Advice on windsurfing kit
Windsurfing can appear a confusing sport at first, especially as there are so many different models of board on the market. Fortunately, it's not as complicated as it seems; although there are indeed a wide variety of windsurf board sizes and styles, they're all for fairly specific roles, and most are actually aimed at the more experienced windsurfer anyway.
Types of windsurfing board
The world of windsurfing boards can be divided into three main subgroups: long boards, mid-length boards and short boards. The edges between these groups are fairly blurred, but in general a short board is taken to mean anything without a daggerboard and around 310cm (approx 10ft) or less in length.
The main difference between short boards and all-round long boards is that long boards are very good to sail in light winds, but become bouncy and more difficult to control in more windy conditions (simply because there is a lot of board to get blown around by the wind!). This is why the experienced windsurfer will usually turn to a shorter board for use in more windy conditions, as being smaller it is more controllable and manoeuvrable underfoot, as well as substantially faster and more exciting in feel. Mid-length boards fill the gap in between, offering a mix of both light-wind and strong-wind performance.
Explaining in detail all the different types of board would take many pages, and much of the information – particularly on the shorter designs – isn't relevant to the inexperienced windsurfer anyway.
The windsurfing rig
The windsurfing rig consists of sail, mast, boom and mastfoot. These are usually bought separately, although complete rig packages are available, particularly with beginner/intermediate boards.
Different sizes of windsurf sail
A good all-round sail size for most people is 5.5-6.3m, suitable for winds of up to Forces four or five. However, if the wind strength increases further, then ultimately it will create too much power and pull to be able to control. The point at which this happens is very much determined by your own bodyweight and strength – a heavier and/or stronger sailor can hold on to a bigger sail in stronger winds than a smaller person, using their weight and strength with the harness to balance against the force of the wind.
However, all windsurfers will ultimately have to 'change down' to a smaller sail as the wind gets stronger. So, for sailing in a wider range of conditions, a couple of smaller sizes of sail will be necessary – 5.0m and 4.0m are popular choices, and will increase the wind range of your board comfortably up to a solid Force six.
Sail selection doesn't stop there, for there are sails available in all sizes from as small as 3.0m to as large as 10m. Many of these are designed as specialist sails – the very small sizes are for experienced wave sailors sailing in gale force conditions, and the very big ones are generally only for racers wanting to go as fast as possible in very light winds. The point is that there is a large variety of sails available, so you should always be able to find a size to suit your ability, stature and requirements.
Rig components for windsurfing
As well as the sail, the rig requires a mast, boom and mastfoot to be assembled correctly. In the case of a complete rig package this will all be correctly matched to your sail, but most rig components are actually bought separately. Consequently, booms, masts and mast extensions/feet come in many different sizes, to cater for different size sails, and also in different constructions. You can pay three or four times as much for a very lightweight boom or mast as for a basic model. In your early days of windsurfing it might seem that getting the cheapest makes most sense, but lightweight components can make a great improvement to the way the rig feels, so if you can afford them they will be a good buy.
Wetsuits for windsurfing
You need a wetsuit to windsurf in Britain, if that’s where you plan to sail. Even in the hottest of summers, the wind chill factor combined with repeated immersion in the water can cool you down very quickly if you're not properly protected. But all you'll need for windsurfing in the summer is a light, 2.5-3mm short-armed wetsuit, which you'll hardly even notice you're wearing. Forget any preconceptions about windsurfing being a cold sport. The modern wetsuit is an incredibly sophisticated and efficient piece of kit, as well as being lightweight and stylish. It's easy to get on, and allows you to sail all day long without any feelings of chilliness.
The most important consideration in buying a wetsuit is getting one that fits. It doesn't matter how expensive or how many gizmos and gadgets the suit has, if it doesn’t fit correctly it won’t keep you warm. The ideal wetsuit is one that fits so snugly that it is virtually waterproof, simply because there is then hardly any room for water inside! The thin layer of water trapped between your skin and the neoprene will be warmed by your body heat, thereby enclosing you in a cocoon of warm water. If the suit is too big the warm water will be washed away and replaced by cold water too often, cooling you down in the process. This is why it's important not to try and make a too-loose wetsuit fit by wearing clothes underneath - ideally neoprene should be worn next to the skin.
When choosing your suit, be sure to try on a good selection before you buy. Make sure the suit isn't too tight or too loose, especially at the neck, wrist and ankle seals, and around the biceps and forearms, which will inevitably get pumped up during a good sailing session. If the suit is too tight it can cause muscle cramps; too loose and it will let too much water in, causing heat loss. (However, a waterproof summer steamer can be made even warmer for use in colder weather, simply by donning another wetsuit - a shortie or vest - underneath it).
For summer use, you can get away with a relatively thin suit, but for colder weather a thicker winter suit is essential. Suits designed for spring/autumn/winter also have waterproof seams (either blind-stitched, glued, taped, or combinations of the three), so there is less chance of any water getting inside. Suits that have a non-waterproof 'overlock stitch' are cheaper, but will let in small amounts of water every time you fall in; useful on very hot days to help keep you cool, but not so good for colder weather.
Windsurfing shoes and boots
Something that every windsurfer needs! Unless you're lucky enough to sail from a sandy beach, a pair of rubber-soled neoprene boots or rubber surf slippers are essential to protect your feet from rocks, shingle, the cold, and of course, the numerous hard bits on the deck of the board that it is all too easy to stub toes on! Prices for shoes and boots vary from around £10 to £40 depending on the level of protection and comfort offered. Avoid anything too bulky as they'll make getting into the footstraps more difficult later on in your windsurfing career.
Although your wetsuit will provide a bit of extra flotation, in the early days of learning, a buoyancy aid does wonders for your confidence as well as providing an element of safety. On some inland waters you're not allowed to sail without one. Prices start at around £35.
Roof racks for windsurfers
Windsurfing is very much a portable sport, and there's an unparalleled selection of sailing venues around the UK to check out. So unless you have a van or trailer you're going to need a good quality roof rack and a set of sturdy straps to get about once you've bought a board.
There are plenty of roof racks on the market, but you should avoid the cheaper brands as they're not really designed to cope with the loads imposed by a roof full of boards travelling at 70mph. We can recommend racks from Thule and Paddy Hopkirk. They’re not cheap, but they’re well engineered, safe and built to last. If you can stretch to one with some sort of locking device, so much the better, as this is required by most insurance companies if you want anti-theft insurance.
The racks on a car roof should be positioned as far apart as possible. Place the board on the rack deck down with the nose pointing to the front of the car. A second board can then go on top, (better than placing two boards on the roofrack side by side, as this creates a lot more lift). With care, four 370cm boards and rigs can be carried safely on a small family car. Do make sure that the rack and rack straps are correctly fastened and tight. Every year there are accidents with racks and boards coming off car roofs while speeding down the motorway, so tighten the rack properly and yank those straps down good and hard!
A great alternative to all this is the purpose-built Quiverack, which simply bolts to your existing roof rack and allows you to store your sails and booms inside with the boards on top, offering both security and safety.
Insurance is absolutely vital in windsurfing. If you own a board, you should also own insurance – third party at least to protect yourself and anyone you might inadvertently run into. Third party insurance is in fact compulsory at many sailing locations. Fortunately, it's not at all difficult or time consuming to get the necessary cover – simply joining the RYA gives you automatic free third party insurance.
There are also a number of fully comprehensive insurance policies on offer for windsurfers, giving the all-important third party cover, along with full damage/theft protection for your equipment. They are reasonably priced and well worth considering, since most countries suffer a certain amount of board/equipment theft, particularly from car roof racks.