Windsurfing Points of Sail: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide


If you want to break into the sport of windsurfing, you must understand the various points of sail. The points of sail play a significant part in how well a windsurfer can maneuver themselves on the water.

Windsurfers use the following terms to describe the points of sail:

  • Run: where windsurfers sail directly downwind
  • Broad Reach: where windsurfers sail downwind at an angle
  • Beam Reach: where windsurfers sail across the wind
  • Close Reach: where windsurfers sail upwind
  • Close Hauled: where windsurfers sail upwind as close to the wind as possible
  • No Go Zone: where windsurfers cannot sail

This can be a bit confusing to visualize with words alone. For this reason, I included several labeled diagrams in the sections below to help outline the explicit details surrounding points of sail. This will provide you with a solid foundation to work with when figuring out how to best translate wind power into movement on the water.

General Overview of Windsurfing Points of Sail

Understanding points of sail can be tricky. The problem is that knowledge of wind direction is critical to generating movement out on the water. Therefore, to understand the points of sail, we must understand wind direction in its most basic form by first examining the fundamental concept of upwind and downwind. From there, we will dive into the more advanced lingo that windsurfers commonly use to depict points of sail.

Breaking Down the Concept of Downwind

Most windsurfing novices have an easy enough time grasping the concept of sailing downwind. This is because this concept is relatively intuitive. The wind blows against the sail and carries the windsurf board in the direction where the wind is blowing.

Windsurfers can acquire the most speed while sailing downwind because the sail gathers the most amount of wind power from this angle. This is why so many windsurfers are obsessed with sailing downwind. Everyone wants to push the envelope when it comes to speed.

There are a couple of terms that classify the downwind points of sail: run and broad reach. We will investigate these specific terms in greater detail later in the article.

Breaking Down the Concept of Upwind

What the majority of windsurfing newcomers don’t know is that sailing upwind is a real possibility. When I first learned of this phenomenon, I could hardly believe it. To me, it really didn’t make any rational sense. So, if you’re anything like me, you’re likely asking, “How do windsurfers go against the wind?”

The real answer to this question lies with physics. Vectors and angles and all that jazz. However, you probably want to avoid a complicated physics discussion, so I will do my best to explain this in everyday English.

When a windsurfer sails upwind at an angle, the wind flows over the sail. The wind that hits the inside of the sail must move a slightly farther distance than the wind outside the sail. This subtle differentiation results in a pressure difference. This pressure difference is the main driving force that propels the windsurf board, even though the wind does not originate from behind the sail.

The key takeaway of sailing upwind is that the windsurfer must ride at an angle to the wind to create a pressure difference. If this still sounds a bit confusing to you, I recommend that you check out my article How Do Windsurfers Go Against the Wind where I take a full, in-depth look at this specific query.

Now that you know that sailing upwind is a real possibility, it is essential to note a couple of terms that classify the upwind points of sail even further, just like the terms we saw earlier with the downwind direction. These terms are the close reach and the no-go zone.

The no-go zone is a crucial determinant in what directions riders can windsurf. We will analyze this critical relationship between the no-go zone and windsurfing capability next.

Understanding How Wind Direction Impacts Points of Sail

Although windsurfers can sail both upwind and downwind, there are still specific points of sail where individuals cannot windsurf due to lack of power. To better understand why this is, we will look at what windsurfers commonly call the no-go zone.

The No Go Zone: Why Windsurfers Cannot Sail Here

The no-go zone is the directional area that lies 45° to either side of the true source of wind. Once a windsurfer attempts to sail within this area, they lose speed immediately due to an absence of wind energy. This is because they are essentially sailing into the wind’s teeth without any power to propel their board forward.

To better illustrate the concept of the no-go zone, I provided the labeled diagram below.

As you can see, the no-go zone is what makes sailing upwind a bit complicated. As opposed to sailing linearly from point A to point B, windsurfers must take a more roundabout approach to reach their upwind destination.

How Windsurfers Overcome the Problem of the No Go Zone

Windsurfers essentially must travel in a zig-zag fashion to take advantage of the areas where sailing upwind is possible. This can be a tedious process, so many windsurfers prefer the downwind journey to the upwind journey. To better illustrate how windsurfers utilize the areas where sailing upwind is possible, I provided the image below.

Windsurfers must travel upwind at an angle for a distance and then turn and travel upwind at an angle for a stretch the other way. Thus, they do not ride straight against the wind, as some newcomers are led to believe.

Understanding the More Advanced Points of Sail Terms in Windsurfing

With the essential groundwork of wind direction set, we can progress to learning the advanced sailing lingo that windsurfers use regularly.

Diagram of Windsurfing Points of Sail

The diagram below illustrates the different windsurfing points of sail and how they relate to where the wind originates from.

Keeping this diagram in mind, we will scrutinize each directional term in greater detail.

Close Hauled

Windsurfers use the term close-hauled to describe the upwind point of sail that lies as close to the no-go zone as you can get. Generally, the close-hauled point of sail is positioned 45° from the true source of wind. In the diagram above, the close-hauled points of sail are the narrow lines dividing the no-go zone from the close reach.

This point of sail is important because it allows windsurfers to travel upwind in the most efficient manner possible. The farther a windsurfer strays into the close reach, the more zig-zagging they are forced to do to reach their upwind destination.

Staying the course on the close-hauled point of sail gets windsurfers upwind in the most timely fashion. However, this is easier said than done. If a windsurfer is even a little off-kilter, they may drift into the no-go zone and come to a dead stop.

Unfortunately, the slender close-hauled point of sail is not like an airplane runway. No bright lights indicate how close you can get to the no-go zone. Instead, windsurfers must judge for themselves exactly where the close-hauled point of sail lies based on their own knowledge and experience with the wind.

Close Reach

The broader upwind area that windsurfers take advantage of to avoid the no-go zone is called the close reach.

Along with the close-hauled point of sail, the close reach is what makes sailing upwind possible. By sailing at an angle to the true source of the wind on the close-reach, windsurfers can harness enough wind power to move along the water.

Although it is a rather laborious process to have to zig-zag back and forth, it allows windsurfers a viable means to return from where they sailed. If there were no way for windsurfers to sail against the wind, they would be left stranded out on the water, with swimming as the only means to go back. No windsurfer wants that.

Beam Reach

The beam reach is the area that lies 90° to where the wind blows from. It is where windsurfers sail across the wind.

The beam reach is a notable point of sail because it allows windsurfers to ride along the water without dealing with the prospect of sailing upwind. With beam reaching, the risk of unintentionally drifting too far downwind is minimized. This is especially important for novices because they typically struggle to learn how to sail upwind after drifting too far downwind.

In short, the beam reach offers the most effortless way for people to enjoy windsurfing.

Broad Reach

The broad reach is positioned between the beam reach and the run. It involves sailing downwind but on an angle.

Contrary to popular opinion, the run is not the fastest point of sail in windsurfing. Instead, broad-reaching is the fastest point of sail in windsurfing. In other words, windsurfers can gain a lot more speed when sailing on the broad reach than the run. Why is that?

This has to do with the concept of apparent wind. For those who do not know, apparent wind is the wind that we feel when we are in motion. In contrast, the true wind is the wind that we feel when we are standing still.

Think about the last time you stuck your hand out of a car window. The wind you feel on the palm of your hand is the apparent wind. It is a combination of the wind generated from the car moving forward and the true wind that blows naturally.

The apparent wind can have a tremendous influence on the maximum speed that a windsurfer can reach. When a rider sails straight upwind or straight downwind, the effect of apparent wind is negligible. However, when you sail on a broad reach, the effect of apparent wind is far more pronounced.

You can think of apparent wind as the force that acts to pull the windsurfer forward, whereas the true wind acts to push the windsurfer forward. This is actually the basis for why windsurfers can sail faster than the wind when on the broad-reach. If this topic piques your interest, you can learn more by reading through my article Can a Windsurfer Go Faster Than the Wind?

Run

Lastly, the run is the term used to describe the point of sail that heads straight downwind.

The run presents the most difficulties for novice windsurfers because they have a challenging time controlling their sail and redirecting the board away from the pure downwind direction.

As aforementioned, sailing upwind is not a skill that you can pick up overnight. It takes time and patience to acquire this skill. If a windsurfer is lured downwind, novice windsurfers will have to swim their way back upwind instead of sailing back.

What is the Ideal Point of Sail to Windsurf?

The ideal point of sail for windsurfing depends on the windsurfer’s experience level and personal aspirations. For this reason, we will take a look at a couple of different kinds of windsurfers and what the ideal point of sail is for them.

Windsurfing Beginners

It is recommended that windsurfing novices do their best to stay on the beam reach during their first few sessions on the water. This way, they get their fundamental skills down pat before challenging themselves with sailing upwind and downwind.

Earlier, we discussed that sailing upwind presents a whirlwind of challenges because the windsurfer must have a thorough knowledge of wind direction and sailing angles to keep on the path of the close-reach.

However, what we did not discuss are the challenges of sailing downwind. Obviously, there is a greater likelihood of acquiring a great deal of speed while sailing downwind instead of sailing upwind. This additional speed makes controlling the windsurf board much more difficult.

If windsurfing beginners elect to sail downwind too soon, they’ll likely spend more time in the water than on their board because of this extra instability. Beginners should avoid this problem by sticking to the beam reach.

Windsurfers That Want to Focus On Riding Waves

Windsurfers that concentrate their efforts toward wave riding care a lot less about point of sail relative to other windsurfing disciplines because they follow the course set by the wave.

Their aim is not to generate the most speed or get to a certain destination. Instead, they want to combine surfing and sailing into one.

With that being said, the direction of the wind affects how the waves pan out on the surf break. So although the point of sail in relation to wind direction is not nearly as important to wave riding windsurfers compared to windsurfing speed seekers, it is definitely a point to consider.

Windsurfing Speed Seekers

Speaking of speed seekers, they’re next up on the list to discuss the ideal point of sail.

At some point in every windsurfer’s life, they want to test how fast they can go. Point of sail plays a large part in the maximum potential speed that these windsurfers can attain on the water.

As aforementioned, heading straight downwind is not ideal for generating linear speed on the water because the effect of apparent wind is minimized. So instead, these windsurfing adrenaline junkies should stay the course on the broad reach. This way, apparent wind can help power their board and aid them in accomplishing their personal windsurfing speed aspirations.

Final Thoughts

In short, the point of sail is an aspect of windsurfing that should not be overlooked. Although understanding the foundational elements of the points of sail is important, it is equally important to apply these concepts on the water by physically going out and experiencing how the different points of sail influence your windsurfing ride firsthand.

So go out and windsurf! Feeling the power of the sail course through your body as you glide along the water is one of the greatest feelings in water sports.

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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