Windsurfing Points of Sail: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide


If you want to break into the sport of windsurfing, it is crucial for you to have a thorough understanding of the various points of sail. The points of sail play a significant part in how well a windsurfer is able to 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 tough. The problem is that knowledge of wind direction is absolutely critical to generating movement out on the water. 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 rather intuitive. The wind blows against the sail and carries the windsurf board in the direction where the wind is blowing.

Windsurfers are able to acquire the most amount of speed while sailing downwind because the sail is gathering 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 with 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. 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 with normal 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 on the outside of 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 takeaways of sailing upwind is that the windsurfer must ride at an angle to the wind in order to create a pressure difference. If this still sounds a bit confusing to you, I recommend that you go 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 important to note that there 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 are able to 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 certain points of sail where individuals simply cannot windsurf due to lack of power. To better understand why this is, we will take a closer 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 teeth of the wind, 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 in a linear fashion from point A to point B, windsurfers must take a more roundabout approach to reaching 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, which is why 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 distance the other way. They do not ride straight against the wind as certain 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 on a more frequent basis.

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 to note because it allows windsurfers to travel upwind in the most efficient manner possible. The farther that a windsurfer strays into the close reach, the more zig zagging they are forced to do in order 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. There are no bright lights indicating how close you can get to the no go zone. 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 are able to 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 back from where they sailed. If there was 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 having to deal 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 the most with learning 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. Broad reaching is the fastest point of sail in windsurfing. In other words, windsurfers are able to gain a whole lot more speed when sailing on the broad reach as opposed to the run. Why is that?

This has to do with the concept of apparent wind. For those of you that 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 is able to 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 are able to 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 amount of 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 just pick up overnight. It takes time and patience to acquire this skill. If a windsurfers is lured downwind, novice windsurfers will have to swim their way back upwind as opposed to sailing back.

What is the Ideal Point of Sail to Windsurf?

The ideal point of sail for windsurfing depends on the experience level and personal aspirations of the windsurfer concerned. For this reason, we will take a look at a couple 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 prior to 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 as opposed to sailing upwind. This additional speed makes controlling the windsurf board much more difficult.

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

Windsurfers That Want to Focus On Riding Waves

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

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

With that being said, the direction of the wind does have an effect on how the waves pan out on the surf break. So although 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 are able to attain on the water.

As aforementioned, heading straight downwind is not the ideal way to generate linear speed on the water because the effect of apparent wind is minimized. 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, point of sail is an aspect of windsurfing that should not be overlooked. Although understanding the foundational elements of the points of sail are 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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