Windsurfing Lessons: 3 Step System to Teach Beginners Fast

Want to teach your kids or your (girl-) friend windsurfing? Many people tried to pull up the sail for an hour in vain. Only to ‘learn’ that they are not good at windsurfing. The 3 step system that I used and perfected for 20 years can turn you in a great teacher. Even instructors that I thought, often could hardly believe the progress they could facilitate.

What does it take to be a very effective instructor who gives fun lessons? A part from you knowing how to windsurf there are more essentials. Communication, observer skills, feedback techniques and offering the lessons or bits of information in the right size and order. On top of that sensitivity to the pupils learning style could improve results big time.

Many windsurfers teach others without a really good game plan. As a result, they stick to ‘showing how it is done’ and shouting corrections and tips over the water. Actually there is quite a lot to teaching windsurfing effectively. Once you know a few secrets, you can really improve the fun and pace in learning for your pupil and yourself. Here is what I have learned in various (didactic) trainings that I took to become an instructor training instructors.

I will describe a few conditions and tips first. The blog continues by explaining the 3 step system. If you just want to know about the system that is fine. Skip the stuff in between. Except for the paragraph on Safety. It’s hard to waste time on that, so just check it out before you go to the ‘how to’ part.

Theory Lessons While Still On The Shore

Since I have both taught windsurfing and sailing I can tell the biggest difference. When teaching windsurfing you are very likely not near to your student. So, as a result, most communication becomes a challenge. More on this further on. For now I stick to one, often overlooked advantage, that you can get. Teach on shore what you can, while communication is still very easy.

An example of this is lessons about wind direction:

Kids often like little games (as do adults) when learning, I tried this ‘wind direction game’. And it really worked well.

For experienced windsurfers it is hard to imagine that someone doesn’t know the wind direction. Your job as a teacher, though, is just that: imagine what the world is like for the student and then offer the right seized bits of info in the right order and pace.

So imagine a newbee windsurfer having to process a lot of info at the first day on the beach. How much easier would it be, to have learned to determine the wind direction and the different courses to sail, before!? That enables the student to learn skills in an interaction with the environment that he or she understands much better.

So, here is what I did with a friend who wanted to learn windsurfing. Every time we were walking outside together, I would ask 2 questions:

  • In what direction is the wind blowing?
  • What indication(s) did you use to find out? Flags, windmills, smoking chimneys?

Each time she answered, I took time to give useful feedback. This can also be done while watching outside during cold or rainy days by the way.

As a result my friend started to get a much better feel for wind directions, changes and cues to tell them. Not only could she use flags and smoking chimneys to tell the direction, she also started looking ad cues like waves and wrinkles on the water that gave away gusts.

She started noticing changes in wind directions and speeds, even before she had ever stepped on a board. One day she told me she was travelling home from work, and she started smiling. She had ‘caught’ herself determining wind directions and cues like flags and windmills. This to here became a fun and natural thing to do.

Now I explained to her what directions one can sail. Whenever we passed a lake or a river I would ask her:

Given the wind direction, how would you put your board in the water to start sailing Close reach? Or Broad reach?

As a result she felt confident ‘reading’ the wind and knowing what courses to sail. Even before the first lesson on the water.

During this first lesson she had a huge advantage over other students, who had to process a lot  more information at once.

This little example, that might seem very obvious, contains a few important lessons for teachers:

  • Communicate when it is easy
  • Cut information in smaller bits and offer them over time, also when not on the beach if possible.
  • Info offered in small bits increases the opportunity to have many small success experiences. These can boost confidence. Important when learning a skill like windsurfing that will require determination.
  • Gamification often works well. Have fun while learning.

Safety!

Safety is the most important issue when teaching windsurfing in my opinion. That includes safety for the student, the teacher and al living creatures around.

Personally I feel responsible for the safety of everybody around the lessons. Note that your student might not know how to solve little issues. Solutions that are natural to you might not be available to them. So think far ahead about safety.

Talk about safety as a part / start of every lesson. Have it in mind while choosing a spot and gear. To me that includes proper protection from sunburn and hypothermia (A proper suit is important even op a sunny day. What is the water temperature? ) too.

Check if the student can swim good enough!

Further examples of how I care about safety are: I teach students to jump of their board while holding their sail when they can’t steer away from a potential collision. I also make them aware of the responsibility not to hit swimmers or people / dogs on the beach. Be aware that non windsurfers tend to come close to lessons on the downwind side, within reach of a falling sail. I make student aware of their own safety responsibility. If I am not sure it’s is safe to windsurf or to teach I don’t do it.

Please read the ‘caution’ at the end of this blog before applying any of this.

Communication

As I mentioned before communication is an extra challenge while teaching somebody windsurfing. Unless you are in a boat close by, or if you are working with a waterproof headset, you are probably best of calling short instructions. Of course these have to be explained before the surfer starts drifting away from you. More on this in the text about the 3 step system.

Observer Skills

A newbee windsurfer, who stands on a board for the first times, has a dozen things to improve before sailing up and down effortlessly. You probably see a lot of chances for improvement at the same time.

Observing is more than just seeing a few things that can be done better. It really helps to have a step by step approach for teaching. This helps you to focus your observations per step on the most important issues. Focus on them and you will perhaps see more clear what the student exactly needs right now for the next step in improvement.

In my experience, training you instructors eye for the right cues at the right time can improve your didactical performance.

Feedback Techniques

Feedback is a subject that has thousands of pages written about it. Personally I believe there are many ways that lead to Rome concerning feedback. Your personal style is something you have developed over the years and if it works that is fine.

Now I will write about a few didactic tweaks for you to consider. Perhaps one or two of them can make your feedback more efficient. Or, since every pupils learning style fits best with a certain feedback style, improve your range of effectiveness a bit.

Tweak one: Never get angry at somebody who is sincerely trying to learn something. Teaching can be frustrating if you work hard to explain something and the student just doesn’t get it. Getting angry is not going to make somebody learn faster. If I feel frustrated I ask myself:

  • What does the other person need to learn this?
  • Is this the appropriate step in the learning process
  • What can I do different?
  • Do I need to change the way I explain?
  • Do I need to give an example ore should I explain the theory once more?
  • Perhaps I need to ask the students what they need to learn?

Tweak two: Choose what to give feedback about. All at once equals (almost) nothing in my experience. It is not just intellectual knowledge we are talking about when learning windsurfing. The student must also, at the same time, convert knowledge it in to body movement. And, at the same time, work with sensory feedback from board and sail too! Small bits do the trick.

Tweak three: One more bit of experience on feedback. Asking for feedback is something I don’t see many instructors do. A shame, because it can really improve the teaching experience for both student and teacher. Examples:

  • Can you hear me loud and clear?
  • Are we still having fun?
  • Do you want to practise this for another hour or shall we have lunch now?
  • How is the pace for you? Am I teaching to slow or to fast or is it OK?
  • How do you like the examples? Enough or do you want more?

Bonus tweak: Video interaction learning for yourself: Every time I hear teachers talk about seeing themselves at work on a video I am surprised how much they claim to have learned. Perhaps this video interactive learning is worth trying if you feel you want to improve your teaching skills. Film yourself while teaching (ask permission from pupils) and watch the video to see how people react on the things you do.

Right Sized Bits of Info

Most people who have learned a difficult task might have come to a point where motivation started to drop a bit. Often this is a result of a lack of visible results despite a lot of effort.

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to motivate people. Tell them that small setbacks are part of the process and that this is fine.

Another thing that might keep spirits high is working with small, clear goals and rewards. And bits of info that fit these small goals and sub goals.

Example: If my goals is to be windsurfing at high speed while effectively making use of a harness, I have a long way to go from lesson one. The reward is very far ahead in the future. Maybe not even this holyday.  A lot of work combined with a possible reward that I can’t see at the horizon. How much fun is that?

Instead I can work with small goals. Like: ‘Getting up the board, pulling up the sail and sailing a couple of meters’. That is a goals that I can reach the first day. The student can go home feeling that he or she nailed it. That makes you want to try again the next lesson. Don’t you think?

The 3 step system to sailing up and down by themselves

OK, as promised, I will now write about the 3 step system that I mentioned earlier.

This system is used to teach people windsurfing basics. It is an effort to ‘breaking information down in small chucks’ and ‘offering them in the right order’. It also helps communicating effectively while teaching. Doing so, the teaching and learning follow a natural flow and become more easy and fun.

It works with 3 steps or phases:

  1. Getting on the board and getting the sail up.
  2. Standing up while holding the sail by the outhaul close to the body & steering.
  3. Coming in to a sailing position (and sailing a few meters!)

Before these steps, I instruct on ‘step zero’: a little theory. As described above. Teach pupils the basics of wind directions. If you can’t do it before the lessons. Just start the first lesson with the question: where is the wind coming from? Can everybody stand with their back against the wind?

Basics can be taught on shore. An old board, without fins, is ideal to learn the basic steps on the sand or grass. Especially when it can turn around a bit. I experimented with a car tyre under the baord to make it a bit wobbly, simulating water and making turning easier. See for yourself what works best for you.

I always explain the 3 steps once while demonstrating it live. Then I let the student do the actions while I explain again. Remember, all of this might be easy for experienced windsurfers. It can be a lot of info at once for a beginner.

Here are the sub steps I use:

Step 1) Pulling Up The Sail By Technique, Not By Pure Strength

Explanation:

Explain what Close reach is. And put the board on a 90 degree angle to the wind.

Let the pupil stand with two feet on the board at the leeward side. Feet at shoulder width, toes pointing to the luff side. The mast exactly in between the feet (picture).

Explain that water is heavy, and that windsurfing is about technique rather than pure strength only.

I explain that a 5m2 sail with a 4 inch /10 cm layer of water on it, contains a 1100 lbs / 500kg load. Kind of hard to be lifting up all day. So it’s time to learn a technique to use simple physics to help us.

Technique:

I let the pupil squad and take the uphaul cord in two hands. One hand just above the other. I call this ‘start position one’ explicitly.

Explain that you can use almost sheer body weight to lift the mast up a bit. Just hanging on to the uphaul cord. This way the water will flow off the sail. The sail will move in an vertical position. Now only the weight of the sail needs to be lifted.

Explain / show that the sail can be lifted from the water by stretching the legs while pulling the uphaul cord towards the chest. While pulling the cord in the hands move on the cord towards the boom. Hand over hand over hand, until standing up with the knees a little bend for stability. Uphaul cord held in both hands. Leaving 4 inches / 10 cm of cord to allow the sail to move in the wind freely.

This is what I call ‘start position 2’ : Standing up with the cord in two hands. Feet still pointing with the toes towards the leeward side at equal distance from the mast. Balancing with the knees slightly. Start position 2 is the end of step one, and the beginning of step two. Later I explain why it is also the

Extra remarks:

Though I am a great fan of using technique instead of brute force, of course I know that body strength is needed. I have been enjoying quite some muscle strain after windsurfing. There is a special blog about effective windsurfing exercises for those who like to read a more about this subject.

I was told that it is best to keep the spine in a neutral position. Not rounding the lower back. Pupils should consult a physician if they have questions about this. I just give information on how I do things, no medical advice.

Step 2: Holding The Sail And Adjusting Course

Most windsurfers experience that the board starts turning while they uphaul the sail. Changes in pressure on the feet, while pulling the sail, can cause the board to turn.

While in the beginning this can be unwanted it, eventually, it becomes the way to stear the board back on a 90 degree angle to the wind. Close reach.

So, the second step is to teach the student to ‘play’ with the sail and with the pressure on both feet to change the direction of  the board.

Pulling the sail a bit to the nose of the board can result in more pressure on the foot on the front side. Thus the board will turn away from the windsurfer at that side. Going downwind.

To steer the board back to the wind the sail can be pulled towards the back of the board. Giving more pressure to the back foot. And vice versa.

Later on, after step 3 is completed, I will uncover a bonus step. Step 4: first tacks and gibes. I use the above to start tacking and gibing when the time is right.

Step 3: Sailing Away!

Now that the student can stand up while holding the sail and change the course, it is time to sail away.

Warning: Make sure you take sufficient safety precautions here. Especially in case you don’t have a boat, sailboard or SUP to go after the windsurfer. If the first meters go well, and the surfer holds on to the sail, he or she can be out of hearing distance sooner than you expect.

I always choose shallow water that allows the student to walk back. Agreeing upon the surfer letting the sail down and walking back after a few meters works well for me.

Explain:

To sail away the windsurfer must hold on to the boom and get in to the right body position.

The foot that is closest to the nose of the board (‘front foot’ from now on) should be turned. Toes pointing towards the nose now. By turning the foot with the toes to the front, the front leg turns too. Thus ‘opening’ the hip towards the nose. But first, let’s get our hands on the boom!

Technique:

If the right foot is the front foot, the right hand is the front hand. This hand is going to be placed on the boom first.

I let the windsurfer (that was still standing in start position 2) put the front hand on the boom. close to the mast. From now on we call this hand the ‘mast hand’. Since it is closest to the mast.

This is almost like holding the sail at the cord. Still standing with slightly bend knees, the challenge is to stabilize this position for a few seconds. Keeping the board in the 90 degree angle towards the wind.

Now the windsurfer can put the other hand at the boom. Further away from the mast. From now on I call this hand the ‘sail hand’. With two hands on the boom, the ‘mast hand’ and the ‘sail hand’ we only have to turn the body to the front and let the wind and sail do their job.

Tip: Naming the hands by their position on the boom proved to work better in my lessons than using right and left. Since this changes while windsurfing in the opposite direction on the way back later on.

While the sail hand is put on the boom, the windsurfer should move his feet a bit back on the board. Still standing shoulder width, but now the front foot is parallel with the mast foot. This foot should be turned. Toes now pointing towards the nose of the board. In the direction the windsurfer is sailing.

Tip 2: I call the masthand the ‘power control hand’. To get more power, this hand can be pulled back to ‘close the sail’.  Beginner windsurfers often get pulled of the board. I teach them to open the sail quickly when this happens. Pushing the power hand a bit away from them to open the sail and thus decrease power.

Pushing the hips a bit towards the sail also helps for a nice sailing body position.

Time For A Little Practice

In my experience many people can learn the basics of windsurfing using these steps. To facilitate learning I explain small bits of info and them I let the student practice. While on the water I only use clear code words like: ‘mast hand’. Before I have explained the use of clear codes while communicating over the water. The ‘mast hand at shoulder’ code can easily be explained on shore where the instructor can show exactly what goes wrong and how getting the mast hand back to the shoulder solves this problem.

This also gives focus on what we are practicing. So If we are working on the beginning of step 3. And the student gets pulled of the board by the sail for example, I focus on the hands. Only calling either:

  •  “Masthand at the shoulder”
  • “Open the sail hand”
  • “You are doing great!”

In this phase my experience is that holding the mast hand close to the shoulder and regulating power in the sail with the sail hand, is the biggest challenge. If pupils hold on to both hands they often get pulled forward. Once they master the skill of standing up in a strong position and regulating power a great success has been accomplished.

Once the student is able to do this well enough, we focus on the next point. Perhaps the stance of the feet. Doing so I try to create a series of small and motivating successes.

Bonus Step 4: Tacking and Gibing For the First Times

The 3 step system has a clear goal: getting to the point where a windsurfer can start windsurfing a few hundred meters in beginner conditions.

Soon though, when they like the feeling, they might want to go further and faster. To a point where turning and sailing back becomes very desirable.

Here is how I use Step 2 to help people learn to tack and gibe:

First I rehearse step 2. Now explaining that the way we turned the board back to a 90 degree angle to the wind can also be used to turn the board around.

Second I show it on the water. I show step 1, step 2 and come to stand in a stable position. After that I start pulling the sail to one side. Exaggerating the power on one foot so it is clear to see that the board turns.

Third I let the student experience this.

After that I show how I can turn the board in a more controlled and stable way by doing the same thing. Just making small steps around the mast until I have turned the board on the spot.

Again I let the student practice this.

Once this is mastered by the student it, is time to go back to the originals 3 step programme and move to step 3: both hands on the boom and sailing away. After sailing a few meters the trick is to go back to step 2: hands back on the cord. Very important here is that the mast hand goes from boom to uphaul cord FIRST*. Just the reverse order we used to go from step 2 to 3. The masthand stays on the boom for control. Once the sailhand has grabbed the cord, the masthand can grab the cord too. We moved from a sailing position to a stable standing up position. Ready to turn.

*= If the masthand grabs the cord first, in my experience, the sailhand gets pulled often. Resulting in more power in the sail that required. Many times this leads to a dive in to the water.

Terms used while explaining:

Mast hand: hand on the boom closest to the mast. Used for stability. Kept close to the shoulder when learning the first basics.

Sail hand: hand on the boom furthest away from the mast. Used to get more or less power in the sail by ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ the sail

Front foot towards the nose: this is a ‘code’ that I often use when the pupil starts practicing step 3. It really can benefit to a better body position. Transforming wind power in to speed instead of wind power pulling the pupil of the board at the leeward side.

 

Caution: Consult a physician before exercising. Follow safety instructions that come with the windsurf gear. If you are not sure you can teach windsurfing safely don’t do it. Stop exercising if the student feels pain, faint, dizzy or short of breath. I just explain how I do things, I don’t give medical advice.

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