How to Windsurf in the waves

Your first day in real waves.

First A word about safety… Wave sailing qualifies as an extreme sport. Minor injuries are common although deaths are rare. There was a death in the summer of 2005 in Florence. Be wise about your safety decisions.
1. Being aware of the conditions you are in can increase the margin of safety. Before going out watch the waves for a couple of minutes. You should be looking for logs in the surf, rocks being exposed, and hazardous marine life.
Also watch how the wave sets are coming ashore, how tall they are and where the rips are.
2. Its important to remember that for most of the Oregon coast the “along shore” current runs from north to south when it is sailable so if you are floating rather then sailing you need to be aware of what hazards are south of where you are sailing. You do not want to be washed up on rocks.
3. Smaller waves break in shallow water so if you fall on smaller waves you could hit bottom. Try to fall flat when possible do not dive in because you could break your neck.
4. If you get in bad trouble on the outside ditch your sail and paddle in like a surfer. Please, don’t be afraid to ask for help, other sailors will let you hang on to the back foot strap and get you in. Jerry at Pistol has done this for a few folks.
5. If you get in really bad trouble on the inside forget your entire rig and body surf in. Your suit should provide you with plenty of flotation to simply lay in the water and rest if you need to but not so much flotation that way you can escape a breaking wave by diving to the bottom.
You do not want to get tumbled with your gear if at all possible. And do not sail alone! Last of all I can’t say this enough stay away from big waves until your skills are ready. The Rips on a big day can be strong making it very hard to get to shore.

A thought about anxiety…..
When you are standing next to your board getting ready to launch do you feel a bit of dread thinking about trying to slog out thru the impact zone? Well that dread is a common feeling especially when we are first learning to wave sail. Yes you could go out only on small wave days where the ocean looks like a lake but that really isn’t the point of wave sailing. It is a bit difficult to get much of a ride out of anything smaller then 5 feet. That leaves us right back in the anxiety zone again.
I have to assure you right now that in smaller waves this portion of stress will pass the more time you spend on and in the water. It is a bit like a gold fish that only grows as big as the aquarium you keep him in. If you sailed lakes you get good at lake sailing. If you sailed the Gorge you get good at Gorge sailing. As you start sailing the coast you will get good and comfortable there too. It is simply time on the water. Our skills rise to the environment we submit ourselves to.
The most frequently used form of therapy for the treatment of fear is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called systematic desensitization or exposure therapy. The more one is exposed to the feared situation The more comfortable one becomes. When I first started sailing the coast I was often frustrated on how hard it was to get going again in the impact zone while being washed and dealing with the fluky wind. This brought on a fear of getting knocked down in the impact zone. But as time has passed those skills get better by simple repetition and now I really don’t think about it to much. The Pdxwindsurfer site has an article called “Fear and the Ocean” in the files section which may help with some of your anxiety.

Ok….. back to your first day in real waves….
Find a safe and easy day north winds 20 to 25 northwest swell running 3 to 5 feet or so and an interval of around 7 to 9 seconds. Pick a spot with a long stretch of sand to the south of where you are launching with NO ROCKS. Do not go out your first few times if the waves are bigger then head high. Do not go out in big surf while learning the pain is not worth it. A small three foot breaking ground swell wave has more power to it then any piece of Gorge swell!!!! Many sailors make Manzanita their first Oregon coast site but I would personally say that it is a bad choice. The wind at Manzanita is very on shore and it is not that fun of a place to sail.
There are four new skills you will want to work on during your first few trips to the coast that you can not learn in the Gorge. The first is getting through a beach break. The second is building skills in the impact zone. The third is picking out the ground swell to ride. The forth maintaining your position on the beach,

Your first new skill is dealing with a beach break.
At many locations after a wave has broken the first time some of that energy will reform another wave that will break right on the beach. What makes this a safety issue is it can sometimes drop on very shallow water or even bare beach. Damaging your rig or even your body if you are in the way. You will also need to be careful about getting pinned under your sail here. Generally speaking on a steep beach the beach break to be aware of usually happens at high tide. On a gently sloping beach a beach break is more likely at low tide. But on some beaches there may always be a beach break. Either way to be safe you need to cross this section of beach quickly between the waves. If there is a nasty beach break coming back to shore I will try to stay right behind the reformed wave and let it break right in front of me then ride up to the beach and jump off and push my board through the sand until I am past the break. Going out I simply time it and rush through and quickly get going.

Your second new skill is building experience in the impact zone. To get thru the impact zone (where the waves are breaking) can be a bit like a chess match there are strategies to work through. The impact zone consists of; for the most part ground swell and local wind waves breaking along with rip currents.

Ground swell can be recognized by its appearance as a wide line when you are sailing on the outside of the impact zone. When the ground swell is from a different direction then the wind it is easy to see it among the local wind waves. They are often grouped together in sets of 3 or 4 waves. The peaks of ground swell are usually set apart by a period of time. This range of time is “typically” around 7 to 14 seconds.

Size Matters!!!!
The size wave that NOAA gives in a forecast is based on the average size of the 1/3 larger ground swell being measured or predicted. So if NOAA says the swell is running 8 feet realize that some of the swell will be bigger sometimes MUCH bigger then that. How the swell jacks up to become rideable faces depends a lot on the sea floor shape, how fast the wave is traveling and how thick it is. A 5 foot piece of Ground swell can jack up another 1 to 3 feet depending on these variables. I have often seen Noaa calling 10 foot swell and seen wave faces over mast high as the result. Learn in smaller conditions first and work up to the bigger stuff. At first don’t go out in waves bigger then head high. Your body and wallet will thank you.

Wind waves.
Wind waves are caused by the local winds and are the same as gorge swell except they will jack up and break with more energy then Gorge swell as they reach the beach. The wind waves seem as though they are connected with the face of one right behind the back side of the other with maybe 3 to 5 seconds or so between peeks. They also come from the direction of the local wind For the most part it is the ground swell that you want to ride. How these two types of waves break in the impact zone is important to understand especially when you are trying to sail out. In most conditions the ground swell carriers the most power and has the greater ability to knock you down, damage your gear or even injure you.

Impact Zone tactics Generally speaking you want to be going out between the swell sets. Especially on bigger wave days I will wait until the second or third wave of a set starts to break then I will start sailing off the beach that way by the time I get to the impact zone the last wave of the set is reduced to white water. while it may be nice to sail fast thru the impact zone and be able to out run most breaking waves that isn’t always possible. Two popular techniques that most coast sailors share to get out through the impact zone is the art of stalling and the chicken gybe. If you are slogging out thru the impact zone and see you won’t get past the next wave before it breaks on you if you were to keep going simply stall your forward progress let the wave break then proceed over the white water. The chicken gybe works well if you actually have the time to pull it off. It is a simple manner of deciding early enough to gybe your board back to the beach before you get munched.

Rip Currents…most of the time they are your best friend but on a big day they can be your worst nightmare. Rips as they are called is the movement of water as it tries to return to deeper water after being delivered toward the beach by the action of the breaking waves. The early stages of a rip is actually parallel to the beach before it finds a path back out to deeper water by running perpendicular to the beach. Rips are easy to see if you can view them from higher ground but to pick them out on the beach takes a bit of practice. Be sure to ask experienced sailors with you to show you where the rips are. If the waves are smaller (less then head high) the rips are usually gentle. In bigger surf the rips can keep you from shore as the water rushing parallel to the beach can be swift and occur in deeper water then you can touch bottom which will then drag you out to the perpendicular flow and deposit you on the outside of the impact zone. Rips can often be your best friend when you are down in the impact zone and still with your gear they usually will drag you into deeper water and give you a better chance to get your sail cleared and get going again.

Down in the impact zone… When you are down in the impact zone try to get going as soon as possible but if you need to stay there for a bit to catch your breath or just to wait for a lag of time between sets. There are two ways to keep your gear safe and each is used depending how big the waves are. When the waves are smaller then mast high but big enough to work you. Then swim to your mast tip and hold on to it. Keep it pointed out to sea and in the direction of the incoming waves. Also keep your body facing the waves with your feet pointed at the beach and your head towards the incoming wave. As the wave is about to break dive your mast tip down in the same manner a surfer duck dives a short board. This method works really good!!! If the waves are bigger then mast high or are curling and trying to suck you up the face stay away from your gear. The hard part about the Oregon coast is that you are wearing a thick wet suit that makes it hard to dive under the waves to escape a lot of the energy. But if you can bend at the waist and get a bit under you will be better off. A word of warning if your feet are out to sea and your head is toward the beach you will likely get summer-salted and rolled or worse yet thrown on top of your gear and rolled. One more note at all costs do not let your gear get between you and a breaking wave. This is a bad place to become one with your gear!
The second method to keep your gear safe is used ONLY when the waves are small. Less then head high and are crumbling and not curling. Simply place yourself in the water start position with your mast tip pointed out to sea in the direction of the on coming waves. And your board pointed to the beach. Put one hand on your boom and the other on the mast to keep it at arms length from you. The hand on the boom will be to keep your gear with you and the hand on the mast is to keep you from being hit by your rig. This method does not work in bigger waves and I have shed my own blood to confirm it!

Your third new skill is picking out the ground swell to ride.
Ok you have just made it past the last breaking wave and you are looking for the ground swell. If there is a ton of wind it can be a challenge at first to pick out the ground swell. Look for the longer better formed and thicker waves among the wind waves. When you have spotted one prepare for your outside gybe. Let your current skill level be your guide. If you have a fast planning gybe then gybe on the ground swell.. If not gybe before the ground swell and be ready to match its speed as it catches up with you. At first stay just in front of it until it is of a shape you are ready to start surfing it. The reason you want to stay just in front of it is because a wave of any length will better guide the wind in front of it as it approaches the beach making it better for sail power. Picking out land marks on the beach can also help you be in the correct position to get the best ride.

Your Forth new skill is maintaining your position on the beach,
One of the best parts of riding waves is riding front side down the line. This is with the front of your body facing the wave and you are headed downwind. But before you can do this you need to learn how a wave in any form such as ground swell or broken white water provides an escalator effect upwind. After you have picked out a wave you want to ride. Ride this wave backside just like you do Gorge swell all the way to the beach to get a feel for how much upwind ground you can make up in one reach. When you feel comfortable with holding your position on the beach then start your down the line rides.

A word of caution about Jetties
There are 3 main jetties that are wave sailed most often on the Oregon coast. They are located at Newport, Florence, and Gold Beach. The sailing is almost exclusively done on the south side of each jetty. The Jetties are very sensitive to swell direction. When the swell is out of the North there will be an area next to the jetty with relatively flat water with little to no current. When the swell direction comes from the south, southwest and west direction waves can be found all the way up to the jetty. When waves are up near the jetty you can count on a rip current near the rocks. This is good if you are surfing as that rip will help take you out the back. The safety thing to remember is on a big day if the waves are really big and the swell direction has them all the way up to the rocks you can often find a crescent shaped rip current. First the water next to the beach near the jetty will be running parallel with the beach as it gets closer to the rocks it runs straight out to sea, near the end of the jetty it usually arcs south and there is a sand bar from the river outlet there waiting to jack up the incoming waves. I mention this as it is possible to end up on a merry go round ride on a big day if you get stuck in this setup. The only escape is when you get to the outside is to swim down the beach at least 100 yards then body surf back to the beach.

Right of way rules….

When you come to the coast the other sailors there are going to expect you to know the right of way and surf etiquette rules.
1. Sailors going out from the beach have the right of way. That said there are so few of us on the coast try not to mess up anyone’s wave ride just to claim the right of way. When the waves are big you are not likely to make it out when the sailors are lined up and coming in anyway. So it is better to wait for a gap in the big sets.
2. When the group is out whale watching and loitering way out side to find the wave they are going to ride it is the upwind sailor first on the wave who has that wave.
3. When the group is gybeing onto the waves just outside the impact zone the first sailor to gybe on the wave has claim to it. If two people gybe on to a wave at the same time the upwind sailor has it.
4. In a group setting it is really bad manners to chase down a wave and come over the backside of it to start riding it. This is especially true if any one is coming out who might have been able to gybe on to it.

That is about it for your first time out in real waves. contact anyone from the PDXwindsurfer group. Be sure you go with someone that actually sails the Oregon coast a lot. (most people in the group would be happy to take you out).

Video to learn with….
“Serious about Waves” Volume #1 by Peter Hart. Which is a “how to” video for new wave sailors is worth every penny you would spend on it.. (Available at Windance)


One Response to “How to Windsurf in the waves”

  1. PC Says:

    In particular the Deice tips article please? You were one of our top resources! Got a problem… consult AMM, FIM, iFly and Isobar’s Blog!

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