How young is too young to start windsurfing? With equipment, instruction and clothing developing all the time for younger children, is there even such a thing as being ‘too young’ anymore? We take a look at getting infants afloat.
How old were you when you first stepped on to a board? Now think how long before you first stepped on to that board you started enjoying and felt comfortable doing things that, whether consciously or not, helped you when you did start to learn?
Seeing children as young as four or five taking their first steps on a board is becoming much more common. But it is often seeds that are planted within the first couple of years of their lives that can blossom into a future love of windsurfing.
Water confidence is without doubt the most critical thing.
No one is expecting a toddler to swim 25m in 30 seconds. But being confident around the water, not being scared of having water splashed in their faces, having a familiarity with a shoreline and developing a respect for some of the possible dangers of water will make being introduced to windsurfing that bit easier.
As Amanda Van Santen, RYA Chief Instructor, Dinghy and Windsurfing, explains how just suddenly one day taking your child windsurfing, sticking them on a board and letting them get on with it probably isn’t the best approach.
“When you learn to windsurf when you’re older you see it as learning a new skill, you don’t necessarily think about all the different skills and behaviours you have developed over the years, which will contribute to how quickly you get the hang of, and feel confident in, learning to windsurf.
“With very young children you can start to encourage positive traits and behaviours early on so that when they are first introduced to a windsurf board, some of the elements that may naturally seem daunting to children are actually less so.
“Splashing water gently in their faces in the bath, taking them to a swimming pool, even getting them to stand on a skateboard, for example, to learn the feeling of balance, are all simple things that aren’t specific to windsurfing but can make a massive difference in not being scared of getting onto a board for the first time.
“My own 19 month old son has sat on a board on the shoreline in very shallow water, holding on to our legs, just to give him confidence in that environment. Every child should be water confident for safety reasons anyway, the fact it can have a knock on effect on windsurfing is merely an added bonus if a child does then want to learn.”
Groups of primary school youngsters are a familiar sight at The Official Test Centre, located at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy.
Here the instructors have developed an approach to give schoolchildren as young as five the best first experience in windsurfing as possible.
Running these sessions are necessarily heavy on manpower, with high teacher to pupil ratios to overcome the natural shyness that very young children typically have with strangers, while also acting as chief cheerleaders for encouragement.
To start with the youngsters get a short joyride on a board with an instructor. For five-year-olds, the centre uses metre-wide 200l super floaty boards with a 1.5m2 sail.
To start with the instructor sails a reach across wind 20-30m, with the child on the board, and then comes back. At some point the instructor will momentarily let go of the boom and get the youngster to hold it. If they don’t, the instructor can very quickly and easily pick it back up. The whole taster lasts a minute or two.
The next stage is to put a child on a wide, stable board suitable for their size – OTC has Naish Kailua, Starboard Rio and Tabou Coolrider boards ranging from 160-230l - and then encourage them to pull the kit up themselves.
There is always an instructor right next to each child helping them, this also means the instructor can step onto the board and point them upwind again.
“Keeping things fun and short is the key,” says Tris Best, OTC director. “By doing it as a group thing they are all together having fun, and we play lots of games.
“For a child to turn up and see this vast area of sea can be scary, and you can tell pretty quickly who is water confident or not, so we always make sure they know early on which buoys we will be sailing too. Little goals of attainment.
“The joyrides work really, really well. Some youngsters can be pretty gung-ho straight away, whereas others are more reserved and that’s where the teachers come in. But they soon realise there is an instant level of success and enjoy themselves, which is ultimately all we want; for them to have a positive first experience windsurfing.”
Lewis Limm was nine when he and dad, Nick, learned to windsurf at OTC. Tris devised a points system to reward Lewis for simple things, like getting sailing, spotting where gusts were coming from and adopting the right stance etc. 40 points a session equaled Tris buying the hot chocolate after sailing.
The goal? To get Lewis spending prolonged periods of time out on the water. It worked Nick says.
“We did an hour taster to start with and were both hooked, and booked some individual lessons, straight away.
“Although Lewis had sailed dinghies and swims for a local club there was something about being in the sea that freaked him out a bit. He wasn’t that water confident.
“The patience Tris and Maurin have with the kids is something else. The hot chocolate thing was so simple but very effective. They recognise kids need things explaining differently; they’re softly spoken and explain exactly what the kids need to look out for to be safe. They’re firm but there’s no yelling and the kids respect them.
“Lewis’ confidence and enthusiasm for everything has gone through the roof since he started windsurfing. That’s come from achievement. He’s not afraid to try new things or speak up and just wants to go as fast as he can on his board! Lewis has also seen what Tris and Maurin can do and how feasible it is for him to do it too. He loves it.”