What is Windsurfing?

Wind and water work together in one of the most iconic sports around. But what is windsurfing? Read on to learn more, including how does windsurfing work?

3 August 2022

Part sailing, part surfing and entirely a sport in its own right, windsurfing stormed onto the watersports scene in the seventies. Since then, it has become an Olympic event and a popular holiday activity worldwide.

But what is windsurfing? How does windsurfing work and what are windsurfing boards? Finally, what do you need for windsurfing? Let’s set sail and get some answers.

What is Windsurfing?

Windsurfing in the sun (Photo: Ben Welsh via Getty Images)

Windsurfing is an iconic sight in any beach scene, with the sea seemingly always dotted with riders hanging onto luffing sails. But what is windsurfing? Is it sailing? Surfing? It certainly has elements of both. Put simply, it is the wind-propelled water sport of sailing on a windsurfing board.

We’ll shortly address exactly “what are windsurfing boards” and “how does windsurfing work”, but for now it’s enough to say that, as in sailing, there is a sail which is attached to a board and something for the rider to hold onto.

The rider, standing on the board, uses the wind to propel them across the surface of the water and to steer. A versatile sport, windsurfing can be done on seas and rivers, larger lakes and estuaries.

What is Windsurfing? A History

Beautiful windsurfing sails (Photo: Digital Vision via Getty Images)

A quick recap of what is windsurfing and how it developed. If it is defined by the use of a windsurfing board then it was 1968 that the sport was born. This was the year that two Californians, engineer Jim Drake and businessman Hoyle Schweitzer, were awarded a patent for what they called “The Windsurfer”.

A light, simple design which leaned more towards sailing than surfing, it was a sail that stood atop a surfboard. It went into production almost immediately and quickly gained a following. By the end of the 1970s, windsurfing would be popular throughout the US and much of Europe.

Today, the original Windsurfer is still a favourite with those seeking a more leisurely thrill. However, windsurfing boards or “sailboards” have, on the whole, evolved to serve an increasing appetite for more speed and distance. Rigs are bigger, boards more like boats. And it’s paid off. Indeed, the world record for windsurfing speed is 64.4 miles per hour (56 knots). As for distance, the record journey exceeded 5,000 miles along the Brazilian coast. That’s roughly the distance from Hong Kong to Cairo.

In 1973, the first windsurfing world championships took place. It would become an Olympic men’s event in 1984, with women’s windsurfing added in 1992. Today, its governing bodies are The International Windsurfing Association (IWA) and the Professional Windsurfers Association (PWA).

The latest advance in windsurfing is the introduction of hydrofoils. These are basically much bigger fins than traditional ones. Hydrofoils lift the board up to two feet above the water, adding yet more speed. The Olympics have made hydrofoil windsurfing the standard format.

What are Windsurfing Boards?

Sunset windsurfing (Photo: Ben Welsh via Getty Images )

In overview, a windsurfing board is a waterborne device that harnesses wind energy to allow the rider to move along the surface of water, gliding on a board. Its main components include:

The Board
Definitely the first item on the “what are windsurfing boards” list. Modern boards tend to have a core of expanded polystyrene foam. Their shells tend to be a mix of sturdy yet lightweight materials like fibreglass. Their size ranges from 8 to 12.5 feet long, weighing from 15 to 40 pounds. Anything longer than 10 feet is considered a longboard, shorter is a shortboard. Windsurfing boards have a fin underneath, a bit like the shape of a shark fin. Windsurfing boards have footstraps by which the windsurfer is attached to the board.

The Sail
Sails today tend to be made of a mix of strong synthetic materials like clear polyester film (monofilm), woven polyester, mylar and kevlar. Aside from beginner sails which need to be light, most windsurfing sails have inserts called batten to help give them an aerodynamic airfoil shape. In general, the bigger the sail, the faster the board. So while wave sails range from 32 to 59 square feet (3 m2 to 5.5 m2), racing sails can exceed 160 square feet.

The Mast and Mast Base
Usually around 15 feet high, the mast is the backbone of the sail and a vital part of what are windsurfing boards. It’s what holds it upright and helps define its shape. Masts come in varying levels of stiffness, ranked according to the Indexed Mast Check System. Stiffer masts offer more power and are better for heavier riders, more flexible masts offer more control. The mast is attached to the board via the mast base, which allows it to be moved in all directions.

The Boom
Usually made of aluminium, teak or carbon fibre, the boom surrounds the sail. This is what the rider holds onto as well as the main way they control the windsurfing board. It also serves a second purpose, offering another element of structural support for the sail.

Together, the sail, boom, mast and mast base are called the rig.

How does Windsurfing Work?

Windsurfers surfing high waves (Photo: Ben Welsh via Getty Images)

Windsurfing relies on wind to power its movement, but how does windsurfing work in practice?

When the wind hits the sail, it transfers energy and makes it move. How much energy depends on the angle of the sail in relation to the wind. The biggest force is exerted when the sail is at a 45 degree angle to the wind.

At the same time, the fin underneath the board is hit by water pressure, which is a greater force than wind. This is due to water being denser than air. Changing the angle of the fin in relation to the water allows the surfer to determine the direction of travel. The surfer controls their speed and direction by adjusting the movement of the sail and the board, all while balancing their own weight against that of the pressure on the sail.

So that’s the windsurfing board, but that’s not the end of the gear. Let’s look at that now, addressing what do you need for windsurfing?

What do you need for Windsurfing?

Getting ready for a tranquil windsurf (Photo: Steve Mason via Getty Images)

So, what do you need for windsurfing aside from the windsurfing board? The following is a very basic list:

Wetsuit and Aqua Shoes Most windsurfers wear wetsuits and water shoes, both for their warmth and relative protection, but there is no official uniform. Board shorts, rash vests and swimsuits are also used.

Buoyancy Aids Safety first. This includes a life jacket and personal flotation device.

Transportation Windsurfing boards are big and require a car rack to move around. There are also board bags.

Health Sunglasses, hat, sunscreen.

For the ultimate in safety, a helmet is recommended.

More advanced windsurfers require other items like emergency communications devices.

And there you have it. An answer to “what do you need for windsurfing”. Before that, we looked at other aspects of “what is windsurfing”, from “what are windsurfing boards” to “how does windsurfing work”. Happy sailing!


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