Bio - Eric Mihelbergel is an intermediate level windsurfer and kiteboarder living in the Great Lakes Region of New York State who enjoys writing about windsports and fitness.
Two Different Sports: Large Sails vs. Small Sails
(Written August 2019)
This season several windsurfers have been asking me why I own all wave sails and no freeride sails, and why my largest sail is only 5.3m. The answer to both questions is the same. It's because wave sailing and freeride sailing are two different sports, and riding sails under 6m is a different sport than riding sails over 6m. Let's take at look at this closer.
First a little backstory. I have been windsurfing for a little over 9 years and have personally sailed both wave and freeride sails. The first 5 years I spent sorting out the sport. As I acquired gear there were a mix of wave sails and freeride sails in the evolving quiver. Here is the sequence of the order of purchase of my first 7 sails: 1st sail, 5.8 meter wave sail; 2nd sail, 7m freeride sail; 3rd sail, 8.5m freeride sail; 4th sail, 5m wave sail; 5th sail, 4.2m wave sail; 6th sail, 3.5m wave sail; 7th sail, 2.9m wave sail. As you can see I had a mix of both wave and freeride sails. But when I purchased them (all brand new at the time), as a novice windsurfer, I did NOT think of them as wave or freeride sails. I was naive, and thought of them only as high-wind sails or low-wind sails. I didn't recognize and understand the difference in design and performance. I simply expanded my quiver into larger sails when I decided I wanted to expand my riding into lower wind, and I expanded my quiver into smaller sails when I decided I wanted to expand my riding into higher wind. The wave sails that I acquired were all the same model from the same manufacturer, as were the freeride sails, but I didn't understand how different the two types of sails were from each other.
Today, I now understand that riding wave sails and riding freeride sails are actually two very different sports. The two sports require different gear, different stance, different technique, and different skills. I no longer think of it as low-wind windsurfing and high-wind windsurfing. Instead, I think of it as wave windsurfing and freeride windsurfing. Even when I occasionally ride my wave gear on flatwater, I still think of it as wave windsurfing, just on flat water, because it still requires the stance, technique and skills of wave riding. Let's discuss this more.
We will start with the gear. For us intermediate riders, freeride sailing is mostly about speed, while wave sailing is mostly about maneuverability. That simplifies it pretty well, and the gear reflects it. Sails are designed for either freeride or wave riding. What's the difference? It starts with the center-of-effort. I think of the center-of-effort as the area where the most fabric is built into the sail. On the freeride sail, the center-of-effort is built lower into the sail. The clew grommet is lower and the foot of the sail has much more fabric, while the wave sail has the clew grommet at a higher point in the sail and the foot fabric is cut away. On the wave sail the foot fabric is cut away so that the fabric doesn't hit the wave during wave moves, but ALSO to position the center-of-effort higher in the sail. You can also think of center-of-effort this way. A sail with a higher center-of-effort, like a wave sail, has more fabric higher up in the sail (compared to a freeride sail) which means the wind has more LEVERAGE against the rider to pull the rider over the board. That is a very important concept to understand. A freeride sail, with a lower center-of-effort, has more of its fabric lower in the sail which gives the wind less leverage against the rider and allows the rider to sink lower and outboard without getting pulled over the board. The same amount of wind, blowing against the exact same size sails, will pull a wave sailor over his board while allowing a freeride sailor to sink lower and outboard because of the difference in leverage (center-of-effort) that the wind has over the rider. This one difference alone gives us two different sports because it changes stance, technique and skills considerably.
The wave sailor, because of the sail design, is in a more upright position. This puts body weight more over the center of the board compared to a freeride sailor who is more outboard. When your body is more over the center of the board you can use a smaller fin without getting spinout because you are not leveraging all of your body weight against the fin through the heels of your feet. By using a smaller fin you have less drag which means you can use a smaller sail. And when you have both a smaller fin and smaller sail you are MUCH more maneuverable. Plus, as we already mentioned, you are over the center of the board which puts you in proper position to BE maneuverable. You can easily switch from heel-side to toe-side, backside to frontside, without having to move very far. With a freeride sail you are forced to ride much lower and outboard. From such a low, outboard position you must move a considerable distance to transition from heels to toes, backside to frontside. The low, outboard position applies much greater force against the fin which means you need a bigger fin to avoid spinout. The bigger fin yields more drag so you need a bigger sail. Plus, your main objective is speed, so you want as big of a sail as you can handle...which means you need an even bigger fin. You get the idea now. They are two very different sports that are almost opposite in the thought process and gear selection. In wave sailing the general goal is to work toward riding smaller sails for more maneuverability, while in freeride sailing the goal is to work toward riding larger sails for more speed. The difference in center-of-effort affords us the different goals. Now add on to that differences in boards, masts, harnesses, and other sail features, and the difference between the two sports becomes even greater.
Sail manufacturers gear freeride sails more toward the larger sizes and wave sails more toward the smaller sizes. Take Ezzy for example. Their main freeride model is the Lion, and their main wave model is the Elite. The smallest Lion they offer is 6m, and the largest Elite they offer is 6.1m. This confused me when I was a beginner because it led me to believe that our sport was a large sail/small sail sport. I didn't understand that they were two separate sports. You simply don't need as large of a sail for wave riding because of the discussion and thought process in the previous paragraph. For me, a 5.3m sail is the largest I ride. I fall into the wave sailor category. I have learned the technique, stance and skills to ride smaller sails. Other riders who want to focus on speed must adopt a very different approach.
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We can certainly learn the two different sports and participate in both at a high level. Some people play both basketball and football, which require many similar athletic skills, however, the two sports must still be separated in many ways. We must work on skills separately. We must purchase gear with specific intent. We must train our muscle memory in two different ways and learn to recall and apply that memory at the appropriate time. Too often sailors don't separate the two sports. They mix wave and freeride gear, use fins that are too big/small for the sport they doing, allow their stance to be too far inboard or outboard, and fail to practice skills that will allow them to improve in one sport or the other. They then can become frustrated not understanding why they don't perform as well as other sailors. This happened to me during my first 5 years. I often became frustrated, not understanding why I couldn't perform like other sailors, until I learned to separate wave and freeride sailing into two different sports.
Set a plan for yourself. Decide now that you will put time in to study the differences between wave and freeride sailing. Then dedicate more time to apply this on the water. It will improve your riding in whichever sport you prefer or in both sports if you participate in both. For me, I am a wave sailor. I don't enjoy freeride sailing all that much. I don't like sails over 5.3m in size. If the wind is less than 20mph I enjoy doing other things instead of windsurfing. At some point I may get into wind foiling, but this is also a separate sport. Treat them all as separate sports and you will find that you progress much more quickly and to a higher level. Enjoy!