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The Learning Plateau and how to climb off (Part II)

In the previous article we saw that the leaning curve for formula will have some plateaus and most likely if you spend some time analysing why this learning plateau has occurred, you just might find a few insights on how to improve. More often than not, it is the sailor, rather than the sails or having the right fin helping fuel these problems. This is not to say that having the best equipment and tuning worked out is not important, because in FW it very crucial, BUT most of us do not lose the race on account of not having the right equipment; far more do because our technique is not up to scratch. Not being able to quickly initiate planing out of the start or out of manoeuvres means you will always be sailing in the dirty winds created by others. Technique is vital for being able to get out of the pack and get yourself into clean air. Jan Witteveen (NED-22) continues his Learning Plateau articles this week, focusing on the training for gybes.

There are three vital aspects in technique training:

  • Understanding the technique and theory behind how to do the manoeuvre
  • Repetitive training of the manoeuvre and (if possible) getting feedback on the technique from an observer/coach
  • Train, train and train until you can do the manoeuvre under stress in a variety of wind conditions

The fun of all this is that you can improve your sailing ability and thereby your results in competition through real training programs on technique. It still intrigues me why so many of us just go sailing and somehow hope to get better while they do not consequently work on their weaker points of sailing. Sailing combines the complications of strength, technique, tuning, tactics as well as the understanding of weather and difficult decision making processes. Why would you only train 40% of these when you could be training 100% of these aspects?

OK, I have to admit, I also make the same mistake over and over again: cruising around instead of specific training and constant testing if I’m faster than my buddy. Very rarely I take the time to train my manoeuvres and I know I lack consistency and lose a lot of time around the course because of this, so for me it is good to also write this article and get back to the real-deal; starting training with a goal in mind. I know that by doing so I will not only get better very quickly but on top of that I also will enjoy the process of training and fine-tuning my manoeuvres. Let us, this time, look at gybing:

GYBING (hands, hands again): 

Are you able to gybe your FW board whilst maintaining planing? Can you do this in 8 knots as well as in 20 knots? Can you gybe the board any time you feel like it, or do you need to wait for that perfect swell to ride down? Do you know your own weak points on the manoeuvre? Have you been training the manoeuvre or are you satisfied with the 5 gybes you do every afternoon whilst training?! What is crucial in the technique?

Firstly, a good gybe is a quick gybe. But do not get confused, because a good gybe is a very smooth manoeuvre aiming to not disturb the momentum you already have before initiating the turn. Imagine yourself doing a perfect gybe on your FW board, what is it like? How does it feel, close your eyes and feel the manoeuvre. Let me tell you how mine will go:

I have great speed going downwind while my sail is very full with minimal outhaul applied. I have already thought about where I want to execute the gybe as this will give me the right focus leading into the turn. First I will move my backhand further backwards to create a wider grip. Almost simultaneously I get my back foot out of the strap and place it on the leeward side just in the middle of the footstraps. With this I start the curve and while doing so I push the sail with my forward hand while pulling the sail with my backhand. It is the same movement how you would start a laydown gybe on your slalom equipment. As soon as the turn is ‘locked in’ I move my forward hand all the way towards the mast. My grip is now at the widest and I have a lot of control over my sail. Before I go through the wind I change my stance which is directly followed by flipping the sail.

Still, I see a lot of guys flipping far to late, they wait until the board and the sail is through the wind and then start flipping. This is far to late. The board will stall and you are far too late to rebuild the power in the sail and maintain the momentum. Because of this you will stop planing and loose all you may have gained by using the most sexy new fin your money could buy…

Get your manoeuvre right. Start early when changing your stance from one side of the board to the other and flipping the sail. If you have your forward hand close to the mast the flip will be smooth and you will be able to easy cross over with your other hand and maintain the momentum. After the cross get your hand far back on the boom while stepping backwards on the board. Lower your butt and pop the cambers through a powerfull pull on the sail. You may feel stupid lowering your butt so much but it is the only way to fully be in control of the things going on. It will enable you to maintain the planing momentum and you can gain a lot of ground by this, so please feel a little stupid and overdo this lowering of the butt.

A few key pointers to remember whilst gybing:

  • Always do a boom-to-boom gybe. Holding the mast at any point in time is inefficient
  • The lower you can get your body after flipping the sail, the easier it is to sheet the sail in without getting pulled over the front

Ok, now the manoeuvre is almost completed. If you started changing your stance and flipping the sail on time then the board is still on a downwind course the moment you start sailing again on the new tack and you will be able to hook into the harness easily. Only if you started too late with the flipping and stance-change your board is on a halfwind course or even on an upwind course and you have no chance what so ever to maintain the planing mode, just read the most essential elements below and get in control of your gybing.

FW Gybing, Step-By-Step:

  1. Plan ahead where and when to start the manoeuvre
  2. If you go too fast then start by luffing a little just prior to the gybe; I call it the ‘S’ shape start of the gybe
  3. Widen your boom grip by placing your backhand even further towards the back of the boom (close to your outhaul cleats even). You need to tuck the sail slightly by pulling aggressively inwards with your back hand and dropping the front of the sail away from you
  4. At the same time, get out of the back strap and place your backfoot on the leeward rail, engaging the pressure
  5. Lean forward and across your board. This helps with tucking the sail and keeping the rail pressure on the board which allows you to cut through any chop (without tucking the sail, you can’t as easily generate the rail pressure necessary to commit the gybe and you will struggle gybing in choppy conditions)
  6. Once you are 60% through your turn (60% if you are already heading downwind when beginning the gybe), driving from your back leg (still on the leeward rail), pull the sail upright as well as forward, using both arms. Its an action like throwing a shot-put and you must aggressively force your hips with your back arm and actually PUSH the sail away from you – this is initiating the sail flip
  7. Don’t just “flip” the sail. Push it away with your backhand. With your front hand, aggressively pull the sail towards you from a grip that is closest to the mast as possible. This pulling will help the sail flip quicker as well as using the momentum created by your hip-drive to keep the board moving
  8. As you flip the sail, your back leg moves to the front position on the new tack. In windy conditions you can do a strap-to-strap gybe if necessary (ie, your back leg goes straight into the front strap to help you with control when sheeting in)
  9. As the sail is flipping, you are still pulling with your current front hand and then taking a grip in the same position (close to the mast) on the new side of the sail with your old back hand. Your hands will cross over to do this
  10. The board should still be on a downwind course when you have sheeted in on the new side – this will help keep the board planing
  11. Take a wide grip on the boom (back hand close to the outhaul cleat) and lower your butt significantly, to be able to sheet in with another pump of the sail to pop the cams
  12. Hook into the harness before you put your foot in the back strap

The Planing FW Gybing in 8 knots:

Yes it is possible. Having a bit of swell to roll down helps. The technique is very similar to the above however there’s a few key steps you need to do PRECISELY otherwise you will stall and some mug from 4th place will beat you to the finish line on that last downwind leg.

  • The sail flip has to be initiated 60% into the turn. Later and you will stall. Earlier and you will crash. 40% works best if you are already sailing on a downwind leg, so therefore you only need to turn just over 90 degrees to complete the gybe (not almost 180 degrees like a slalom gybe). So in actual fact, 60% has already brought you through the eye of the wind.
  • When making the sail flip, focus a lot on the sail upward-thrust of both the rig and your body. With a wide grip on the boom, use your hips to the extent you are even twisting your body with your hips (the same direction the sail is flipping) as you move. As you twist, push very hard with your back hand to “throw” the sail away from you as you pull hard with your front hand to pull the sail back towards you. This allows the sail to flip quickly.
  • In light winds you can switch your feet to the new side of the board a lot earlier. Move your back leg to the new windward side of the board in front of the front strap (never IN the front strap). Move your front leg to the new side just in front of the back strap (never IN the back strap).
  • On the new side of the board and with the sail still in the process of flipping you can begin to pump the board with your legs. Drop your body weight very low (bend those knees!) and with both legs simultaneously drive upwards, with the motion of pushing the board “forward” with your legs. This is difficult to explain on paper, but easily replicated on the board. You are pumping the board with your legs and not pumping the sail.
  • Pumping the board with your legs a few times as you are sheeting in on the new side is the key to keeping the board’s momentum. Sheeting in on the new side with the board pointing very far downwind also helps as you can spin the board the last few degrees as you sheet in.
  • Pumping until you are powered enough to hook in is also mandatory. If you have timed your gybe nicely to finish coming down a swell you can use the pumping of the board with your legs to keep the board moving down that swell and ease into pumping the sail more efficiently.
  • Practice and practice is the key to this gybe. It takes a while to master.

Working on the gybing techniques it is important to visualise yourself executing this manoeuvre in your mind, imagining how the manoeuvre might feel like and if possible looking at videos where the manoeuvre is executed perfectly. Then start practising the technique on the water. Having someone watching you doing the manoeuvre helps you pin-point any mistakes. An easy way to do this is to train in pairs with each of you watching each other gybe from behind. Even better, have someone videotape the sessions so you can see yourself and evaluate what you are doing for better or worse. If you can perform it again and again at a good level then it is time to train the manoeuvre under stress…

Think of any form of competition in which the manoeuvre is key. In the previous article I gave one possible training option which you can also do downwind. Go with your friend (or in a group) and have the leader of the pack shout ‘GYBE’ or any other signal at which everyone has to execute the gybe right away. The idea of the training is to get downwind as fast as possible. A slowly executed gybe will get you behind others but also a fast gybe in which you change the stance too late and flip the sail too late, finishing pointing upwind too far, will lose you valuable ground to those who execute better and/or are better able to maintain downwind momentum. Keep training until you come out on top, do not rest until you have a solid belief in yourself that you can and will perform a great gybe any time you have to. Being able to execute a great gybe even when you are tired will help you in Race 4 for the day.

Other possible training options are up and downwind battles in which you as a group decide on doing at least 6 tacks and gybes on the up and downwind and then have competition who is best. Train under stress. Do not go sailing without focus. Get out there with the mentality to always perform your best, as there is no substitute for TOW (time-on-water). Do not miss any opportunity to grow, unless you are one of the lucky guys that live in Hawaii or similar exceptional places on the Earth: then you have all the opportunity’s one can dream of.

Remember that learning plateau’s seem to always occur, even at the higher levels. Only those who really examine the reasons behind them will find the learning curve going up again. There is no easy way but what the heck, there is no better place to be then on the water doing what we all love so much, go (formula) sailing and having the best time of your life. Please buy yourself free time to train rather then spending all money on the newest gear constantly (then I will do just that and hope it will outperform all your training!)

Jan Witteveen.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • JW says:


    Thanks for this platform and the coöperation to get these articles on the net. Love to write them and if appreciated more will come. Happy sailing to you and all other readers.

    Jan (NED 22)

  • BRUCE HEALEY says:




  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Jan – no problems!

    Great to have some more input from others towards articles as it helps to build the knowledge base (and still lets me have some time to go windsurfing!).

    I had this really cool sequence of photos of me gybing a FW board which would’ve really helped with this article, however I seem to have lost the photos 🙁

    Does anyone remember Micah Buzianis ( having a gybe sequence collage of photos on his website somewhere? His current video is nice, but gybing a slalom board is different to wide-style boards. I’m sure this collage of gybing existed, but its not on his website at present; if anyone knows the one I’m talking about, let me know where I could find it…

  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Bruce – ahhh, there’s always one!

    Ok, I’ll look into the text contrast. Lighter would be better I assume? I always found reading light text on dark backgrounds easier on the eyes, but I admit the text in the dot points is pretty dark also, so it could probably be more contrasting…

    It will have to be after the weekend however, cause there’s a big weekend of windsurfing on the cards (with our first weekend with less than 30 knots in nearly 3 months; perfect for FW tuning).

  • Andreas says:

    Sean & Jan,
    nice job on the writeup. Micah had that photo sequence you’re talking about in a handout he used for a clinic in SF in 04. If you asked him, he might give permission to use that sequence (even though it’s not current, and the gear is from his former sponsors). Also, Sam Ireland had some great jibing sequences in his Pro Secrets video. While his website isn’t up anymore, the video is still for sale (through, I believe), so he might be willing to let you put up a sequence or two in Flash embeds if you bundle it with a ‘buy the video’ link – the video is definitely worthwhile for anyone wanting to get better on their big gear.

    BTW, during that clinic Micah did in 04 (just before the US Nationals), he and his coach spent inordinate amounts of time taking video of the participants doing practice starts, as well as tons of tacks and jibes. Pierre’s point (delivered in inimitable French accent and cutting clarity) was that w/o solid starts and good transitions, you’ll never get a chance to be a player in a race.

    One of the most memorable drills was the whole group beating upwind into the potato patch just outside the Golden Gate (very lumpy water out there), then pairing up and doing a partner jibing drill all the way down to the city front – when your partner jibes, you jibe right on his ass no matter what, and whoever leads jibes as soon as they get back into their straps and harness on the new side. Excellent conditioning, for sure.

    As for font/background colors – I run an IS/IT department, and the consensus around here (and everywhere else I’ve worked where people spend long days staring at screens) is that dark type on light backgrounds is easiest on the eyes. Purely anecdotal, of course, and perhaps just a matter of conditioning (lifetimes spent reading dark print on white paper), but it seems to work for me. I sort of flinch every time I have deal with white on dark, and I tend to spend a fair amount of time fixing preferences so that things like terminal windows, etc. are dark on white.


  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Andreas – Cheers! I will try to get in contact with Micah…

    I went to one of his clinics in 2004 when he came to New Zealand to do the FW Nationals. He ran a similar scenario; heaps of video footage and feedback on the video in the clubhouse at the end of each day. It was very helpful and everyone enjoyed it. I’ve been to a few pro clinics in my early days and this was by far the most in depth and beneficial.

    At the time, we wanted to get Micah to come to Australia to do a similar thing (he was already 9/10’s of the way there by going to NZ) but the North dealer at the time in Aus didn’t want a bar of it. Pity.

    I guess if you’ve seen some of the sites I’ve built recently, you’ll notice I quite like a light text on dark background theme. I admit its not everyone’s taste, but I find it a reprieve from all the white websites out there. Getting my inspiration from // 🙂

    I plan to update this website’s layout sometime in the near future however as there’s a lot more I wanted to do with it (got too busy writing the articles, haha) so I’ll look into the contrast and clarity issues. Cheers!

  • Bruce Healey says:

    Sorry Sean,

    I worked out with Nathan H’s help that all I had to do was copy & paste into WP program & could print the article. Easier to read also. great job, keep it coming.

  • Sean OBrien says:

    @ Bruce – ok, your prayers are going to be answered very soon.

    Yesterday I was at a friends house with an old computer running IE6 and I viewed this website and … well, jesus! I couldn’t read a darn thing on it! haha.

    So I’m planning to rebuild the site in the next week with a light background with dark text.

    I also found a cool ‘print’ plugin whereby you can just click it and it will format the page into a print-friendly view; just need to figure out how to integrate it. So that will hopefully make life easier for everyone.

    Stay tuned 😉

  • Hi Jan,

    Thanks for this great post. I consider myself to be at advanced level already but it’s still good to recap on these small (big!) details once in while.

    I’m back in competition on FW championships after almost a year retirement to compete only on Slalom series here in Portugal. I decided that I needed to focus more on Slalom and invest more on TOW (Time-On-Water). The results came out and the effort was compensated.

    But then I went and decided to invest a bit more on my personall body fitness and gain some more muscle strengh. Nothing too serious, only maintenance exercises and weight lifting around 15 to 20 Kg.

    That, with some reading of these articles, and some fin tuning that I’ve done on my FW fins, and also the effort to do some posters for windsurfing posters (Portimão Iberian Trophy 2010) told me that I should get in into FW back again.

    And the truth is that I have evolved a lot! Out of 28 competitors, I ended a 4 day event with varied conditions on Portimão with winds from 7 kn to 22kn+, all using one single sail and one fin, my personalised F-161 original Drake fin.

    One or two things that are really important that I have to add to this article for all those on any “learning plateau”:

    1 – Have one, or two, middle straps (“chicken straps”). These will help you to start planning faster as you pump the board and sail; and will keep you in control on the downwind runs with gusty and rough conditions. Plus, I have been trying this tecnique as I’m a bit lightweight (75Kg) – put your back foot in the middle at the same time the sail is rotating on the final part of the gybe. This will give you control when the sail tend to push you forward for a catapult and plus it will help you get the board going downwind as well as you have to get – or keep – speed out of the gybe.

    2 – Confidence! You really have to have a lot of confidence in your gear and in yourself! I reckon “confidence in yourself” works about 80% on the result of a race. You can have you top professional gear. If your not confident enough it will backfire on you. The other 20% are left for the confidence in your rig and well tuned sail and board. When you have these, all that’s left from you is just that – concentrate on the race course and technique.


    Tiago Monteiro P 666

  • JW says:

    Hello Tiago, good to read that you like the articles.
    I agree that it is good to read them back once and a while just to pin point all smaal issues that are mentioned.

    I learning plateau is common if you repeat the same practice over and over again. It is important to change your pracive frequently to keep growing and get the moves more and more automated no matter the conditions af the wind and water or others around you.

    Using the tackstrap is indeed a good suggestion, ecspacially when you as a surfer or not that heavy an or tall. Most speed is still in the outer strap but the tack strap is not that slower and way faster then to fall in the water 🙂

    Confidence is building up when you have TOW and train the moves in different circumstances (as mentioned before). And yes you are right, when the moves are automated and you are not worrying about them during a race, you are able to focus on all other important opportunities around you.

    But most important, have fun and enjoy the proces, good results may come from that but are not that important when you enjoyed alraedy the proces coming there.

    Have fun, JW

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