Standup paddleboarding is a versatile sport and there are several different kinds of paddleboarding you can do including racing, touring, surfing and downwinding. The first three are common enough but downwind paddleboarding is a concept that not everyone is familiar with. Generally speaking, whenever you paddle with the wind at your back you are travelling down-wind. But downwinding on a paddleboard involves paddling down-wind on the open water in very high winds that create large swells in the water, which you can ride. It is similar to surfing in some ways except you are travelling in a straight line for relatively long distances.
Safety is the first thing you need to take into account when doing downwinders. Being out on open water means that if something goes wrong your options to correct the situation will be greatly limited. When you add high seas and winds to that it makes safety even more important. You should always do downwinders with a group of experienced paddlers who understand the currents and tides of the area you are going to. You should bring enough food and water. You should have a back-up plan if the weather changes for the worse or there is a change in the direction of the wind. In addition to having the mandatory leash, PFD, whistle, and light, you should also have your cell phone or a radio in order to contact help if needed. Neoprene apparel may also be necessary.
Stand up paddleboard companies have been making good flatwater and openwater boards that are great for downwinding for a while now. Any longer board (11 feet and up) with a planing hull and a moderate amount of rocker in the nose can be good for downwinding. The longer boards will make it easier to catch those wind, rolling ocean swells and the rocker will help keep the nose from diving under the water and slowing you down.
The main idea is to link the swells, which are essentially rolling waves, and to know when to time your paddle strokes. The water will be moving a lot faster than you think so it is proper to get a jump on the wave before it passes underneath and away from you. You want to be standing in the middle of the board with your feet slightly offset and your knees slightly bent. This will help you maintain your balance as the board is carried on by the wave and as it stalls in the trough between waves.
When to Paddle
You want to start paddling with quick, strong strokes as you feel a wave pick up your board and begin to pass underneath. You will feel like you are sliding down the backside of the wave as the next wave approaches from behind. You need to really step on the gas at this point to pick up enough forward momentum to allow your board to catch that next wave.
On the Wave
Once you feel your board being lifted and carried by the wave, paddle quickly a couple of more times to make sure you have the necessary momentum to stay on it. At this point, if the wave is steep enough, you will start moving down the face of it. Your board will be positioned on a downward angle, so pay attention to the nose of your board. If it dips below the water that is called “pearling” and if it sinks far enough down you can easily get thrown off the board. To avoid this, step back towards the tail and ride (surf) the wave for as long as it lasts. If you feel yourself slowing down then step forward and get the nose closer to the water. Moving forward on your board will give you extra speed. Moving back on your board will keep the nose from pearling. When downwinding, you will find yourself moving back and forth quite a bit as you link the swells.
This is a general overview of downwind paddleboarding. There is so much more to it that involves wind direction, bottom topography, wind swell versus ground swell, etc. But you don’t need to start out in the middle of the ocean to downwind. In fact, 15 or 20 mph wind out on your local lake, river or harbor will be enough to learn in and the get the feel for how to time your riding and get a good rhythm going. Downwinding is a major staple of stand up paddleboarding activities because it is so fun and addicting. So give it go and see what it’s like!