The waterstart

The game plan

First we'll see how easy waterstarting looks. After watching these videos you're likely to believe you can get it right away. But looks can be deceiving. For most of us it takes a little longer. And if you're a slow learner like me, it can take a lot longer.

Then I'll break the waterstart down into the components that I found critical to my own learning process. That makes this a personal journey to waterstarting rather than an authoritative guide.

Finally, different windsurfers seem to suffer different hangups with their waterstarts; a few, like me, have probably suffered every conceivable hangup. So I'll conclude with a troubleshooting guide.

Waterstarting looks easy

Let's begin by looking at several examples of waterstarts. Note that in every example the first step is to fly the sail, which means getting the wind to hold it above the water.


There's another common way to fly the sail, namely by setting the boom on the tail of the board. I learned this one from Jeanne Morledge and Ben Schlais. (You can only do this if the boom is low enough and the board is long enough.)


More on flying the sail

Since flying the sail is the prerequisite for any waterstart, here's an extensive treatment of techniques, by Jem Hall at Board Seeker Magazine. BTW, "flying the sail" also goes by the names "clearing the sail" or "clearing the rig."

This will be replaced by the SWF below

He covers 4 different techniques:

  1. {From 0:00 to 1:33) The (classic) airplane method emphasized in the first video above. This gets its name because the board and sail are oriented respectively like the fuselage and wing of an airplane, flying directly into the wind.
  2. (From 1:35 to 2:31) What I call the I-beam method, which you also see in the second video above. It's an I-beam because the board and sail are aligned together like an "I", on a beam reach. In lighter wind this method will generally be less tiring, because the sail is already partly or fully out of the water when you begin. Jem's variation is slightly more advanced because he doesn't require the boom to actually sit on the tail of the board. So his version can succeed even if your boom is too high to rest on the board, which is often the case when you're sailing on smaller boards. (He calls this "lift and separate." I call it the levitated I-beam.)
  3. (From 2:33 to 3:32) A variation of the airplane method that I learned from Andy Evenson, in which you begin with the mast pointing directly upwind. This one is also shown briefly in the first video (from 1:01 to 1:20). I call this the T-beam method, since the board is on a beam reach and the sail intersects it at a "T". The configuration may look like the airplane configuration, but everything is rotated 90 degrees with respect to the wind.
  4. (From 3:32 to 4:59) An advanced variation of the first method when the sail is backwards, i.e. the clew happens to be pointing to the front of the board. Most people just flip the clew over and then apply the first method. But Jem does it as a continuous move so that the sail flies continuously throughout the flip. Another alternative is a true clew first waterstart, which you can see in the first video above from 1:21 to 1:28.


The elements of the waterstart

First I'm making the assumption that you're learning waterstarts in deep water, without the pedagogical benefit of learning beach starts first. If you have a beach by all means learn and practice beach starts, then move on to waterstarts. At Hoofers, we don't have that luxury.

Next, let's talk about wind. My rule of thumb is that you need approximately enough wind to plane. (A little less is generally adequate.) Whatever condition you're practicing in you need to be able to be able to sail in it too, because that's the first thing that must happen after you waterstart. It does you no good to waterstart when it's too windy for you to sail. For most people then, your waterstarts and your heavy wind sailing skills need to progress hand-in-hand.

Here are the steps:

  1. Getting the sail to fly
  2. Keeping it flying
  3. Putting a foot on the board
  4. Getting up and away


Get the sail flying

Fly the sail using any of the techniques above that work for you; if one doesn't work try another. It will likely take some effort to swim and jockey your rig and board around until you're in a suitable position. Once the sail is flying, don't rush ahead. Try to keep it flying. Longer. Get comfortable and gain some confidence. (This is analogous to neutral (aka basic) position for a beginning windsurfer in light winds, when after uphauling the sail, you stand in neutral position without rushing to sail, getting comfortable and confident in the position, as though you could read a book like War and Peace.)

If you fly the sail by resting the boom on the tail of the board -- the technique in the second video -- a good exercise is to then keep the sail flying while your (front) hand remains on the mast and the (back) hand remains on the tail. This is a relatively stable position because keeping your hand on the mast and not the boom lets the sail pivot easily in the air, which lets nature balance it; once your hand moves to the boom nature relinquishes responsibility for balancing the sail and transfers it to you. Notice how long the guy in the video holds this position -- nearly 7 seconds (from 00:25 to 00:32). You can probably hold it quite a bit longer if you're patient and don't rush. This is good practice because in windsurfing, haste (usually) makes waste.


Keep the sail flying

Whatever technique you use to get the sail flying, once it's there you will get both hands on the boom. Do this in such a way as to retain control over everything -- you, your rig, and your board. Indeed, keep the sail flying while both hands are on the boom. This is a new skill, so you will learn by trial and error, just as you learned how to windsurf by trial and error. When you're sailing on a board you're continually adjusting everything you do; when you're in the water do the same, even though the techniques will differ. Some examples:

  • Your feet can't move around on the board, but your legs can kick around in the water. So don't merely let your legs get dragged passively around; use them assertively. See also the first troubleshooting tip below.
  • If the board heads up into the wind, move the mast forward just as you would if you were atop your board, so push down on the boom and swim forward to apply pressure on the mast foot to drive the board back downwind. If that doesn't work -- if heading up remains a persistent issue -- consider sliding your hands back on the boom by a tiny bit; even a half an inch can make a perceptible difference. After all, sliding your hands back means that the boom and hence the sail move forward relative to your body!
  • If the board bears off downwind, do the opposite.
  • Your goal is to keep the sail flying; and your speed should be close to zero, because speed means you're wasting wind energy on propulsion instead of for lift to get you up on the board (eventually).


Putting a foot on the board

Then comes the decisive moment: A foot has to get onto the board without disrupting the board's orientation. Usually this will be the back foot. If so, place it somewhere forward of the rear footstraps. The idea is to place it so that (a) it doesn't disrupt the hard-won orientation of the board, and (b) it can be used to help steer the board to maintain that orientation. Some boards will be more fidgety than others, but your goal is to keep the board under control. Whereas before your foot was up you were controlling the direction by swimming with both legs, now your swimming is sharply curtailed and needs to be supplanted by pulling or pushing with your foot. Use a light touch. If you place your foot with weight or force, you are likely to abruptly pivot the board in a new, unwanted direction. Anything other than light foot movements can shift the board's orientation more than you intended.


Getting up onto the board

Compared to everything above, actually getting up onto the board is anticlimactic. Assuming your back foot is on the board, get comfortable again holding everything -- you, board and sail -- steady. Then scrunch yourself close to the board and up out of the water, bringing your front leg with you, as the guy in the second video above does, or as Jem Hall at Board Seeker magazine shows here:

Your front leg's movement or kick will add a little starting momentum to get you up; the wind -- if there's enough -- will help get you the rest of the way up. Often this is so successful that you will quickly need to sheet out to keep the power of the sail from launching you all the way across the board and into the water on the opposite side of the board. This scrunching motion has been described variously as:

  1. "Eating the mast foot" (Jem Hall)
  2. "Imagine trying to place the boom onto a high shelf"
  3. "Don't imagine that the sail will pull you out of the water." If you do your rear end is likely to hang back, whereas you really want to scrunch your whole body forward.
  4. "Stay low"
  5. "Make yourself small" (Kyle Heisler)

In lighter wind this scrunching motion is essential because you will need all the help you can get. In higher wind Matt Dwyer pointed out to me that continuing to scrunch even after you're up, like sheeting out, can help prevent you from quickly getting launched over to the opposite side of the board. See the next section for more on heavy conditions.


In heavy conditions

As for most aspects of windsurfing heavier conditions require a different approach. In heavy wind and waves there will be plenty of power available to get you up, but the challenge will be to keep you, your board, and your sail stable and under control throughout the maneuver. The good news is that getting the sail to fly in higher winds is generally easier. But lots of discouraging things can still happen. You may find it hard to fight to get into position to even put your foot up; a surprise puff might rip the sail up and away, taking you with it or not; the next "rinse cycle" from a big wave can disorient you or your board; you may even get seasick from bobbing up and down with the swells. So when the going gets tough, don't fixate on a particular orthodoxy for waterstarting. Adapt and respond in any manner that keeps everything under control. Certainly you will want to hold the sail lower so it catches less wind. You may need to tap the board with either foot or a knee or a hand to help keep it oriented; or put your front foot on first; or get both feet on and let the wind pull you up out of the water. Because we are talking about heavy wind now, the subtlety of optimizing your body movement to leverage enough wind to get you up is irrelevant. The wind is more than strong enough so use every resource you can think of just to stay in control.


Advice for practicing

Uphauling in heavy wind can be exhausting. Waterstarting is less tiring when it works. But if your success rate is low, waterstarting can eventually exhaust you just as much as uphauling. Also, remember that uphaul and waterstart failures will move you inexorably downwind. (Uphaul failures are worse in this regard, because uphauling catches much more wind in the sail than waterstarting.)

So even though you are working on waterstarts, as long as your uphauls are still more reliable, use one every now and then to give yourself a good, long ride so you can make some upwind progress to compensate for the downwind drift from your failures. Another benefit from an occasional long ride is that it gives you a chance to warm up when you are flailing around with waterstarts in cold water.


A low wind tip

In marginal waterstarting conditions try placing your rear foot pointing backwards on the board. When you then attempt to rise onto the board your body enjoys a little extra kick and twist up as your rear leg rotates and snaps forward. I picked this up from Kurt Johnson, who in turn learned it from Andy Brandt, the founder of ABK Boardsports. One more addition to your bag of tricks.


Troubleshooting your waterstarts

The first 2 tips are inspired by Bev Howard's waterstarting page .

  1. While the sail is flying and you're in the water you're essentially sailing, except that your feet (and legs and torso) are in the water and not on the board. So what you'd normally do with your feet to control the board is impossible. They aren't on the board. Instead you need to kick with your legs to simulate the adjustments that you'd otherwise be making with your feet. Rich Pang once told me the secret of waterstarting is to kick like crazy; the reason nobody knows this is that you can't see it since it's happening under water.
  2. I used to believe that my back foot had to go immediately on to the board at the point where I'd be sailing. On the contrary, Bev points out that when you start up after a normal uphaul your feet are not yet all the way back on the board, because you are not yet powered up at high speed. Similarly when you waterstart your initial speed is nearly zero so you need not initially position your feet far back on the board. Long story short, if your back foot goes on first, place it well in front of the rear footstrap; you can and will adjust its position once you are up and moving. Also...

    The real principle for foot placement is not about a fixed location on the board; rather you should be motivated by the desire to use your foot to control the direction of the board, most likely to keep it somewhere near a beam reach. If you bear away too much downwind, the wind will be wasting its force on propelling you instead of harboring its force to help you up onto the board; if you head up too much, into the no go zone, the board and its fin (and daggerboard if you happen to be using one) will no longer resist sideways motion and the sail will fall down on top of your head. So aim your foot at a target on the board that, once there, will help you maintain and control your point of sail. That's more important than any rule about how many inches back of the mast or forward of the footstrap to put your foot.

  3. If you're getting yanked across the board to leeward, or if the board sails away with you dragging behind, your sail has too much wind in it. The first antidote is to consciously keep the sail lower than you have been doing. (It may help to look at the next tip too -- sliding your back hand further back on the boom.) However, another problem may be that you are positioned too near the rear of the board. Assuming your board is pointing on a beam reach, your sail will then be angled to create a potentially powerful forward force. Hence you or the sail get yanked. The antidote is therefore simple. Get your body toward the side of the board instead of toward the back of the board; your sail's force will then be aimed at the side of the board instead of at the front of the board, so it won't pull you forward. Sometimes you can do this by pushing the board away with your rear hand; sometimes you'll need to kick and swim toward the front and apply downward pressure through the boom to the mast foot to keep the board steady. You can also think of this at-the-side position as increasing your body's distance from the board: When you're near the back, the mast aligns with the board and you are physically near the board; when you're at the side, the mast is at a larger angle to the board and your body is farther from the board. This gives room for your foot to get up on the board, which you need to do eventually anyway; when you're near the rear of the board you're too close to it to be able to get a foot up.
  4. If the sail flips over in the air and flops back down in the water clew first, try moving your back hand further down the boom, away from your front hand. This exerts downward leverage on the rear of the sail and prevents too much wind from lifting the rear and flipping the sail.
  5. If the board slithers uncontrollably one way or another as soon as you put your back foot on it, the antidote is to keep your priorities straight. Your highest priority is to control the board. Set your foot down lightly instead of plopping it down. If putting your back foot on the board still gives you less control rather than more, then vary up your technique. Use one foot or the other to tap the side of the board before committing your foot on top. Jo Reis showed me this foot tap or touch, and it's been a useful addition to my arsenal of waterstarting tricks.
  6. If your clew sinks before trying to fly the sail using the classic airplane method above here are 5 antidotes. starting with the easiest:
    1. Use the I-beam method to fly the sail (as in the second video above). As a rule the I-beam, if you can use it, is less tiring than the others, and will make you drink less water.
    2. Shorten the boom so the distance from the clew to the end of the boom is zero.
    3. Push down on the front of the board hoping that this will lift the sail and clew.
    4. Swim the rig around 360 degrees and hope the clew floats this time.
    5. Attach a float to the end of the boom.

Troubleshooting your sailing

It could be that one day, under heavy conditions, you find yourself waterstarting consistently well, but you can't get comfortable sailing, perhaps because your harness lines aren't taking enough load off your arms or when they do and you get planing at speed your butt catches colossal chunks of water which throw you off balance.

Here's what's happening: When your boom is low you will waterstart more easily (mainly because it's easier to control the sail if your arms aren't outstretched high above you but also because you can resort to the less taxing I-beam method of flying the sail.) but at the same time your harness lines will be too low to hold your weight, so your arms  wear out, or if you let do let the lines hold your weight your body sags too low and catches those massive waves. This is a fundamental trade-off. Either you enjoy relaxed sailing or you enjoy relaxed waterstarts. The boom's optimal height, if there is one, must be high enough for the former yet low enough for the latter.

So set that boom height with thoughtful care.