Beginner Wavesailing on the OBX

Summer is here on the OBX, and on average the ocean surf is usually smaller than other times of the year. Of course, the "X" factor is tropical weather which officially is tracked by the National Weather Service beginning June 1. For the beginner wavesailor, summer is a great time to try the ocean.

Here are a few tips to try the Atlantic side of the playground:
  1. Have confidence in your gear and abilities - If you are not comfortable waterstarting, jibing, or use gear which is old and may fail, it may be best to remain in sheltered waters. Also, its best to be comfortable in the ocean since it is a big, deep body of water. One of the worst things to do if down in the surf zone, is panic. Best is to remain calm, and take your time to regroup, especially if separated from you gear. Suit up correctly for conditions as well. Wear a helmet, and a good wetsuit depending upon water temperature. I would recommend avoiding drysuits when wavesailing, and rather use a heavy regular modern wetsuit. Of course, summer OBX wavesailing is usually trunks only!
  2. Attack shorebreak, and get past it ASAP - One of the biggest fears with OBX wavesailing is ominous shorepound at the launch. Shore break can be quite intimidating, especially when trying to work a windsurfing rig though it. If you do have to deal with shorebreak at the launch, your best bet is to work fast, "throw" your gear over the pounding section, and swim/waterstart to clear the area. Do not stand there or timidly handle your gear in the shorebreak. Quickness is key to getting up and out of that area ASAP. Note that timing is also important, especially when judging set waves. If a set is rolling in, wait until the set and its accompanying shorepound pass before launching. When its time to go, do it quick! The critical shorepound section is usually quite narrow and once you are past it, you should be in the clear.
  3. Look for side-off conditions - Side-off winds usually provide the least amount of shorebreak, though this is completely dependent upon the size of the surf. If conditions are small (waist high or smaller), you could likely successfully launch in either onshore or offshore winds. Though if conditions are bigger, side-off is best.
  4. Navigate around critical sections - On smaller days, this may not be as much of an issue, but it is good practice for bigger days. Try to avoid the pitching section/whitewater by pointing upwind or downwind while navigating out. Never look at the critical section, or you will likely sail right into it. Rather, look for a clean line out by catching a shoulder or weak section of the incoming wave. Basically try to avoid the whitewater in the main surf zone. A downwind heading is always the first choice since this will provide the most board speed, especially considering Hatteras' inside windless zones.
  5. Ride top/back of shorebreak when returning to beach - If there is sizable shorebreak on the day you are in the ocean, when returning to the beach, always keep the board either on top or just behind the shorebreak wave. This will ensure you hit the sand furtherest away from the pounding area. Never set up with a shorepounding section behind you. That setup equals crunch time!
The above tips give you some key advice for launching and getting out/returning to the beach. Regarding actually riding waves, here are a few pointers:
  1. Look for an outside swell - Once out past the main surf zone, look for the incoming set waves. Note to always take the third or fourth wave on the set as compared to the first or second. This is especially key on bigger days since if you go down in the impact zone, its always best to keep the beatings to a minimum. Often, if you pick correctly and go down in the zone, you will likely have smooth water for the run back out to the outside. Note, on small days however, set wave selection will likely not be an issue since the sets may not even be noticeable.
  2. Ride upwind on the wave swell - If you do find a swell approaching, jibe ahead of it or on its face, and ride it upwind. The swell will drive the board forward, and help keep you upwind to remain in the area where you launched from. Though if you are doing a "downwinder," this may not be as important.
  3. Approach the wave zone on a swell - Approach the wave zone while on the front of a swell. As the swell begins to rise and become steep, turn downwind, race down the swell face, and set up for your first bottom turn.
  4. The Bottom Turn - The key to the bottom turn is solid board and sail control. Very similar to a jibe, the bottom turn is simply turning the rig downwind and using the wave energy to drive the momentum. Like a jibe, the bottom turn is all about setting the rail, controlling the fin with both body weight placement and sail positioning. The only difference is that you do not remove your back foot from the strap, and you do not "flip" the sail, unless you are trying some radical move.
  5. Approaching the wave face and timing - Once though a solid bottom turn, next is the approach to the wave. The ideal setup is a near perpendicular run up the wave face to attack the lip. However, often the approach is at an angle up the face heading down wind. Timing is key with the approach since if you are too early, the wave is not quite formed for a hard cutback, and if too late, you may be crunched by the pitching lip. The key is to "see" how the wave is forming and attempting to place the board in the ideal spot to fully maximize wave energy at the cutback. Timing is likely the most crucial aspect of wave sailing, and is usually only perfected by experience and understanding how wave dynamics interplays with board/sail handling.
  6. The top turn and cutback - The top turn or cutback is one of the most visual aspects of the wave ride. It can be a mellow experience or quite aggressive. The level depends upon the sailor's style and the position of the board at the top of the wave. Timing again is key with the cutback as well. Turn too early, and you only approach halfway up the wave. Turn too late, and you likely go out the back of the wave, or stall/flounder at the top. The key is to turn at the optimum moment when the board is at the lip of the wave, but not slicing though it. Another key element of the top turn is hand positioning which controls the sail angle. Usually it is best to slide your back hand forward when initiating a cutback to ensure the sail opens and depowers enough to keep you on the wave. If you keep your back hand further back on the boom, you risk the sail being too powered often causing an "out the back." Of course if you are going for a wave aerial, you may not slide the hand forward, but the ideal wave aerial is driven by wave energy at the lip and complemented by sail/board control in the wind.
  7. Drop in - The drop in after the cutback is all about body position. Keep your body weight back while maintaining control of the sail. Main goal here is to avoid pearling the nose of the board, or diving the mast forward. Balance, body position, and control are key to maintaining composure upon reentry down a steep wave face following a sharp cutback.
  8. Kick Out - Often, you repeat the above steps a few or a number of times depending upon the wave conditions. However, the last step is always the kickout after a successful wave ride. The kickout is simply a jibe over the weak end of the wave, or if you are in big conditions, perhaps its about remaining in ideal position for the trek back out through the wave zone. Main thing with the kickout is to maintain control, look what is behind the wave you were on, and try to maintain power to work back out.
Those are basically the key steps to riding waves. I am not a professional wavesailor, but have plenty of experience enjoying and surviving the surf in Hatteras. Hopefully these tips will help those interested in wavesailing to better understand the dynamic and if you get the chance to try it, well...go for it! Its quite an experience, and there is nothing like catching a wave on a windsurfer! Oh yea, one more key tip...always know what is behind you in the surf!

Additionally, here are a few flat water tips for wave sailing preparation:
  1. Try jibing while remaining in the footstraps - This technique helps learning control while bottom turning on a wave, and also gets you used to riding aggressively in the straps. Also, loosen the straps somewhat when wavesailing. There should be some room to move your feet when you are working the waves.
  2. Sail with your back hand further back on the boom - Much of wave sailing is sail control, and optimum control is found with a wide grip. This is especially true when bottom turning...when jibing, practice with a wide boom grip. This also helps oversheet the sail which is ideal for the bottom turn.
  3. Sail out of the harness - Try sailing out of the harness, and specifically try downwind S-turning on the board. Slide your back hand forward and back while practicing this maneuver. This technique helps feel sail control in your hands rather than though the harness. 90% of wave sailing is done out of the harness.
Hope some of these tips help for sailors interested in trying the surf. If others out there have any additional tips or suggestions, please reply in the comments!

Good luck, and have fun in the waves. Also remember there is another topic titled "Wave Etiquette" which is specific to how you should "act" in the surf. However, we will save that for another post.


At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Bill

Nice post. I would like to put this in its entirety on the WindSurfing mag forum to lead a thread on wavesailing technique. You can let me know if this is ok via clydepeggy@hotmail.com


At 2:55 PM, Blogger Catapulting Aaron said...

Bill, this is a great read!

At 9:52 PM, Blogger PeconicPuffin said...

Very nice. So much to think about when actually on a wave...I'm always delighted to find myself carving up the wave face that even when I succeed with a cutback I'm not too sure what I did.

Thanks for all that detail!

At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got my first time in ocean waves at Assateague, MD. All your posts are really helpful and appreciated. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.



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