Windsurfing is easier than surfing, quieter than water biking, faster than dinghy sailing and cooler than canoeing. It can be enjoyed on flat water or in waves, on lakes or the sea (even on rivers - Australia's Margaret River and the Columbia river gorge are two of the world's great wave locations) and modern equipment means it's cheaper and easier to get into than ever before.
Windsurfing was pretty much invented in the USA in the 1960s by Hoyle Schweitzer and Jim Drake. They attached a sail to a surfboard using a universal joint, patented the idea, and spent a large amount of the next 15 years taking legal action against anyone who tried to sell anything similar or even use a word like 'Windsurf' to sell a magazine.
The patent was never granted in the UK because a guy named Peter Chilvers built something sufficiently similar in 1958.
Windsurfing's boom years were the 1980s, when it became a fashionable sport for young professionals with the physical fitness to learn and progress and the disposable income to afford the ever more complex and expensive equipment.
Boards in 1980 were almost invariably huge, heavy, plastic or even wooden objects with large fixed daggerboards (the windsurfer's keel), small fins and huge billowing sails made of woven nylon - no competition for the racing dinghies of the day.
By the end of the decade advances in construction techniques meant even beginner boards were smaller, lighter and stiffer than ever before, sails were fully battened transparent monofilm constructions and the top riders were propelling them to speeds of over 50 miles per hour.
The Basic Elements
The basic beginner type board is a stiff, light, surfboard-shaped object up to three and a half metres long. It has a fin to the rear, a fully retractable daggerboard near the middle, and a place to plug in the rig.
The rig consists of four main elements: the mast, the boom, the sail and the UJ.
The mast is typically a little over four and a half metres long, and usually comes in two pieces to make transporting it easier. It is usually made from some sort of plastic or carbon composite.
The boom (sometimes called the 'wishbone') is the thing you hold while sailing. It's a teardrop-shaped construction of tubular aluminium which attaches to the mast with some sort of clamp.
Sails are generally judged by their size, measured in square metres. 3.5m2 sails are used in howling gales by wave sailors who need a little drive and maximum manoeuvreability. 11m2 monsters are used by lake sailors on light wind days to catch every last gasp of breeze. Sails feature a number of battens (solid plastic rods) which help maintain the proper aerofoil shape. Most sails are constructed from monofilm, a lightweight, non-absorbent, non-stretch material which can be fully transparent for maximum all-round visibility.
The UJ - the universal joint - is the crucial gadget which connects the rig to the board and allows it to spin and tilt in any direction. The presence of the universal joint is what makes a windsurfer a windsurfer - it was central to Schweitzer's patent.
Long Boards and Short Boards
For many years, there was a basic division in the world of windsurfing which defined your skill level. The beginner and low-intermediate rider needed a long board.
Long boards were over three metres long, had at least 150 litres of volume (the more volume, the more buoyant the board and hence the easier it was to stand on) and featured a daggerboard, which made going upwind relatively easy. The disadvantage of the long board was that once the wind started to get really strong (say force four or above) the extra size and buoyancy meant the thing became unwieldy and difficult to control. The sheer extra length also meant that sharp, snappy turns were much more difficult, a real problem if you intended to sail in waves, where turns need to be quick and decisive.
Short boards were generally under three metres, had less volume and hence less buoyancy, and had no daggerboard. Getting upwind on one therefore required more skill. But the real problem with a shortboard was hinted at in another common name for them - 'sinkers'. Stand on most shortboards at rest, and they'd simply sink. So how do you ever get going on one?
Key Skills for Experts
Standing on the beach, short board in one hand and the rig in the other, the rider wades into the surf and throws the board forward. Raising the rig and allowing it to fill with wind, he steps up smartly onto the board with his back foot, throwing his weight forward and pushing the rig down. The board is moving before all the weight is on it, and the rider moves away, having performed a 'beach start'.
Later, out on the lake/ocean, having fallen in, the rider of a short board cannot simply climb onto the board and haul the sail up. He must lie in the water and push the rig up above him, get the wind under it, then allow it to pull him out of the water onto the by now already moving board. This is basically a deep-water version of the beach start, and is called a 'water start'.
These techniques are vital to the sailor of any board with less than about 120 litres of volume.
Key skills for Beginners
There is only one key skill for beginners - finding a good, preferably qualified, teacher. Trying to learn from a book, or off your friend or partner, could lead to drowning or divorce. It will almost certainly lead to tiredness, frustration and far more time spent falling in than necessary. Find a qualified coach, and pay them. You will be looking at the section on key skill for experts before you know it.
Sailing vs Planing
For most people, it will be a long time before they experience the true thrill of windsurfing - planing. This is the moment when, in a strong enough wind, the board goes from floating along in the water like a small boat to skimming along on top of the water like a water ski. This completely transforms the riding experience, and is an adrenaline rush quite unlike almost any other sport. The desire for more controllable planing - and controlled, planing turns - is what drives higher intermediates towards shorter boards.
More Recent Designs
In the last few years, 'widestyle' boards have become more prevalent. These are very short but incredibly wide boards with no daggerboard and huge fins, which while they are ideal and forgiving platforms for learners, they also allow the expert to get planing in previously unusably light breezes. Due to advances in board shaping design, they remain controllable even in quite high winds. They are an ideal board for the sort of person who wants to be able to sail whatever the weather. The hardcore enthusiast, however, will prefer to keep two or even three boards, and sail whichever one fits the conditions on the day.
Most sports lend themselves to competition, and windsurfing is no exception. There are a number of disciplines into which competitive windsurfing can be broken down:
Course racing - Basically the same as dinghy sailing, but on a windsurfer. Courses feature long upwind legs, requiring good upwind technique and tactical sailing. Years ago, this meant that course racing required a long board with a daggerboard. In 1989, however, Bjorn Dunkerbeck stunned the windsurfing world by winning a course race on a short board. While most light wind amateur races still take place on long boards, the pros now use special course racing short boards.
Wave sailing - Similar in structure to surfing competitions, sailors compete to perform the best tricks and rides on waves in front of a panel of judges. Spectacular jumps and loops, combined with aggressive and powerful sailing on the wave face, make this the most exciting form of windsurfing competition to watch. Boards are optimised for manoeuverability and controllability rather than speed.
Slalom - This is windsurfing, pure and unadulterated. No time wasted hacking upwind, no fancy tricks, just straight speed and tight, controlled, high-speed turns down a zigzag or figure-eight course. The formula one of windsurfing.
Freestyle - Low speed, low wind trick competitions on flat water. Riding backwards, with the board on its edge or standing on the wrong side of the sail are typical tricks. Do them all at once for extra points.
Indoor windsurfing - Not a gag, this actually happened. The first competition was held in 1991 in Bercy stadium, Paris, and many have been held since. A 70m pool has 25 large fans set up along one edge, and four top riders slide down a ramp into the water for a fast and furious figure-eight slalom race. When the racing is over, a ramp is lowered into the water and jumping competition ensues, sometimes seeing competitors jumping clean out of the pool. That is an extreme sport.
There have been many sailors who have done much to publicise the sport, but two are worthy of special mention.
The late great Baron Arnaud de Rosnay was a colourful character who did much in the 1980s to raise the profile of windsurfing. A French aristocrat, he was a stereotypical flamboyant international playboy who made many first crossings on windsurfers, tackling the English channel, the Pacific Ocean, and eventually disappearing without trace attempting to sail from China to Taiwan - two countries technically at war.
Robby Naish won his first world championship at the age of 12, and won again every year for the next ten years. He remains one of the top riders in the world. If you've ever seen a windsurfer on a magazine cover, television advert, video or extreme sports show, chances are it's Robby. He hails from Hawaii, and was one of the first to discover and sail the enormous wave off the north shore of Maui now known as 'Jaws'. Robby Naish can usually be recognised by his trademark pink sail with the number US1111.
Windsurfing's popularity declined in the early 1990s as the recession cut into yuppy bonuses. It is now undergoing something of a renaissance as the public appetite for extreme sports grows and the new widestyle board designs make learning easier than ever before. It is now facing some competition, however, from these other sports, including an especially the relatively new sport of kite-surfing - riding a very small board pulled not by a sail with a mast, but by a kite.