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Waves Anyone? Entry-Level Wave Sailing

Peter Hart has been leading courses into swells for a few decades. Backed by comments and reflections from clients who’ve taken on the challenge, he describes the true nature of the game. Here’s a clue – it’s not all about the wind but about preparation and revisiting the most basic skills.

Peter Hart

Lake sailor Jack, keen as mustard to give waves a go, stands before the thumping shorebreak of Llandudno holding his 140 litre freeride board with a 45 cm fin and 6.5 freeride rig. Conditions are 25 knots of wind and blowing bolt onshore. A friend told him the only way to master waves is to get out there and give it a lash. But in this incidence, his only option is to fail, and the experience of failing will be so destructive that it will just leave him poorer rather than wiser.

Wave sailing is absolutely learned through experimentation and getting the odd drilling – but they must be happy drillings. That means starting from a position where some level of success is likely, or just possible – which in turn involves research and preparation - and maybe a clinic. No, I’m not here to promote my wave clinics because that would be tacky, although understandable. However, on such a clinic my main job is initially not to deliver an endless stream of technique babble but to manufacture the right environment.

As we arrive at the chosen shore, I want to be able to say: “This spot, in these conditions, is fine for your level; and this is the board and rig combo that will yield the best results.” And then given that the most common reaction to the challenge is, “I’m not sure what I should be doing.” I will add: “these are the moves and sailing lines most suited to this strength and direction of wind and the nature and size of the wave. The stage is set - now go forth and rip.” It is then that the experimentation can begin with confidence and a bit of focus.

And then just as important is the post mortem and the correction phase. “The reason you ended up downwind/missed a few waves/didn’t catch many waves/kept outrunning them - is because you were lacking skills x, y and z – lets retire to a sheltered spot and practice them.” In the absence of a know-it-all benefactor, here are some fundamental pointers that might help you make sense of it all.

WHAT IS IT?

The situation, (it’s not a problem, it’s just what it is) is that most people get into waves via freeriding. Having learned to waterstart and plane in the straps, they lose some litres and launch from a windy beach. It needs to be windy because it’s the local onshore wind that generates the waves. For the first timer, it’s ideal because it’s relatively safe and gets them used to the bumpy environment. But … the tool they’re relying on most is the hammer. In this case the hammer is a powered up rig. Power is both useful and a distraction - useful to burst through whitewater, jump and to generate speed to ride waves which often lack shape; and also a distraction because the act of resisting a powerful rig dominates their every action. It also stops you thinking tactically. With speed, you don’t have to manoeuvre into position and seek out the perfect wave. You just deal with what’s in front of you. You also have an accelerator pedal to zoom away from tricky situations. Always sailing with a powered up rig doesn’t necessarily corrupt your technique (or speed sailors would be out of a job), but it breeds an agricultural attitude to trim, balance and turning corners. It’s not big or clever to be sniffy about onshore wind and waves; they’re just a set of conditions which the best exploit with imagination and dynamism. However, if you want to really sail waves rather than just scream around on (but mostly in front of ) lumpy water, you need to seek out a different environment and change your attitude to kit, technique and the weather. It starts by forming a new relationship with the wind itself and ditching the hammer.

ATTITUDE CHANGE – THE FORECAST (FORGET THE STARS)

For the whole week, Windguru was only offering one star. “Not good is it?” chimed one of the group with the look of a kid who had just broken his favourite toy. He was right. It wasn’t good … for getting a GPS record - but perfect for proper wave sailing. He was looking in the wrong places. Look at the swell period - an amazing 14 seconds, which gives you time to line up on waves and also to waterstart between them should something go wrong. The greater the period between them, the cleaner waves tend to be. And look at the swell direction. It was SW, which meant it was going to strike our chosen beach at a slight angle and refract around the headland. A refracting swell tends to peel better, whereas waves which pile directly into a bay or beach, tend to dump and close out.

As for the wind, more important than the strength is the direction, very slightly offshore - the perfect wave riding direction. It’s not going to be a jumping day – but 15 knots is plenty with which to float out on a big wave or fsw board or a SUP.

A GOOD FORECAST DOES NOT ALWAYS LIE IN THE STARS.

ATTITUDE TO …THE SAILING AREA AND THE INTENSITY

A windsurfing pilot made the comparison between flying and wave sailing. Flying along, like just sailing along, he said, is mostly pretty boring. The exciting, intense times are taking off and landing. In wave sailing that means staying in the surf zone. The further you sail out, the harder it is to spot the swells. The moment you sail far beyond the last breaking wave, you’re no longer wave sailing. Horizon hunters need not apply. If you need a rest, the best place to do that is on the beach.

ATTITUDE TO… SPEED

For dyed-in-the-wool speedsters, to be overtaken is to be castrated. Slowing down deliberately is a cardinal sin. In waves, it’s absolutely OK, in fact often essential, to slow down – and even stop. At slow speeds you’re more able to lift the head, take in the surroundings and make smart tactical decisions. You’re constantly regulating your speed to hit waves at just the right moment or to let them catch up. And it’s the going from stationary to full tilt as you drop into a swell that really gets the juices flowing. And just when you thought the news couldn’t get any worse, some of the best sessions will be non planing.

IN WAVES, IF A PLANING REACH LASTS LONGER THAN 20 SECONDS, YOU’RE PROBABLY TOO FAR OUT.

ATTITUDE TO POWER … UNDER IS BETTER

I knew no one would obey the advice when I told them that for this particular session, if they planed on the way out, they’d be way over-powered riding the wave. As expected, they all ignored me and rigged big - their one priority being to blast out between the sets and not get caught in the impact zone. But with the wind slightly offshore, that meant as they rode back in towards the wind, the wind speed across the sail effectively doubled and they could do nothing but hang on.

ATTITUDE TO POWER… AND CARVING

When your aim is to plane out of a gybe on a freeride board, you look to be as powered up as possible, set the rail gently and then let the rig pull you around a long arc. It’s fundamentally the rig that’s providing all the drive. But on a wave, it’s the wave itself that provides most of the drive (surfers don’t use a sail) – as long as you stay in the right place. A common mistake is to rig too big. A big rig not only forces you into a long arc, and therefore outrun the wave, it also drives the rails too deep and makes them catch. And if you’re always fully powered all you can do is resist that power which locks you into one, defensive position. By reducing the power (but increasing volume) you can tilt and stretch to extreme angles without getting heaved off-balance.

ATTITUDE TO POWER… SHEETING OUT AS MUCH AS YOU SHEET IN

Climbing up through the ranks, the advice that rings in your ear in order to stop heading up, plane early and then overtake your mates, is “commit to the harness, keep the power on, sheet in!” And in the gybe, it’s when you sheet out by mistake that you stall and the rail catches. But in waves, the act of deliberately sheeting out at the right moment is as important as sheeting in because it’s by sheeting out that you allow the board to release in critical situations. You power up to start a jump, but then sheet out and release it as you fly off the lip. And when riding, it’s by sheeting out that you allow the nose to rise and the board to transition easily from edge to edge.

THE KIT

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Issue 388 - August 2019

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