Soft Tops To Freerides; Jan 2009 - Boards Windsurfing

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Soft Tops To Freerides; Jan 2009

With the help of some senior instructors, Ian Leonard charts the (new) right board progression to windsurfing competence… In recent years the landscape of windsurfing progression has altered dramatically. So, whether you’re a ‘newbie’ looking for your first board or someone who’s been in the sport for years, take some time to absorb this article and learn about (or recalibrate your radar on) the kit the experts now consider ‘mainline’ for the swiftest and easiest route to windsurfing competence.

By experts, we are referring to the three very senior windsurfing instructors whose experience has enabled us to put this article together. UK Freestyle Champion Andy ‘Bubble’ Chambers needs no introduction as Chief Instructor with the very popular multi-centre ‘Club Vass’ operation. Sam Ross is a Neilson Holidays centre manager and instructor trainer, and Jono Dunnett is Chief Windsurfing Instructor with the prestigious Minorca Sailing Holidays. Their continual work and contact with all levels of beginner and intermediate at these well respected, multi-brand centres gives them the widest possible overview of the dynamics between improvers and their equipment, and from this experience, all three are in fundamental agreement about the right route for progression. While the views expressed here are ultimately those of the editorial team, we have drawn heavily from their experience in presenting this article.

The Changing Norms Historically the routes to windsurfing proficiency have looked something like this:

Pre 1990: Longboard (350cm+)  295 (big jump to low volume high wind ‘shortboard’).

Mid ’90s: 320/330 with dagger (e.g. Fanatic Snake, BiC Veloce 328, Phoenix 320…)295 shortboard.

2000: Super-short and wide beginner board  new ‘widestyle’ freeride (e.g. BiC Techno 285…)

While each advancement made learning and advancing easier, all these progressions required a quantum leap from the improver to jump up from one board to another – or spending time on some sort of fairly unsatisfactory intermediate compromise, such as the 320s and 330s of the 1980s or the 310s of the mid ’90s.

However, of late a group of boards has been appearing that bridge this gap extremely well. So well, in fact, that they have changed the way in which many well-advised people approach the learning / advancing / board-buying process. Typified by the F2 Discovery and Fanatic Viper, these daggerboarded designs are usually referred to as improver boards, and now the ideal progression looks like this:

‘Improver Board’  to Freeride

‘Improver board’ is a bit of a vague term though, and also obscures the fact that they are really the new entry-level boards for buyers, even if they aren’t completely ideal for the first few hours use. As these types of board are also affectionately known as softtops by many instructors due to the PVA soft deck covering (which prevents improvers wearing away their elbows and knees on aggressive non-slip), we’ll go with soft-top as the generic term for this article (and be more specific about exactly which sizes of soft-top we’re referring to in a minute). But let’s start by looking in more detail at the merits of this new basic progression. First off, you’ll notice that it doesn’t include a wide ‘beginner’ board. In our opinion very few people drawn to windsurfing need to buy boards any wider than 85cm. Boards wider than this are best suited either to Formula Racing (with massive sails for experts only), or simply to generate maximum stability for the very first few hours of windsurfing. Neither is a particularly good investment for the vast majority of entry level or early intermediate windsurfers! In fact a big soft-top (c. 85cm wide) is easily stable enough to learn with on flat water anyway. And if you do want to get that ultimate stability to start off with, hire a (wide) beginner board for a few hours and/or get a lesson or two at an RYA school with super-wide boards, after which a 75-85cmwide soft-top shouldn’t be too challenging.

The Longboard

Planing is considered by many to be the ideal state for windsurfing. It’s when you’ve got enough wind in your sail to power the board along at speed, with the hull skimming along the top of the water three or four times faster than when not planing. Our route of progression outlined above assumes someone that wants ultimately to major on planing windsurfing. However, there is a whole different side to the sport with its own abundant rewards that follows a different progression route. Basically if you want your future in windsurfing to be in any available conditions (and in the UK statistically that means usually not planing), the best boards for doing this are much longer (320-380cm) and known as ‘longboards’. They track and glide much better when not planing due to their much longer waterline length. However, they can also plane quite effectively. Recently there has been a spate of renewed interest in such boards brought about by the introduction of the Exocet Kona and other longboards. Although not really the subject of this article, there is a lot to be said for the versatility of the longboard, and if you would like a ‘one board fits all’ solution for your windsurfing, or if you plan to spend significant time sailing without planing, you should certainly explore this avenue.


The soft-tops that are now earning the plaudits of instructors typically come in S (75cm wide), M (80cm) and L (85cm). However, many span a much wider range of widths (and lengths), thus catering for all different weights of sailor as well as a massive range of stability and suitability (or unsuitability!) options for different conditions or uses. Likewise with freerides. Once you are ready for a freeride they are available in sizes from about 63 to 80cm, and this too gives a massive range of sail and weight carrying ability.

This massive range of size and suitability is both a boon and a danger. A boon because it means that the perfect board for everyone is out there, but a danger because so are a host of other boards that won’t match people’s needs.

Which Soft-Top?

At present there are two basic types of softtops; the short-and-wide boards, and those that are slightly longer and narrower.

Short and wide: The experts agreed that the shorter and wider ones are more stable and easier for the first few hours of learning. They are also particularly good for light wind summer freestyle (messing around and showing off) because they turn so easily. They therefore make very good beach toys and very good all-comers introductory boards for large families or clubs.

Longer and narrower: However, the experts also agree that the slightly longer and narrower soft-tops have many advantages as a board to own for the majority of improving windsurfers. Their light wind performance is better (they track better in a straight line and go faster), they go upwind much better, they need less wind to plane and give a more ‘short board’, reactive sensation when planing, and they are more easily controlled in stronger wind. So although both groups have clear merits, our interest is principally with the longer, narrower boards, as they do seem to be the better improver platforms. Interestingly, all three of our experts independently picked out the Fanatic Viper as one particularly good and longstanding benchmark range of these ‘improver’ soft-tops, so let’s take a closer look. There are three boards in the range: Viper75:Width75cm/ Length275cm/Volume160L Viper 80: Width 80 / Length 280 / Volume 190L Viper 85: Width 85 / Length 285 / Volume 220L If you think of these as S, M and L you won’t go far wrong. The 80 is the everyman board for the average weight adult of about 68-83kg. Heavier users should get the 85, lighter ones the 75.

Understanding the Dimensions:

Let’s now look at what these numbers mean, starting with the most important. The boards are listed by their width because width is paramount in determining range and suitability. 80cm is the sort of width that the average weight sailor should be looking at for a board of this type – 5cm more or less makes quite a considerable difference, and is all that is needed to give similar performance and stability for significantly lighter or heavier sailors. Length is less important, but if it drops below about 265cm (for 80cm of width) the board definitely moves into the realms of the shortand- wide camp – easier to turn when not planing but harder to sail and with a narrower wind range. Whereas if we increase length (up to around 300cm) the board becomes easier to track, faster in light winds and easier to plane on (although progressively less lively when planing once above about 280cm).

Although we talk about width and length independently, together they dictate the planshape of the board, which is ultimately what is important for a given weight of sailor. So a narrower board for a lighter sailor can afford to be correspondingly shorter. A volume of approximately 180L (170-200L) is about right for an average weight adult in their first board. Roughly 160-170L for lighter folk and 200-220L for heavier. Don’t be too worried about exact volume figures because in these bigger sizes the volume is much less critical than the width (and many boards’ quoted volumes are significantly inaccurate anyway!) So, to be clear, from here on, when we’re talking about a soft-top, we are meaning something in this S-M-L range, and of the longer-narrower style. See the box on the right for examples of the actual boards available.

Why a Soft-Top?

There’s a widely held belief that going from a few hours spent on a huge (90cm+) learner board straight to a wide freeride is a sensible strategy. It ‘fast-tracks’ you to the higher performance of a freeride, and as you progress further, the board can stay in your quiver as the earlyplaning big-sail-carrier. Yet while this strategy might work for some people, the advantages of an ‘improver’ soft-top over the ‘straight to freeride’ option are numerous:

• Soft-tops are generally wider and therefore considerably more stable and easier.

• The daggerboard makes keeping upwind (the bane of the early intermediate’s life) much easier.

• The soft PVA deck makes getting on and uphauling far more painless.

• Although requiring a little more wind to plane they are easier, floatier, considerably faster and more fun when not planing.

• They are better for windier weather than big freerides as they slow things down and stay in contact with the water better..

• They are considerably more robust than big freerides and will withstand the inevitable catapult damage sustained by intermediate improvers far better.

• As well as these windsurfing basics, the ‘improver’ soft-top has much more all-round family / fun appeal. It can be a beach raft / swimming / fishing platform, and will be great for teaching family, friends, and particularly children. So in short, compared to large freerides, the soft-tops have better wind range at both ends of the spectrum, are considerably easier to sail in most conditions, are more robust and generally more versatile. For the average buyer they represent by far the most sensible and practical choice.


Here are some of the other ideal first-time-purchase soft-tops that we’ve heard good reports about.

All have similar dimensions to the Fanatic Viper.

Starboard Rio: It is significant that for ’08 Starboard decreased the width of each Rio model by about 10cm and increased the lengths by at least 15cm, taking the board from the ‘short / wide’ class of soft-top to the ‘long / narrow’ dimensions found on the Viper. Our instructors seem very pleased with the new models and report a much wider application over last season’s boards. Starboard’s move is a strong indication of the industry gradually getting behind this style of board.

F2 Discovery: F2 were amongst the first to produce this style of board. The M (or 185) shares very similar dimensions with the Viper, but the L and S are respectively 10cm wider and narrower, thus catering for a bigger spread of weights or conditions.

AHD Zen Evolution: There are two sizes of Zen at the magic 80cm width mark. One (the 170) is lower in volume (170L) and a bit shorter (270cm) and the other higher in volume and longer (190L/290cm). None of our instructors have these boards at their centres, but we have heard good reports.

Naish Kailua 180: The Kailua 180 (278 x 85cm) is a bit wider than the majority of long / narrow soft tops so probably best suits a heavier sailor, but it has been given the thumbs up by instructor Sam Ross, who uses it regularly.

HiFly Mambo and Matrix S The Mambo: (275 / 80 / 175L) has similar dimensions to the Viper 80 and does a similar job. The Matrix S is a tad smaller and a fair bit lower in volume (265 / 78 / 149L) and comes recommended by Sam Ross for children and lighter adults. Both boards are made from polypropylene, which is slightly heavier but extremely durable.

Mistral Malibu 274 / N’trance There: are three sizes of Malibu, but we have limited information on the two shorter ones, which are more squat in outline and more aligned to the shorter / wider camp. However, the 274, although relatively wide (85cm) and better for slightly heavier sailors was well thought of by our instructors in its previous guise as the N’trance.

BiC Core 293: This is the old Techno 293, which has been around and successful for many years. It is therefore an older design (longer and narrower nose and tail than modern soft-tops), but sound and competitively priced. and is the shape used on the Junior One-Design, so it has great family relevance.


As said in the main text, the shorter / wider soft-tops are less ideal as progressor purchases, but here are a few which do stand out.

JP Australia Funster: Available in four sizes, the biggest of which (180 and 205) are strictly wide beginner boards only. The smaller two (160 and 145, 80 and 75cm widths) are quite short (258cm) and low in volume and good for smaller adults to learn on, but by virtue of their narrower widths crossover quite well into planing/improver boards for average weight or lighter sailors.

Tabou Coolrider: Reportedly excellent for early learning and light wind freestyle, but not quite as suitable for higher wind planing sailing.


Eventually though, the day will come when the owner starts hankering after a bit more performance. So let’s now look at the next step on the learning curve, and when to take it. Our experts consider that most of the planing basics can, and probably should, be learnt on the softtop. These include learning to plane, learning to use the footstraps and harness, and learning to waterstart. These four basic planks of our sport can take time to master and tend to involve quite a few thrills and spills as the intermediate gets to grips with sailing in stronger winds and choppier waters. Many will be tempted to move on before quite mastering all these things, but the soft-top can do good service right up until all these boxes have been ticked. (It’s certainly likely to be a lot cheaper than experiencing the crashes on a rather more fragile freeride!)


The next step up is a freeride board. The modern freeride allows lively, fast and exciting planing sailing in Force 3-4. They can also be fun in quite strong winds, but getting the right size is vital. They are sold in a bewildering array of sizes and the right one for you will depend on your weight, ability, sailing location and requirements. There is not the same easy formula for picking a freeride that there is for the soft-top. Once again width is the most reliable way of choosing the right size for your needs, but frustratingly, most freeride boards are described by volume. Fortunately there is a close correlation between width and volume so either will usually prove acceptable, but a knowledge of both is useful. As a ‘way in’ to looking at size in freeride boards let’s look at Joe, our model improver. Joe weighs 75kg. He has learnt to sail on an 80cm soft-top and can waterstart, use the harness and get in the footstraps, but maybe still struggles a bit in stronger conditions. He is, however, ready to move on. He plans on keeping his soft-top for the family and those light wind days, so he’s looking for a freeride board to increase the quality and quantity of his planing time.


Let’s first assume that Joe sails on a large inland lake. Fresh water is slightly less buoyant than seawater, and the wind inland is generally weaker since it is slowed by friction as it crosses land. It is also more gusty as hills and trees break it up. For these reasons he will need a bigger board than if he sails mostly at the coast or in an estuary or harbour, where winds are typically stronger and more constant. Something of about 72cm wide would work well, with a range of between about 69 and 75cm being acceptable. This will equate to a modern freeride of about 130L, or a range of c. 120-140L.


If Joe sails at the coast or in harbours he is likely to want a considerably smaller board. This is because he will spend significantly more time with smaller sails in higher winds and a significantly greater proportion of time planing. At this stage he could be happy with a board of about 69cm, or within a range of about 66-72cm. He should choose from the smaller end of the suggested range if he is fit and expects to be able to pick good winds, and from the bigger end if he is less fit and/or expects to sail only when opportunity allows. The volume range should be between 110-130L. So, from these two groupings, you can see why the 120-130L or 69-72cm freeride is such a major seller!


One sail is enough to get started with. Maybe a 5.5m sail for Joe with his 80cm soft-top. However, the smart buyer won’t settle for one. It’s a bit like having a car with one gear. You can always use second gear (just as you can always use a small sail), but there’ll be plenty of times when it’s clearly the wrong one! With two or three sails (maybe 5.0m, 6.0m and 7.0m, or 5.5m and 6.5m) you cover a much bigger wind range in comfort, and this will increase your time on the water and speed of learning.

Variations for Sailor Weight:

For every 10kg that you weigh more or less than Joe you should compensate by about 3cm of width or 10L of board volume. Thus a 65kg adult (down 10kg) might choose a 69cm 120L freeride for inland use, or a 66cm 110L freeride for coastal use (sizes down by c. 3cm/10L). Likewise a heavyweight 95kg adult (up 20kg) might choose a 76-80cm, 145-160L board for inland use and a 75cm, 135-145L board for coastal use (sizes up by c. 6cm /20L).

Variations for ability

Going down: To a certain extent you also need to vary size according to ability. For example, if you graduate to freeride early while still uncertain in the straps and harness, you should opt for an extra 2-3cm of width to give yourself a little more stability, and slightly more float in lighter winds / when off the plane (although you really should not ever be looking at this size of freeride as a good non-planing board). Unfortunately though, that same extra width becomes extra lift when the wind gets up, and in conjunction with the light weight and big fin of a freeride makes control difficult when planing too fast. This is why it is best to be fairly confident planing before moving to freeride, so you’re not forced into buying something too big. So, at 75kg, if Joe had graduated to freeride boards before being fully able to waterstart or quite happy in the straps and harness, he might have needed a 75cm (c. 140L) board for inland sailing (instead of a 72cm) or a 72cm (c. 130L) board for coastal sailing (instead of a 69cm). The drawback will be the extra difficulty of managing these bigger boards when the wind is strong, and this is where Joe might find his repair bill increasing. Overall, it is definitely wiser to master those basics on the soft-top!

Going up:

Things also change at the other end of the ability scale. As you improve you will no longer need the float and stability for staying upright, and your technique will mean that you don’t need so much width and volume to get planing. At this stage your needs in board size will be governed by the sail size you expect to use. Generally speaking, the width of boards needed for intermediate use will allow experienced sailors to carry very, very big sails – often bigger than are needed as the sailor improves. Let’s look again at inland Joe with his 72cm/130L freeride and his biggest sail, which is a 7.5m (sensible biggest size for an average weight intermediate). As he improves he may decide that he wants to keep his 72cm board but invest in the maximum practical sail size that it will carry (c. 9.0-9.5m) to maximise early planing in light breezes. Alternatively, he may decide that 9.5m is too big and cumbersome. But because he’s now more skilful he can in fact increase sail size (up from 7.5m) to get planing earlier, and also decrease the board size for a more lively and exciting ride. He might therefore decide to get a 69cm/120L board, which is all that’s needed for supporting an 8.5m sail (quite an acceptable largest size for a skilled 75kg sailor inland). This combination will then offer an excellent mix of fun and performance for a skilled, inland sailor of his weight.


The freeride market is now a very mature one so designs are well worked out and proven, and most work extremely well. Boards such as the AHD Fast Forward, Drops Naked, Exocet Cross, F2 Xantos, Fanatic Eagle and Shark, Goya FXR, HiFly Free, JP X-Cite Ride and Tabou Rocket all did very well in recent freeride tests, and there are many other boards we didn’t test that are just as good. Although the vast majority of freerides work well for sailors of all standards there are a few exceptions. Some freerides make a virtue of being very user friendly while others prioritise speed and performance. Generally speaking, we would advise buyers to look for the former for a first freeride purchase, and the latter once they have mastered advanced moves such as the carve gybe, etc. Boards like the F2 Xantos range tend to be a bit longer, have very flat rockers and an excellent spread of intermediate to advanced footstrap options. These parameters are ideal for progressors who may also want to look for the cheaper, heavier and hopefully stronger construction options where they exist. Other boards, like the JP Super Sport, tend to be shorter, feature cut-outs in the tail, are lower in volume for a given width, have advanced or expert only strap options, make a virtue of their speed and light weight and feature a more slalom rocker line. These should be avoided by progressing intermediates. Read our freeride tests to get the lowdown on which boards cater best for intermediate or more expert buyers.


Freerides are the best boards by far for blasting about and manoeuvring in 10–16 knots of wind. However, many sailors will also be looking for increased control and suitability in stronger winds too. Yet larger freerides don’t offer this because, like for like, a freeride board is harder to control than a soft-top. To achieve increased control you need to move down significantly in board size – and freerides come in much smaller sizes than soft-tops, so smaller freerides are the way to go. You can only do this though if you possess the skill to manage smaller boards, and you can’t expect a small, higher wind freeride to offer anything like the stability and lighter wind performance of a wider, more voluminous one. Obviously, if you still possess your soft-top then this can still deliver good service in the lighter winds and greater stability department. However, by now you may well have developed a taste for freeride sailing and prefer the lighter, more exciting feel and earlier planing performance of your big freeride over the soft-top. In which case you’re going to need to expand your quiver one more time and buy a smaller freeride; something in the 63-66cm size for maximum fun in stronger winds with smaller sails. And now you’re getting into a whole new realm of choices and options. If you’re at this point then check out our freeride board test in the June edition of BOARDS for the full story…


Soft-top boards nearly all sport daggerboards (the removable centre-fin option seems to be disappearing), which allows quicker and easier switching between light wind (non-planing, daggerboard down) use and stronger wind planing (with daggerboard retracted).


Soft-tops have daggerboards to provide upwind lift and consequently don’t need very big fins. Typically, you keep the dagger down until there is sufficient wind to plane quite easily (or you want to steer downwind in lighter winds), and then you can plane using the relatively small fin that is usually provided in such boards (c. 35cm). This system works well in light winds because a small fin makes the board more manoeuvrable, and works well in strong winds when the fin is just right on its own. Where it doesn’t work so well is in medium winds. There is a stage when the daggerboard produces too much lift, but if you retract it the fin doesn’t quite produce enough lift. In this instance a bigger accessory fin can provide better planing performance as you improve. For freerides the reverse is even more true. A 72cm freeride will typically have a ‘big’ (c. 44-46cm) fin. This works brilliantly for getting the board up onto the plane early and making ground upwind in marginal planing winds. However, as wind and board speed increases it produces masses of unnecessary lift. If the user is heavy and skilled they can control this lift. If less skilled or lighter, the lift will overpower them, leading to a wipe-out. In this case what’s needed is a much smaller fin.

The problem with both these scenarios is that usually the inexperienced sailor doesn’t know that there is a problem, what it is, or how to solve it. They will think that there isn’t enough wind to plane on their soft-top, when actually with a bigger fin they might. Alternatively they will think that they are simply not good enough to control their freeride board, when with a smaller fin they wouldn’t have a problem. The answer is knowledge, an extra fin and application. The knowledge is that you need a small fin in strong winds and a big fin in marginal planing winds. The extra fin you need might be something in the 42-48cm range for marginal planing winds with your soft-top, or 30-36cm for stronger winds in your freeride. The application is remembering and being bothered to change fin when the situation demands.


In recent times the 75-80cm,140-160L freeride has been considered quite a key board in the chain of progression. However, if progressing sailors make more use of soft-tops as suggested here, this will change. Although such boards can be excellent progression boards for average weight sailors in Force 3-4 they do suffer basic drawbacks. They are not that great in non-planing winds and their light weight, high lift hulls and big fins are hard to handle in stronger winds. They are also relatively fragile and likely to be dinged. This is not to say that the big freeride has no purpose. It remains an excellent board for the relatively proficient and slightly heavier inland sailor. By this we mean those comfortable in straps and harness who can exploit the benefits of these early planing hulls by being strong and able enough to carry the big sails (7.5-10m) that they work best with.

Take it away Joe!

So Joe was lucky. He bought the Viper 80 as his first board (or something similar) and spent a season or two working up to planing competence. Its great versatility and massive wind range simply meant that he got loads of ‘time on the water’, which is what every intermediate needs. Having mastered his basic footstrap and waterstarting skills, he then progressed fairly effortlessly to a JP X-Cite Ride 130, and spent another season enjoying the fruits of early planing and increased manoeuvrability while continuing to improve. By then he was truly hooked and into high wind sailing as well, and now he’s out there on his Fanatic Eagle 100 Freeride having a ball (although the JP Freeride is still the one for Force 3-4). And the Viper is now back in use as his wife and kids, having realised that they’ve lost their husband to the sport, have decided to get into it as well. Go Joe!


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