, even in the water.

To avoid staph infections, thoroughly clean and disinfect all cuts and abrasions immediately. If the wound is small, use NuSkin (liquid Band-Aid) to keep it sterile and sand-free. For bigger abrasions, use a waterproof dressing covered with duct tape. If you get a coral cut, clean out the wound immediately, using a toothbrush if necessary to get rid of all the coral particles. Contrary to myth, the coral will not grow under your skin, but it will promote bacteria. It is important to treat the cut within the first hour or so, before the bacteria get started. Once the wound is thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, keep it covered for a week. Minor coral cuts should heal within a week or so. If you still notice redness, pain, or puffiness, you should see a physician.

Published: 20 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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