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 has been a recognized Olympic sport since 1984, it mainly remains a non-competitive past-time in coastal areas. 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.
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
- Uphoal rope
- 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 (<10 knots), the body of the board slides through the water using a fin and centreboard to maintain stability. This movement is very similar to the way a boat would make its way in still waters and is called "sailing". To steer, the board head moves the rig backward and forward, lowers the tail and/or shifts his weight to a particular side of his board.
In stronger winds, the board no longer slides through the water, but starts skimming over the surface. This is called "planing", and allows the sailor to move forward at high speeds. For many sailors, planing is the most fun part of the sport. On top of the steering techniques used for sailing, the sailor will now also shift the rig and carve the water by pressuring an edge of the board. This way, the sailor can make tacking and jibing manoeuvres, much like a sail boat would in strong winds.
Skilled sailors can engage in a range of disciplines and competitions, including freestyle, slalom, speed surfing and wave sailing.
For many, learning to windsurf may seem a tiring matter at first. Finding some balance and mastering the basic ways of steering in light winds will not necessarily take long, but the huge boards, tiny sails and low speeds that beginners will deal with can be a bit disappointing. Compared to other extreme sports, engaging in the more "fun" parts of the sport (e.g. planing at high speed) may require quite a lot of practice.
There are plenty of windsurfing schools in most suitable areas and equipment for beginners is quite good. Those that persist are rewarded with great water sports opportunities, for recreational or competitive activities.
The basic conditions needed for windsurfing are rather simple. Any place with a large water surface and a good deal of wind in principle allows for windsurfing activities, resulting in a vast list of destinations and a range of places claiming to be the "capital of windsurfing". However, the best destinations combine strong winds and great waves with gorgeous scenery, delightful climates and ample facilities.
- Maui - a professional windsurfers' favourite, Maui's waves are said to reach heights of over 30 m. The main season runs from May to October. Note that the island can get crowded during events. To make things extra exiting, make sure to watch out for sharks.
- United States - constant winds on the Columbia River make the Columbia Gorge a popular windsurfing spot. Outer Banks is one of the prime places on the East Coast and a good family destination too. Here, you'll find opportunities for beginners as well as skilled sailors. In California, Sherman Island is an excellent place to windsurf.
- Dominican Republic - with all the fine, sunny traits of the Caribbean, the constant trade winds from the east make Cabarete a delightful windsurfing place.
- Bonaire - this lovely Caribbean island benefits from sunshine and high temperatures all year round. The windsurfing hotspot is on the eastern shores, at Lay Bay, with great opportunities for beginners and experts alike.
- Costa Rica - the fierce winds at Lake Arenal offer challenges even for expert sailors. Although this is not a place for beginners, the warm air and volcano backdrop make this a great spot for skilled board heads. If you're less experienced, try the Golfo de Papagayo.
- Brazil - there are gorgeous beaches around Jericoacoara, a touristic but still traditional village surrounded by huge dunes and crystal clear waters.
- Argentina - the strong Patagonian wind makes the beautiful Lago Nahuel Huapi near Bariloche a great place for windsurfing. September to March is the best time to go.
- Venezuela - when the weather is perfect, El Yaque can get crowded with board heads. And for good reason: the water is warm, the winds great and it's at a stone's throw from the airport. Lots of shallow stretches make it great for less experienced sailors, too.
- Denmark - okay, you'll find no warm water, exotic beaches or sun all year round here. However, Denmark catches great deals of wind and has some perfect coast lines when it comes to windsurfing. There's plenty of inland waters too. For wave fans, the village of Klitmøller is famous.
- Greece - the Greek Islands are a lovely setting for water sports activities. For windsurfing, the strait between Paros and Naxos is particularly popular because of the usually strong winds. Karpathos, Vassiliki and Lemnos are also great windsurfing destinations.
- Portugal - constant wind provides Portugal with plenty of places, especially in the south. Guincho is a popular spot, as are Vilamoura, Sagres, Lagoa en Albufeira.
- Spain - although Spain's coast is dotted with windsurfing spots, Tarifa is probably the most popular one, benefiting from the strong winds of the straits. Empuriabrava and the Canary Islands are other major windsurfing destinations, with Fuerteventura being among the best places in the world.
- Turkey - the Aegean coast has a number of windsurfing destinations, with Alaçatı Bay, Foça and Akkum among the best ones.
- Namibia - Lüderitz is the place to be for everyone hoping to establish a speed record.
- Cape Verde - these islands off the western coast of Africa boast lots of sunshine all year round and constant Northeast winds.
- Egypt - Dahab is Egypts rising star in the windsurfing business, with speed strips for skilled sailors and friendly lagoon waters for newbies. El Tor, at the Sinai Peninsula, is another great, windy spot.
- South Africa - at 120 km from Cape Town, Langebaan is probably the country's best windsurfing destination, as well as its most popular.
Asia & Oceania
- Philippines - the lagoon of Boracay combines gorgeous white sand beaches with strong winds, making it a great place for high speed windsurfing. The monsoon winds are best from December to April, but are less suitable for inexperienced sailors.
- Australia - the west coast in particular has a bunch of great destinations. Lancelin is a particular windsurfing hotspot, due to the Ocean Classic race that's held there every year. The Margaret River area is another favourite destination.
Compared to other extreme sports like rock climbing or snowboarding, windsurfing has a smaller chance of injury since falling into the water is generally much less hard on your body. Windsurfing is not at all without risk, however. You will often be at open water and especially more experienced sailors will reach high speeds and move among high waves. Therefore, always use your common sense and take safety precautions and official warning signs seriously. If you're a beginner, take lessons from an experienced instructor, stay in shallow waters and as in all extreme sports: don't take on challenges you're not yet ready for.
- Check the weather forecasts, even if the wind "looks" perfect. In many places, wind speeds and directions can change quickly. Storms can also arise rapidly, and no-one wants to be on the water when lightning strikes.
- Make sure to tell someone where you're going and if you don't have a windsurfing buddy, preferably go to beaches with other people around.
- Of course, check your equipment before you go into the water.
- Never abandon your board. Even when carrying a buoyancy-kit, remember that your board is a much bigger floating device.
- Be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia and dehydration. Make sure to leave the water as soon as you even think you're experiencing any of them. Even seemingly harmless numbness in your toes can be an indication of serious trouble ahead, and you don't want to find out on the water.
- Pay attention to other people in the water and always avoid collisions, as they can cause serious injuries. For your own safety and theirs, stay well away from swimmers.
- Obviously, it's a bad idea to head into the water when you're impaired in any way, whether because you're tired, ill, hung over or anything else.
Check your travel insurance policy before engaging in windsurfing activities and make sure that they are covered. In some cases you will have to purchase additional coverage or even a specific insurance. Plenty of insurance companies have specialized packages for extreme sports in general or even windsurfing in particular. Take into account not only your potential personal expenses (medical treatment abroad can be expensive), but also liability, theft or damaging of your equipment.