Safety Hints for Windsurfing

The purpose of this pamphlet is to provide the beginning windsurfer a checklist of recommendations for safely participating in the challenging sport of windsurfing. After only a few hours of instruction, a beginner can learn the fundamentals of windsurfing and enjoy the calm waters of a small lake or bay. With proper training and experience, a windsurfer can eventually graduate to less sheltered waters.

Windsurfing is a physically demanding activity and is not without its hazards. Those who participate should not lose sight of those demands and the proper safety preparation necessary for their own safety as well as the safety of others who share the waterway.

Shallow Water

The windsurfer should guard against falls in shallow waters or anywhere submerged objects may be present. If a fall is unavoidable, try not to fall head first. Two of the most common types of injuries sustained in falls are:
  1. Head injuries from the falling rig. In a fall, raise your hands to protect your head.
  2. Foot entrapment between the board and the rig. Keep your front foot aft (towards the stern) of the base of the mast.
It is recommended that appropriate shoes, wet-suit booties or protective footwear be worn to avoid cuts from broken glass or other objects that could be encountered in a fall or while walking the craft in or out of the water.

Physical Condition

Windsurfing is a sport that requires above-average physical conditioning. Stomach, leg and arm muscles of even the most experienced windsurfers can tire, especially in high winds. Falls into the water are inevitable, which means exposure to cold and the strenuous job of raising the mast and sail.

Expect to swim to your craft many times during an outing, especially during high winds that tend to carry the craft away. Be aware of the amount of physical exertion required and avoid becoming fatigued.

Recommended Safety Equipment

Currently, neither the United States Coast Guard nor the State of California requires personal flotation devices (life jackets) to be carried aboard sailboards. However, local jurisdictions may require that they be carried aboard or worn. Windsurfers should check with the proper local agency to determine what minimum safety equipment is necessary. The Division of Boating and Waterways strongly recommends the wearing of life jackets aboard all craft.

A weak or marginal swimmer should always wear a life jacket while windsurfing. Specially designed life jackets that incorporate a harness have been approved by the Coast Guard for use with sailboards. A wet suit can provide additional flotation, which helps reduce fatigue during the learning process, and is highly recommended for cold days or when boating in cold water.

Some older sailboards come equipped with a "mast leash" or safety leash that connects the mast to the board to keep the board and sail from becoming separated should the mast step release during a fall. The mast leash will prevent the board from drifting away from the windsurfer. If the mast and board do become separated, the board may blow away very quickly. Swim to the board first, since it provides flotation, and then paddle back to re-connect the mast.

Safety Practices

There are several safety practices that windsurfers should follow when on the water.

Rules of the Road

The Coast Guard and the State of California consider the sailboard a vessel for purposes of the rules of the road. This means the windsurfer can be cited and fined for violations of these rules.

Many problems have occurred as a result of conflicts between sailboards and larger vessels. In congested bays, freighters and other deep-draft vessels are often confined to a specific channel because of water-depth requirements and are unable to alter their course and speed quickly. Very large vessels require several miles to stop. Large craft can block the wind, leaving the windsurfer unable to maneuver. A large vessel's propeller creates suction and its stern wakes can be dangerous if a windsurfer ventures too close. Stay away from large vessels!

Lake or river windsurfers should avoid congested areas, especially those areas where water-ski boats or other high-speed powercraft are in operation.

Windsurfers should respect the rights and privileges of all craft, large and small. Because of conflicts with larger craft and violations of the rules of the road, special zones prohibiting or restricting sailboards to specified areas have already been established on some waterways.

For more information on the rules of the road, see "ABCs of the California Boating Law"

The following rules apply to sailcraft meeting other sailcraft.

  1. A boat on starboard tack (circled) has right-of-way over a boat on port tack.
  2. A leeward (downwind) boat (circled) has right-of-way over a windward (upwind).
  3. An overtaking boat must keep clear of the boat being overtaken (circled).
Don't insist on your right-of-way if it means a collision. You are obligated by law to avoid a collision even if you have the right-of-way.

Sailing Conditions

Windsurfing can be enjoyed in a variety of conditions, but the windsurfer should be aware of the dangers that may occur. Learn to match your windsurfing skills with weather and water conditions. Cautious windsurfers always check wind and weather forecasts before getting under way. While protected waters are ideal for beginners, unexpected high winds can make these waters hazardous. Sailors planning an outing on the ocean or any large body of water should be aware of wind direction. Because the sailor may be easily carried away by an offshore wind, sail with the onshore breeze for safety. The advice of a knowledgeable local windsurfer or sailboard instructor could prove most helpful in understanding local windsurfing conditions.

Glossary of Terms

Daggerboard 
Easing Out 
Furl 
Jibing 

Head Up 
Leeward 
Luffing 
Mast Leash 
Port Tack 
Starboard Tack 
Tacking 

Windward 

A vertically moving foil-shaped blade that is extended from the bottom of the board to help prevent the board from slipping sideways. 
Letting the sail out (done with the back hand). 
To roll and store the sail. 
(While sailing downwind) turning the board onto a new tack by bringing
the stern across the wind. 
To turn the board toward the wind. 
Downwind; the "lee side" of the board is the side away the wind. 
When the sail is flapping loosely. 
Connects the mast to the board. 
On a course where the wind is coming over the left side of the board. 
On a course where the wind is coming over the right side of the board.
(While sailing upwind) turning the board onto a new course by bringing 
the bow across the wind. 
Upwind; toward the wind. Opposite of leeward. 

Hypothermia

Hypothermia is the life-threatening lowering of the body temperature which can result from accidental immersion in cold water. Even brief exposure to cold water can cause numbness and confusion which could result in helplessness and drowning.

A victim of hypothermia may appear to be drunk, or confused. Get the victim out of the water and into dry, warm clothes or blankets. Give warm drinks, but do NOT give alcohol. Seek medical help except in mild cases, as improper rewarming can cause complications. For these reasons, wearing a wet suit and life jacket while windsurfing is strongly recommended.

The Windsurfing Safety Code

  1. Consider local weather and tidal forecasts.
  2. Always advise someone of where you plan to sail and when you expect to return.
  3. Wear clothing that suits the conditions.
  4. Wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket with a whistle attached.
  5. In hot, sunny, humid conditions, drink plenty of water.
  6. Check your equipment for signs of damage or fatigue.
  7. Sail with a buddy.
  8. When the winds are offshore, sail no more.
  9. Cold can kill. The first time you shiver, return to shore and warm up.
  10. Always stay with your board--never try to swim ashore.
Before Launching...
  1. Double check your safety leash.
  2. Be wary of dark clouds on the horizon--storms strike fast
  3. If in doubt, don't go out.
  4. A smart sailor will always try to take the safest course of action before rescue is the only way out.
An illustration of the different parts of a sailboard.