Windsurfing or sailboarding is a surface water sport that combines elements of surfing and sailing. It consists of a board usually two to four metres long, powered by the orthogonal effect of the wind on a sail. The rig is connected to the board by a free-rotating universal joint and comprises a mast, wishbone boom and sail. The sail area ranges from less than 2.5 m2 to more than 12 m2 depending on the conditions, the skill of the sailor and the type of windsurfing being undertaken.
The history of windsurfing began in 1948 on the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania, USA when Newman Darby invented the sailboard which incidentally, he did not patent. In 1964, Darby began selling his sailboards.
Windsurfing can be said to straddle both the laid-back culture of surf sports and the more rules-based environment of sailing. Although it might be considered a minimalistic version of a sailboat, a windsurfer offers experiences that are outside the scope of any other sailing craft design.
Windsurfers can perform jumps, inverted loops, spinning manoeuvres, and other “freestyle” moves that cannot be matched by any sailboat.
Windsurfers were the first to ride the world’s largest waves, such as Jaws on the island of Maui, and, with very few exceptions, it was not until the advent of tow-in surfing that waves of that size became accessible to surfers on more traditional surfboards. Extreme waves aside, many expert windsurfers will ride the same waves as wave-surfers do (wind permitting) and are themselves usually very accomplished without a rig on a conventional surfboard.
At one time referred to as “surfing’s ginger haired cousin” by the sport’s legendary champion, Robby Naish, windsurfing has long struggled to present a coherent image of the sport to outsiders. Indeed, participants will regularly use different names to describe the sport, including sailboarding and boardsailing. Despite the term,”Windsurfing” became the accepted name for the sport, participants are still called “sailors” or “board heads” and not “surfers”
The History of Windsurfing
Windsurfing, as a sport and recreational activity, did not emerge until the later half of the 20th century. But before this, there have been sailing boats of various designs that have used wind as the driving force for millennia, and Polynesians have been riding waves for many of them, undertaking day trips over oceans standing upright on a solid board with a vertical sail.
In 1948, 20-year old Newman Darby was the first to conceive the idea of using a hand-held sail and rig mounted on a universal joint so that he could control his small catamaran– the first rudderless sailboard ever built that allowed a person to steer by shifting his or her weight in order to tilt the sail fore and aft. Darby did not file a patent for the sailboard. However, he is widely recognised as its inventor as well as the first to conceive, design, and build a sailboard with a universal joint.
In his own words, Darby experimented throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s and it wasn’t until 1963 that an improved sailboard with a conventional stayed sloop rig sail arrangement made it more stable than the one built in 1948. In 1964, Darby began selling his sailboards.
12-year old Peter Chilvers is often cited for inventing a sailboard in 1958. In the 1960s, Jim Drake was the first to solve many problems of getting the board to sail while Hoyle Schweitzer was the first to be successful in marketing the sailboard.
In 1964, during a discussion on water sports over a brandy at his home in Southern California, RAND Corporation aeronautical engineer Jim Drake and his former Rockwell boss and now good friend Fred Payne, who worked at The Pentagon, discussed options for creating a wind-powered water-ski which would allow Payne to travel on the Potomac River. That night they developed the idea of a kite powered surfboard.
On later reflection, Drake didn’t like the integrity of the idea and dismissed it. There were already a number of sailboard designs available, and Drake also was concerned about the integrity of a design needing taut wire close to a human body to keep the sail upright.
Still developing the idea, Drake’s wife met the pregnant Diana Schweitzer, and the two families became good friends through their children. Drake mentioned the idea to surfer Hoyle Schweitzer who wanted to develop it, but Drake was still unsure of how to control and steer what he envisaged in a design concept as a surfboard with upright sail design, whereby the sailor stood upright on the board holding the sail.
The technical problem was that most boats steer by varying the angle of attack in the water between the centre board and the rudder, and Drake’s question came down to simple operation of how a standing person could control both the power of the sail as well as the direction of the craft.
In 1967, while driving between his home and a contract at the Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, Drake had time to reflect on early 17th century based sail ship control. Rudders then were weak and ineffective, mostly used for trimming course. Hence with multi-masted boats, the sailors would trim the upper sails on the forward and rearwards masts to steer the ship.
Dismissing the idea of a design with two upright sails, Drake decided to move the sail by rotation, as moving it linearly would require a mechanical system. Experimenting with a rotational design which became the concept for the universal joint, whereby the angle of attack of the sail to the board could be varied to allow control of both power and craft direction. Drake finished the design by using an earlier but for them failed invention of East Coast racing sail, and added a wishbone boom.
A sailboard will move, depending on wind conditions and the skill or intentions of the rider, in two entirely different manners, with two different displacements- it will either sail or hydroplane (referred to as “planing”).
The former takes place in light winds (up to 10 knots) and involves the hull moving through the water using (typically) a centreboard and fin or skeg for stability and lateral resistance. Directional control is achieved via the rig and weighting one or other side the board, or sinking the tail.
When the wind gets above 8-10 knots (typically 15 knots+ for recreational equipment) the board ceases to move through the water and instead planes on top of the water, skimming over the surface at much higher speeds. To make the most of planing conditions, the board needs to be smaller and can dispense with the centreboard as sufficient lift and lateral resistance are provided by the fin (or combination of fins).
When planing, jibing is achieved via shifting the rig and engaging one of the rails (edges) of the board which is referred to as carving. Windsurf boards can also tack like a sail boat. Though windsurfing is possible in winds from near 0 to 50 knots, the ideal planing conditions for most recreational riders is 15-25 knots.
Control also changes when transitioning from sailing to planing; when sailing the board is primarily steered by bringing the mast either forward or backward. When planing these controls still apply, but to a much lesser extent. The larger part of control is applied by putting pressure on / engaging either the left or the right sides of the board, transferring rider’s mass to the inside of the turn.
Windsurfers will often express the success of a day out on the water, or for that matter, a whole windsurfing trip, as the amount of “strap time” they enjoyed, because a (proficient) rider can and will only use the foot straps at the back of a sail board when it is planing, and it is planing what constitutes the fun element in windsurfing to most windsurfers.