We signed up for a beginner’s windsurfing in Malcesine
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For over ten years I have been photographing windsurfers or windsurfing courses on Lake Garda and I have windsurfing friends who can talk for hours and hours about boards, sails and maneuvers. Eventually, mingling with them, I began to pick up the terminology, to recognize some of the maneuvers and to understand the winds of Lake Garda. Watching them gliding makes you want to try it, but I am a mountain person, water is not my element and the idea of finding myself alone on a windsurf board, with strong wind, has always made me nervous.
Here’s what happened: Matteo, a skiing and free-ride biker friend, a mountain person like me, was curious about SUP he came to try it and found out that he liked standing on a board in the middle of the lake. But Matteo is an adrenaline junkie so the idea of a windsurfing course was already on the cards. Not long after that, we discussed it again and included Elisa, who is a climber and even more of a mountain person than us.
So, three mountaineers signed up for a beginner’s windsurfing course.
Day One: the basics
10am meeting at Wwwind Square, Malcesine. It’s hot but cloudy and the sun doesn’t seem to want to come out. The Pelèr, the northerly wind typical of summer mornings, is quite strong for me, about to be climbing onto a windsurf board for the first time. I hope that it would soon abate, making way for the Ora, the wind from the south, usually not as strong. I must admit, I am quite nervous. Francesco, our instructor, is waiting for us to introduce us to this new world.
We start with the theory. With a whiteboard and marker in his hand, Francesco explains to us how a windsurfer is made, which directions we can take with the wind and how to paddle lying on the board to return to the starting point, if necessary.
There are four points of sail. You can sail upwind when you want to navigate as close as possible to the wind, you can sail down wind, when you are navigating in the same direction as the wind. When you are sailing with the wind coming from the side you can be navigating on a beam reach, also called crosswind, or on a broad reach, when the sailing on a wider angle with the wind, closer to the down wind run.
Soon after it’s time to go to the simulator, a full windsurf kit set on a grass patch exposed to the wind. There, Francesco explains to us how to lift the sail from the water and set off.
- T Position: board perpendicular to the wind with the rig (sail with mast and boom) downwind (struck by the wind after the board) and feet either side of the foot of the mast.
- 1: Basic position: pull on the rescue line to lift the sail from the water. The front hand controls the mast with arm outstretched.
- 2: prepare to set off: the back foot moves behind the dagger-board, the front foot moves back slightly and you rotate the rig moving the weight onto the back foot.
- 3: Sailing position: the back hand holds the boom and pulls it until the sail fills up with wind. As soon as the board starts to move the front hand moves from the mast to the boom.
Watching Francesco it seems very easy. Now it is our turn. Using the simulator was very useful and made me less anxious: it helps you memorizing the movements and feeling how the sail behaves with the wind.
It is time to get changed: we put on wetsuit, footwear and lifejacket.
We carry the sail (or rig), board, dagger-board and mast foot onto the beach, in the small bay to the south protected from the wind and set off.
Unlike in the simulator, as soon as we stand on the board we feel the movement of the water and test our balance.
Gaining confidence with the board in the bay makes us feel safer. Initially, small waves and a slight breeze on the sail are enough to make us lose our balance and fall into the water, but it is quite warm and a dip is not unpleasant.
Some sooner than others, we are all setting off: position T, 1, 2, 3, off to catch the upwind. We’ve nearly got it.
It is raining but it is not a problem: water below and water above, it doesn’t really matter. We need the wind to progress and a few drops of rain just add a bit of spice to the adventure. How satisfying it is managing to stay balanced, moving along on the water thanks to the wind.
We are eager to learn how to tack, the maneuver to change direction, which would be useful in order to return to the bay without paddling, but we’ll be learning this move on the next day.
With that, our first lesson is over. See you tomorrow, same time, same place.
Day two: we learn the rights of way and tacking
We are excited: the sun is shining, the air is bracing and the wind stronger than the day before. I look at the lake and wow, the colours are amazing.
We do a little more theory and Francesco explains to us the rights of way: if I am going out and someone else is returning, if I cross someone on my route? What should I do?
You have the right of way if:
- You are sailing with the wind on the starboard side (you have your right hand in front)
- You are navigating on the same point of sail but you are downwind (you are struck afterwards by the wind relative to the other)
- You want to overtake and you are faster; provided that you do not hinder or obstruct each other and you maintain a safe distance equal to about two mast lengths
We move to the simulator and learn how to get the bow close to the direction of the wind (head up or luff) and then a how to move away from it (bear away) and finally how you tack. Tacking involves rotating the board passing with the bow through the wind.
Tacking is not easy, you need good balance to turn around at the foot of the mast passing over the bow and placing yourself on the opposite side of the board.
Francesco follows our progress from the bay and when necessary comes out on his windsurfer and comes alongside to correct our positions. A small adjustment of a hand on the boom or a slight change of weight and everything seems easier, that’s the way to improve.
Elisa and I are near to each other, I am coming out from the bay and she is returning.
Who has the wind on the right?
Who has which arm where?
Who has the right of way?
“I think I have, no you have”
and fortunately Francesco explains to us how it works.
”Oh. Wait. Luff. No, bear away. Yes you go. No I’ll go.”
At the end of the morning we have gone out from the bay and then returned on our own, so on the second day too, we go home with smiles on our faces.
Day three: we practice
No theory today and no simulator. There is a good wind, perfect for practicing, says Francesco, who comes out in a dinghy ready to rescue us in case we drift. That is quite likely given the stronger wind and the current.
Francesco explains that drifting is inevitable at the beginning,
Basically what happens is that if you continue to fall or tack very slowly the current and wind drag you down wind in relation to the bay.
It is tiring going out with the stronger wind, and even though we often fall, we feel like champions. At about 11am the Pelèr begins to drop leaving space for the Ora, the wind from the south. However with the new wind everything must be done the opposite way. If with the morning wind from the north you go out with the wind on the right and you see the waves appear, with the wind from the south you go out with the wind on the left and you don’t see the dreaded waves because they come from behind so falling in is more likely. Seeing the waves coming towards you, I assure you, is a great help for your balance.
And this is how we spend the last hour, trying to go upwind and tacking with the south wind. It is very fortunate having the wind coming from two directions: you are forced to work out what you need to do.
Day four: gybing and tacking
Practice, practice, practice. Francesco sends us out straight away to take advantage of all the wind that there is. During the change of the wind from the north to the south he explains gybing to us, the opposite manoeuvre to tacking.
This morning Francesco comes out on a windsurf board with us. It is good to have him nearby as he corrects us and makes us feel secure, especially when trying new things, or even better, when we decide to try something new directly on the water without having first tried it on the simulator.
I am upwind in relation to the bay: in order to turn back should I gybe? I think of my summer sailing courses as a child and decide to try it. If the gybe is the opposite of the tack, I should pass the stern across the wind instead of the bow, in this way I turn and with the wind pushing me from behind, I return towards the bay. Therefore: if to tack I have to luff, to gybe I should bear away and the manoeuvre is complete, if it works like in a boat, the sail should be open and be put at 90 degrees in relation to the board.
Obviously I make a mess of it but Elisa and Matteo are nearby, Francesco sees me, corrects me and shows us the gybe. We start to try it but the wind drops and we go back to land to try it on the simulator. Immediately afterwards he explains the moves of reaching, crosswind and down wind. It’s marvelous! If you know all the moves, you can go where you want.
The Ora arrives and we go back on the water for a while to try to gybe.
“We live in one of the most famous places in the world for wind. How can you live on Lake Garda and have never tried to windsurf? At the start I was always in the water and I struggled. But the more I fell the angrier I became, and the angrier I became the more I dug in my heels and at the end I did it and I like it so much that I am not giving up until I can plane. They say that that is the point of no return.“
“I did not even think I would manage to stand up, but instead in five days we have all been able to do it without help. It is fantastic to feel yourself moving on the water propelled by the wind. I still get confused with the terms and I struggle to remember them but I want to progress and using them will soon become normal. After the course we stopped on the beach for a swim or at the school restaurant for a meal or a beer with friends. Although we are locals we felt as if we were on holiday. “
“I came to Lake Garda for the first time in 2010 to take the VDWS exam to be a windsurf instructor and eventually I returned to teach windsurfing and sailing. I have worked both in Calabria where I come from and in Sardinia, and I think Lake Garda is amazing. I say this as a windsurfer as well as an instructor. The wind here is guaranteed. It is so good to go out windsurfing early in the morning with a strong wind before starting to work and then find it again, in the morning from the north and in the afternoon from the south, to give lessons. It is very satisfying to see the pupils learning easily, protected in the bay. Being able to choose both the direction and the intensity of the wind helps them to improve quickly.”
Day five: something extra
We could take the VDWS end-of-course exam which would enable us to hire equipment independently but we decide to add a course day to master tacking, gybing and all the other manoeuvres.
We find ourselves playing with the sail to understand how to react: if I am here and I want to get there with this wind, what should I do? Hey, great, it works!
You then find that you are more relaxed, no longer confused, that you move on the water propelled by the wind. It is something that gives a taste of freedom.
My windsurfing friends claim that when you start to plane it is like flying. And that is it, it seems like a drug that you cannot do without. I can easily believe that now.
From Monday to Thursday at 10:00 am
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