“ PETER HART – BESIDE THE SEASIDE ”
Words Peter Hart // Photos Hart Photography
Originally published within the January February ’17 edition.
In the concluding episode on his guide to ocean windsurfing, Peter Hart tweaks your techniques and teaches us how to deal with this new, expansive, undulating environment.
After last month’s introduction to the joys of the ocean, I wager many are seething with the black and white inference that inland sailing is easy and sea sailing is hard. Let me quash such thoughts and state that from a technique point of view, inland can be way trickier. The water state in a big reservoir in a force 6 is hideous. Because of the short fetch, the waves are as close as they are steep. Gybing, or even just planing, across the deeply corrugated surface is a professional skill. And let’s not even mention the wind. Many sailing Olympians have emerged from inland waters. Born into flicky, puffy, swingy, holey, gusty breezes, they develop acute wind awareness to the point where they can spot, even smell, the strength and direction of gusts on the water, trim the boat/board and make smart tactical decisions before they arrive – skills that rest dormant in open ocean windsurfers as they lean against a solid wall of wind, settle in the harness and nod off. However the malaise inland waters can foster is a certain ‘Groundhog-day-ness.’ The water stays in one spot. In the various wind directions you know exactly what you’re going to get and can play out the same old routine – tack by the dam, gybe by the clubhouse etc. What the sea offers, by contrast, is infinite variance. Wind with tide, wind against tide, wind blowing across, on or off the shore, the amount of water covering the seabed, these are all constantly shifting variables that influence the sea-state by the second. That flat patch behind the sandbar where you rolled out a sweet planing gybe, the next time round is a chop horror show as the tide piles in over it. And yes the wind may be blowing uninterrupted from the horizon – but that doesn’t mean it’s 100% constant in strength or direction. Swells and the shoreline can shelter, accelerate and bend it. From the technique perspective, you don’t have necessarily to be ’better’ but perhaps more alert, mobile, spontaneous and … aggressive. And no more so than when trying to get off the beach.
The best way to encounter whitewater for the first time is with a small sail and a SUP. It has momentum. It wins the collision. It’s stable but will also let you know when you get it wrong.
Getting off the beach
You can beachstart – but there’s beachstarting and … there’s clambering on. Let’s imagine a side onshore force 4 to 5 is pushing small two foot waves up the beach. They’re breaking about 50 metres out, beyond which lies a vast expanse of lumpy open water which you’d like to reach in one piece.
Something you’ll note immediately, is that around even small breaking waves, the water is moving, in, out and sideways, which means it will grab the fin and pull the board around (usually into wind). The retreating water can also catch the end of the boom, effectively sheeting it in and wrenching it from your grasp. Hold the rig high and keep it tilted to windward so the clew flies high and out of trouble.
The simple rule is that the greater the time between you launching the board and getting on it, the greater the chance of whitewater or current knocking it offline. If the current has dragged the tail downwind, push down on the boom so mastfoot pressure bears the nose away; at the same time, walk downwind towards the tail and step on immediately. The shorebreak is littered with hesitant windies in beachstart preparation mode, waiting for the perfect moment.
Hopefully you’ve obeyed last month’s advice and gone for a smaller board – in which case you can’t just step on and rely on the volume to support you as you sort yourself out. You need to sheet in as you step up and therefore balance foot pressure with mastfoot pressure and arrive on the board moving purposefully forward.
“ Sea sailing is about constantly clocking the sea state and modifying your technique to accommodate the mountain of variables ”
It’s like your first day at school or University. You turn up at the seashore deeply self aware, oozing inadequacy, ignorant of protocol, not knowing what to do, who to talk to, where to rig up, what to rig up. As a recently posted doctor in Newcastle, Chris O’Brien had no seaside windsurfing buddies. Social media was his saviour.
“The facebook group for the NE is great – there’s so much knowledge out there about where to go and you can become part of it gradually. It was so much better and easier than coming up to a stranger on the beach and asking him to be my new best friend.” The general advice is don’t be a loner. It is better on every level, including the all important consideration of staying healthy, to attack the new challenge with a group, or at least a couple of mates. Many inland clubs and shops organise days out to the sea. You also have virtual clubs like the ‘Ocean Motion Windsurfing Club’ who have a full calendar of weekend events at various coastal venues. The web is a rich seam of info.
A Life on the Ocean’s Waves?
Think of ocean venues and you think of waves. It’s not necessarily what you’re after first time out – but nor is it a guaranteed disaster – and besides they’re hard to avoid if your chosen spot is open to the prevailing weather. Waves of a reasonable size are fun and challenge you physically and technically. They wash you back to shore … which is nice. And if they’re too big, you wont get off the beach – so it’s kind of self-regulating. Your prospects in such conditions also depend on your kit choice – more about that in a moment.
Challenged … not petrified
In every sport the very simple rule is that to have a chance of improving you have to deal with the psychological aspects first. If you arrive at the shore, look out and feel the blood drain from your face, you will launch expecting the worst, sail terribly and develop defensive coping strategies. At the other extreme, some sheltered coves are just ponds with salt water.
This whole endeavour is surely about stepping out of your comfort zone (sailing inland it’s all too easy to slip into cosy routines.) So choose a venue that gives the true experience of sea sailing – proper open spaces and undulating water. In that regard, it’s OK to feel a bit frightened. Fear is a perfectly natural survival response and there is huge satisfaction to be gained from gradually overcoming it.
So the reaction as you survey this new venue should be: “OMG it’s all so HUGE and mildly terrifying … is that France I can see? … but I’ve sailed in bigger winds than this … and there’s a bloke out there who’s a lot worse than me and he’s managing … I’m actually quite aroused.”
“ Big inland waters can be an easier transition. Ian Booth used massive Rutland Water asa stepping stone between little Rother Valley Country park and the sea, to help him get used to both the chop and wide open spaces. ”
Only last week on a wave sailing course, I took a group of sailors offshore to sail a reef. Reef breaks are quite scary to improving wave sailors, mainly because they’re made of rock. But the challenge was far less daunting because we’d been out the day before in no wind on SUPs. We rafted up in the deep water to the side where I could explain how the reef was working, where the peak was, where to catch the wave, which way to ride and where they should swim if they got taken down. And then we paddled around over it and caught a few waves. They’d petted the tiger away from feeding time. So when the next day we sailed it in 25 knots of wind, they weren’t quivering in their neoprene socks because it was all vaguely familiar.
The water depth at the beachhead changes with the surging and retreating waves. It’s deeper on the back of the wave – that’s the time and place to launch – and shallower right in front of the wave – that’s the commonest place to run aground and catapult. For that reason, wade out a little further than you think necessary – and every step you take out to sea is ground gained upwind. Assuming a sub 32cm fin, thigh deep is a good guide. Any deeper and it’s hard to hold your ground against the surging foam and manoeuvre into position; plus the stepping on bit gets tricky. Your chief priority at this early stage is just to make it out through the inside waves to the open water (rather than use the first one to launch you into a back loop). In which case don’t be a in a hurry to get into the straps. By keeping the front foot on or by the mastfoot, you hold the nose down, keep the tail and fin up and reduce the risk of grounding out in front of waves. Forward on the board and off the plane is the securest position from which to confront whitewater. Once you’re through those inside waves, that’s the time to bear away and get into the straps. Once you start using small finned boards with ‘wave’ in the title, and when jumping is on the agenda, the advice is the exact opposite – launch in as shallow water as possible and get into the straps as soon as possible so you hit the first waves at full planing speed.
An onshore wind displays annoying traits around the launch zone. If the beach shelves steeply into the sea, it lifts up over the beachhead and is frustratingly lighter right where you launch. Breaking waves, even relatively small ones, disturb the wind and make it gustier around the break zone. An onshore wind bends in towards the shore, so it’s effectively more onshore right where you’re launching. To generate enough power to beachstart you need to launch across the wind (broader if the wind is marginal). That means launching parallel to the waves before heading up to meet them straight on. If you point the board at the waves and try to get on, the sail is empty.
‘Stating the bleeding obvious’ alert … you want the right amount of power. Mentally, you’re probably already a little on the back foot. Having way too much power will make you tighten up and fight even more. And yet being under-gunned, occasionally planing but mostly not, is tiring, unsatisfactory and will surely result in an upwind stroll along the promenade. It all depends on your level and fortitude, but in general having a little too much is favourable. Waterstarting and getting planing require less effort and to dump power you just head upwind.
Firstly be wary of the false gods that are the anemometers. They may be a useful guide but only give you a reading in a specific spot at a specific moment in time – and not necessarily where and when you want to perform. An all too common sight is a row of sailors holding them up at the top of the beach, where the wind is squeezed and accelerated. Move down to water level. The wind by the beach can be all messed up but at least you’ll get a more realistic reading.
But the top strategy is to look out to the area you want to sail. Don’t be the first one out. Instead, watch people as they leave shore, note what sail they’re using and at which point they, if ever, comfortably settle into the straps.
One last comment – when you get through the shorebreak and try to plane, don’t fall into the trap of assuming there’ll be more wind the further you sail away from the shore. Mid ocean is littered with windsurfers floating towards the horizon in search of a few extra knots. Give yourself a distance limit. Make a couple of short runs in case you launched into an extended lull, and if no joy, come in and re-rig. Sailing with the wrong rig is exhausting.
“ If the waves are gentle, just get on, sheet in and go for it. Calm urgency is the game – to faff is to lose ”
Through, over, or under whitewater
To a group I’m coaxing through (small) broken waves for the first time, I mostly say … nothing. Given a dab of controlled aggression and a dollop of common sense, most will have worked it out by the end of the session. It’s all about reacting instinctively to changing trim and pressures. It’s much easier to do that with a mind uncluttered by numerous instructions. But forewarned is to a certain extent forearmed. So here are some tips to see you through – all of which will make more sense when you’ve had a go.
A moving experience.
Unlike the pulse of energy that is the unbroken wave, whitewater is moving. It therefore has the power to slow you down, drive you back and turn you round. You’re involved in a head on collision. In collisions people get thrown forward, hence catapulting is the most common early symptom. It’s like biking from hard ground into soft mud. The front wheel buries, the bike slows down but you don’t and pile over the handlebars.
If the whitewater is small, you have to do little more than anticipate the jolt by moving your hips back and favouring the back foot to get the nose up. And because you slow down, the apparent wind shifts back and the sail loads up, so you also need to be prepared to sheet out. The best way to sheet out in this instance is pull in the front arm.
The sinking feeling
Whitewater is mostly air. The board sinks into it. It feels like it has lost half of its volume and so any errors of trim are immediately more severe. For example if you overload the back foot, you’ll immediately lose the tail. I stress again that staying off the plane and leaving the front foot forward so the toes are pressing against the volcano, is the best way to survive those first collisions.
The worst place to be is in the straps semi-planing. With all your weight over the thin tail, you will just sink.
Taking whitewater at speed fully powered in the straps is the fun but more advanced alternative. The fin is met with minimal resistance as it encounters the foam, so to avoid an instant spin out, the trick is to stay between your feet, keep your body to windward so you have room to unload the back foot and pull the tail to windward. It’s the same basic technique for jumping.
The commonest fault is sitting back on the heels. As you hit the foam the windward edge sinks in, the whitewater grabs your front foot and over you go.
Nose first, toes down
Don’t give the whitewater too much to aim at. Having said that, many head up too much in the belief they have to hit it exactly nose on. In an onshore breeze that leaves you too close to the wind with no power in the sail. Approaching the wave diagonally is fine. The key, however, is to only present the underside of the board to the foam. As the wave approaches, press down on the toes of the back foot to lift the windward edge and allow the water to pass under. If it hits the topside of the rail side on, it will grab it, turn you round and usher you back to the car park.
It all starts with the starts and restarts. Ask someone who is launching into a heaving ocean for the first time, what are they thinking about – and it’s not lifting their heels into a jump or initiating a carve on a smooth wall; it’s “will I be able to get going again if/when I fall?” That doubt is crippling and sucks the joy out of every session so let’s deal with it.
WASH and GO!
Wherever waves are breaking, even if they are small, the water is moving around and the depth constantly changing. Both those things add a tricky dimension to the humble beachstart. Firstly stand well upwind of and behind the board, out of harm’s way should the whitewater drive it back; and secondly, hold the rig canted right over to windward to keep the clew well above the retreating water. Thigh deep is the recommended launching depth if you’re on a regular 30cm (ish) fin – but that’s thigh deep in front of the wave where it’s shallowest. To begin with, wade out further than you think necessary. It’s better than running aground and catapulting and you’re gaining precious inches upwind.
Launch the board onto the back of the wave where the water is deepest; and give yourself 3 seconds to get on before the retreating water pulls the tail away.
OVER THE FOAM
Getting over the whitewater is 90% common sense – but sometimes in times of stress that precious commodity deserts us. Unless the wind is strong and constant, stand forward of the straps with the front foot right by the mastfoot where it can control the nose, push it through the foam and keep the board level. Key also, is to hold your regular stance with hips outboard, head looking forward over the front shoulder and rig to windward.
Getting through small whitewater comes from anticipating the jolt by keeping your hips behind your feet.
It’s like beachstarting … but worse in that that the moving water seems hell bent on rearranging board and rig as soon as you line them up. You have to be positive and quick … but in a reasoned manner. Be ever aware where the wind is and at which point it helps and hinders. The top tips are to get to the rig quickly before it sinks and when released, hold it high above the waves and power it up immediately to stop it collapsing. The following pics aren’t an exact sequence but show various stages of what goes right and wrong.
It’s not looking good – a wave has washed over it, sunk it and it’s lying clew down vertically in the water. No panic, relax and check the wind direction. Although it’s vertical, leave it a few seconds and the next wave usually flattens it out.
In waves you’ll gain far more leverage if you go to the mast tip. With the mast pointing at the wind, pull it away from the clew and pump it up and down to release the clew.
Even when you think you have it released, a rolling wave can catch the sail and ruin your day. Rescue the situation by …
… thrusting both arms up to get the rig in clear air.
If you try and recover it with the mast across the wind, a wave often catches the clew, whereupon the sail powers up and sinks down again. It’s often easier to swim the mast tip more towards the wind.
The recovery is harder but the start itself potentially easier. On the subject of mental pressure in the August issue, I mentioned the condition of ‘sensory deprivation.’ It’s the sudden loss of logical decision making that affects all sportsmen when their heart rate gets around the 170 bpm mark. It’s especially common during the rig recovery, which in rough seas can be a lung bursting, all muscle sport. Two minutes in and you see people hopefully and hopelessly punching the sail from underneath, with no idea where the wind is and no coherent plan. The first bit of advice is a little contradictory. Remain calm, breathe, look up, clock the wind direction, make a plan … but get on with it! Waves wash over the rig and fill the luff tube and sink it almost immediately. The longer you delay, the heavier it gets.
Waves also shelter the wind at water level making it harder to get air under the rig – and they catch the clew as you’re releasing it and pull it back down into that infuriating, impossible-to-recover vertical position.
The remedies are physical, technical and tactical.
You have to be more aggressive, throwing the rig higher and harder into wind to release the clew. In most situations it helps to recover it from the mast tip where you have more leverage. Tactically time your effort as a wave is lifting you and the mast tip momentarily lifts up into clear wind.
The flippin’ flip-over
Having recovered the rig, is there anything more infuriating than a bloody wave flipping the board upside down? It is preventable. (Stiff tendon UJs don’t help)
• Avoid pulling up on the mastfoot – keep pressing down on the boom to hold the board level.
• Get one or both feet on immediately to stabilise it.
If it does flip over you can sometimes right it with the flying rig, by lifting up and pushing down sharply on the boom. Alternatively, if the clew is facing the nose, flip the sail and the foot will push it over.
GYBING ON A WAVE.
It’s the most exhilarating pastime of all – gybing on a wave and letting the moving wall carry you round into a planing exit. The swell in the pic is so perfect it’s cheating – but a big piece of chop will do. Thanks to the slope you can initiate much harder and tighter – which also demands you drop your hips down the hill and really commit to the inside.
Banking onto a small swell is truly joyful – it’s a lot easier than on the flat and may well give you your first planing exit.
Just as with the rig recovery, time your effort as a wave is lifting you and the rig up into clear wind – it’s as simple as that. Because the wind is sheltered at water level, hold the rig higher than you might think to prevent it collapsing.
The lack of space, the brevity and randomness of the gusts, mean that inland sailors are often masters of early planing. On the sea, the game is the same. There are just a few extra variables to help and to hinder.
Currents (the tidal flow or rip currents), which carry you downwind effectively, reduce the wind strength. Upwind currents do the opposite. The trick to learn is the running beach start where you land on the board sheeted in and planing. As soon as you’re planing, the apparent wind kicks in and reduces the effect of the current.
Tightly spaced waves
Waves slow down and catch each other up as they roll inshore and are often tightly spaced near the beach. Such a sea state is death to early planing. The answer, as above, is to master the running beachstart. Failing that, with so little space into which to bear away and accelerate, the only option is to sail out into deeper water where the waves are more spaced.
Tapping into the downslope.
The simplest rule is that’s nigh impossible to get planing going uphill. If you pump, you drive the nose into the back of the wave and stop. Obviously it makes sense to initiate planing on a downslope. Three points here:
• Point upwind and then bear away onto the slope. It’s the sudden powering up of the rig that drives you onto the plane.
• Most waves are generated by the local wind and so are rolling dead downwind. Hence you have to bear way downwind to get onto them.
• Move into the straps as soon as you bear away to prevent the nose burying into the trough.
LET’S SAIL – and widen the cage
My aim was to turn Theo from a rigid stickman into an octopus. Theo is Greek and he had a little linguistic trouble understanding the metaphor – but we got there. He was a committed inland slalom blaster who had joined me in Mauritius to be introduced to sea sailing and perhaps a few waves. As he left the beach for a first time on a 110 fsw, it looked as if someone had shoved a broom handle up where the sun don’t shine. Short 26” lines held him dead upright. He was ramrod straight with arms and legs locked. Sailing or gybing, he remained in that small, confined cage. It was a speedy stance, taking every calorie of power and transmitting it into sharp rails and a big fin – but since he had neither of those, it wasn’t working too well. “Think of an octopus” I said. Every bit of them moves and flows. It took some convincing but I lengthened his lines, lowered his boom from mouth to shoulder, moved his straps inboard and widened and opened them – and did everything that allowed him to extend his cage of movement. The setup for the wobbling sea has to allow you to wobble with it, move freely from front to back foot, all the time maintaining a healthy distance form the rig. It’s more about freedom than brutal power transmission.
Over the lumps – move … but not too much
Out on the open sea for the first time amidst a mass of chop and swell, the temptation is to try and adjust for every bump and undulation, which leads to a downward spiral of reaction and over-reaction. You can’t, there isn’t enough time. Points to consider are:
Be like the swan. Calm upper half but lots going on down below. Keep the rig still (but not as rigidly as Theo) especially in the windward leeward plane, which in turn helps you hold the board at a constant angle.
Constant mfp. Of course you can depower if you’re feeling queasy, it’s not a slalom race. But remain in constant contact with the mastfoot. If you sheet out, replace that power to the mastfoot with bodyweight, rocking forward onto your front hand and front foot to keep the nose pinned to the water. If you release mfp as the nose smacks a chop, prepare to get vertical.
You’re sitting on a barstool with head and shoulders and hips outboard of the feet. Imagine a ceiling an inch above your head. From that outboard position committed to the harness, you can let the legs rise and fall with the waves without cracking your skull. If the shoulders and hips rock inboard you’ll rise up and down with the board and quickly lose it.
Bum smacks and foot grabs.
Sailing across the wind, trouble tends to come from windward in the form of rogue chop and swells. Getting smacked in the backside by one at best is sore and slows you down, at worst leaves you waterstarting.
Constantly look upwind. Lift the hips as the swell approaches. A tall stance with pressure on toes and heels (NOT hunkered down) is the way to sail.
The most insidious pitfalls are the steep chops that catch the feet. It’s especially an issue if you favour outboard straps. If you are in blasting/slalom mode driving off the fin (why?) think above all about presenting a flat board to the rolling surface; which means dropping the toes and lifting the heels to let those chops pass under the windward edge.
Trusting the rockerline, reading the wind, choosing a trail.
Let’s slip into the driver’s seat. You get through the small shorebreak, bear away and we’re off. Inshore the waves are small and random so now is the time to just trust the rocker-line, balance between your feet, look ahead and let the board go. Every now and then a bigger, steeper one approaches so you drop the toes and take the sting out of it with soft knees.
Moving beyond the inner banks into deeper water, chop is replaced by bigger, longer, head high wind waves. You lose the wind in the troughs and get a blast at the top as you rise into clear air. So head up over the crests to soften the power (but not too much), and then bear away on the other side to maintain speed. Oops – spin out. It happens more on the sea from the shock load delivered by the back foot when you slam down from a wave. Even coming off a small wave, try tweaking the tail upwind so you land with pressure on both feet equally. You gybe into the back of a wave and blow it (more about that in a moment), waterstart and head for home. Yiiihaw!! Sailing back is a joy because it’s all downhill – well it is if you choose the right line.
You catch a swell – but then run up the back of the next and stop. It’s very hard to overtake swells because you lose the wind in the trough and then have to sail uphill.
Take two. Catch a swell but then head up and ride along its face; hop off the back and then catch the one behind and repeat. As you head in, you start to see gaps between the waves to squeeze through and join the one in front. It’s all about lifting the head and taking in the whole scene – not just eyeballing what’s before you.
If you can stay upwind on the inland water, which generally is harder due to lack of space, but are losing ground on the sea, consider the following.
The feature-less horizon.
On inland waterways you have landmarks that remind you where you are relative to your start point. A common mistake as people head out towards a blank horizon is to bear away and stay born away. It feels good to be screeching along with the wind from behind. But with nothing to aim at, it’s easy to forget what point of sail you’re on. As soon as you’re on the plane, head up. Use the chop and waves as your wind indicator. On the way out you should be hitting them nose first; if you’re riding parallel with them, you’re losing ground.
Waves – upwind AND downwind conveyors
On the way back, use the waves to get planing but be aware of their direction relative to the wind. Out to sea most of them roll dead downwind. If you stay on them, you too will be rolling dead downwind. As they come inshore, they often bend in parallel with the shore. That’s when you can use them to carry you upwind.
The bending wind
As mentioned, a side onshore tries to cross the shore at right angles – so it’s more onshore by the beach. On the way back in therefore, tap into that bend. As you approach the shore, you can keep heading up until you find yourself sailing almost parallel to the beach. You’ll make a huge progress upwind over the last 100 metres.
GYBING in the lumps
What a massive subject this is. Advance gybing is a subject I aim to cover at length in the spring but let me leave you with a few sea gybing tips.
Right time; right place; right arc.
The basic rule on confused water is that the more lumps you encounter during the arc, the greater the chance of tripping, bouncing out and fouling up. Most of the time, a tight arc is tactically the most sound. You’ll lose a bit of speed – but a couple of pumps down a face and you’re off again. The lumps and rollers test you technically. You can’t avoid them all. Like sailing in a straight line, anticipate the big lumps by softening the knees to keep a constant pressure through the edge. If you gybe with ramrod legs, you’ll drive the edge too deep into the chop and stall.
The rig controls the front section of rail. A key aspect to tight gybes in waves is dropping the back hand right back and sheeting in dynamically to keep that front section engaged and tighten the arc.
Gybing on waves or swell
For many years this was my favourite thing to do. Despite the jumping trend of the era, as soon as I saw a wave or swell I’d prefer to gybe on it. It gave you that wild centrifugal, wall-of-death sensation. With the slope to bank around, you can take up some crazy angles. It works best in side onshore and sideshore winds. The more sideshore the wind, the earlier you have to start the turn. You can go for a really steep initiation. Approach the wave – drop your body down the hill and slam it round favouring the back foot. Thanks to the moving wall pushing you forward, you’re less likely to stall. The tempo and timing is far faster. Get into your foot and rig change immediately (after less than 2 seconds) while you’re still going downhill.
More technique joy from Harty in the next issue. Check his website and PH Masterclass Facebook page for award winning DVDs and news of his
sell-out clinics. Details of the 2017 calendar now showing. Check out his ever popular clinic schedule on www.peter-hart.com