Pt 1 Beginner/intermediate
WHAT MAKES a GOOD WINDSURFER?
As you turn your eyes to the sport’s upper levels, you suspect you may have bitten off more than you can chew and should perhaps quit while you’re ahead. But Peter reassures the first timer that there’s a lot more to becoming a good windsurfer than grunt, gristle and rubbery tendons.
Ask anyone who has just taken up the sport, what he or she reckons is the most important quality in becoming a good windsurfer and they will probably say:
‘Supreme physical fitness and the arms of Popeye.’
Indeed, top windsurfers seem to be sculpted out of the same block of bronzed granite and strut the beaches like demi-gods. This may not be music to your ears. You’re no couch potato but neither did you cover yourself in sporting glory at school. Does that mean that the more exciting levels of windsurfing will remain tantalisingly out of reach?
Someone asked me the other day if I’m as good a windsurfer now as I was 20 years ago when I was competing full time. Maybe I’m delusional (that also happens when you get older) but I honestly think I may be better. I can’t possibly be as strong or as fast on my feet as I was in the prime of youth. However, I’ve found better, more efficient ways to do things and therefore do not need the same strength to continue the upwards march. At this stage I should also mention that steady improvements to boards and rigs have made the whole challenge of high performance windsurfing infinitely easier. (Thank you Starboard and Tushingham!)
Windsurfing is a sporting pie is made up of many slices. As a way to reassure and inspire you, these are the differing elements that combine to make a good windsurfer, of which muscles are only one.
Harty, better at 45 than 25, just because he’s replaced brawn with smarter technique.
Over developed beefcakes can be a pain in the backside to teach because they ignore instructions believing their biceps will see them through. It’s why women so often learn more quickly and efficiently. An average fitness, obtained by doing any kind of cross-training, is useful in that it allows you to practise for more than 5 minutes without collapsing in a heap. If you’re fit, you tend to be more responsive and move better. Indeed, the most desirable physical qualities are not those of a body builder but those of a those of a dancer – suppleness, agility and light, fast feet. As for muscles, the best way to develop the right ones is just to go windsurfing. The fact that expert windsurfers span all ages, sexes, sizes and levels of natural athleticism is proof that the sport calls on much more than the simple power to lift weights or push pedals.
Technique and skill
I played squash a while back with a 63 year old bloke, who, from the size of his protruding gut, enjoyed a staple diet of real ale and pork pies. “This shouldn’t take long”, I mused. Well an hour later, I crawled from the court exhausted and humiliated. There was one bead of sweat on the forehead of my victorious partner and it had come from me. It was a typical example of a victory for technique over strength.
In windsurfing, if you’re using you’re strength in a gritted-teeth, tug o’ war sort of way, you’re doing it wrong. Good windsurfers make it look easy … because it is. They are constantly and subtly shifting position so they provide a perfect counterbalance to the rig; constantly adjusting the angle of the sail so it provides power when they need it and plays dead when they don’t. This is of course, a huge subject but to begin with just remember, however good you think you are, there’s always an easier way to do something! Smart technique is your pathway to Nirvana.
Windsurfing is all about being lazy. However windy, however fast you’re going, you’re always looking for the least energetic way to do something.
In the sailing world, old salty sea-dogs frequently enter regattas and whip the butts of the young and vital just because they’re more in touch with the environment. Years of experience and perhaps a sixth sense, allow them to smell the wind so they always seem to be in the right place at the right time. As windsurfers we have a closer relationship to the wind and water than anyone (often too close). Key to a smooth performance is being able to read the wind on the water so you can spot, anticipate and respond to the pressure changes in the sail with the minimum of effort.
Windsurfing is like a game of chess in that the good and wise plan their moves in advance. The higher success rate of the pro, you imagine, is through having the balance and reflexes of a young cat. That helps, but it’s primarily from always doing the right manoeuvre at the right time in the right place. In wave sailing, for example, which you imagine to be all about acrobatic skill and total recklessness, tactics play a huge part. The smart wave sailor reads the ocean, knows which wave to catch, where to catch it, which part to ride and when to get off it. His jumps are stratospheric because he hits the steepest part of the wave at just right moment.
The chances of success in the elusive carve gybe are tripled by finding a flat stretch of water, perhaps between swells or behind a point or sandbank; or from initiating the gybe on a chop or swell so you do most of the turn going downhill. At a more basic level when you’re learning the fundamentals of light wind manoeuvring or harness work, the smart tactician will head for a spot here the wind is most constant, away from the sheltering effects of the shore - the more constant the wind, the less your chances of being caught by surprise and being thrown off balance. Widen your vision to take in the whole picture – not just the stretch of water 6 inches in front of you.
In wave riding, being able to think tactically and get into the right position on the right wave, is at least important as acrobatic skill.
The greatest inhibitor to improving is simple fear. The best windsurfers are naturally quite bold. They’re happy hurling themselves into the unknown and trusting their luck. To a certain extent, the further you’re prepared to step out of your comfort zone, the quicker you’ll progress (in between visits to A&E). It’s why kids learn so infuriatingly fast – they don’t have the life experience to understand the potential consequences of foolhardy actions.
So you’re not a natural risk taker. To help yourself become bolder, eliminate the environmental threat by training in a place where you feel 100% secure. Choose the lagoon over the open sea; make sure you have an escape route so whatever happens you can either walk home or at least get washed to a friendly bank.
Fear amongst the mortgage-paying majority usually stems from ending up in a situation where you feel you haven’t got the technical tools to cope with the situation. Here’s a classic example. When you make that first crucial step to a smaller board, the big question is ‘what if I can’t uphaul/waterstart it, or sail it upwind?’ Not a problem if the water is thigh deep; but it could be a big problem if you’re launching into a deep, swelly ocean in an offshore wind.
The pro and the first timer both have to nurture their mental state and understand the difference between positive, adrenalin-producing anxiety and paralysing dread. Improving comes from creating an environment where you feel like going for it and are NOT thinking about life-insurance policies.
Amateur and pro have to clock their mental state and decide whether they’re exhilarated or just in complete survival mode.
Good windsurfers are into their equipment. This doesn’t mean they have a degree in fluid dynamics, they’ve just developed a feel for when the kit is helping or hindering them. (Are they walking the dog or is the dog walking them?)
The problem with the beginner is they have a natural inferiority complex. If they’re doing badly and feel uncomfortable, they’ll blame themselves. The expert, meanwhile, will blame his equipment and do something about it by either changing board or rig size or re-tuning them.
Think of a goalkeeper about to face a penalty – he’s crouched, stable, balanced, alert, in the best position to move suddenly and dynamically in any direction. Imagine if the ref suddenly told him to stand on one leg and put an arm behind his back. He wouldn’t have a chance.
It’s very similar with windsurfing. If you’re not stable and balanced in your stance, you’re out of the game. Finding that comfortable posture is impossible unless you’re on a board and rig combination that suits your size and ability and unless everything is set up well. You can transform someone’s performance instantly by making sure the boom is the right height, the harness lines are the right length and in the right position and the sail is properly tensioned so it’s delivering a steady even force.
At a higher level, as you aim to stay balanced through fast manoeuvres, things like footstrap adjustment and positioning and fin size become ever more crucial.
Another reason that good windsurfers make it look easy is, because, like good golfer, they’re always using the right club!
Right kit, right mindset, right tactics, cute technique – improve in these areas and you can become a fabulous performer without going anywhere near a gym. One thing is for sure – no one learned to carve gybe by growing bigger biceps!