Windsurfing is a surface water sport that combines elements of surfing and sailing. It consists of a board usually two to four meters 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 3.0m2 to more than 12m2 depending on the conditions, the skill of the sailor and the type of windsurfing being undertaken.
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" becoming the accepted name for the sport, participants are still called "sailors" or "board heads" and not "surfers".
In fact 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 maneuvers, 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 wavesurfers do (wind permitting) and are themselves usually very accomplished without a rig on a conventional surfboard.
The sport has a considerably steep (i.e. longer) learning curve when compared to other so-called "extreme" sports, like snowboarding, freeride Mountain Biking or kitesurfing. The average beginner starting off on a 3.8 m long board with a tiny triangular sail in less than 5 knots of wind on a shallow lake often struggles to see the similarity between what they are doing and the images they see in magazines of a more advanced sailor using a 2.25 m board to ride waves in 20-30 knots of wind. Learning to windsurf presents the biggest barrier to the sports growth. It can be compared to chess in that there are many pieces moving in different directions which you have to keep track of. After about 10 games, most finally catch on. Learning to kite board is more like learning checkers.
Key to this is the difference between displacement sailing and hydroplaning (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 sailors is 15-25 knots. One of the main reasons the columbia gorge is referred to as the windsurfing mecca is that average sustained winds in July can be 22knots with gust into the 40's.
Beginners must develop their balance and core stability, acquire a basic understanding of sailing theory, and learn a few techniques before they can progress from board sailing to windsurfing.
Initial lessons can be taken with a windsurfing school, which exist in reasonable numbers in most countries. With coaching and favorable conditions, the basic skills of sailing, steering, and turning can be learned within a few hours. Competence in the sport and mastery of more advanced maneuvers such as planing, carve gybing (turning downwind at speed), water starting, jumping, and more advanced moves can require more practice. Training DVDs exist which are useful in a sport where it is difficult for a coach to be close to a pupil particularly when learning the more advanced maneuvers.
Nevertheless, windsurfing is a sport which, once mastered, can be enjoyed, even at an advanced level, well into retirement and then at a more sedate level for considerably longer still. This is partly due to the fact that windsurfing crashes tend to cause less injury than those sports which take place on harder surfaces (although being reckless whilst windsurfing in advanced conditions can still cause serious injury or death due to the speeds and altitudes involved). The average age of the windsurfer is around 45.
Windsurfing is predominately undertaken on a non-competitive basis. Organised competition does take place at all levels across the world and typical formats for competitive windsurfing include speed sailing, slalom, course racing, wave sailing, superX, and freestyle. These events are exiting to watch as sailors push the limits both physically and creatively with moves that look as impossible as thinking them up in the first place.
The boom of the 1980s led windsurfing to be recognized as an Olympic sport in 1984. However, windsurfing's popularity saw a sharp decline in the mid-1990s, thanks to licensing battles, and equipment became more specialized, requiring more expertise to sail. Now the sport is experiencing a modest revival, as new beginner-friendly designs are becoming available.