Sunday, March 22, 2009

The best way to improve your windsurfing

I just came back from a week of windsurfing in Bonaire (well, it's been a week now, but due to post-holiday depression, it seems like just a day).

Just like last year, I had signed up for a week of "camp" with ABK Boardsports. This year, my wife also joined the camp. We both had a blast - ABK camps are the best way to improve your windsurfing skills, have tons of fun, and meet nice new people.

I have been windsurfing for almost 30 years now. That does not really show in my skills - I took several long breaks, each lasting 5-10 years, where I did not surf at all. I picked it up again about 8 years ago, and have taken regular windsurf vacations in Cabarete, Margarita Island, and Bonaire. At home, I usually sail in Fogland, RI, or Cape Cod. 
For most people, including me, good instruction is essential to get better. I originally learned windsurfing at the University of Konstanz, which offered beginner classes at Lake Konstanz (Bodensee), and advanced classes at Lago di Como in Italy. In the Carribean, I usually took a few hours of private lessons - never quite as many as I wanted to, because the wind would often not play along, or something else got in the way. 

So, sadly enough, my jibe was still not good after decades of windsurfing. I'd usually make it to the other side without falling in, but with more fear than fun, and mostly without speed. This started to change during my first 5-day ABK camp last year. The wind was not so great, we played with light-wind tricks about half of the course. But in the 2 or 3 days that the wind was decent, Andy Brandt and his teachers gave me enough pointers to make a dramatic difference. After a day, I started to plane through my jibes. At the end of the course, I was looking forward to my jibes, because they were fun, rather than just taking them as a necessary hassle when it was time to turn around.

How did Andy fix what many previous private lessons, countless "clinic" presentations, and endless hours of practice on my own had failed? Of course, Andy or his instructors did illustrate jibe in theoretical lessons on the beach. But I think what really made the difference were just a few things:
  • great feedback,
  • focussing on just one thing at a time on the water, and
  • consistency
2008: My first ABK camp
Bonaire is one of the best spots to learn to jibe (or to jibe better), because the water is just knee- to hip deep. If you fall off, you just beach start and try again. If the wind is marginal and cruising back up against the wind is difficult, you can simply walk. And the instructors can just stand at one point, let you jibe around them, and then tell you what you should change.

So, after my first couple of jibes, Andy called me over and (after telling me what parts I did well) told me to change just one thing. I did what he said, and - surprise! - things got a lot better. Then he'd call me over again, and tell me the next thing to focus on. The big things last year were to let the sail pull me up, into an upright balanced stance, and to do things slower. After I did both of these things, I planed through my jibes, even though the wind was just marginal. More importantly, I had a lot more fun in jibing. Being pulled into an upright stance, and then just coasting through the turn with no sail pressure, gave a totally new feeling of speed and control. 

All fine and good if things work in Bonaire on relatively big boards - but how did that improve my skills under different conditions back home? The real test came a couple of months later when I had a rare chance to sail my 96 liter JP board in 25-35 mph wind. I use this board just a few days every year - usually, I am on 120-200 l boards and huge sails to get planing in marginal conditions. Well, this day was much windier than usual, creating a lot of sharp, step chop even in Fogland's protected cove - but I discovered that I managed to complete most jibes even on the small equipment. The last time I had sailed small boards before the ABK camp, falling during jibes was virtually certain. Great!

The rest of the summer of 2008 was not so great, with just a few days of decent wind, so I did not get much practice. 

2009: My second ABK camp
When we arrived in Bonaire at the beginning of March 2009, we were greated by great conditions - 25-30 mph winds and (of course) plenty of sun. The wind turned out to be a bit too great for me - after just 2 hours of sleep during the overnight flight to Bonaire, and a 5 months break from windsurfing, the first day was more fight than fun. I was glad that I actually made it though one jibe - and that one was not very pretty.

The wind was a bit less the next day, and I did a bit better - but I still thought I had forgotten everything I had learned last year. When class began the next day, I discovered I was wrong. I just needed a few corrections to get back to good success rates. The first one was subtle - the position of the front foot after changing the feet. My foot had pointed too much to the outside, and not enough to the front. That was something I probably had done wrong before, but nobody had ever pointed out. Fix it, and - voila - much improved jibes. A couple more minor adjustments, and things were looking good again.

The next day, Andy started working on really improving my jibes. The goal was a nicely oversheeted laydown jibe. I needed to learn to push down on the boom after standing up, and pushing the sail behind me. I had to work on that a bit - I tend to cork my body when I oversheet. But in the end, my jibes looked pretty good on the videos we took in the afternoon.

On to the next goal: duck jibes.
We started on planing duck jibes after half a day of low wind, where we practiced low wind duck jibes, switch stance jibes, and a few more jibe variations. When the wind picked up and we switched to high wind gear, my second attempt to do a planing duck jibe (with a 7.5 m sail) worked. So did two more attempts in the next few tries. Then, when we started to work on making it better, I started thinking about how to do the jibe - and things fell apart (or rather, I fell a lot). For a few hours, I practiced the many different ways to fall when a duck jibe goes wrong, with a lot of high-speed falls. All good fun :) After working my way through falling in the different parts, I got pretty close to completing it again when Andy decided we deserved a break. He taught us the "fall jibe" - a practical way to turn on the spot that's pretty close to a jump jibe and a slam jibe. I did not care for the light wind version, but I love the planing fall jibe. Finally, a jibe where you are not only allowed to fall - you are expected to fall! That one was designed for me. I had a very good success rate right away, although my clew first waterstarts sucked at first. With a few hours of practice, they got better, and once again, I looked pretty good on the movies in the evening. Only when I looked at my GPS recordings for the afternoon did I discover a slight disadvantage of the fall jibe - stopping the board and falling in kills your speed :-)

So, I learned a lot in 5 days of camp: my planing jibe improved quite a bit; the duck jibe is almost there; and I learned the fall jibe, which is really handy in crowded situations, or when you need to jibe without loosing too much ground, or if you just need to cool off on a hot summer day. This seems to be the first step towards tricks like the vulcan, too - I see a lot of falls & fun in my windsurfing future. I learned a few more tricks for light-wind days, too, so I'll have fun on those typical summer days where the wind is not arriving as promised. 

What really underscored how great ABK camps, though, are was the progress I saw others make. Case in point: my wife. She participated in the camp for the first time this year. She's been windsurfing for more than a decade, but usually just a week or two in the summer, which means little progress (she got a bit more practice once we started dating a few years ago). Before camp, she used the harness, and got into the front footstrap - but just "kind of", always holding back quite a bit. In camp, she became comfortable with using the harness and both foot straps, and ended up going really fast - there were several times I could not catch her, which is great. She also learned the low-wind pivot jibe, and started to work on the planing jibe. Great progress for one week. And remember that all these skills translate to more fun on the water.

Last year, when she did not take the class, she also made some progress, but a lot less. She started the camp being skeptical, but ended up looking forward to the next camp. No surprise most surfers in camp are repeaters.

Many others in camp made impressive progress, too. Several surfers in the group I was in went from so-so jibes to nice planing jibes in a week. Most impressive were the two absolute beginners. The wind was to strong to be ideal for beginners - we were in high-wind mode 7 of the 9 half-days of class. So, what did the beginners do? The went from standing on a windsurf board the first time straight to beach starts, waterstarts, and using the harness the first time. Sometimes you see people who are great in other sports progress really fast, like competition skateboarders or world-class kayakers. But neither of our two newbies was that much into sports, so their progress really speaks to the quality of the teaching.

As I said above, one reason why the teaching was so great is consistency. There usually are 4-6 instructors out on the water. If you sail close to anyone of them and they notice something, they'll tell you what you need to do to improve. Typically, it does not matter who it is - if you have a hard time getting something, you may hear the same suggestion from 2 or 3 different instructors. At least when it comes to the planing jibe, they will all teach and demonstrate the move exactly the same way. That's rather amazing; in previous jibe lectures, different instructors would always emphasize rather different points.

Finally, a funny story from camp. One participant (Paul) had brought along a GPS, and threw down a challenge one day. He had given his GPS to another participant (Anthony) in the morning, and Anthony had clocked a high speed of 45 kmh. Paul did not get close to this speed that day (although he had reached 49 kmh a few days before, when it was windier). He gave me the GPS saying " you have to beat 45 kmh". I tried my best, but just got up to 44 kmh. To my excuse, the wind had gone down a bit from the morning, and kept going down, like it typically does in Bonaire. After I came back, the challenge passed to Andy. He has quite a bit of racing background in his 30-year windsurfing career, and had demonstrated that he could pump a 100 liter board onto a plane with a 5.7 m sail when others had problems planing on 138 liters with 8.0 sails. He looked great coming in, but the GPS was merciless: only 42 kmh! That gave a lot of laughs during the video review in the evening, helped by Matt's funny comments ("hit a sandbar, hit a sandbar!"). Of course, Andy managed to reach 42 kmh in conditions where most surfers out there were not planing anymore.. and the jibes he laid down during his attempt were just gorgeous. I swear he can sail out of a jibe faster than he went in!

So, I'm looking forward to warmer days to practice what I've learned, and to my next ABK camp. If you want to improve your windsurfing skills, or learn windsurfing, sign up! Maybe I'll see you in Bonaire next year. Until then, check out a few YouTube videos of Andy Brandt (and others):