If standup paddling is to be considered a niche sport, then downwind paddling is a niche within a niche. Much like driving a vintage sports car at speed along a windy mountain road, mastering the art of how to downwind paddle requires a level of skill above and beyond a peaceful paddle around the local marina. Images of world-class athletes bombing along the surface of the open ocean can be as equally as inspiring as they are intimidating, depending on your perspective. Even so, learning how to downwind paddle is an attainable skill which any stand up paddler can achieve with practice and time spent on the water.
This past week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Sonni Hönscheid to talk about downwind paddling and some of the distinct differences which make downwinding a unique experience. Sonni recently won her first Olukai race in what were some of the best downwind racing conditions the event has offered competitors in recent years and is spending the next few days on Maui preparing for the Bluesmiths Paddle Imua before jetting off to Europe for the summer racing season.
“With downwind paddling, a part of it mimics a sprint pace,” said Sonni. “You are constantly moving up and down. You really have to focus on using your whole body.”
Learning to read the conditions on the water, whether it is a lake, protected harbor or the open ocean plays a key role to the success of any downwind paddler. “The more you spend time in the water windsurfing or surfing, then you are more familiar with the conditions,” she said. “The feeling of when the bump lifts you, you feel you are riding the wave. It is just like the feeling of surfing. I think that if you are a surfer, it definitely helps.”
Setting up the Wave
Downwind paddling is often referred to as riding a bump and indeed, once you catch a glide, downwind paddling bears many of the same attributes as surfing a wave into shore. “With standard surfing, you are constantly looking outside to see the wave. Then you set off and [hopefully] catch the wave,” said Sonni. The main difference between downwind surfing and surfing a wave into shore is in the setup – the one area which firmly departs from how you would typically approach surfing.
“When you are downwind paddling, you must always focus on what is happening in front of you and never look back. When you are surfing a bump, you should always be looking ahead to see what is coming after the bump. So basically, you are surfing the bump and then you look to see if there is any whitewater in front of you. If there is, you want to steer towards that, because that’s where the next bump is going to be. You focus on everything that is happening in front of you, not behind you – never look back. As soon as you feel your nose is getting pulled back, then you start paddling to catch the bump.” ~ Sonni Hönscheid
The constant movement of water beneath your board makes the footwork required of a downwind paddler more akin to what a whitewater SUP paddler might encounter than that of someone paddling in flatwater. It also contributes to why SUPs optimized for downwind paddling have more rocker and volume in the nose which enables the board to plane over the surface compared to a flatwater displacement style hull.
When downwind paddling, it is not uncommon to bend, brace and repeatedly move from the middle of your board to its tail [and back] as you constantly adjust the trim and keep the nose from pearling. Learning to become comfortable with your footwork takes time. I recommend going out on a warm day and be mentally prepared to get wet. My personal thought process when practicing a new skill on my SUP is that if I’m not falling, then I’ve either mastered the skill or I’m being too cautious and not pushing myself hard enough.
A simple drill you can use to practice both your footwork and bracing at the same time which I learned when visiting a Performance Paddling clinic in Dana Point is to stand in your normal paddling stance at the middle of your board, take two steps back, bend at the knees and brace. Repeat the process until you reach the tail of your board. You can then either perform a pivot turn or resume bending and bracing back to the middle of your board.
Anyone Can Learn to Downwind Paddle
Beginner paddlers may not be ready for a full-blown dash down Maui’s Maliko Run, but they can still learn some of the fundamentals to downwinding on a lake or in a harbor where it is possible to practice catching smaller bumps and glides without the risks entailed by paddling in an open ocean environment. “When I was in the Canaries over the winter, I would practice on all the little bumps, even on days without a lot of wind, as the more you practice it helps. I found when I returned to Maui, obviously the bumps are much bigger, but I was able to read the water better,” Sonni told me.
Learning to downwind paddle is one of the most enjoyable experiences a paddler can have after becoming proficient with the basics of stand up paddling. Maui’s Maliko Run is likely the most well-known downwind run due to the consistency of Hawaii’s tradewinds and Maui is no doubt the spiritual home of downwinding for stand up paddlers. But Maui is not the only place you can downwind paddle. Great runs can be found on rivers, such as the Columbia River Gorge near the town of Hood River, Oregon, or the countless number of lakes and waterways all around the world. All you need is wind and a group of fellow paddlers to go out and find your glide.
See you on the water!