For most people in the US, the Fourth of July manifests itself in fireworks, picnics, parties, and parades. For a small band of dedicated sailors in the western states, this midsummer holiday means a pilgrimage to the desert near the tiny burg of Gerlach in northern Nevada to indulge in one of the most diverting sub-disciplines of our sportlandsailing. It's not as though these folks eschew Fourth of July celebrations, but when early July rolls around, racing across the Black Rock Desert on a variety of dirt boats is at the top of their priority list.
The Holy Gale, as this invitation-only event is known, is just one of several main attractions that populate the landsailing calendar, giving dirt boaters a chance to congregate on "the playa" and pursue their special brand of sailing. At these events, there's the usual smattering of one-design classesManta Singles and Manta Twinsand development classes that range from streamlined vehicles resembling jet aircraft to the more agricultural, home-built buggies. Once everyone has arrived and set up, the desert takes on an odd, bedouin-like appearance that is so familiar to the practitioners of this sport. Various sized sails spike into the sky around the landscape, while motorhomes and trailers sit aimlessly about, the distant mountain backdrop setting the stage for days of racing and raucous fun.
When the appointed hour for racing comes, the scene rearranges itself, adding method to the madness. Usually one of the motorhomesthe committee boatwill be parked farther out on the playa, course flags will be set in a large triangular format, and a length of line
stretched out in the center as a starting line
. One by one, the committee raises signal flags, calling the various classes to the line
. The drivers don their protective geargoggles and helmets and occasionally dust masksand get set for the countdown. When the gun goes off, some boats need a push off the starting line to develop apparent wind, while others simply sheet in and start rolling. Depending upon the wind, they gradually build speed and start tacking their way up to the first flagstick like misdirected mechanical animals.
Don't get the wrong ideadirt boats are actually fairly efficient performers as sailing craft go. The rule of thumb is that most of these machines can travel in excess of two-and-a-half times the speed of the wind. In fact the all-out landsailing speed recordset in March of 1999 by Bob Schumacher and Bod Dill aboard the 39-foot Iron Duckstands at 116.7 mph. Like boats on the water, as the speeds on land increase, the apparent wind moves forward, allowing the boats to sail closer to the wind.
Unlike water-based sailboats, however, some of the best speed thrills come when driving upwind. When the breeze is strong enough, it's not uncommon for smaller dirt boats to lift a wheel and careen along with just two points of attachment to the desert. Some skippers do this purposefully to minimize friction and increase speed. You can also get your adrenaline pumping on the reach legs. Zipping along at speeds of 45 mph with the dry desert floor just inches below your butt has that effectand that's relatively mild on the speed gauge.
Among dirt boaters, speed, in any real sense, is a term reserved for the larger development classes. Most of these craft sport fairly sophisticated wing sails that, when seen from a distance as they rocket along the desert, appear like upright knife blades slicing through the shimmering atmosphere. These boats often exceed speeds in the 70 and 80-mph range as they scream around the racecourse, which makes mark roundingsparticularly the leeward onesan exciting affair. Imagine hurtling toward the flagstick at 60-plus mph, the leathery desert just a blur as you spin into a 140-degree turn with your wheels side-sliding, your heart pumping, and your knuckles turning white. Now add a couple of fellow competitors to the mix, and the inevitable dust, and you've got some true racing excitement. The good news is that you can slow these machines down pretty fast by sheeting out and heading into the wind.
Landsailing has its devotees all over the world. It's relatively popular in Australia and New Zealand, and in many parts of Europe as well. In the US, most landsailing activity takes place well west of the Mississippi. There are pockets of activity in the Pacific Northwest and a smattering of sites in California, but Nevada is dirt-boat Mecca when it comes to the America's major regattas. The sport's governing body in this hemisphere, the North American Land Sailing Asssociation (NALSA), holds a speed-trial event around Thanksgiving every year and the America's Cup of Landsailing at Easter, each on Dry Lake Ivanpah about 40 minutes south of Las Vegas. It's in France, however, where land sailing is truly entrenched. According to Lester Robertson of Carson City, NVan avid dirt boaterthere are over 50 clubs dedicated to the sport in France, and at least one has been around for over 100 years. "Oh yeah," relates Robertson, "it's big over there. There are even guys who derive their living from the sport, through sponsorship deals."
Robertson, who spends his non-dirt-boat time sailing a Moore 24, was among the attendees at the Holy Gale this year, where he says the conditions were just right: "It was cool; never got over 85 degrees, and the surface was very smooth." After doing this for half a dozen years, he hopes he'll be back again next year, scooting across the playa aboard Teradactyl, his development boat, or the Manta one-design that he and his wife share. "It was fun; it always is. You just can't beat it."