Windsurfing vs Sailboarding: What is the Difference?

Casual water sports enthusiasts have likely heard of the terms windsurfing and sailboarding at some point in their lives. However, for those who are unfamiliar with these names, it may cause some to question what is the difference between these two water pursuits.

Windsurfing and sailboarding are two different names for the same activity. These names are used interchangeably to describe the water sport where individuals harness the power of the wind via a sail to maneuver their boards on the water. This activity is a combination of sailing and surfing.

To fully understand why people use these two names interchangeably, it is necessary to understand some of the basics of the sport itself. This article will take a deep dive into where these two names are derived and why people commonly believe that windsurfing and sailboarding describe different activities.

How Windsurfing & Sailboarding are Interchangeable Names for the Same Activity

Having two separate names to describe one sport is undoubtedly a confusing prospect. However, once you take the time to familiarize yourself with some of the fundamentals of the sport, these two names make complete sense.

To avoid confusion, I will be referencing this sport as windsurfing from here on out. Just know that sailboarding is another proper name to describe this sport as well.

How the Name of “Windsurfing” was Established

The origins of how the name of windsurfing came about have an interesting back story.

When the sport was first coming up, there was not a definitive name for the sport. People could not decipher whether this activity was considered a branch of sailing or a branch of surfing. So it was seen mainly as an experimental fad in Baja, California.

The locals called the combination of the sail and the board “Baja boards.” They were aptly named for where all of these pioneer windsurfers would get together.

This continued until a PR man from Seattle named Bert Salisbury came along and saw these boards for the first time. After witnessing these water warriors zip around on their boards solely with the power of the wind, he had a flash of creative genius. He quickly went to the inventors, Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer, and suggested a new name for this state-of-the-art board: “The Windsurfer” (source).

The inventors wisely took his advice to heart, and the new name stuck. As a result, a considerable amount of people began to generalize the entire sport with the name of “windsurfing.” This name spread like wildfire amongst the water sports community.

Why the Name of “Windsurfing” Makes Sense

The name “windsurfing” makes complete sense because this sport sprung from surfing. The main difference is that this sport channels the power of the wind into movement rather than just the waves themselves.

This is done by the large sail that is attached to the board. This can gather the energy of the wind and propel the board forward, allowing its rider to surf on top of the water. Thus, this name emphasizes the two combined elements of wind and surfing into one easy-to-understand name.

How the Name of “Sailboarding” was Established

During the early days of windsurfing, when there was no set name for the sport, people threw another name into the mix… sailboarding.

The modern windsurf board was invented with Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer. But it is a little-known fact that their creation was not the first windsurf board ever created. Although their windsurf board design was what eventually took the world by storm, there was another windsurf board design that came before theirs.

The first windsurf board ever was crafted by Newman Darby in the mid-1960s. This design was far more basic than the modern windsurf board seen today; however, it did incorporate the universal joint. This allowed windsurfers to maneuver the mast and sail freely on the water, which was a novel invention at the time.

Darby never patented this idea. However, he did attempt to mass-produce and sell his board design. This unorthodox board was marketed as the “Darby Sailboard” to the general public (source).

Although this business eventually sputtered out, those who purchased the Darby Sailboard continued to call this newfound activity “sailboarding.

When the sport was revitalized again by the new, innovative design by Jim Drake and Hoyle Schweitzer in 1968, these people continued to label the activity as sailboarding. People caught on, and this name eventually became synonymous with windsurfing.

If you would like to read up more on the fascinating origins of windsurfing, I have a comprehensive article on the topic that you can check out here.

Why the Name “Sailboarding” Makes Sense

The name “sailboarding” is also a logical name for the sport because this name incorporates the vessel that riders use to maneuver themselves on the water.

Just like windsurfing and sailboarding are interchangeable terms, so too are the terms windsurf board and sailboard. Plus, it is easy for those unfamiliar with the sport to picture the vessel that riders use to go out on the water.

This name mimics the methodology used to label other sports by specifically outlining the equipment involved. For example, basketball describes the central equipment of the basket and the ball. Sailboarding similarly describes the essential equipment of the sail and the board.

Why People Believe Windsurfing & Sailboarding are Two Different Things

There are a couple of reasons why unassuming individuals think windsurfing and sailboarding are distinct from one another. These reasons are discussed in greater detail below.

Sports Rarely Ever Have More Than One Name

There are not many instances in water sports, or sports in general, where more than one name is used to describe the sport in question.

Water skiing, for instance, is specific toward describing one specific water sport and has no other discernible name that describes it. This makes it much more convenient for people to identify the sport.

Windsurfing is the exception to this rule. Thus, when people hear these two names thrown around in the water sports community, it is only natural to presume these are two separate sports. It is hard to fault them for making this assumption considering that few other sports have this problem.

Windsurfing and Sailboarding Sound Dissimilar From One Another

In addition, windsurfing and sailboarding do not sound alike. These names incorporate completely separate words and do not appear to share any discernible characteristics judging from the names alone.

It would be much more apparent to people that these names refer to the same activity if their names indicated that they shared some noticeable connection.

Consider the sport of lacrosse, for example. If you are familiar with this sport, you know that players and coaches commonly refer to this sport as lacrosse and lax. It is much easier for people to connect these two names because one name is the abbreviated form of the other.

The names windsurfing and sailboarding share no such similarities, making it hard for people to make the connection right off the bat.

Between Windsurfing & Sailboarding, Which is the More Commonly Used Name?

Although these two names are interchangeable with one another, most people call this sport windsurfing as opposed to sailboarding.

This is all speculation, but it seems that windsurfing is just the catchier name between the two. People are drawn to the idea of controlling the element of the wind and turning it into speed on the water. It is what separates the sport from everything else.

The combination of wind and surfing also lends itself to more extreme connotations than the name of sailboarding. As the years have gone on, more and more riders are leaning towards the extreme side of the sport. Riders take immense pride in the extreme nature of windsurfing, and they want the entire world to know how risky their sport really is.

The name windsurfing helps to better communicate this underlying message of danger relative to sailboarding. If you are interested in why windsurfing is extreme, you should check out some of the intriguing findings I wrote in my article Is Windsurfing an Extreme Sport? (Full Details).

Are There Any Other Names for Windsurfing & Sailboarding?

Now that you know that the names windsurfing and sailboarding are cut from the same cloth, you are probably wondering if there are any other names out there that people use to describe this activity. Of course, the last thing you want to do is rerun into this issue!

As far as alternative names go, I have only seen the names of wave sailing, funboarding, and wind gliding mentioned here and there. The last name was used more often in the 1980s when the Windglider Class was the choice board in the 1984 Olympics for windsurfing (source).

Though, I must admit that I seldom hear this name nowadays. Instead, most people opt to call this sport either windsurfing or sailboarding. Plus, the name of wind gliding is now commonly associated with the sport of hang gliding.

Occasionally, you will see the name sailboarding switched around so that it is called boardsailing, but you should be able to link these two names together rather easily.


Whether you prefer the name windsurfing or sailboarding, this sport is an exciting display on the water no matter what you call it!

Sources: 1 2 3

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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