1. Where to Learn and Equipment
Picking a Sailing School
I recommend lessons from an established sailing school. (For a list of some windsurfing schools in the U.S., click here.) Do not be tempted to let a sailing 'significant other' teach you. Such lessons usually do harm to both learning to sail and to the relationship. A friend who is a high wind 'short board' expert also might not be a good instructor since he or she probably has forgotten beginning sailing completely.
I recommend a windsurfing program that does more than offer only the "first-time" beginning lesson, but also offers continuing lessons for intermediate and advanced sailing. A program, like that offered by the Hood River Water Play Sailing School, seems ideal. The program begins with 2 days of 3-hour lessons. After completing these lessons, the student is given 10 free hours of supervised sailing (with equipment) to practice the skills acquired in the first lessons. After mastering the beginning skills, there is a very complete sequence of intermediate and advanced lessons to keep the student progressing. Also the equipment that the school uses should be fairly new. Since about 2002, beginner boards have become much better designed and easier to use. If the boards the school offers are older than that, stay away! (See note below on "The Board.").
If there isn't a good sailing school in your area, I recommend the book A Beginner's Guide to Zen and the Art of Windsurfing, by Frank Fox (Amberco Press). If you can not locate that book, read on. Even if you have located a fine sailing school and/or some good books and videos, it won't hurt to read this guide. The more you know about windsurfing, the faster you will progress.
Other on-line courses that I know about are:
Windsurfing Bible (not free, small fee)
US Sailing Windsurfing Course
US Windsurfing Association ($15 for CD with nice movies)
Guy Cribb - many useful hints
ABK - Manual
Another way to go in North America is ABK Sports. They offer 3 days clinics around North America, and they are excellent for sailors of all levels. In three days, your windsurfing ability will vastly improve.
If you picked a good windsurfing school, they will provide you with an appropriate board to learn on. If you are on your own (and you probably are if you are reading this web page), it is best to learn on a 'Entry Level Board'. For an adult, this board should be at least 80 cm wide, and will have a retractable centerboard or center fin. Pick a board with enough flotation to allow you to stand and balance easily. Kids can use smaller boards. The amount of flotation you need depends mostly on your weight. For example, if you are under 160 lb. (60 kg), a board with 200 liters of floatation would work nicely. If you are between 160 lb. (60 kg) and 210 lb. (78 kg) or so, 220 liters of floatation would be good etc. But in any case, the board should be at least 80 cm wide.
Here is a typical conversation between two windsurfers preparing to sail:
A: What do you think, 5.5?
B: Well, Bud is on a 5.7 and he seems to be flying.
A: Jane is on a 4.6 and that usually means I should be on a 5.0.
B: I don't know, a 5.2 might be perfect.
A: I only have a 5.7 and a 4.6.
... This profound conversation will continue for about 10 minutes.
There are several misconceptions about sail size. Some think that bigger is definitely more macho and will make you go faster, while smaller is necessarily easier. Neither of these beliefs is true. The wrong sail size, whether too big or too small, will make sailing difficult. Several factors matter for the correct sail size: (1) your weight and (2) the wind strength. Your weight will not change much during the season, but the wind strength will change from day to day. Pay attention to the wind strength and the sail size that is most fun for you with a particular wind. If the wind is 10 MPH and you are having fun on a 5.0*, then next time out when the wind is 10 MPH, use the same size sail if you can. However, if the wind is lighter next time (5 MPH) use a bigger sail; if it is stronger (15 MPH) use a smaller sail. You can also rig a sail slightly differently for different wind speeds. You should only use a very small 'school' sail for the first few times out.
* 5.0 mean 5.0 square meters. Sail sizes are given in square meters.
My personal advice is buying used is fine, but don't buy junk. If you are unsure, take a windsurfing friend with you to the swap meet/garage sale. Shops are usually very helpful, they want your long term business. Finally, whoever you buy from, whether new are used, should demonstrate how to rig the equipment. You want to make sure all the bits actually fit together and you know how to get the most out of the rig. A poorly rigged sail will be a nightmare on the water. A well rigged sail ... a thing of beauty.
You are going to need a wetsuit and choice a place to sail, which is covered in the Safety section.
Your History Lesson
Windsurfer, Sailboard, Baja Board? Where did this stuff start? Two Southern California aeronautical engineers, Hoyle Schweitzer and Jim Drake, started experimenting with a personal sailing craft around 1961. Both were avid Hobie Cat sailors, surfers, and general water sports enthusiasts. The pair of inventors built many complete prototypes, including some that would be considered bizarre today. The "personal sailing craft" that we have today incorporates all of their design breakthroughs: freely articulated mast, wishbone rig, centerboard, and skeg. The first production run were made like surfboards, glass over foam, and were called Baja Boards. A Seattle distributor suggested the name Windsurfer.
Drake and Schweitzer were awarded a patent in 1971. A few months later, Drake sold his share in the company for a reported $30,000.
Schweitzer couldn't get anyone interested in mass producing windsurfers in the United States. Finally, he got Ten Cate, a Dutch textile manufacturer, to produce boards in Europe. The sport caught on in Europe, with little interest in the U.S. The next decade of the sport was marked by acrimonious patent fights between Schweitzer and a host of European competitors. "Windsurfer" was the name of Schweitzer's company and board so the term "sailboard" applied to everyone else's product. Shortly after the patent expired, the original "Windsurfer" went out of production, and the term has been claimed for sailboards in general. (You use to have to say "Windsurfer(TM)".) Now the term "windsurfer" is being used in the generic sense, as is the word "sailboard."
In 1996, Jim Drake was elected to the Sailing Hall of Fame for developing the windsurfer.
If you are interested in the early days of windsurfing, I recommend a DVD called "Wind Legends."
Return to How to Windsurf