Breakages are common in windsurfing; from a busted fin, to a snapped mast or a hole in your sail or board, they're all fixable. Sometimes a quick fix on the beach is all it needs, sometimes a breakage means it's time to head home, but whatever happens you need to be able to cope with it on the water and fix it when you're back to shore.

PWA racer Sean O’Brien joins Boards to explain exactly what to do when the worst happens:

Bro, just tie your harness to your back footstrap and drag it behind the board, ay!

No matter your level, no matter your experience and no matter how brand-spankin’ new your equipment is, at some point in your windsurfing journey you’ll experience some gear failure; whether by your own fault or just sheer pot-luck! It can be a frustrating experience, but it can also be a dangerous experience. Safety is never something to muck around with so rather than bury our heads in the sand and hope it doesn’t happen to you let’s explore some easy solutions to common breakages that can get you home to the wife in one piece or back to the pub before last drinks!

Sean O'Brien, cruising breakage free.

One of my first experiences sailing in offshore winds at a cold water location in Europe was when I was 18 years old and competing at my first windsurfing World Championships as a youth in Scotland. Not the warmest of places and after blissfully enjoying the strong offshore winds for a few hours my fin snapped clean off at the base, spilling me in to the icy waters and putting me in to a dangerous situation where I was far from land, with a wind and tide pulling me further out to sea. If you’ve ever experienced a full fin shear, you’ll know that it’s virtually impossible to sail without a fin, especially if you are on powered up big race sails or in my case, sailing a formula board! I managed to stand up the sail, but with nothing to push against I would spin the board in circles and crash over and over again, losing my energy and quickly succumbing to the cold. Sitting on my board for a long while wondering what to do, I was finally spotted by another youth sailor at the event who sailed over to ask what my problem was and upon hearing of my predicament recoiled to me in his finest New Zealand accent, “bro, just tie your harness to your back footstrap and drag it behind the board, ay!". I never forgot that simple piece of advice!

[part title="Broken fin: "]

Broken fin: Tie one of the leg straps of your harness to the back footstraps (chicken strap is best if you’re on a formula board) and let it dangle in the water behind the board. The drag of the harness acts as a temporary rudder, giving your board some direction and weather helm so you can sail it (albeit, quite slowly and without sheeting too hard) back to the beach and save your skin. This solution works best on smaller slalom boards and wave boards.

Sometimes there's just no coming back from a breakage...

A few years later, again in Europe I broke my first ever mast (better I don’t say how many I’ve broken since then!) whilst out sailing on a large lake in Holland. It’s an awful experience, a loud crack and being thrown face first in to the water wondering whether you’ve been struck by lightning or a boat! Upon returning to the surface you’ll find your sail crumbled and distorted, sometimes with a huge tear in your luff pocket and if you were in my situation, a good 1km swim back to the beach!

[part title="Broken mast:"]

Broken mast: How do you get home in one piece without tearing your sail to shreds you ask? It’s time to do the on-water-derig; a seemingly complicated manoeuvre but once you’ve got the basics down it’s very straightforward and an important safety procedure to remember. Firstly, sit on the middle of your board with one leg over each side in the water for balance, then detach the sail from the board. Pull the sail towards you to the boom and untie the boom at both ends then remove it and place it on your board lengthways before resuming your seat on the board, sitting on top of it. Uncleat the downhaul and attach the mast base to your mast foot in the board standing vertically. Then try to wrench the mast out of the sail. If you have a cammed sail you’ll need to remove the cams manually and if your mast is still in one piece after the break you may have to twist the mast in circles to get a clean break from the top piece. Pull the mast out entirely then whilst still remaining on the board try to roll up the sail. It won’t be a tight roll because the sail is full of water. Once you’ve rolled the sail put everything on the board and sit on it to paddle home. The wider the board the easier this is to do. Don’t worry about crushing the sail you won’t do as much damage as you think. By the way, the broken mast section makes a good paddle!

Some of the other breakages I’ve come across in my career include:

[part title="Broken downhaul rope:"]

Broken downhaul rope: not much you can do here, limp back in to the beach and change the rope.

[part title="Broken boom:"]

Broken boom: if it’s a break on one side, you can normally sail home on the opposite side of the boom as it still has strength from its attachment to the mast and clew of the sail – don’t sheet in too hard!

[part title="Broken harness lines:"]

Broken harness lines: again not much you can do on the water, flex the guns and sail home without it – I always carry a spare set of harness lines in the car.

[part title="Torn sail:"]

Torn sail: immediately return to beach and tape up the split – any flapping in the wind from sailing will increase the tear!

[part title="Broken batten"]

Broken batten: nothing you can do on the water but despite the performance loss you can always keep sailing – repair your batten tomorrow at home, don’t waste the wind now.

[part title="Footstrap bolt shears the thread:"]

Footstrap bolt shears the thread: if you have multiple footstrap holes, simply use another hole. If not, try to source a larger width bolt. If you are already using the largest bolt, grab as many tiny sticks you can on the beach and break them off in to tiny sections and jam them in to the hole as tightly compacted as possible, then try the bolt again. It won’t be as strong as original thread but this will work for a temporary fix!

[part title="Hole in board: "]

Hole in board: Finally, the most common and most annoying of all windsurfing breakages we’ll experience, the crash that puts a hole in your board. Any time you put a hole in your board, you should IMMEDIATELY return to the beach. Foam sandwich boards like to suck water and the smaller the hole, the more water the board will suck. Don’t finish your session, get to work on fixing your hole! Place the board upside down with the hole facing down to drain water. Using a wick or a piece of string push in to the hole with a pin you can drain water overnight as the moisture in the wick will help pull water out of the board. Take your board to a repair shop immediately or use some ‘ding-stick’ quick repair if the whole is small. If your board gets water in it, it will delaminate so it’s important to get off the water as soon as you make a hole!

The best prevention is to always check your gear for wear every time you go sailing, but something is always going to break so enjoy these tips for on-water rescue and get back out there.