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Pro Paddler Fiona Wylde Teaches Ethan How to Paddle Downwind

When it comes to downwind paddling on a stand-up paddleboard, there are many nuances and skills to practice. That’s why Ethan enlisted the expertise of three-time world champion downwind master and professional SUP athlete, Fiona Wylde from Hood River, Oregon. Today, she’s going to teach us some downwind techniques. Once we’ve got those tips down, we’re going to head out for a downwind paddle to put those tips into practice. Afterwards, we’ll discuss the gear we used and how it performed for us on the water. So, without further ado, here’s Fiona Wylde.

We have a beautiful location at Punta Pescarera, which is just north of Los Barilas in Baja California. It’s actually where Fiona grew up and it’s where she spend her winters. It’s some of the most amazing training grounds.

Downwinding is so much fun. You can go downwinding all over the world; all you need is a breeze and some good downwind bumps. It’s essentially like continuous surfing, but as with any aspect of stand-up paddling or watersports, you need to be safe and aware.

First things first, know your environment. Are there any obstacles, like the rocks behind me? Always consider the wind’s direction and consistency. Is it steady? Are there things that could potentially change? You should also know what the weather forecast predicts, although forecasts can change, so please be mindful.

Before you even get in the water, know your exit strategy. Know where you’re going to end your downwind run, and if there’s an exit somewhere along the way. This is crucial in case something goes wrong or you need to assist someone else.

Before I get in the water, I do a safety check. I ensure that I have all the necessary equipment, such as a paddle, board, and a leash – which is one of the most important things when going downwinding. If you fall off your board and the wind takes it away, you’ll be left swimming without a floatation device. Speaking of which, PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices) are crucial. The most common type for stand-up paddling is a waist PFD, especially if you’re going for long distance paddles.

I always have a hydration pack which contains my sunscreen, phone, insulin pump (as I have type 1 diabetes), and any snacks I might need.

Once the safety check is complete and you’re familiar with your route, it’s time to get in the water.

Paddling in bumpy conditions with a bit of wind is different than paddling on flat, calm water. My biggest tip would be to keep your eyes up, look around, and bend your knees. Be prepared for your board to move in different directions.

Downwind paddling involves proactive and reactive paddling. Catching bumps and surfing them takes time to learn, and it’s okay if you can’t get it right immediately.

A common mistake I see is people getting tired quickly. If you feel that your board isn’t starting to accelerate and you’re not starting to catch waves, you don’t need to grind super hard to try and get on that wave. Wait until you feel your board lift a little bit and the swell is actually helping you – that’s when you want to start paddling hard.

So, go out there, figure out how you feel on your board, and get into a rhythm. Then, once you start to notice that your board is showing slight accelerations, that’s when you can start to put these tips into practice.

When it’s time to head out onto the water, keep in mind that paddling in bumpy conditions with wind is different from paddling on flat, calm waters. The biggest tip I can give you is to keep your eyes up, look around, and bend your knees. Be prepared for your board to move in various directions.

Downwind paddling is both proactive and reactive. Sometimes you might think a bump (or a small swell) will provide the best ride of your life, and then you miss it. It takes time to learn how to properly catch and surf these bumps. Often, we expend so much energy trying to catch these bumps that once we get on them, we don’t maintain our speed for very long.

Downwind paddling is similar to interval paddling. When you’re on a bump, that’s when you want to paddle harder to maintain your speed and stability. Stability is your friend, and you achieve it by keeping your paddle in the water and maintaining speed on your board.

When paddling in flat water, I usually stand near the middle of my board. However, when downwinding, I stand a little further back and stay flexible on my board, ready to move back at any moment.

Catching a swell when downwinding is a little different from surfing. In stand-up paddling, you’re facing downwind, and the waves are coming from behind you. So, you have to learn to read what’s coming from behind by looking at what’s in front of you, which can take time.

As I paddle, I keep an eye on the swells in front. I know it’s time to do some quick, high-intensity strokes when I notice my board’s nose dipping down slightly under the wave in front, indicating that the wave behind me is lifting my board. As soon as I feel that acceleration, I move from a parallel stance to a surf stance, keeping myself balanced on the board.

I then do quick paddle strokes to keep going. Eventually, that swell will roll underneath, and I start the process over again. As I become more experienced, I’m able to read the troughs and connect swells, planning my direction and cruising down the swell for longer periods.

A common mistake I see when downwinding is people tiring out quickly. If you feel your board isn’t accelerating or you’re not catching waves, don’t strain yourself trying to get on that wave. Instead, wait until you feel your board lift slightly and the swell is helping you before paddling hard.

When you go out there, ease into it. Figure out how you feel on your board and get into a rhythm. Then, once you start to notice your board is showing slight accelerations, that’s when you can start to apply these tips and tricks. But most importantly, remember to have fun and stay safe!

Now it’s Ethan’s turn. Wow, I now understand what she was talking about! I’m going to exert more effort in paddling, but if I find myself straining without any progress, it’s important to remember to take a break. It’s not necessary to push yourself throughout the whole downwind run. Unlike a distance paddle where you maintain a steady tempo, downwinding involves periods of intense activity followed by relaxation. Regulating your heart rate and hydration are key.

So, having learned some great tips from Fiona, it’s time to warm up and head out for our downwind paddle.

On our return, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the gear we used during our session and share some thoughts on their performance. I was using Starboard’s Inflatable All Star race board, a 14 by 26 inch model, which proved fairly adequate for my first downwind experience.

I also had the opportunity to try Fiona’s narrower board, which measures 22.5 inches wide. I could feel the difference, the taller rails on the dugout style board offered additional stability. I noticed a significant difference in the amount of volume in the nose of the paddle board. The hardboard had more volume in front, allowing it to rise more easily from the water when catching the swells.

With the inflatable board, I had to stand further back to keep the nose out of the water between each swell. If I didn’t do this, the nose would dig into the water, causing me to fall off the front of the board.

For long-term use, I would personally prefer the hardboard, although the inflatable paddle board is definitely still capable of handling these conditions. But let’s now hear from Fiona for her thoughts on these paddle boards.

Next, let’s discuss our paddles and fins. I used the Black Project SUP Hydro FlowX paddle and their Maliko fin. I chose this larger fin for my first downwind session as it provides more stability and control.

Fiona, on the other hand, used the Starboard Lima paddle, and we had different experiences due to our size and energy output. It’s essential to consider these factors, as well as the type of board you’re using, when choosing your equipment.

Overall, today’s downwind session was incredibly enlightening and enjoyable. A big shoutout to Fiona for teaching us some downwinding techniques.

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About the author: Julian Kidd
I have been an avid stand up paddle boarder since 2009. I retired from a decade of professional kiteboarding to focus on SUP. Green Water Sports grew from this love of all things SUP. As well as being a keen paddle boarder, I'm a football fan, closet petrol head, web tinkerer, husband and father.