No matter what your level on the board is, sailing upwind is always an important skill. When learning, it is the key skill to come back to where you started. If you master it you don’t have to walk anymore. Experienced wave sailers need to sail upwind as fast as possible to get in the right position for a new wave ride. Racers and slalom surfers can make the difference in a race if they hit the top buoy firs.
So, how do you get upwind easier? Actually there are two different factors in sailing upwind. Your skills and your gear. Larger fins, less round edges and more board volume help. But unless you have the skills to maximize their effect you might have to do the walk of shame. Here are my favourite tips to sail upwind.
Speed Comes First, Angle of Attack Comes Next
To sail upwind you need a minimum amount of speed. Without enough lift from your sail pulling you forward, the board will be sliding sideways. If the board drifts downwind like that the nose of the board can be pointing towards the mark point but you can’t make it. Simply because you are drifting of the line towards the mark in a downwind direction.
So make sure you have speed first. Smaller boards, and especially boards without a dagger board often, sail upwind far easier when planing. So, go downwind, speed up, plane away and then sharpen the angle of attack towards the wind. Going from a downwind course, over close haul into an upwind direction.
Every time I teach someone windsurf lesson one, I emphasize the importance of the front foot direction. Toes must point towards the front of the board. Not toward the leeward edge. In my experience, as soon as students do this, they find windsurfing easier.
Why? If the front foot points forward, the hip opens up. Meaning the line from one femur head (thigh bone head) to the other is no longer parallel to the length of the board. Instead the front femur head is turned away from the board. Opening the hips away from the central nose to tail line of the board. The front shoulders also open up, away from the central line.
Automatically your nose will be more in the direction you are going instead of looking at the leeward side. Now the sail is pulled more to the front of the board. The windsurfer sees the nose of the board through the sail. Instead of looking at the leeward side.
The picture shows the stances of the feet. The dotted line is the centreline of the board. The blue line between the feet is the center line of the body (between the two femur heads). The arrow is the force in the sail pulling. Notice that the windsurfer with the front foot pinting to the nose of the board has a different sail position.
The red arrow points at a front foot that is pointing in the wrong way (to leeward side). The green circle is showing the angle between the hip line (blue) and board center line (dotted). The front foot on the board with the blue circle is pointing forward. This has opend up the sail a bit on the close haul course.
If the sail pulls, the surfer is no longer pulled of the board on the leeward side. In the new position the surfer is pulled in the sailing direction, towards the nose. Now the windsurfer can stretch the front leg and use the front foot as a ‘gaspedal’.
These where the basics. If you get them right while sailing down wind or close reach (90 degree angle towards the wind) that is a great start.
Now, if you want to sail upwind, shifting the bodyweight to the front of the board a bit might help a lot. I imagine to watch around the mast when trying this. This shift in weight transfers more weight to the mastfoot via the boom and the mast. The mastfoot now acts more as a third foot. Therefore the weight distribution on the board is shifted forward.
To me it feels like I use a larger part of the leeward edge carving the water. This feels like I have more grip on the water. Preventing the board from sliding over the water in a downwind direction with the nose pointing upwind.
Next time you are at the beach perhaps you have an opportunity to watch a few windsurfer. The girls and guys going upwind efficiently are worth watching. Can you see how their board moves in the upwind direction without drifting off the course?
It is interesting to see how less experienced windsurfers have their board in the same direction but lose valuable upwind distance, because their boards drifts away downwind.
Front Foot Position
As said before, I consider my front foot to be the ‘gaspedal’. Toes always pointing to the mast or nose of the board.
When not planing the front foot can be placed more towards the mast. This way the body weight is more equally distributed over the volume of the board. As a result the board will be more flat on the water.
If your feet are at the tail too much, you push the tail down. The board will have to push more water away. In shipping terms: you will have more water displacement. This reduces speed and ability to sail upwind easy. It also prevents the board from planing easily.
When sailing upwind while planing, I always try to get my heels a little to the edge of the board. There is a reason why slalom and race boards have two straps at the tail. Placing the feet towards the edge enables you to push at the tail. A bit like a catamaran sailor standing on the edge of the hull while hanging outward in her harness.
Once you master the technique above, the last tweak is to use your toes to push the leeward edge in the water for more grip. I mean this as in compensating the board from tilting towards the side you stand on. Flat on the water placed boards go faster.
It might feel like if tilting the board on the edge a little bit. I know, these are a lot of steps. In my experience it’s is easiest to try one at a time. Once you master it. Add one and so on. The bonus tip about using a GoPro camera further on might help speed up the learning curve if you like.
Always make sure you and others are safe. Trying new things might require more concentration that you are aware off. A bit like texting while driving. Keep this in mind and keep watching your surroundings to avoid collisions etc.
Body Weight Distribution
When planing downwind full power, the bodyweight is hanging a bit back and the board surface that is actually hitting the water is minimized. Going upwind requires a different strategy. The fin has to work harder to keep you from sliding sideways. Edges can be used more to help doing this.
As mentioned before, sailing upwind successfully requires the body weight to move forward. Hanging the bodyweight more forward and a bit more downward, pushes weight on your mast foot (via the boom). Not sure if this is an official term, but I call it the third foot technique. I have seen it being is used a lot and I once got the tip from a guy that was racing in national competition.
Make sure though, that there is still enough of weight on your own two feet. The back foot needs pressure to keep enough pressure to the fin. Pressing the toes down can help using the leeward rail for grip.
Sometimes I take my back foot out of the strap and place it a few inches forward. It feels like ´cheating´ a bit, but it can get me a small extra advantage in times of need.
I do this when I need to go upwind in low wind conditions on flat water. Perhaps when wind drops during a wave session. Being close to the shore just at the back of a rolling wave where the water isn´t choppy.
Using the Leeward Edge
Just a little summary here because I already mentioned a few things about the leeward edge. There is a reason why race, freeride and slalom boards have sharper edges. They can provide grip on the water when going upwind. The downside, by the way, is that rounder edges turn faster. But that is stuff for another blog.
Using the leeward edge to go upwind easier can be done by actively pressing it into the water. Pressing the toes a bit can be enough. I try to put more pressure on the edge by placing my feet more to the opposite edge. I imagine to push force through the board on the leeward edge.
Using the Gust
Gusts are friend when it comes to going upwind. I won´t dig into the exact aerodynamics here. Just some practical info that can be used the next time you stand on your board. Here is how I use them.
Gusts often can be seen upfront. Just a little more wrinkles moving over the water in a shadow like shape. When I see them coming I know I can gain a few meters upwind.
When I feel the extra power in my sail, I steer upwind a few degrees by moving my sail back a bit. Hanging even more towards the mast, that came to me because I pulled the sail back. I press the leeward edge in a bit more and enjoy the free extra upwind distance.
Since you are going upwind you are moving towards the wind and thus towards the gust. This creates a relatively stronger effect of the gust since the apparent wind is stronger than the real wind. A great advantage if you can use it!
Make sure, thought, that you are in time when it comes to steering back to the original course. Since the gust can last short. It would be an anticlimax if you hold your extra sharp position longer than the gust. This could result in loss of speed. Even loss of the planing. Just look out for gusts and play with them a bit until you master this trick.
Don’t Lose It in a Wind Lull
Where there are gusts, often there are wind lulls. In my opinion it is pointless to be stubborn and maintain course in a lull if this makes you lose speed. You risk having to get planing again. So, in a lull, I immediately adjust my course. Going downwind a few degrees towards, or even further than, close reach. If losing a few degrees gives a couple of knots more board speed I choose for speed.
Keep planing, keep speeding and keep paying attention to where you where heading. Once the lull is over you can always refit your course. Chances are there is a gust on the way that you can use to compensate for the loss of upwind distance you had. Speed before angle I call this to make quick decisions while on the board.
Orientation and Position Checking
A few years ago I was windsurfing with a friend. At a certain point we where close racing. Sailing away from the beach. We knew that about 3 miles / 4,5km out was a small island. Since neither of us wanted to quit first we refused to jibe.
A little later we were standing at the little island. Looking back at the beach we had no idea where our car was! Lesson learned: make sure you always have reference points or marks that are well visible from a large distance.
This is always a good idea when it comes to safety. But it also helps when sailing upwind. Especially when you are tacking between the legs you sail, it can help to look over your back shoulder. I try to postpone my tack until I can see my mark point over my back shoulder.
Bonus 1: Pump to Get Planing Faster
The first tip was to speed up first before sharpening the angle of attack towards the wind. Pumping the sail can increase acceleration. This way the distance you travel downwind to speed up is reduced. Afther all. you have to go less far downwind to get the speed you need. As a result there is less distance to make up for, before you can start really moving upwind. I mean measured from the point where you started.
Bonus 2: Training With the Olympic Triangle
To get better at sailing upwind practice is necessary. How do to practice efficient and speed up the learning curve are key questions.
Using the Olympic triangle,in my opinion and experience, is a great way to learn sailing different courses. I have used it in many lessons for intermediate and advanced windsurfers. The windsurfer is challenged to sail a few legs upwind towards a buoy. That stimulates orientation and sailing towards a mark. As a result you will notice drifting off line faster.
Moreover there are gibes and downwind legs to reward the hard upwind work with speed.
Doing this together with a friend makes it easy to compare speed and angles of attack in the same circumstances. Not only is it more fun to train together, it might speed up learning loops as well.
Bonus 3: Speed Up the Learning With a GoPro Camera (video interaction training)
Doing all the above might really speed up the learning. But, there is one more chance to gain an advantage that I feel I have to share. You could probably speed up your learning even more if you could see yourself during your attempts.
That’s why I love sailing with a GoPro camera attached to my boom or mast top. This way I can see if I was really hanging to the front as much as I thought. Actually, to make your video feedback more valuable you can yell at the camera when you are starting work on a specific learning task.
For example, I can yell at the camera: “Extreme Hanging to front”. Looking back at the video footage I can hear this marker signal. Of course it can be hilarious, but it creates a great opportunity to know exactely when you were trying what, and how well you did.
I have also tried filming a friend with a GoPro attached to a helmet. Sailing behind the other person can yield great moving images that are ideal for learning.
Water resistant GoPro camera’s can be bought online. I have found special action packages for sale. They include several means to attach the camera to tubes (like a boom), helmets or impact vests. In the recommended gear section the GoPro camera can be found, including links to shops for more info.
There is probably a lot more to say about this subject. I felt like trying to help by sharing the best tips I had. Most windsurfers probably know a few of the tips already. So, if you have found just one or two things that can help you improve your windsurfing I feel this blog was worth the effort.
For my learning loop, if you have learned something or if you have constructive feedback. Feel free to leave a comment!
Disclaimer: these are just my experiences and my knowledge. Always make your own, well considered choices about what you do and try and what you don’t do or try. Learning new things in a sport always has an element of risk. I can’t be held responsible for what you do on the water.