Safety First:

The FAQs

Adapted by Marc Lefebvre from
the Safety & Rescue FAQ from rec.windsurfing

Disclaimer: "The information contained herein was collected by Ed Cornell at I am serving as an editor of responses to a newsgroup request for contributions to a faq. Some contributions were anonymous and the credibility of named authors is unknown. Your interpretations of the applicability of the information for any particular situation are to be considered entirely your own. The information is intended only for discussion. I am not responsible and cannot be held liable if you decide to act in accord with it." - Jaime Cordera


Hazards and limitations

Patrick LaValla has summarized the dangers apparent in records of search and rescue incidents. These are known as retrospective analyses of actuarial data. The idea is that hindsight can be turned into foresight. One or more of these factors were common in case histories:
  1. Failure to recognize a potential environmental threat; unfamiliar with area for activity or characteristics of weather.
  2. Equipment failure; inspections and replacement neglected.
  3. Too ambitious an undertaking for current skill proficiency.
  4. Solo activity; itinerary not known to others.
  5. Hypothermia (cooling of the body and brain) owing to improper clothing.
  6. Lack of rest (fatigue); poor physical conditioning.
  7. Thirst (hypohydration during salt water activities).


There are some things you should know before getting out on the water. Run through this list:
  1. How am I doing? Had a long, exhausting week? Been exercising and stretching? Had a good long drink of water?
  2. What part of my equipment is suspect? What do I tend to break?
  3. Determine where you would end up if you are left to drift. Stay upwind of the launch site or know alternate landing sites.
  4. Weather report says what? Anything hairy on the horizon?
  5. Tide table says what? What is propelling me when the apparent wind drops?
  6. Local conditions. Where's that shipping lane? Where's that rip current? Where's that fin eating rip rap? Where's that 3 cm deep reef? Check with several locals.
  7. Where's my buddy?

Once out, take breaks to rest and refresh. Go in to assess the situation from shore if storm waves, barges, or overpowering gusts are beginning to appear. Don't sail to exhaustion; always reserve the strength for a self-rescue.

To the point

"Offshore winds: just say no. The second closest I saw somebody come to dying windsurfing was a guy who tried to paddle a 9' board less than 100 yds back to the beach in a 30 knot breeze. When the Coasties picked him up he was so tired he couldn't get into the boat by himself; dead tired = plain old dead, in situations like that."--Rolland Waters

"You are flirting with death."--Kirk Lindstrom, on whether a carbon mast would conduct a lightning strike.

"Big ebb, little wind, big problem."--Chrissy Field maxim.

"Don’t forget folks, when you’re sailing on the coast, you are lower on the food chain."--Bingen Bart.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Decades of actuarial data indicate that people wearing these are more likely to survive and be rescued following boating accidents. Coast Guard and water safety agencies consider the issue to be similar to that of seat belt use by car occupants and helmet use by motorcycle riders. Certified and maintained safety devices work. The net talk concerning convenience and freedom of lifestyle choices is often tangential to that fact.

Coast Guard officials recommend a Type I PFD for high speed water sports and/or turbulent waters. US Coast Guard certification appears on a tag sewed to the PFD. State laws requiring windsurfers to wear PFDs usually specify that the devices must be certified in accord with federal performance requirements.

Because Type I PFDs are so bulky, most windsurfers who wear approved PFDs wear Type III. A Type III PFD will provide at least 15 lbs of buoyancy, enough to maintain the wearer in a vertical or slightly reclined position at the surface of calm water. Passively buoyed by a Type III PFD, you may or may not be face up, so it is best to be semiconscious following your encounter with the mast. There are several models of Type III PFDs that are appropriate for windsurfers; widely available are those for waterskiiers and kayakers, who also need freedom of movement in the arms.

There are also PFDs for windsurfers that are not tested or certified by safety agencies. Like the certified PFDs, they provide buoyancy during waterstarting, insulation of body heat, and protection during slams. They differ in that they are usually less bulky (providing less flotation) and are cut to allow unencumbered arm and shoulder movement. They may include features such as:

  1. Pockets for keys, spare line, or small tools. A nice feature. Be careful about what you might fall on.
  2. Pockets for packets of lead shot. These are used rarely by professional racers who know how to leverage 2-5 kg of additional upper body weight. Not recommended. Always check your position of passive buoyancy if you do put some of these anchors in your PFD.
  3. A loop to place over your harness hook to prevent the PFD from annoyingly riding up your body in the water. There is a tradeoff here. In rare emergencies it is vital to have the PFD pushing under your chin.
  4. Blue, green and black panels to coordinate with the colors of your wetsuit and rig. Not recommended--you want to be seen. Day-glo yellow is definitely a fast color.
  5. Pockets to insert sheets of closed cell foam to provide more flotation. Make sure that the foam is distributed so that the buoyancy does not put you face down. Try it out.

To the point

"The waves kept pumping and crashing, tossing me and my rig about, like a t-shirt in a washing machine. The wind had increased even more, and it was difficult to stay on the board. A few times large waves would pull me into the water, and I realized that I was still crying. Thank God I was smart enough to wear my life jacket."--Grace Jackson.

Survival Kits

As with other safety considerations, whether and what you carry requires consideration of sailing habits. Given the broad goal of soon returning to land, you may want to make repairs or replacements, you may want to be detected, and you may want to be towed. Here are some common ideas about what to carry in a belt pack, PFD, or harness pocket. If you put any of this stuff on the rig--mast protector pocket, for example--consider that it might be gone when you make it back to your board.
  1. About 10 meters of 8-10 mm Nylon cord. Strong and stretchy for tow line use.
  2. About 1 meter of 3-5 mm rigging line. Should fit pulleys, masthead, and boomhead slots. Also used for tying repairs.
  3. A fin screw driver that can also be used to dig out knots.
  4. A knife. As flat as possible, perhaps with screwdriver accessory.
  5. A spare fin. Perhaps cut down and shaped from one with a damaged tip.
  6. Whistle, flares, mirror or submersible strobe light. Check marine supply outlets.
  7. Helmet. Posts indicate that a helmet may be especially warranted in crowded rigging areas and when attempting high speed or aerial maneuvers.

To the point

"1. Remove brain. 2. Go for it."--Response to request for step-by-step instructions for forward loop. "3. Carry health care card."--Same thread. "When I prepare for a day on the water, I first get up and brush tooth."--Eric Sanford.


Staying with your board is your first priority, notifying somebody of your plight is your second, and limping in alone is your third. The international signal for help is to extend and flap both arms up and down at your sides. With a sinker, this can be done by straddling your board with your legs in the water. (Insert ASCII animation here).

Another common distress signal is to wave arms overhead and cross them. This signal may be more visible in heavy swells or chop.

Research by social psychologists indicates that you are more likely to receive bystander intervention if you direct your overtures to the closest person rather than to the crowd. It is not unusual for everybody in a crowd to assume that someone else is going to take care of the person in need. Once you have a person's attention, try to maintain eye contact and get them as close as possible. Seek a minimal commitment first: "Please get help", or if attempting self-rescue, "Will you watch me 'till I get in?" Barbara Morrow tells of an incident that led her to hail a pair of sailors. When they slowed, she asked for a tow, and the one who heard yelled that they were "...having enough problems handling conditions". They continued on their way, and she ended up swimming for an hour.

If no one is presently within sight, you should assess the situation to make a plan of action. Do not derig immediately; the rig may be serving as a sea anchor (dragging to resist wind that is moving you away from the shore). Assess your equipment to see what you can use for self rescue techniques. Assess whether you can be standing upright on the board if you secure a tow. This may yield the smoothest trip in instances of a broken fin, broken boom, or mast break above the booms (see below).

For upright towing, you must have a tow line. Did you remove your uphaul when you learned how to water start? Some descriptions suggest that a tow line can be fashioned by tying together your harness lines, or that the broken top portion of the mast can be used as a tow bar. These may not be easy solutions. Think solutions through the next time you inspect your own equipment. Can you slide off the tube on your harness lines to get enough to tie? Do you know a hitch that would hold on a tapered mast? Does the tow line allow you to follow in the wake? You and your buddy could practice sometime in some friendly rollers.

If you must derig alone, try to do so while straddling the board and squeezing it with your legs. You can periodically scan the horizon and blow your whistle in this position. Some work may be easier to accomplish in the water; consider lashing the mast base to your harness hook before entering. If staying on the board, remove the rig from the mastbase and work the rig around as it lays across the board in front of the mastbase. Remove and shorten the booms and place lengthwise on the board. Loosen the downhaul and use it to lash the mast extension to the mast so that the extension does not work out. Loosen the cambers and remove the mast from the luff sleeve. Roll the sail around the mast so that the battens are parallel to the mast, and place the roll on top of the booms. Use outhaul line to hold the roll and secure to the booms. Position your belly on the lumpy mass and begin steady paddling. Keep looking for a tow.

If you have lost your rig and have no tow line, it is possible to hold on to the back footstrap of a towing board. Minimize resistance for your tower: Shift your body to keep your board streamlined and keep the nose up.

Your tower may also be able to take portions of your rig. If your boom is dragging in the water, slip it over the top of your tower's sail to rest on the boom. A boomless rig can also be carried. Slip your sail in the gap between your tower’s sail and boom, and tie the two masts together. The bottom of your mast can be tied with the downhaul remaining after the cleat, and you can also fasten your mast near the booms with your inhaul. It may add stability to tie your clew near the boom end with any remaining outhaul.

Tow line tie points

The board being towed should be tied near the nose. Look for an embedded cleat or shove the mast base forward and use it. The towing board can be tied at the back footstrap or to the tower’s spreader bar. There is some suggestion that tying to the spreader bar makes it easier to control the towing board. Use a slip knot on the spreader bar in case the tower has to disengage quickly. One post suggested that it is not difficult to tow from the harness hook while hooked in. The tower should keep knees bent and weight low to prepare for some sudden give and take.

When paddling or towing, it may be effortful to approach a current head on. Assume a bearing tangential to the current or follow the current to a weak point, then head in. Weak points in the current may be associated with relatively shallow water, broad water, or where there are no turns in its course.

To the point

"Another option is to sit on your board and use your mast (or mast remnants) as if it were a kayak paddle. I have done this and was surprised to learn that my progress was faster and less fatiguing than if I were hand paddling. This option is only applicable if the seas are relatively calm and your board is relatively floaty."--Timothy Dierauf.

"It is customary in the windsurfing subcultures of the west coast that soon after arrival on shore the towee will offer liquid refreshments to the tower."--Rightback Johnson.

Repair Techniques

Broken fin

Three solutions here. The first only works for A-box and E-box boards. If you only collided with a soft rock, perhaps the screw tab is broken off and the fin is dangling from the back of the box. Slide it out, turn it tip forward, and slide it all the way back into the finbox. Get on your board smoothly. If you keep moving forward consistently, the resistance of the water should keep the fin pushed into place until you make it back.

Second solution. Consider the function of the broken part. It provides resistance in the water that prevents lateral movement of the board. Strap your harness to the tail of the board. Put the harness spreader-bar-up through the rear footstraps and tighten the straps so that the back of your harness is smooth on the underside of the board. This will provide lotsa drag. Walt Z. suggests a smoother alternative, but you will still have to hold on without your harness. Walt towed his spreader bar tied to the uphaul line tied to the back footstrap.

Third solution. Sail it in. This is difficult and your efforts will be considerably easier if you have stayed well upwind of your planned landing site (see section on Preparation under Prevention). Waterstart by placing your feet very close to the mast. You may find you can best control the board by placing one foot in front of the mast while sailing. You will be unable to hook in and you will find yourself sliding on a slight broad reach back to shore. This solution can be practiced by sailing your board backwards (fin first). It is easiest to begin practicing from a beach start with a floaty board. The maneuver is challenging, looks cool, and becomes part of the safety repertoire of a skilled sailor.

Broken mast

Two solutions involve rerigging the sail on a shorter mast. If the mast has broken above where the booms attach, completely derig the sail. Take the top half of the mast out of the upper luff sleeve. Turn the top half upside down and stick the point of the mast far into the open broken end of the bottom half. Rerig the sail without cranking the downhaul. Fold the sail over the top of the makeshift mast. You can tie a hitch that chokes the sail around the top of the mast, or if you have a masthead line, tie it to the boom to minimize flapping as you head into shore. Watch that you don't pop off the hitch choking the new top of your sail as you apply downhaul.

If the bottom half of your mast has pinched shut, you might consider the second method. Ease up on the downhaul and outhaul and remove the top half of the mast from the luff sleeve above the booms. See if you can slide the top half of the mast fat end down through the luff sleeve opening below the booms. Tighten the downhaul slightly. Attach the fat part of the top half of the mast next to the fat part of the bottom half by looping both with your sail tack strap. If you can only loop one, make it the fat part of the top half of the mast and reinforce this attachment with the extra line dangling from your cleated downhaul. Next, use one harness line (the one you won’t need heading back to shore) to lash the skinny parts of the two masts together as close under the booms as possible. Slide the top half of the sail over the portion of the mast that sticks up the furthest. You may have to push the sail down toward the boom to contract the boom tie luff opening. Fold the top of the sail over the top of the makeshift mast, and tie as described above.

Broken boom

There are two solutions if only one side of the boom is broken. How good is your clew first sailing? The second solution takes a bit longer. Untie the boom and retie it with the good half on the side that allows you to hang on while heading to the shore.

If the entire boom breaks, you can make a rope boom from harness, inhaul, and outhaul lines. The rope boom should be the length of the sail with the fattest lines positioned to be the ones you will be holding. Tie one end to the mast where the boom head used to be. Tie the other end to the clew of the sail. Spread your arms; you will soon discover why rigid booms are important. This solution seems applicable when being towed or when the rig may be uphauled; I would like to hear how anyone has waterstarted using a rope boom.

Broken universal joint

When is the last time you took a close look at yours? Check for cracks in the rubber. Peer around that webbing. Check the integrity of the backup webbing. Make certain that the bolt holding the universal together is tight. Was a locktight preparation used?

Depending on the break, you can try to hold together the universal by taking what is left of your downhaul line after the cleat and tying it to the remaining pieces. Before you tie, loop a sturdy hitch around the lower mast with the leftover downhaul so that it doesn’t rip out of the cleat. Look to see what is left on the board. If the plate of the universal base is still in the mast well, run the downhaul line around it and then tie it off above the cleat on the mast. This arrangement may chew portions of your board; you might want to put a bootie on the bottom of the mast before tying off.

Another course of action involves even more balancing of the rig, and I have little information about how a water start might be accomplished. Take off a bootie or your mast pad and attach it to the mast base. Get the rig out of the water, perhaps by bracing the edge of the mast base against the mast track or against your foot. If you can do this, you are probably talented enough to sail by pushing the booms down and toward you to hold the mast on the board braced against your front foot.


A good knot is both easy to tie and easy to untie. The following four should be in every sailor's repertoire. Illustrated dictionaries or the Boy Scout Manual provide pictures.
  1. Bowline. A bowline provides a non-slipping loop. A bowline could be used on the tower's end of a towline so that it can be quickly pulled off the harness hook.
  2. Sheet bend. Tie this knot to join two different lines together. It is much more reliable then a square knot and also works well when the diameter of each line is different.
  3. Clove hitch. Used to secure a line around a round object such as a mast or boom. Practice tugging back on each loop to get it tight.
  4. Figure eight. This knot is used as a stopper (i.e. at the fixed end of your downhaul). Better than an overhand knot.

When to jettison and when to roll it up

Shattered equipment with sharp edges should be deep sixed after removing any useable lines or parts. As compensation, you must pick up a garbage bag of trash along the beach when you are ultimately safe and rested. If you are drifting... drifting... drifting... while attempting to piece together your rig, or your jury-rig is not working well, consider whether you would be better off paddling. And if you are not making good progress paddling with your rig on your board, consider ditching the rig. You are irreplaceable.
To the point

"Lifeguarding in high surf areas as I did teaches you some basic survival rules. You learn that panic is your worst enemy. When you panic, you lose your body heat faster, you tire faster from increased heart rate, you don't think straight, and without decisions there is often no action at all. In one incident, the downed sailer had started to panic. For him, the hassle in high seas to break down everything properly was not on the menu. I made the call to unclip his rig and let it go. We just towed the guy in on his board--simple! He kissed the sand when he landed."--Barry Keane.


Marc A. Lefebvre (