A while back we wrote an introductory post on downwind paddleboarding. It covered the general aspects of water and wind conditions for downwinding and the basic way to go about catching the swells, or as paddleboarders call them, “bumps”. Let’s take a closer look at the discipline because the more time you spend out on the open water, the better you get at reading the types of swells and waves that pop up in front of you. Ocean water can move in several different directions at once due to many factors including wind, current, sea floor topology, and shoreline features. Positioning yourself in the right spot at the right time is a great skill to have for downwind paddleboarding.
The best thing to do when you start out on your downwind run is to sit outside the area where the water is moving the fastest and observe the different directions that it is travelling in. You may see patterns in the water where the crests are breaking to left or right and then either colliding with oncoming waves or merging together creating larger waves. What you are trying to do is figure out where the ground swell is coming from and where the wind swell is coming from. Often there may be more than one wind swell that can crossover each other and the ground swell. Yep, it can get confusing but it’s definitely worth your while taking as much time as you can to look really hard at what the water is doing before you head out into the thick of it.
Ground vs wind swell. The ground swell is the direction the deeper water is moving in, and it carries the most force. The wind swell moves across the surface of the water and it normally travels faster than the groundswell but does not carry as much force. It also tends be erratic and constantly moving, whereas the groundswell builds up and ebbs gradually. The windswell takes a lot more energy to work with because you have to paddle a lot more to chase down all the smaller bumps that pop up around you. The groundswell, on the other hand can be ridden much further because it carries much more mass. The trick is to work the windswell as best you can while waiting for the groundswell to come up merge with the windswell.
A good way to work the windswell is to keep your eyes focused on the water in front of you and look for any kind of depression or trough in the water that you might be able to run your board down into. There’s no need to look behind because everything you need to work with will be in front of you. If you see the nose of your paddleboard pearling (going underwater) then take a step back. As you step back you’ll feel a slight lift coming from underneath the board as the wave locks onto your tail and you begin planing (gliding over the water). As you get good at finding and riding these smaller bumps you will find yourself moving around on your board a lot more to maximize speed. Shifting your weight forward gives you speed when you’re planing. Shifting your weight back towards the nose keeps the nose from pearling and initiates the planing. You want to step on the gas (shift weight forward) once your nose well out of the water, but not too much that you begin to pearl. This will give you the most glide and speed.
Sooner or later the ground swell is going to come up and give you the opportunity to really take off. You’ll feel the board rise high and then slide down the back of the wave as it passes underneath your board. At that moment you want to start paddling really fast. As you try to stay on the back side of the wave in front of you, the next one will scoop you up and you will take off! At this point you can stop paddling (since you’ll never paddle any faster than the speed the wave is carrying you) and enjoy the ride. Once the wave moves on paddle hard again and catch the next one as it approaches.
If the wave is steep you will want to get into surf stance by standing sideways on the board and widen your stance. Turn your head, shoulders and hips in the direction that you are looking, which will be across the front of the wave. This is called “quartering”. It is very similar to surfing “down the line” where you ride across the wave instead of straight in towards the beach. You will want to quarter the steeper swells so that your paddleboard doesn’t go straight down into the water as you take off- it is very difficult to control larger boards on steep waves.
If you are curious about downwinding, start off by going with an experienced paddleboarder or an instructor. And always go with other people in case someone drifts too far off course. Also, don’t forget your leash because if you fall in the water there’s a good chance your board will get away from you pretty fast. Downwinding is a big adrenaline rush and it takes skills that develop over a fair amount of time spent on the water. But once you get it you’ll be hooked! So try it out!