The name “windsurfing” seems to indicate that the sole factor influencing speed is the wind. However, other factors can play a role in adjusting the speed of the sailboard when a rider is out on the waves. Some people try to outrun the wind while windsurfing, but the truth might surprise you.
A windsurfer can go faster than the wind due to the physics concepts of apparent wind and water drag. If a windsurfer is able to maximize the amount of apparent wind gathered and keep the effects of water drag to a minimum, their speed on the water can outpace the true wind.
Throughout this article, you will also learn the following info:
- How the concept of apparent wind increases windsurfing speed
- How water drag works to reduce windsurfing speed
- Methods of utilizing apparent wind and water drag to surpass the true wind
How Apparent Wind Allows Windsurfers to Go Faster than the True Wind
If you are not a physics guru, you are likely wondering what the difference is between apparent wind and true wind. Personally, I had no idea what the difference was prior to stepping into the realm of windsurfing.
It is necessary to understand the basic gist of apparent wind to learn why windsurfers are capable of moving faster than the true wind.
The Difference Between Apparent Wind and True Wind
At its base level, apparent wind is a physics theory that describes the wind we feel when we are in motion. The true wind describes the wind that you feel when you are standing still. At first glance, these concepts may seem nearly identical, but they are vastly different. In fact, this difference is what makes windsurfing faster than the true wind possible.
To better understand this concept, I will use the analogy of biking. Think of the last time you rode a bike. As you started to pedal and propel yourself forward, you began to feel a wind that seemed to originate from directly in front of you. Your motion on the bike has caused you to feel apparent wind.
The true wind may be coming from a completely different direction from the apparent wind. In the biking example, the true wind may have been approaching from your back. You only feel a headwind because you are moving forward.
How Apparent Wind Fuels Windsurfing Speed
So now that you have an elementary understanding of apparent wind, we can go back to the original question of how this translates into superior windsurfing speed.
To the casual observer, it may seem like this windsurfing phenomenon defies the very laws of physics. But if you dive into the nuts and bolts of it, the physics of this phenomenon actually makes perfect sense.
Contrary to popular opinion, windsurfers gather power from both the apparent wind and the true wind, not just the true wind. This means that there are two forces at work that help to move the sailboard forward.
The force of the true wind serves to push the sailboard forward. In contrast, the force of the apparent wind serves to pull the sailboard forward. These push and pull forces operate in unison, translating into speed on the open water.
When a windsurfer moves faster the wind, both of these external forces are utilized to generate maximal power. Optimizing for both true wind and apparent wind simultaneously has everything to do with the angle of the sail toward the true wind.
Methods to Use Apparent Wind to Your Advantage
Angles, angles, angles. If you take nothing else away from this excerpt on apparent wind, just know that your angle to the true wind plays a dominant role in how fast you are able to windsurf on the water.
The correlation between speed and angles ultimately results in physics heavy concepts such as relative velocities and vector sums. These mathematical principles lie beyond the scope of this article as I assume that many of you do not want to hear me drawl on and on about physics equations.
To avoid plunging into the exact numbers, I will sum up the main learning points in the subsequent paragraphs.
The apparent wind will seem to originate from in front of the true wind if a person windsurfs straight downwind or in the no-sail zone. For this reason, the apparent wind plays a minimal role at these windsurfing angles.
At some point in your life, you likely stuck your hand outside the car window. If you point your fingers toward the direction that the car is moving, it is not that challenging to keep your hand where it is. But if you begin to open your palm up towards the front of the car, it is an altogether different story.
As you increase the angle of your palm towards the front of the car, your palm catches more wind. As a result, your hand starts to veers away from you.
This same concept can be applied to windsurfing. As a windsurfer moves at an angle to the source of true wind, a pressure gradient is formed. The wind that curves around the outside of the sail moves decidedly faster than the wind on the inside of the sail. This additional pressure propels the windsurfer forward at a velocity faster than the true wind alone.
How Minimizing Water Drag Allows Windsurfers to Go Faster Than the Wind
In addition, the concept of water drag is also a major contributing factor to windsurfers gliding faster than the wind.
If the sailboard is bogged down with water, riders will never be able to harness the power necessary to move faster than the wind, apparent wind or not. In order to move faster than the wind, it is crucial for windsurfers to achieve a phenomenon known as planing.
Planing is when the board skims across the very top of the water as a result of increased speeds. For more information on the fundamentals of planing, check out my article What is Planing in Windsurfing? (Definition & Examples).
Since the board minimally contacts the surface of the water during planing, the water does not inhibit speed nearly as much. This way, a windsurfer is able to slice through the water at astronomical speeds. To see how advanced windsurfers implement planing to go faster than the wind, check out the video below!
As you can see, their sailboards almost seem to glide across the water. The top of their boards rarely, if ever, plunge beneath the watery depths. This is because they are well aware that any unnecessary water contact comes at the expense of speed.
New, Unconventional Methods to Reduce Water Drag
With the advent of hydrofoil boards, windsurfers have an effective way to eliminate water drag altogether.
The hydrofoil windsurfer elevates the board out of the water completely, making for a smooth windsurfing experience. The only part that experiences any drag whatsoever is the lifting foil itself. Not even the bottom of the board takes on the effects of water drag.
It is still a subject of controversy whether or not the hydrofoil windsurf board is a better alternative to the traditional windsurf board when it comes to speed. As with any new technological innovation, there is going to be some backlash. Any major change will be met with some criticism.
Windfoiling has recently been approved as a formal event in the 2024 Olympics over the standard windsurfing discipline (source). With this ratification, I think it is pretty safe to say that windfoiling is the better alternative when it comes to pure speed out on the water.
How Fast Can Windsurfers Go?
According to Redbull, a world-renowned sports and beverage company, the fastest anyone has ever gone while windsurfing is 60 miles per hour. That is as fast as a car cruising down the highway! You definitely would not have much control at that speed, though.
Let’s take it a step back and get in line with realistic expectations. If 60 miles per hour is the fastest anyone has ever gone, then there is a massive chance that most windsurfers will never go that fast. Windsurfing speed record holder Antoine Albeau had everything going for him while riding with the most expensive gear in the world.
It is believed that most windsurfers can move about 35 miles per hour in optimal conditions. While it is nearly half of the aforementioned record, you would be impressed by how fast it feels like you are moving. There also are not any lanes or traffic signals for guidance, so riders better be ready to take control if they reach these sorts of speeds!
The problem is that wind can blow in gusts of 40 to 52 knots (45 to 60 mph) during storms, so it might seem like windsurfers should be able to go that fast as well, right? If everything worked in their favor (as it did with the professional athlete from Redbull), then windsurfers might be able to hit those high numbers.
Unfortunately, windsurfing is not very safe when it is that windy. The sail can pull too hard in one direction or another, which can catapult the rider straight into the water. Not only that, but it will increase the height and frequency of the waves. Both of these conditions create a hazardous environment for pros and beginners alike.
In short, windsurfing at exorbitant speeds that are faster than the wind is within the realm of possibility, but it comes with a risk.
If you are still at the novice level of windsurfing, you should not risk your life just to have a little bit of fun. Wait for a day with winds around 4 to 26 knots (5 to 30 mph) and have a good time while remaining safe.
Additional Tips that Help Windsurfers Move Faster Than the Wind
Besides optimizing for apparent wind and water drag, there are several other subtle factors that can help individuals overtake the speed of the wind. Here are several clever ways that windsurfers can increase their speed while windsurfing.
Investing Into a Lightweight Board and a Big Sail
The lighter the board, the less effort that will be needed to propel a rider through the water. With a big sail, it catches more wind to push the board further. The combination of these two suggestions helps tremendously with making efficient use of total wind power.
Rounding the Edges of the Board
As a general rule of thumb, sharp corners are bad and rounded edges are perfect. To increase the speed of the board, windsurfers commonly invest in boards with round edges. This shape will allow it to be more hydrodynamic, which prevents riders from cutting the waves and slowing down. It is very similar to the reason that some fish can swim faster than others.
Taking Advantage of the Harness
The harness is an accessory piece of windsurfing equipment that hooks onto the boom (the portion of the sail that windsurfers hold onto with their hands). With the harness in place, riders do not have to pull on the boom constantly with their arms. Rather, they can simply lean back and allow their body to do the pulling for them via the harness.
This allows riders to handle the most amount of wind possible without having to spend excess energy. This additional wind catching power translates into additional speed.
Utilizing the Footstraps
The footstraps are another piece of accessory windsurfing gear that helps with the stance of the rider. Generally, the farther away the rider is positioned from the sail, the greater amount of wind power they are able to control.
When a rider positions their center of gravity away from the board, there is a greater counterbalance against the force of the wind. Thus, more wind is caught by the sail, which ultimately results in a greater likelihood of surpassing the true wind speed.
Measuring the Wind Before Committing to a Location
Individuals should try to test the wind before they go out on the water. More wind obviously means that the effect of apparent wind is more pronounced. As a result, riders are able to pick up speed quicker. For this reason, it is important to know the best locations where wind speed is at a premium.
If you are looking to chase the speed of the wind yourself, I would recommend checking out the Proster Anemometer to find the best place to jump on your board before you start riding the waves.
As you can see, there are all sorts of ways to speed yourself up when you are windsurfing. The wind plays the most important role in the sport, but riders can go a bit faster than the wind if they implement these tips and employ proper technique.
Wind plays an important role in windsurfing, but riders can go faster than it under the right conditions. Whether a windsurfer uses apparent wind or minimal water drag to their advantage, they can outrun the wind in bursts.
Remember that it is extremely challenging to sustain long distance windsurfing that outpaces the wind, simply because currents, waves, and everything else in the water is directed by it. If you want to move quicker than it for short periods of time, then it is entirely possible.
Also, keep in mind that the most important parts of the windsurfing gear are the size of the sail and the shape and weight of the board. Though none of this really matters if solid technique is not put into practice.