Droning through the monotonous high desert of California and Nevada, motorists were startled recently by what appeared to be colorful sailboats skimming across an apparently dry lake bed. Rubbing their eyes in disbelief, they could see that these apparitions, trailing long plumes of dust, were moving faster than the cars on the highway! For those unwary travellers, that strange vision was their introduction to the sport of land sailing.
We've become a closed-up world — convertibles are almost extinct, office windows have been replaced by electronic lighting, and even our homes insulate us from the outdoors. But for some heretics, there's a particular ecstasy in the caress of wind in the hair, or in actually feeling the warmth of the sun against the face.
Of course, the sailboat skipper can feel the wind on his face, but too much breeze makes sailing miserable. The iceboat sailor has the wind and the speed, but he has to endure extreme cold. The motorcyclist can enjoy the speed, but the noise is deafening.
Take the best of all these sports, and you've got land sailing. A sensation of derring-do that harkens back to wooden airplanes, iron pilots and barnstorming a warm afternoon, speeding across open spaces, absolute silence except for the hiss of tires against the earth and, best of all, entirely wind powered!
A landsailor, just like a sailboat, relies on a mast and sail for it's propulsion. At that point, however, any similarity ends. Landsailors are low-slung and triangular, with a pair of rear wheels spread far apart by a long axle for stability and a single front wheel for steering. While many landsailors are spiderweb frames of metal tubing, others have sleek fiberglass bodies for streamlining. Steering is done with aircraft-style foot pedals, leaving the hands free for the lines controlling the sail, while the driver, or pilot, reclines in a padded bucket seat to further reduce wind drag. There is something vaguely reminiscent of those old fighter planes in the war that was supposed to end all wars — a skeleton of framing and cloth, bravely bright colors, and a sense of adventure. As for speed, even the smallest landsailors can easily reach 35mph, while the larger machines have been timed at well over 100mph.
Landsailing, which is sometimes called landyachting or sandsailing, can be traced back to ancient times, but the first real record of the sport came from Holland in the 1500s when a landyacht was built for Prince William. The Dutch were soon trundling passengers along the hard-packed beaches in square-rigged wagons at the thrilling speed of 25 mph. America even had a pioneer, known as Wind Wagon Thomas, who rigged sails on his Conestoga wagon while heading West. In 1967, a French general and eleven other enthusiasts raced across the Sahara desert in landsailors, covering 1700 miles in 32 days, in spite of more than 500 flat tires.
The first question usually posed by someone new to land sailing is "where can you do it?" The large (and fast) landsailors obviously require open spaces such as dry lakes or abandoned airfields to utilize their power, but the smaller craft can easily be sailed on parking lots and beaches. Southern California has become a leader in land sailing, primarily because of the large dry lakes on the nearby desert, but the sport has been growing internationally. The hardpacked beaches and unused airfields of England and Scotland are popular venues, while Belgium and Germany have similar sites.
Landsailing cuts across all social boundaries and acceptance is based on skill and enthusiasm rather than on wealth. An assembly-line worker can find himself racing wheel-to-wheel with a bank chairman or sharing a beer with an aerospace engineer. Brute physical strength isn't required, so women and youngsters can often bring home the trophies. Even the handicapped find landsailing is a good outlet for their energies, and several landsailing clubs stage regattas for veteran's hospitals.
Racing is as old as the second landsailor, and it doesn't take long for the competitive spirit to awaken. There are two types of racing: open class and one-design. The open classes are composed of a mixture of styles and designs, and most are homebuilt to reflect the owner's theories on how to go fast. The classes are divided by the amount of sail area, (ranging from the big Class I machines of up to 182.9 sq. ft down to Class VI with only 39 sq. ft.) but the design of the landsailor itself is wide open. Prices for open class racers range from a few hundred dollars up to several thousand dollars for the more exotic landyachts. The open class is a haven for backyard tinkerers, however, and everyone seems to have a different concept. Some of the machines are long and lean like dragsters, while others more closely resemble runaway railroad bridges on wheels. It's all in good fun, though, and many of the least likely craft have proven to be embarrassingly fast. Several years ago, an Englishman arrived at an American event with a crate full of pieces, which he assembled into a rather scruffy and eccentric landsailor. The amusement died away when the machine proved to be unbeatable, so appearances can be deceiving.
Noted yacht builder/designer George Olson, who was one of the pioneers of the ultra-light displacement boat, is currently considered to have the fastest of the Class I landyachts. His Pterodactyl features a monocoque fiberglass body, springy axle and bow runner to help turn the sail's power into forward thrust, and fat "gumball" road racing tires for traction. Engineer Russ Foster has been using a full wing mast for several years, based on a shape similar to that of Patient Lady II, the C-Class catamaran that is a Little America's Cup winner. In steady breezes, it points higher and sails faster than conventional cloth sails, but it seems to be slower in light airs since it stalls easily. Foster has also had to re-learn his driving skills, since the power of the wing mast can take control. At the finish of one race, Foster found the overpowered mast alternately snapping one wheel and then the other far off the ground.
One-design classes, on the other hand, are all rigidly identical. A good example is the Manta class, a tiny American landsailor that sports a 54 square foot sail. To race, each of the more than 2000 Mantas has to remain exactly as it left the factory, so the emphasis is on skill rather than on technical innovation. A new Manta, ready to race, costs about $750, and it's simplicity makes it ideal for weekend outings on parking lots. In fact, many owners of larger landyachts also have a Manta so they'll have something to enjoy between major regattas.
What those unwary motorists in the American desert had encountered was the America's Cup Regatta, a once-a-year championship that attracts entries from across the United States and from as far away as Britain and Europe. Activity starts several days before the actual races, when motorhomes and caravans start arriving at Lake Ivanpah, a dry lake straddling the California-Nevada border, with landsailors in tow or strapped on the roof. A temporary city of tents and trailers springs up and, at night, the area has a surreal look as the masts and sails glow in the ghostly moonlight.
Campfires and barbecues become the center of evening activity, as landsailing stories are swapped and future victories are planned. During the day, the sailors take advantage of the steady desert breezes and the smooth lakebed to practice their sailing techniques. When the breeze refuses to cooperate, an incredible variety of other "toys" appear for everyone's amusement, including radio-controlled model airplanes, backward bicycles, and even roller skates.
The racing starts with a pilot's meeting where the rules are explained and the various course markers are pointed out. Although a course may be several miles in length, a race lasts only a few minutes because of the speed of the machines. Each race begins from a standing start and, once underway, the landsailor accelerates rapidly away. The courses are usually triangular in shape, to allow for different wind angles and to provide tactical situations for the drivers. Each class will have several races during as typical regatta, with the scores being combined to produce a winner. Racing is incredibly exciting, particularly when several of the large Class I machines come roaring into a turning mark at high speeds. Like sports car racing, the fastest way around a corner is in a controlled slide, and there is always a tense jockeying for the best position.
In spite of the speeds, landsailing is a remarkably safe sport, due to the design of the machines and the safety rules that are followed. Rollbars protect the pilots of the larger craft, while seatbelts and helmets provide insurance against spills. Anyone capsizing a small landsailor, such as a Manta, suffers only the ignominy of hanging from his seatbelt, since the combined mast structure and axles keep the craft from turning over. That isn't to say that there aren't some hazards, and it definitely pays to be ahead of the fleet. On beach races, goggles are necessary to protect against the spatter of sand and spray kicked up from the tires of the leaders while in the American desert, where cattle roam untended, a course hazard are the numerous "cow pies". Unscrupulous leaders have been known to detour slightly in order to fling these back at the rest of the fleet and, at the last America's Cup, the consensus was that the cows were spending their nights at the windward mark.
Landsailing pilots are a friendly bunch and, if you happen to spot a weekend event and wander over to watch the action, it probably won't be long before someone invites you for a ride. Many landsailors have passenger seats, and you'll find yourself strapped into a racing-type bucket seat next to an experienced sailor. A quick push to get moving and, if there's a good breeze, you'll find yourself shoved back into your seat by the acceleration. As the speed increases, you'll find it hard to stifle a silly grin. Sitting only inches off the ground as the machine rockets along will make you feel like a LeMans race driver as the earth blurs past. On some dry lakes, you can race along in solitude for miles while on airfields you may want to try zipping past some of the turning markers. At 50 miles per hour, you'll sense a solidarity to the landsailor, even if a sudden puff of wind causes one wheel to lift slightly off the ground. When it's time to change direction, the machine will sweep around in a tight turn that pushes you into the side of your seat, the sail will crackle overhead and then fill, and once again you experience the surge of power as the landsailor zips off on a new tack.
There is something addictive about the silence, about gliding along effortlessly, every puff being converted into more speed. One ride is all it takes. It'll be a while before you get rid of your grin, but it won't be long before you start looking for a landsailor!
The North American Land Sailing Association has a great website at www.nalsa.org
Editor's note: this article was updated in July of 2017.