Skills: Downwind Paddling with Talia Decoite
Downwind paddling is all about adventure. Using boards over 12 feet, paddlers stroke out, and with the breeze at their backs, surf “bumps” or swell created by wind. It’s distance paddling with surf-like glide (think backcountry skiing on water). All it takes is a little sense of the elements and a spot near you with prevailing breezes that run parallel to land. And you don’t have to be near the sea. Places like the Great Lakes, Hood River, Ore. and other inland locales prove that all you need is an expansive body of water and wind, which means there’s a downwind run near you. Molokai-2-Oahu Champion Talia Decoite has a few hints for your first time.
Start at the right spot. Learning to downwind in a lake is the safest way to start. If your first downwinder is in the ocean, you don’t want waves or much swell because you have to break through shorebreak or watch out for offshore reefs. Find an experienced partner and study the swell report no matter what kind of water you’re on. You only need 15 knots of wind or so. And there’s no need to go 10 miles on your first try. Start with three.
Equipment is key. You want a board between 12 and 14 feet long that’s easy to control for your body type with some rocker in the nose so you don’t pearl (bury the nose) when catching bumps. The water’s going to be a little lumpy, so more width will increase stability (28- to 30-inches). I use the paddle I use most often. Make sure yours isn’t too long as it will wear on your shoulder joint.
Think about hydration/nutrtition. If you’re paddling for more than an hour you need to hydrate, especially on a downwinder, as you’ll be burning energy and it’s easy to get dehydrated. I like to drink coconut water. On longer paddles, I’ll have an extra bladder taped to the front of my board and a fanny pack with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You don’t want to mess with low blood sugar.
Balance is important. A lot of people put pressure on their feet and they start aching. Think about engaging your core, bending your knees, using both together. Don’t fight the water, feel it. Try moving your body up and down like a shock absorber with the water instead of forcing your position.
Remember your heading. With the current coming one way, swell in another, you can end up way off course if you don’t think about it. Set a line and keep it by using trees or a mountain as a landmark that lines you up with your takeout spot whether it’s a harbor or boat ramp.
Glide. Once you have your balance you can start catching glides and reading the water. Don’t turn around; always look in front of you using the corner of your eye to see bumps in the water. Feel how your board goes up and down with the bumps? Your goal is to catch the back of the swell so when you feel your board rise start paddling hard to catch the next wave. Once you feel that glide things will start clicking and you can start linking them up: come off one bump, veer left to catch another paddling as fast as you can. Glide again then veer right to catch the next one, stroking hard. Repeat. The rhythm is what makes downwind paddling so much fun.
This article originally ran in our 2014 Beginners Guide as “Talia Gangini Takes You On Your First Downwinder.”
Click here for more skills.