Downwind paddling is full of mystique. You're basically trying to surf whitecaps over a long distance, often far offshore. It's intimidating and takes a lot of practice to get good at. But once you start to find the rhythm--paddling hard for a few strokes, gliding, searching for your next bump and then gliding again--you'll never want to stop. Here are some tips for how to catch more glides.
Paddle with a partner Going with someone more experienced will help your downwinding more than anything. Whether that's a coach, friend or acquaintance, having them help you get comfortable in windy conditions is the first step. Using someone to help you figure out a line to take towards your end point, the intricacies of the run (reefs, currents, wind angles), the cadence of your stroke and all the other little things will help you glide more and paddle less.
Paddle upwind It might sound torturous, but paddling into a headwind will get you more comfortable for when you turn around. You'll see how bumps form, the general order in which they line up and how you might ride them. It'll also get your legs more comfortable in the chaotic water that you'll inevitably be in.
Surf your downwind board If you're not comfortable surfing a big board, the best thing you can do is practice--even when it's not windy. Riding waves on a downwind or flatwater race board is a great way to start. While your flatwater board might not have the correct rocker profile for downwinding, surfing it will get you more comfortable dropping in, stepping back to the tail and keeping your nose up. This helps develop instincts for the open water.
Do sprint intervals At its best, downwind paddling is a series of stints paddling hard for a few strokes, resting for a short period while you glide, then paddling hard and repeating it again and again and again. We recommend preparing your body by doing interval training sessions to get your fast-twitch muscles and cardiovascular health tuned up.
Try different boards Similar to surfing, certain boards work better in different downwind conditions. Try as many boards as possible in as many conditions as possible, whether you have to rent, demo or borrow from your friends. Why go through the trouble? You'll start to notice the difference in glide length, ease of catching bumps and maneuverability. With those lessons, your skills will grow.