Thursday, April 5, 2018

Downwind Paddling, and Windsurfing a Downwind Paddleboard

Lately the CGT Tribe of standup paddleboarders, kayakers, and outrigger canoeists has been getting into a specialized paddling discipline called "downwinding." I've jumped on the bandwagon, too. This post is a brief introduction to downwinding, with a couple videos of our downwindwind sessions.

As one might imagine, paddling with the wind at your back is easier and faster than paddling into or perpendicular to the wind. This is especially true in standup paddleboarding, where your upright body catches a lot of wind. Thus, when it's windy, the idea of a downwind-only paddle outing, a "downwinder," is appealing.

The logistics for a downwinder are complicated, requiring either a non-paddling chauffeur, or multiple vehicles and carpooling exchanges.

You also need wind, and the wind must either be parallel to the shoreline, or the shoreline must be a curve subtended by a line from the upwind start to the downwind finish. The closer the path is to straight downwind, the better, but 10 or 20 degrees off is still OK. There is no strict wind minimum for a downwinder, but most people won't go unless it's windy enough to be whitecapping. 10 knots will do, 15 is good, and 20+ is excellent. Of course, those wind strengths are also great for windsurfing, which brings up the important question of, "Why paddle if you could sail?" My answer to this question is complicated, and still evolving.

Indeed, my first assessment of downwind paddling was that it was a third-rate alternative for people too stupid to windsurf or kiteboard. Why work much harder than a windsurfer, only to go to 1/3 the speed and be unable to return to where you started from?

I might have continued to dismiss downwind paddling if not for my back-door entry into the discipline via paddleboard racing. Since races were sometimes held in rough, windy waters, I started doing paddle workouts in the ocean on breezy days. I practiced paddling at all angles to the wind and chop, but of course enjoyed the downwind bits the most. I realized how engaging and rewarding it was to try to sync up with small, wind-driven waves, feeling the speed-boosting energy of each one. "Riding bumps," as they call it, offers some of the same challenge and gratifying feelings as the traditional mode of surfing waves breaking in shallow water. In windy conditions on open water, downwind paddling essentially becomes surfing, with the same dynamic of paddling hard to catch a ride, then gliding along effortlessly at thrilling speed. In a way, riding bumps downwind is better than surfing, because instead of having to turn around and paddle out again after each ride, you can keep your momentum going and link that first ride into another and another. On flat water, my fastest paddleboard speed for a mid-distance race is around 9 kph, but on a decent downwinder I can average over 11 kph, with peak speeds of 16-18 kph on the good bumps.

Another fun discovery with downwinding is that my "old beater" race paddleboard, a 2014 model Fanatic Falcon 14'x27.25", happens to be a rocketship for downwinding. Its bulbous nose combined with a narrow tail and rounded rails let it catch waves of all shapes, sizes, and angles with aplomb. The teardrop shape of the board also minimizes the amount of footwork you have to do keep the board trimmed properly in the waves- On other boards you're constantly stepping towards the nose to help catch the waves, then scooting back to the tail to keep the nose from plunging under as you surf down the waves. For example, my Riviera RP 14'x23" is a lot faster than the Fanatic in flat water, but is much trickier to use, and therefore slower, for downwinding. I haven't managed to take any "epic" GoPro videos of downwinders yet. The one time I wore my helmet camera for one was a grey day, and the wind sort of died in the middle of the run, but it was enough to get the idea.

Some better downwinder cinematography has been done by my avid downwind partners Greg from Belarus and Matt from Sarasota. Greg does most of his downwinders on a SIC Bullet (a specialized downwind board) or a Starboard AllStar (an all-around raceboard). For some of this video he was also trying out my Fanatic, which he said made everything incredibly easy.

DW-2-4-2018-NAPLES from New Ground Photography on Vimeo.

At the end of the run in Greg's video he let me try out a special contraption that I'd built to mount a windsurfing sail to his SIC Bullet. I'd been eager to do it since noting that the rocker and rail shape on the SIC Bullet was very much like an oversized windsurf board, and I suspected it would be fast and efficient under sail power. Indeed it was. This demonstration was also my not-so-sneaky way of trying to persuade Greg that windsurfing can be a lot of fun. For the next step, I'll loan him the adaptor plate and a small sail so he can mess around with it.

Windsurfing SIC Bullet from New Ground Photography on Vimeo.

My big challenge with downwinding now is keeping up with Matt from Sarasota, who has been doing the downwinders on his 20'8" Puakea outrigger canoe. With Matt's increasingly skilled piloting he has gotten average downwind speeds of 12.0 kph, which beats my best 11.8 kph on the same run with the Fanatic SUP. (This is our most common downwind run. It works in NW winds but requires a strenuous side-wind "traverse" to get offshore to the starting point.)

Is the need for downwind speed enough to tempt me into a sit-down paddlecraft myself? Stay tuned.

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