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Sailors competing in a Windsurfing World Championship in Denmark
Windsurfing, also known as sailboarding, funboarding or wave-sailing, is a popular sport activity involving a sail and surfboard to move above the water. Although it is a recognized Olympic sport since 1984, it mainly remains a non-competitive past-time in coastal areas. Obviously, windsurfing distinguishes itself from traditional surfing primarily through the use of a sail and the great dependence on wind. While modern boards have greatly increased the possibilities of other forms of surfing too, the arise of windsurfing first allowed boarders to ride extremely large waves. Apart from the ability to master extreme waves and reach high speeds (with records of over 90km/h), windsurfers can also perform a wide range of freestyle moves, including jumps and spinning manoeuvres.
Although the first known windsurfing board was developed as early as 1948, it was not until the eighties that popularity of the activity took a flight, making "sailors" or "board heads" (as windsurfers are usually called) a common beach sight. Although that popularity dropped somewhere in the nineties, a small revival seems to be taking place and plenty of destinations in the world offer a variety of windsurfing facilities.
It's easy to see that windsurfing combines characteristics of both traditional surfing and sailing. Although the sport requires the development of specific techniques, traditional surfing skills can make learning a bit easier. Many sailors in fact have pretty decent surfing skills too.
Although wind conditions are a determining factor in windsurfing options, the right equipment allows sailors to move in wind speeds from near 0 to about 50 knots (>90km/h). Beginners will usually take their first steps in very light winds of under 10 knots. Recreational sailors without professional gear generally prefer winds of 15 to 25 knots, which are perfect for skimming over the water (planing).
The two main pieces needed for windsurfing are of course a board and a sail, although a number of accessories are standard equipment as well. As a rule of thumb, smaller boards and sails are used to reach higher speeds.
- Sail - Sails vary in size, depending on the skill level and preferred activities of the sailor. Sailors engaging in high speed windsurfing or races typically use large sails of 6 to 15m2 in size. These sails are often "camber"-induced, which means that plastic pieces are placed in the sail to better keep it in an aerofoil shape. So-called "wave sails" are significantly smaller, usually measuring 3 to 6 m2. They are augmented too, making them suited to withstand strong waves. Free ride and freestyle sails have sizes somewhere in between, and are often the sail of choice for recreational sailors as they are fairly easy to handle and can be used for different purposes. Wave, free ride and freestyle sails are usually not camber-induced, but rather are so-called "rotational sails". They only maintain their aerofoil shape in a leeward position, when they catch full wind. In order to tack or jibe, these rotational sails need to flip from one to the other side of the mast.
- Board - Modern boards are usually under 3 meters in length, but they are usually measured in terms of volume and width. As with sails, skill level, weight and main activities of the sailor determine which board is most suited. As an indication, most wave and freestyle boards weigh no more than 7 kilos, while boards for beginners are significantly heavier, up to 15 kilos, to improve stability. Such boards for beginners are also equipped with a daggerboard.
- Mast and wishbone
- Free-rotating joint to connect the rig (sail, mast and wishbone) to the board
- Harness - Optional, attaches the sailor to the rig
- Fin - Especially used for "sailing" (see below)
There are two basic ways to move forward on a sailboard. When moving in minor winds (<10 knots), the body of the board slides through the water using a fin and centreboard to maintain stability. This movement is very similar to the way a boat would make its way in still waters and is called "sailing". To steer, the board head moves the rig backward and forward, lowers the tail and/or shifts his weight to a particular side of his board.
In stronger winds, the board no longer slides through the water, but starts skimming over the surface. This is called "planing", and allows the sailor to move forward at high speeds. For many sailors, planing is the most fun part of the sport. On top of the steering techniques used for sailing, the sailor will now also shift the rig and carve the water by pressuring an edge of the board. This way, the sailor can make tacking and jibing manoeuvres, much like a sail boat would in strong winds.
Skilled sailors can engage in a range of disciplines and competitions, including freestyle, slalom, speed surfing and wave sailing.
For many, learning to windsurf may seem a tiring matter at first. Finding some balance and mastering the basic ways of steering in light winds will not necessarily take long, but the huge boards, tiny sails and low speeds that beginners will deal with can be a bit disappointing. Compared to other extreme sports, engaging in the more "fun" parts of the sport (e.g. planing at high speed) may require quite a lot of practice.
Fortunately, plenty of windsurfing schools exist in most suitable areas and equipment for beginners has been greatly improved in recent years. And of course, those that persist are rewarded with great water sports opportunities, for recreational or competitive activities.
Exotic Maui is known for its fierce waves
The basic conditions needed for windsurfing are rather simple. Any place with a large water surface and a good deal of wind in principle allows for windsurfing activities, resulting in a vast list of destinations and a range of places claiming to be the "capital of windsurfing". However, the best destinations combine strong winds and great waves with gorgeous scenery, delightful climates and ample facilities.
- Maui - a professional windsurfers' favourite, Maui's waves are said to reach heights of over 30 meters. The main season runs from May to October. Note that the island can get crowded during events. To make things extra exiting, make sure to watch out for water sharks...
- Columbia Gorge (Oregon) - constant winds on the Columbia River make this a popular windsurfing spot.
- Outer Banks - one of the prime places on the East Coast. The Outer Banks have opportunities for beginners as well as skilled sailors and are a good destination for families, too.
- Bonaire - this lovely Caribbean island benefits from sunshine and high temperatures all year round. The windsurfing hotspot is on the eastern shores, at Lay Bay, with great opportunities for beginners and experts alike.
- Costa Rica - the fierce winds at Lake Arenal offer challenges even for expert sailors. Although this is not a place for beginners, the warm air and volcano backdrop make this a great spot for skilled board heads. If you're less experienced, try the Golfo de Papagayo.
- Brazil - in recent years, windsurfing enthusiasts have found their way to the gorgeous beaches around Jericoacoara, a touristic but still traditional village surrounded by huge dunes and crystal clear waters.
- Argentina - the strong Patagonian wind makes the beautiful Lago Nahuel Huapi near Bariloche a great place for windsurfing. September to March is the best time to go.
- Greece - the Greek Islands are a lovely setting for water sports activities. For windsurfing, the strait between Paros and Naxos is particularly popular because of the usually strong winds. Karpathos is also a great windsurfing destination.
- Portugal - constant wind provides Portugal with plenty of places, especially in the south. Guincho is a popular spot, as are Vilamoura, Sagres, Lagoa en Albufeira.
- Spain - although Spain's coast is dotted with windsurfing spots, Tarifa is probably the most popular one, benefiting from the strong winds of the straits. The Canary Islands are another major windsurfing destination, with Fuerteventura being among the best places in the world.
- Namibia - Lüderitz is the place to be for everyone hoping to establish a speed record.
- Cape Verde - this island off the western coast of Africa boast lots of sunshine all year round and constant Northeast winds.
- Egypt - Dahab is Egypts rising star in the windsurfing business, with speed strips for skilled sailors and friendly lagoon waters for newbies.
- South Africa - at just 120 km from Cape Town, Langebaan is probably the countries best windsurfing destination, as well as its most popular.
Asia & Oceania
- Philippines - the lagoon of Boracay combines gorgeous white sand beaches with strong winds, making it a great place for high speed windsurfing. The monsoon winds are best from December to April, but are less suitable for inexperienced sailors.
- Australia - the west coast in particular has a bunch of great destinations. Lancelin is a particular windsurfing hotspot, due to the Ocean Classic race that's held there every year. The Margaret River area is another favourite destination.
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