People can understand the fact that windsurfers can ride along with the wind. But it can be a bit puzzling to grasp how windsurfers can ride against the wind.
Windsurfers can sail upwind by sailing up to about a 45° angle to the wind. They zig-zag from one 45° angle to the other 45° angle to reach their destination. It is impossible for windsurfers to ride directly against the wind because there is no wind available to power the sailboard forward.
This is the primary means by which windsurfers sail upwind. However, other subtle elements can assist with a windsurfer driving their sailboard upwind. We will discuss these clever little tricks in the latter section of this column.
The Conceptual Basis of Sailing Upwind
If you didn’t really understand that concise three-sentence answer up above, have no fear! We will elaborate on the strategy behind sailing upwind right now.
First of all, notice how I say that windsurfers sail upwind rather than against the wind. It is a subtle distinction but an important one to note. The statement of “riding against the wind” has the underlying implication that a windsurfer is somehow battling back wind forces and is defying the laws of physics. Trust me. This is not the case.
This is why many windsurfers elect to use the term “sailing upwind” instead. They aren’t magically sailing directly into the teeth of the wind. Instead, they utilize calculated angles to accomplish their mission of moving from point A to point B.
Windsurfers cannot directly sail at odds with where the wind is blowing from. In fact, windsurfers refer to the area 45° to either side of the wind direction as the no-go zone (source). It is called the no-go zone because the sail does not collect any wind in this area. Instead, the wind moves around the sail on both sides without pushing the sailboard forward.
This phenomenon is known as being “in irons” in the sailing world because the vessel is helplessly stuck in the no-go zone.
This can be challenging to visualize, so I provided the diagram below to illustrate the no-go zone concept better.
Windsurfers must avoid the no-go zone at all costs, or else they will come to a dead stop in the water. So instead, they operate within the designated upwind areas where they know that they will gain the most traction.
The area that is conducive to sailing upwind is known as the closed reach. Put simply, the closed reaching is what makes sailing upwind possible.
Windsurfers sail upwind in a zig-zag fashion to take advantage of the closed reach so that the nose of their board is never pointing directly into the wind. This way, the no-go zone is completely avoided so that the sailboard is constantly making progress toward the destination upwind. Again, this isn’t always easy to picture mentally, so I provided a diagram below to illustrate this zig-zag concept.
The arrows specifically demonstrate how the board’s nose is always pointed away from the no-go zone when sailing upwind. Obviously, windsurfers cannot calculate the exact angle they are from the wind direction when they are physically out on the water. Instead, they have to feel out the areas where sailing upwind is feasible.
If this seems like a roundabout way of moving on the water, it’s because it is. This is the reason why the majority of windsurfers much prefer sailing downwind over sailing upwind. Sailing upwind requires a lot more effort.
You are probably wondering how the sailboard can propel itself forward in the closed reach areas with the wind opposing its movement at an angle. I can relate. The first time I heard this explanation, it did not seem that intuitive either. But hear me out.
As air moves over the top of an airplane wing, it must travel a further distance relative to the wind moving below. As a result, a pressure difference is formed that ultimately lifts the airplane into the air.
This same phenomenon applies to windsurfing; only there is no flight involved. Instead, the wind that flows over the sail creates a pressure difference that favors one side of the sail. While this is happening, the fin underneath the board resists the sideways force created by this pressure difference.
Consequently, the windsurf board is lifted in the opposite direction of the wind, resulting in the phenomenon of sailing upwind. This explanation is summarized below with the following vector diagram.
There is probably a more complicated physics explanation out there somewhere, but I assume you don’t want to go into the nuts and bolts of vectors and calculations. So I tried to keep the physics to a minimum.
In summary, angles play a crucial role in how a windsurfer can sail upwind. If a windsurfer decides to ditch these theories and battle one on one straight against the wind, they will lose every single time. The no-go zone always wins!
Other Clever Methods that Windsurfers Use to Sail Upwind
Beyond avoiding the no-go zone, windsurfers use some other tactics to assist with the difficulty of sailing upwind. The most prominent of these methods are discussed below.
Maintaining the Plane
For you windsurfing novices out there, planing refers to the action of the board gliding on the surface of the water once high speeds are reached. To learn more about planing in windsurfing, check out my in-depth article What is Planing in Windsurfing (Definition & Examples).
Maintaining the plane plays a key role in sailing upwind because it provides the necessary momentum to drive the sailboard forward and allow the lift to be created. A loss of speed when redirecting yourself from downwind to upwind makes it exponentially more challenging to sail toward your preferred destination.
To maintain the plane, windsurfers must concentrate on keeping the board flat against the water. The flatter the board is, the better able it will be at gliding across the water surface. The best way that windsurfers can actually go about doing this is by adjusting their stance.
Putting additional pressure on the front foot may help to keep the plane intact throughout the upwind sailing process, but this really depends on individual preference. Certain windsurfers say that pointing their toes helps them to maintain the plane. So long as a windsurfer can preserve their speed, they can adjust their stance according to whatever they like!
Looking Where You Want to Go
Another stratagem that helps windsurfers travel upwind is keeping their eyes fixated on where they want to go.
Although the sail ultimately drives the board forward, the eyes usually dictate where the sailboard is likely to end up. It seems hard to believe, but actually looking where you want to go is crucial to directional windsurfing.
There are a ton of potential distractions that could take your eyes off of the prize. For example, many windsurfers divert their attention to the placement of their hands on the boom or the location of their feet on the board. Unfortunately, these little distractions can cause their sailboard to veer too far off into the wind, which will immediately impact speed.
Windsurfers should avoid looking down at their hands and feet whenever possible. Instead, they should focus on a point out on the water that they want to sail to and reach that point. Even while they’re zigging and zagging, their eyes should follow the direction that they want to sail.
The best windsurfers in the world attest to the benefits of this. If they have confirmed this tip, there should be no reason that you shouldn’t incorporate this skill into your windsurfing arsenal.
Using a Bigger Sail
The problem with sailing upwind is gathering sufficient wind power to propel the board forward. Thus, windsurfers have come up with the solution to equip a larger sail on their windsurf board.
With a larger surface area to work with, the sail can harness more wind to propel the board along the closed reach. The more wind power harnessed, the greater the potential speed.
You are probably asking, “Well, why don’t windsurfers just use a larger sail all the time?”
The drawback of equipping a bigger sail comes when a windsurfer is riding downwind. Since the bigger sail picks up a lot more wind, the sailboard rockets downwind at astronomical speeds. Right now, this probably sounds more like a benefit than a drawback! But it’s not.
Trying to manage these astronomical speeds demands a superior level of skill, strength, and experience. Unfortunately, with speed comes instability. If the speed downwind becomes too much for a windsurfer to handle, they will inevitably get thrown off the board and into the water time and time again. Obviously, this is something windsurfers want to stay away from.
Finding a happy medium between a bigger sail and a smaller sail to get the best of both downwind sailing and upwind sailing can be a tedious process, but it is definitely worthwhile. Otherwise, you will never be able to move upwind in an efficient manner.
How Often Do Windsurfers Sail Upwind?
Windsurfers sail upwind a lot more than you would think. Even though it can be a rather laborious process to zig and zag the entire trip upwind, it is a necessary sacrifice.
Windsurfers cannot spend every waking second on the water sailing downwind. Otherwise, they will be a long way away from where they initially took off. Just like yin and yang, there is downwind and upwind. You cannot have one without the other.
With every joyous ride downwind where you barely even have to keep tabs on the wind direction, you must endure the journey upwind as well.
I make sailing upwind sound like this heavy burden, but honestly, that is a far cry from the truth. On the contrary, sailing upwind and sailing downwind are both gratifying practices. It’s just that most windsurfers like the extra action of sailing downwind.
In short, windsurfers do sail upwind rather frequently. After all, they have to have some way to return to where they came from. And I highly doubt that they want to swim that distance.
Is It Recommended that Windsurfers Sail Upwind?
Ideally, novice windsurfers should sail on the beam reach. For those who do not know, the beam reach is yet another directional term for the wind that refers to the area 90° to the wind.
By windsurfing on the beam reach, a novice windsurfer mitigates the difficulty of sailing upwind. Instead, they can simply windsurf back and forth across the wind without really ever having to face this challenge.
Many windsurfers opt to go for speed right off the bat and head straight downwind for a considerable distance. However, once it finally comes time to turn the board around and sail upwind, they realize that they have dug themselves into a deep hole.
Only when you have an adequate amount of windsurfing experience should you experiment with going upwind and downwind. Otherwise, you may jump the gun and sail straight downwind without having the necessary skills to return from where you came.
This is not to say that windsurfing novices should avoid sailing upwind completely. At some point, every windsurfing beginner needs to take that leap of faith and learn how to sail upwind through trial and error. All windsurfers want to know how it feels to sail freely downwind. To get to know this feeling for yourself, you must take the time first to learn the proper fundamentals of how to sail upwind.