Windsurfing has a name that sums itself up well.
Maybe you have never surfed a wave, but surely you can imagine the excitement of riding a tiny craft skimming the surface of the water driven along by a natural, noiseless energy.
Just trade the wave with a windsail and use the wind for that natural energy, and you are close to knowing the feeling of windsurfing.
What Is Windsurfing?
Windsurfing is a combination of surfing and sailing.
It’s also known as “boardsailing” and “sailboarding.”
It’s a recreational sport that is safe on flat water, so it attracts novices and experts alike at warm-water locations around the world.
You can’t really take a board and a parachute and go out on choppy water for your first windsurfing experience and expect to have a good time.
But with the right, lightweight equipment, water without waves, a gentle breeze, and a little patience (plus a good life jacket), just about anyone can learn enough about windsurfing to go out and come back in only a few hours.
It’s hard to say who was the first windsurfer.
There are stories of people from Polynesia who may have been making day-long trips on something similar to windsurfing boards for centuries.
The first modern windsurfer known to American history, however, was an inventor named Newman Darby, who built a windsurfing rig with a square sail when he was 20 years old, in 1948, in a place you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with windsurfing, Pennsylvania.
Darby’s windsurfing board was a hand-operated sail in a square shape attached to a small catamaran.
He played with it for years until, by the mid-1960s, he had learned how to sail a 10-foot model in high winds on a lake near his home.
Darby’s design was basically a kite resting in a notch on a board, but he wasn’t in business to get rich.
Darby spent his time in the 1960s getting young people interested in building their own primitive windsurfing boards for $50 or less, and even though he died by the beach in 2016 at the age of 88 he was saying that his greatest joy was getting so many people interested in the sport.
(Darby had another design of a rig he called a Windspear, a kind of combination of a surfboard, a kayak, and a canoe, that can be propelled by paddle or fins. It didn’t catch on, either.)
But windsurfing designs didn’t end with Darby.
Malibu Windsurfers of the 1960s
Darby’s windsurfing rig was a bust, but his efforts to popularize the sport paid off spectacularly.
By the middle of the 1960s, windsurfing fans had realized that the sail for a windsurfer could be placed in a joint, so it wasn’t always necessary to stand on the lee side of the board, away from the wind, to steer it.
Windsurfers sailing off the coast at Malibu ditched the square sail design, and added colors to the sail.
But once again, it was an engineer on the East Coast, who did water sports on the Potomac River, named James Drake who came up with a really innovative design.
Drake designed a universal joint that allowed the windsurfer to control the power of the sail and the direction of the craft at the same time.
Then he added a piece of equipment called a wishbone boom, that encircles the sail so the operator can move it in almost any direction for almost any maneuver, including gybing (turning the board so it can travel against the wind), tacking (moving forward when wind blows across the board), and waterstarting (recovering from a fall).
The Golden Age of Windsurfing
These technical innovations led to an explosion of interest in windsurfing all over the world.
Windsurfing became an event in the Summer Olympics for men in 1984 and for women in 1992.
Windsurfers participate in slaloms, wavesailing in the huge swell off Maui and many other locations in the world, wave riding, wave jumping, storm riding, big wave riding, and big air, a competition to see how can jump the highest and farthest while windsurfing.
There are indoor windsurfers, windsurfers who clock in at 50 mph (80 kph), windsurfers who brave 40-foot (13-meter) waves, and windsurfers who have crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
But windsurfing is still a sport that a complete beginner can enjoy on a calm lake and learn to take to the ocean.
So, what kind of equipment do you need to get started with windsurfing?
The standard advice is that beginners can make do with cheap equipment because they won’t appreciate all the features that add to the expense of getting equipped for the sport.
The standard advice is wrong.
Having the right equipment is just as important for beginners as it is for pros.
Windsurfing has a reputation as being hard to learn. It isn’t.
Usually the problem is that beginners aren’t using the equipment they need.
Get the right equipment, and you will master the sport a lot faster.
One good way to make sure you start off with the right equipment is to learn to windsurf through a windsurfing clinic.
You can read books and watch YouTube videos all you like — and both activities can be very helpful — but there’s nothing like an experienced instructor to make sure you get a good start.
An accredited windsurfing school will make sure you get a board that is right for your height and weight, allowing you to concentrate on keeping your balance and reacting to the force of the wind on the sail.
If you are starting out with a borrowed board, it’s really important that the sail not cover an area greater than 50 square feet (about 9 square meters).
Otherwise, you probably won’t be able to keep your rig upright and you’ll experience a lot of unnecessary frustration.
You will appreciate some details of equipment design as you go along, but for absolute beginners, here is what you need to know about all the major pieces.
When you are looking at windsurfing boards, you will notice the mast base, which attaches the sail to the board, the slot for the daggerboard, which converts forward motion to lift to counteract a leeward wind, the mast-track, which affects how the board feels when you are on it, the mast base, and the footstraps, which keep you on the board.
Most boards are coated with textured, no-slip paint, but some are rubberized, a kind of shock absorber.
The wider the board, the bigger the steering fin has to be.
Short, wide, swept-back designs will give you the greatest maneuverability.
The bigger the board, the lighter the wind it is designed to be used in.
Boards come in a bewildering variety of shapes.
It’s more useful to look for the volume of water they displace, measured in liters.
For someone weighing 165 pounds (75 kg), any board with displacement of 170 liters or more will be stable beneath their feet.
Some boards will displace up to 200 liters of water.
They are easier for learning than smaller boards.
It’s not true, however, that bigger is always better when it comes to boards.
Bigger boards are mostly used for bigger sails that allow for windsurfing in calmer winds.
Smaller boards with lower levels of displacement (less than 100 liters) are used for stronger winds.
If winds go calm, however, a board with 100 liters of displacement or less will need a water start because it will not support the weight of the person riding it.
The individual riding the board will have to use the wind to pull the rig out of the water to be able to stand up on it.
Nearly all boards are a little over 7 feet to a little over 9 feet (2.2 to 2.8 meters) long.
Board width, however, can vary dramatically.
Look for “short and wide” boards for easy control while you are still learning.
A wide tail makes tight turns easier, but a narrow tail increases your control at high speeds.
Your “motor” when you are windsurfing is the rig.
It consists of a mast, sailfoot, and mast boom.
The amount of power it generates is determined by the speed of the wind and the size of your sail.
Rigs used to be basically a bag in rainbow colors.
Now they are made with a combination of sailcloth and tough, clear plastic film.
The fact that a rig can stand up to months of pounding by the surf gives an idea of how durable it is.
Your rig acts on the same principle as a wing.
Air travels faster over one side of your rig to give it lift.
But the rig has to have the ability to twist, flex, and shape itself in the wind to deal with small changes in wind speed.
And your rig depends on proper tension.
Sails range in size from about 10 to 100 square feet (3 to 12 square meters).
The smallest sails are designed for windsurfers looking to have a good time.
The largest sails produce enough wind power to pull a rig across an ocean.
Proficient windsurfing sailors usually get good results with sails of 25 to 50 square feet (about 4.5 to 8 square meters).
Sails with a full shape are powerful but hard to control.
A sail with a flatter profile will be easier to control but lacking in power even in a stiff wind.
Evey sail is designed to take a mast of a certain size and stiffness.
Stiffness is measured on the International Mast Check System (IMCS) scale in units ranging from 19 (soft) to 30 (stiff).
Masts are usually made from a mixture of carbon and fiberglass.
The higher the percentage of carbon, the more flexible the mast will be, but it will also be softer.
The boom is made from either carbon or high-quality aluminum.
For the boom, carbon doesn’t have a lot of advantages, so most sailors go with the less expensive aluminum option.
Beginners typically only need two booms.
Choosing the equipment that gives you the most early success
The mistake beginners most often make in choosing their equipment is trying to use a rig that is too heavy.
That can be a problem at inexpensive windsurfing schools who outfit their students with out of date, heavy equipment.
It’s extremely important to have a sail that generates enough power so you won’t feel like a limp lettuce leaf while you are out of the water.
You need the right sail to develop the right posture.
Just about everyone can master windsurfing, but it is a process that requires some trial and error.
Here’s the process you will go through as you become proficient in the sport.
Back and Up
You will — or at least you should — start windsurfing on a small, wide board in a light wind on flat, wave-free water.
For your first session, you will be figuring out how the wind works, at the same time that you are getting a feel for how the wind pushes the sail, at the same time you are controlling the pull in the sail and keeping your balance on a floating platform.
You will quickly learn how to raise the rig, turn the board around, and maintain a comfortable sailing position.
You will learn how to steer.
And you may learn how to get your rig out of water like you were on water skis if your rig is too small.
More Speed, More Power
The next skill you will learn as you become a proficient windsurfer is how to lean your body away from your rig to keep your balance to maintain your rig in an upright position.
You will test how well you have mastered this skill when you try a bigger sail or you go out in a stronger wind.
There’s no shame in taking a spill the first time you use a big sail or you go out in a strong wind.
But be sure you know how to get yourself up in the water and how to stay close to your rig. Don’t go windsurfing alone.
Footstraps, Harness, and Planing
As you sail in increasingly challenging conditions, it becomes increasingly important to stay attached to your board.
Footstraps, which are loops on the deck that you slip your feet through, give you increasing control over your board.
Your harness gives your arms relief as it allows you to use your core body strength to right and steer the board.
And planing is what helps you rise out of the water and skim along the surface, the way you imagined it would be when you first started windsurfing.
Smaller Boards, Waterstarts, and Carving Turns
Eventually you will learn how to sail in strong winds.
Your rig will stop being a dinghy without a seat and become a surfboard.
You will learn how to go faster with smaller boards, how to use the wind to pull you up out of the water with waterstarts, and how to use carving turns to make 180-degree course corrections.
You will learn how to take dynamic forces with your feet.
As you have built up your whole-body strength and your kinesthetic skills to master your rig, endless avenues call for you.
You will be able to windsurf anywhere, taking control on the water in all but dangerous weather conditions.
We don’t, for example, recommend windsurfing when there’s lightning in your area.
You can’t windsurf your way out of a tsunami.
But you can learn to windsurf in a variety of conditions that give you a feeling of masterfully gliding over the water.
Can You Become a Competitive Windsurfer?
As a beginner, you aren’t ready to take on the finer points of windsurfing like the pros.
But if you aspire to compete in windsurfing, remember this one principle:
Competitive windsurfing isn’t all fun and games. It’s ultimately about earning money for your sponsors.
That is, unless you are destined to become the twenty-first century’s Newman Darby.
There’s always room in the windsurfing world for that one person who is supremely talented at having fun.