Waterstarting has a number of advantages other than simply giving you the ability to ride sinker boards. Once you have mastered them, you will have the ability to sail in much stronger winds because you will never encounter the thrashing sail that you have when you up haul in strong winds. In racing, there are many occasions when the ability to recover from a fall with a water start will save precious time and distance. When sailing in surf and waves, you will be able to raise the sail out of the water and the pounding surf, and be in a perfect position to start the instant that the wave passes. In short it is a technique that will open up a whole new world of boardsailing to you.
At this time last year I was struggling in the frigid waters of Lake Travis trying with little success to learn how to water start my Windsurfer. As frustrated as this learning process was, when waterstarts finally "clicked," I decided to put my sixteen years of flight instruction to use and also learn how to teach water starts in order to help others avoid the long painful process that I just went through.
I am not going to kid you though, water starting is probably going to be the single most difficult thing that you will learn in windsurfing. To begin with you will have to commit yourself to giving up a couple of great windy days when you could be screaming across the waves while you lie in the water under your sail learning a process that seems totally out of reach.
Most sailors who initially try water starts tend to concentrate most of their attention on the board. Before you even get into the water, take some time to commit yourself mentally to forgetting the board itself and to concentrate totally on the sail and sailing as you learn. If you pay any attention to your feet and the board itself, you will probably not learn to waterstart.
You should start the learning in water too deep to touch bottom as the bottom is almost never going to be there when you need it later. Since this is important, learn waterstarts wearing a lifevest to conserve the energy which would otherwise be lost trying to remain afloat.
Begin the process with the sail down in the water and the clew closest to the stern. After a few seconds in windy conditions, a board floating free in the water will position itself downwind of the rig with the wind blowing straight down the mast and crossing the board at right angles. In order to start, the board will need to be turned and pointed directly into the wind with the mast at 90º to the board and wind (the wind blowing parallel to the booms.) The fastest way to do this is to grab the mast somewhere above the booms, then begin swimming and pulling directly away from the board. The board will immediately begin turning into the wind because of the effects of the skeg.
When you have the board pointed into the wind, lift the mast out of the water slightly to begin letting the air between the sail and water. In strong winds you will only have to lift the mast a couple of inches out of the water. The wind will lift the sailcloth out of the water starting at the mast and working back toward the clew. In lighter winds lift the sail higher until the clew clears the water. If the clew tries to dig in and flip the sail over, you are holding the mast too far out of the water. If you feel the mast trying to lift, quickly pull it back down toward the water and close up the air gap below the mast.
Hesitate only a second as the leading edge begins to pull up, and the force on the sail will rapidly increase until it pulls the sail out of your grasp and flips the rig completely over. When this happens, grab the clew and lift it up into the wind until the sail flips over again and start over. When the wind finally fills the space between sail and water and lifts the rig completely out of the water, walk down the mast hand over hand until your front hand is below the booms, and grab the boom a comfortable distance back with your other hand.
Now position yourself so that your head is below the booms. This is important. It will not feel natural, and if you allow your position to change as you practice so that you are in a normal sailing position with your head above the boom, you will not be able to successfully waterstart.
Now, the real learning process starts.
What you want to learn at this stage is not how to get up on the board, but rather how to sail with your body in the water. Don't touch the board with your feet. Look at the sail the same way you would look at if you were sailing and begin to practice sheeting in and out and steering by leaning the mast toward the bow or stern the same way that you would if you were standing on the board. You should practice this until you are proficient at lifting your torso out of the water exactly as much as you want to, then lowering it back without having the rig touch the water.
It is not as easy as it sounds, but learning this is vital to the process. Leaning the mast fore and aft will require kicking against the water since you are not on a solid base as you would be if you are standing on the board... but with a little practice you will find that you have a great deal of control over the board's direction even though you are not touching it.
During all of this, check yourself and make sure that you head is still below the booms. If it is not, start over. Again you will find that you must have your attention on the sail rather than the board to make progress as you practice. Once you are at ease with sailing your body through the water, it's time to learn how to get from the water to the board.
Take a moment to remember how it was when you first started to learn how to Windsurf. As you closed the sail by pulling your back hand in during those early attempts, the board would immediately turn into the wind and you would find yourself in the water. Well nothing's changed, if you don't get the sail forward during a water start, the same thing will happen every time you start up out of the water. We'll start at the point that you have the sail out of the water with the wind at 90º to the mast, one hand on the mast, the other on the boom, and your head below booms.
Begin sheeting in with your back hand to lift your body out of the water, and as you come up, start leaning the mast forward to head the board off the wind. Kicking the board downwind will be ineffectual, because it will immediately try to head back into the wind because of the aft position of the sail. Ignore the board... remember the sail... nothing has changed now. With your attention on the sail, you will find to your surprise that your feet know exactly what to do without looking.
One common mistake that occurs at this point is that you will try to start with your feet far back on the board where they would be when sailing in a high wind. But, remember, you are not moving yet, and if your feet are pushing on the rear portion of the board they will push the stern away and the board will have another reason to turn into the wind. If you are practicing on a long board, your feet should be right at the mast as you come out of the water.
As the sail begins to lift you out of the water and gets closer to vertical the greater the wind force on the sail. If nothing changes, the force lifting you out of the water will rapidly increase to a force sufficient to catapult you an amazing distance. When you started up out of the water, your back hand and arm were already almost fully extended, so take your whole body, butt first, and as you come up onto the board, pivot it back toward the lee side to dissipate the wind force on the sail. From this point on you will be using your own experience to sail and recover as you would when sailing normally. Now if you have been sailing long enough to try water starting, you know that it is not as nearly as easy as it sounds. I'm sure that you will have some choice words for me after an hour or so in the middle of the lake, perhaps after the fifth or sixth time the sail has pushed you underwater as you inhale.
So here are some reviews, suggestions and comments on some of the things that can and do happen during your first attempts;
I wish you luck and a lot less frustration than I had! Good sailing!!!
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