ARE OFFSHORE WINDS OFF-LIMITS?

The BKSA is the UK's lead body for wingsports. Head of training, Andy Gratwick, returns once again to answer a question we received from a reader that seems to be becoming a more and more popular topic:

WORDS: Andy Gratwick PHOTOS: Gemma Soloman / EasyRiders (unless otherwise stated)

CAN I GO OUT IN AN OFFSHORE WIND?

A good and somewhat age old question! First thing's first: we’re talking about winging, not kiting, windsurfing, surfing or SUPing.

I've worked in most of the above sports and attitudes differ greatly within each. Surfers seek the light offshore dawn raids, windsurfers dream of down-the-line days in cross-offshore conditions, whereas kiters generally avoid anything offshore as they're more susceptible to being dragged off downwind (and offshore).

These are all justified approaches. There is actually no such thing as a ‘bad’ wind direction, though; just a bad wind direction for your spot.

In some parts of the world offshore winds can produce the most sublime conditions. Perhaps a better phrase would be ‘anomalous spatial gradient (gusty) winds are bad'. I know, it's not very catchy.

WHEN ARE OFFSHORE WINDS BAD?

Being blown out to sea, especially in very cold conditions, is never a pleasant experience. Offshore winds are 'bad' if they are directly offshore, strong, gusty or very light close to the shore.

When you're standing on the beach the wind can sometimes feel deceptively light because you're stood in front of a sand dune or the beach café. If you look a hundred metres offshore, the sea may be indicating that it's actually howling 20 knots plus.

By definition, a wind that's blowing straight out to sea is coming over land and will be affected by anomalies on the land's surface, resulting in gusts and lulls. Acting like boulders in a stream, these objects that the wind must navigate over / around / through cause turbulence to the otherwise laminar flow.

Extremely gusty conditions are really difficult to ride in, constantly delivering too much or too little power. The simple result is you'll struggle to maintain ground across the wind, making it impossible to return to your start point.

This effect becomes greater as the offshore wind angle increases.

Hills, large buildings or a city behind the beach can also significantly contribute to even gustier winds.

In this situation, in order to ride in offshore winds, you need to have a plan: primarily a pal with a boat! Don’t go out in directly offshore winds without some form of secondary retrieval plan.

Alternatively, it could be that you're considering going out in a harbour that might be shallow enough to comfortably stand up in, meaning you could wade back if you get into difficulty. In that case it's probably not ideally deep enough for your foil (allowing for changes in depth in certain areas). If it is deep enough for your foil, making progress trying to walk back in chest deep water will be difficult in strong wind.

WHEN ARE OFFSHORE WINDS GOOD?

When you are confident that getting back to shore is inevitable and safe, even if you lose ground downwind.

This could be the case if the winds are only marginally offshore, but should also be considered in combination with other factors: your level, the degree of offshore angle, the wind strength (and wind quality), the seastate and shorebreak intensity and, most importantly, what is downwind of you.

Portland Harbour where the wind blows offshore over the chisel bank on the left, but offers plenty of exit options

SPECIFIC SCENARIOS:

Portland Harbour on England's south coast is a fantastic wing venue in 'offshore' conditions. The water is very flat and the wind is steady as it comes off the sea and over a relatively smooth chisel bank ­­- and then you ride on the leeside of that bank. It’s spacious and there’s plenty of rescue provision if you ride from one of the well provisioned centres.

Compare that with Shoreham Beach, also on the south coast: in a marginal strength 45-degree offshore wind and a strong incoming tide you'll find there's too much offshore wind angle and not enough reliable power. There's also a brick harbour wall where you are very likely to end up.

Alternatively, if you can find a slightly cross-offshore wind direction (5 degrees or so) and a curved bay downwind that offers a smooth entry point, free from shorebreak, with the downwind drift-to point being simply further down the same stretch of sandy beach, then this session could be more safely justified.

I am going to use one of my home spots, Sandbanks (top car park), as an example: in a true southwest (prevailing wind direction) it is slightly offshore.

However, the wind quality is good because it blows from the southwest section of the inner harbour over a low land peninsula. In this case it creates an easy entry scenario and a fantastic start point for a downwinder, heading east along Poole Bay where the waves get bigger and better the further around you go. Your first few runs will be smooth and flat before you can then choose to take on a sea state that builds organically the further downwind you travel, if you so wish.

A southerly (more onshore) wind at the same spot produces a rather mean shorebreak (wing piercingly so, believe me!). It's a 50/50 bet purely based on luck as to whether you'll get past the breakers, even if you paddle like mad. Of these two wind scenarios at the same spot, I much prefer the former. Am I wrong, reckless and irresponsible?

When assessing a safe wind direction at a spot, you should also consider the factors affecting you personally to gauge your level of likely success.
Failure / drifting out to sea is never an outcome you should entertain even a small chance of!

ASSESS: YOU

  • What is your level?
  • Are you confident riding upwind?
  • Can you easily waterstart on the board and wing you are using if the wind drops or increases a little?
  • Are you comfortable wobbling along, making your way back to the beach if you're not planing on the foil?

ASSESS: YOUR GEAR

I prefer to ride a little powered-up as the depower in a wing is very effective. Being well powered also makes going upwind easier.

In the last year I have chopped and changed the foil parts and designs that I'm riding far too much, but have now settled into a set-up that I'm very much used to.

I’ve also stepped down 50% in board volume in a year.

None of these changes or experiments have been done in offshore conditions, though.

If you're going to experiment, do so in the safety of the harbour or the regular onshore conditions where failure results in a walk of shame rather than a call of shame.

Know your gear, be confident in your wallowing ability and waterstart balance in bumpy coastal water. It is very different waterstarting a low volume board in bumpy water compared to flat water.

ASSESS: YOU

  • What is your level?
  • Are you confident riding upwind?
  • Can you easily waterstart on the board and wing you are using if the wind drops or increases a little?
  • Are you comfortable wobbling along, making your way back to the beach if you're not planing on the foil?

ASSESS: YOUR GEAR

I prefer to ride a little powered-up as the depower in a wing is very effective. Being well powered also makes going upwind easier.

In the last year I have chopped and changed the foil parts and designs that I'm riding far too much, but have now settled into a set-up that I'm very much used to.

I’ve also stepped down 50% in board volume in a year.

None of these changes or experiments have been done in offshore conditions, though.

If you're going to experiment, do so in the safety of the harbour or the regular onshore conditions where failure results in a walk of shame rather than a call of shame.

Know your gear, be confident in your wallowing ability and waterstart balance in bumpy coastal water. It is very different waterstarting a low volume board in bumpy water compared to flat water.

LOCATION AND CONDITIONS

Gale force winds, cold winter temperatures and high seas are clearly to be avoided by all (even many experts choose to avoid them). Get to know your spot, frequent it regularly, observe the tide and wind direction changes and the results they have on the conditions.

Ride your spot in its premium conditions, learn what these are and why they happen. Then start exploring the less advantageous or easy conditions as your confidence, experience and ability grows.

There is a lot to be said for taking this journey with others as a walk up the beach hurts far less with a pal to help you walk back with gear.

If your level is low, the conditions are full on and your gear is wrong, you are setting yourself up for failure. This works the other way, too. Appropriate level, perfect conditions and the best equipment: success is inevitable.

THE PERFECT DIRECTION?

There isn’t one, but there’s something close to it for every spot. Learn about yours to find more nirvana days at home.

SO, WHAT SHOULD THE READER DO WITH THEIR OFFSHORE QUANDRY?

Taking all the above factors I've discussed into account, a slightly offshore breeze could be successful. It takes a lot of factors to come together to make this work, though.

The top and bottom of this is don’t push it too far. If you're stood there trying to figure out if it can work… it probably can’t!

The BKSA now also offer third party insurance cover for wingsurfing through membership. Other benefits also available. Visit the BKSA website: www.britishkitesports.org

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