Basics of Windsurfing
Learn to Windsurf
Basics of Windsurfing

Sailing Safely

Windsurfing is an autonomous sport. That means you are the one who is responsible for ensuring that you get back each time you head out. With that in mind, below are a few thoughts to help you sail safely

Safety hints for windsurfing

Articles on this page excerpted from windsurfing UK articles of 2006/07 at, but no longer available online.

Introduction to Windsurfing Safety

Why should you concern yourself with windsurfing safety? Read this to find out...
OK, I know what you're thinking. Boring... For the majority of windsurfers the freedom of the sport is one of its greatest attractions, and the whole idea of a safety-conscious environment is the last thing they want to think about. Indeed, most windsurfers in the real world adopt a determinedly non-safety-orientated approach, deliberately choosing not to wear helmets, lifejackets or carry any sort of survival aids such as spare rope, whistles, flags or flares. And despite this devil-may-care attitude, there are, thank goodness, remarkably few fatalities in the sport. However, here in the UK this is in no small part thanks to our extremely efficient emergency services. We all take to the seas fairly secure in the knowledge that should something go wrong, there's a very high likelihood that we will get rescued.

Yet this is actually a terrible way to approach a sport. In almost every other adrenalin activity that we can think of, safety is considered to be a prime issue - revised and revisited in every training session. Whereas windsurfers, once they have looked at the basics of self- rescue in their RYA beginner course, hardly ever give it a second thought until they find themselves in trouble, and even then don't stress too much because, hey, the helicopter or lifeboat will be along soon! It is this determinedly anti-safety culture that we aim to address with this series. Don't worry, we're not about to recommend you all go out there festooned with flags, buoyancy aids, helmets and walky-talkies. We intend to remain very much in the real world. However, what we do want to do is make you think. Starting right here, with this provocative statement.

There is almost no circumstance in which you should not be able to make it back to the shore without the aid of the rescue services. Apart from physical injury or the most catastrophic equipment failure (such as a board snapping in two), if you end up having to be rescued - it is your fault. You have either been incompetent, ignorant or downright stupid:

  • Incompetent: i.e. You didn't check your gear before starting, and thus didn't notice that frayed downhaul rope.
  • Ignorant: i.e. You didn't know the correct self rescue technique for that particular situation.
  • Stupid: i.e. You went out in an offshore wind.

Yes, this is provocative. But in 99.9% of cases it's true. The incident either should never have happened in the first place, or you should have been able to return to the beach without needing any help from the rescue services. Maybe not necessarily under your own steam, but certainly with the help of one or two other windsurfing buddies. Don't get us wrong, we are not suggesting that you avoid being rescued at all costs, desperately trying to deal with your dangerous situation on your own until you succumb to fatigue or hypothermia. If you have to be rescued, so be it. But a little bit of knowledge and preparation should either avoid, or get you out of, almost any difficult situation.


The two single most important factors in windsurfing safety, which should apply pretty much whenever you go windsurfing:

  • Avoid offshore winds
  • Sail with other people
If nothing else we ever write about safety sticks in your mind, try and keep these two points to the fore. They shine out as common sense beacons far and above everything else. If you obey these two rules, and also have a working knowledge of how to cope with the various kit breakage situations that may arise, you should have a happy and rescue-free windsurfing career.


Pre-Sailing Safety Check

This ten-second gear check before hitting the water could save your life!

The RNLI statistics show that equipment failure is one of the main reasons why windsurfers need to be rescued at sea, so we'll start our more safety-conscious approach with a look at equipment maintenance. In the past, windsurfing safety guidelines have included a long list of equipment checks that should supposedly be carried out before each sailing session. However, in our real world scenario we recognise that this simply isn't going to happen - life is too short! Nevertheless, there are three simple checks that you should always carry out before hitting the water. It will only take a few seconds, but can make all the difference. Many rescue situations end up happening because something was overlooked or not fitted properly. Get in to the habit of checking these three things every time you go sailing:

  • Make sure the deck plate is secure and the rig properly attached.
  • Ensure the downhaul and outhaul are properly tightened, cleated off and the rope ends tidied or stowed away.
  • Check that the fin is securely fastened into place.

One quick walk-around the kit before you take to the water is all it takes. Check the deck plate by hand - is it screwed on tight? Give the rig a tug to check it is properly attached. While you're there, check the downhaul. Move to the back of the board and give the fin a wiggle - is it tight? Then go to the outhaul and ensure it's properly cleated and the rope end tied off. That's it. Ten seconds out of your life.

Emergency Preparedness

As windsurfing is a sport that typically requires individuals to have sufficient capacity/skill to self rescue in various conditions, thinking about what might be helpful in emergency preparedness is specific to each situation. For example, at TWC, where windsurfers learn on a bay, and at camps on inland lakes, there usually is an opposite shore that can be reached even if wind conditions do not allow for return to launch. Learning to self-rescue, including de-rigging, is part of the Sail the Rainbow program, once students master the basics and turning the board and returning to shore, is taught first, to ensure that students have sufficient capacity to make their way back to launch. Carrying a spare line, and some type of light that can be used to signal distress may easily fit into a backpack, or pocket in one’s lifejacket. Other safety tips are included in the notes below.

Safety Guidelines

Being a windsurfer means taking responsibility for your actions every time you go sailing. Match your knowledge to the conditions and never put your board or yourself at undue risk. If you stick to this policy, you will have a great time!


Being a windsurfer means taking responsibility for your actions every time you go sailing. Match your knowledge to the conditions and never put your board or yourself at undue risk. If you stick to this policy, you will have a great time!

  • Be realistic about your limitations when it comes to technique, equipment and fitness. Are you sufficiently experienced to windsurf in the windstrength forecasted and/or at this new location? Check the wind, sea state, tides and weather forecast. Consult other sailors and be prepared to postpone or abandon your plans.
  • If at all possible, leave details of your windsurfing plans with a reliable person on shore. If you're going sailing alone, a quick call to a friend or family member just before you set off is the practical way to do this. Tell them where you are launching from, when you expect to be back and what kit you're going out on (this is so that they can tell the coastguard that you're out with a yellow sail and blue board, or whatever. It might seem a small detail, but it can make a vital difference!). If you don't get back, it's nice to know someone will raise the alarm.
  • Always windsurf where there are other windsurfers on the water, or in an area patrolled by a rescue boat. It's a great idea to operate a 'buddy system', where you keep an eye on your buddy, and vice versa.
  • Keep your windsurfing energy topped up by snacking on fruit bars, dried fruit or bananas, and keep well hydrated. Drink plenty of water both before sailing and after!
Golden Rules of Safety

The first things you should think about in any safety scenario...

When things go wrong, what is the first thing you should do? The number one thing to remember when things don't go according to plan:

Stay calm!

This is really important. It's always better to take an extra few minutes to get yourself together, calmly assess a situation and work out your strategy for dealing with it. Otherwise you could easily spend an hour fighting the elements before you eventually realise that you have taken the wrong decision, by which time you have wasted precious time and energy. Bear in mind too that if you have just taken a bad wipeout, as is often the precursor of a problem situation, you may well be slightly dazed or disorientated, in which case it's all too easy to make a wrong decision.

(The only time when you do need to react instantly, prior to any calm situation assessment is, as mentioned elsewhere in this article, if your board and rig have become separated. In which case your first action, prior to anything else, must be to regain your board.)

So - you have your board, you're staying calm and thinking rationally. Here are the steps to follow in assessing the situation:

  • 1: Is the situation critical? If you've suffered an injury that is likely to cause a fairly rapid onset of shock - i.e. heavy bleeding, broken bone etc, then think of the fastest way to get to the beach. This may mean flagging someone down and borrowing their gear if you can still sail, abandoning your sail to paddle quickly back in on your board or get towed back in, or simply asking someone to go and get help. Don't ever hesitate to do this! Call for help if necessary - sod the ego. Even if it's only to ask another person to keep an eye on you while you sort yourself out.
  • 2: Is the situation serious? If you're not injured, but you're cold, or perhaps nightfall is not far away, then again you need to get sorted out fairly quickly. Again this might require reasonably drastic measures such as abandoning your rig to get home quicker. Once again, at the top of your priority list should be ensuring someone else knows of your plight, and is keeping an eye on you, or actively assisting you get back to shore.
  • 3: Is the situation within your ability to deal with? You're not injured or cold, there's plenty of daylight left, and the shore isn't too far away. The fundamental choice now is whether you can return to the beach under your own steam, or whether you will need assistance (see further below) in getting yourself and your equipment back to the beach.
Getting Back To The Beach

Ways of getting you and your gear back to the beach if the wind dies or you suffer equipment breakage

It's the one thing absolutely guaranteed to happen to every windsurfer at some time or other in their sailing career - it's an utter dead cert. A sudden lack of the one thing a windsurfer simply cannot do without... Yep, you guessed it - wind. Maybe it just gently dies away, or maybe it suddenly switches off. Whatever, there's not enough to waterstart or uphaul and sail home. What do you do?

The situation is not actually threatening, unless you're either WAY offshore, or you're cold because you've already been out for hours. If either of these apply, then treat the situation seriously - get help if necessary. However, let's assume for the moment that you're sufficiently warm, and not that far offshore. Generally if the wind dies the water state tends to calm down quite quickly as well - so you're not being blinded by flying spray.

First thing to assess is how just far off the beach you are. If you're relatively close then there are a number of options open to you which don't involve any derigging, or even separating the mast from the boom. If you're very close then you might as well just swim the board and rig to shore, pulling it by the nose. However, this is by far the least efficient method. If you're reasonably athletic you can use the front crawl method, towing either the board or the rig with your feet. This is actually quite fast but not that easy, and again only really practical for short distances.

If you have more than a short distance to cover, the surf paddle method is probably the fastest and most efficient way to swim your gear back to the beach. The top tip here is to turn your board around so you're going fin first - this provides additional buoyancy and more board area to support your weight. Simply get yourself in to the correct position and start paddling! If the board has enough buoyancy to easily support your weight, you may find it easier and more comfortable to paddle from a kneeling position, although if you're just in shorts the non-slip can be a bit brutal on your shins!

If there's enough wind to lift the sail but not enough to waterstart or stay up on the board, you may find that you can get enough power out of the rig to drag you along. Rather than trying to get both hands on the boom, you may find it easier to keep one on the lower mast. You should be able to get in to a position to kick with your legs as well, giving a bit of extra propulsion.

Alternatively, if there is enough wind to lift the sail, you can go for the seated method, which is actually much easier than it looks. Simply waterstart the sail in a regular way, but instead of trying to get up, slide one leg over to the other side of the board. Either put both hands up on the boom, or one hand on the boom and the other on the mast, or in really light conditions you might need to have one hand on the boom and the other holding the foot of the sail. This method lowers your centre of gravity to a minimum while reducing the drag of having your body in the water.