What Is Land Sailing: An Introduction to Thrilling Wind-Powered Buggies

spend time on Ivanpah Dry Lake, nestled in the north end of Mojave National Preserve, about 30 minutes from Vegas, and you might start seeing things. Here on Pleistocene Playa, the seabed is cracked but coated with a smooth sheen; the post-apocalyptic backdrop of mountain-lined nothingness, both dusty and cloaked in a watery mirage from the colliding temperatures. So much so, that when you see the land yachts – strange three-wheeled wind-powered buggies slicing through the void with shark-like fins – you might think they are actual sailboats.

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And depending on when you visit, you might even spot an influx of boats that don’t float. Because unlike other dry lake beds in the area, it’s used year-round for everything from off-road adventures to camping to arts festival shenanigans and filming casino– Bureau of Land Management taking action to preserve Ivanpah for non-motorized wind vehicle use. It is therefore considered one of the smoothest land sailing courses in the world, similar to the frozen lakes of ice boating. And with wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, it’s a regular destination for adrenaline seekers who compete in elite regattas like the America’s Land Sailing Cup, a multi-vehicle competition hosted by the North American Land Sailing Association, as well as the Solo-style Blokart Worlds (it rhymes with go-kart).

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Go fast on Ivanpah, apparently sponsored by Smirnoff. | Bob Martin/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Here in Ivanpah, British engineer Richard Jenkins set the record for land sailing, hitting a whopping 126.1mph in the sleek, other-worldly Ecotricity Greenbird, which favored an airplane-like carbon wing over a sail (land yachts actually come in all shapes and sizes). This is also where the latest blokart record was set, set in 2018 by two competitors – AKA pilots.

“They were out on the playa looking at each other and could see one of these dust storms coming their way,” says Andrew Sands, co-owner of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures and himself an internationally recognized pilot. “They gave a thumbs up that they would take their chances and keep sailing.” That day Scott Young of Arizona and Dave Lussier of Rhode Island defied the odds by finishing at a record speed of 77.7mph – all with their butts hovering inches off the ground.

A few months ago, I had never heard of land sailing, let alone seen a yacht on wheels. But then I found myself on the breezy Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire, watching the wind-powered go-karts zip around a bumpy oval track over and over again. This is where some riders could care less about speed. And why should they when the landscape invites you to relax? On the right the sea splashed high against rocks, while on the left a bored donkey stood and grazed near cacti. Now and then an iguana would cross the track. “I’m pretty sure there’s an iguana brothel up the middle of the way,” says Donna Hudgeon, co-owner of the company and Sands’ wife. “I’d be surprised if you had not seen an iguana.”

Although it’s the first time the sport and I have crossed paths, there have been some iterations of land sailing since wheels became light enough to be mobilized by wind power. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians tinkered with their version of the vehicle, while texts and paintings suggest that the Ming dynasty was full of sail-equipped carriages. During the Westward expansion of the 19th century, the United States had its own wind-powered carts, including – in true American style – a resourceful entrepreneur who attempted to bypass horses and use the wind for profit to ferry passengers across the rolling prairies transport. It failed on its maiden voyage, but it still earned an enviable nickname: Wind Wagon Thomas.

A 1979 homebuilt facility in Denver. Probably go to the supermarket. | Glen Martin/ The Denver Post/ Getty Images

In 1898 two Belgian brothers created what is believed to be the very first recreational land yacht, followed by the first competition in Belgium in 1909. Increased vehicle production led to land sailing clubs springing up on the beaches of France by the 1950s. While the rest of the world typically powered its sand buggies with sea breezes, about a decade later, when the US jumped into the action, this sparked a conglomerate of individualistic inventors intent on making good use of the country’s vast arid lake beds and harsh deserts . Today the sport is known around the world by a series of nicknames tailored to the countries in which it is practiced and the terrain in which it is raced: from sand yachting to land sailing, sand yachting, wind karting, char à voile (France) and Carrovelismo (Argentina). ). The most famous? dirt boating. It’s all American.

In the US, you’re most likely to encounter the native Manta Landsailer, first manufactured in 1974 in Oakland, California. But in Bonaire the vehicles of choice are blokarts – also with a verb of their own, blokarting—a relative newcomer to the history of the sport and perhaps the easiest for a beginner to navigate. The buggies were developed in 1999 when Paul Beckett, a keen land yachtsman and hang glider pilot, wanted to create a more accessible toy that everyday consumers could use to whiz around the beaches of New Zealand.

Competitors earlier this year at Brean Sands, England. | Michael Steele/Getty Images Sports

Unlike the Manta, which you steer with your feet, blokarts only require your hands to steer and adjust the sail, making it adaptable for a wide range of users, including paraplegics and lower limb amputees. The karts also fold neatly into a case for portability and are easy to put together once you’re ready to hit the sand. Throw it in your trunk and take it to the beach or check it out at the airport for your Ivanpah competition. Sails come in three sizes, and the entire rig starts at around $4,000 each.

“New Zealanders tend to be very inventive, DIY people. There were versions of land yachts out there, but nothing that was repeatable, just something someone put together in their garage,” says Hudgeon. “So when Blokart came along, that was it. Everyone just jumped out like, ‘Hey, this is super easy.’”

For one half of the Bonaire Landsailing Adventures couple, it was definitely love at first sight. “Paul sent me out on track with his blokart to try and at the end of the day he had to come out and pick me up,” recalls Sands. “I still sailed around the track.”

Today Blokart is sold in 27 countries including Bonaire. Already a hub for kitesurfing and windsailing (Bonaire is a breeding ground for some of the world’s best windsurfers), opening a land sailing company on the island seemed like a natural fit. Hudgeon and Sands looked at wind profiles – the area needed to be flat and windy year-round – but what made the difference was the personality of the island itself.

“What’s special about Bonaire is that the people who come here aren’t necessarily the kind that want to lounge around on the beach,” says Hudgeon. “You make people. You are active.”

Landscape with a sporty flair on Bonaire. | Courtesy of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures

That’s what I’m here for: to do. With my helmet and a pair of gloves provided, I half-listen to the debriefing—things like draw the rope to accelerate, let it out to slow down, have Fun. But when I see the competitors circling the track in their little papoos, I get a little nervous. The truth is, I’ve never been good on wheels. In fact, I think the word that used to be used to describe my driving skills was “annoying”. Apparently this can help if you have sailing experience and know your tacks from your jibes. I don’t, but am assured no experience is required.

“We get all the guys,” says Hudgeon. “The Hotshots saying, ‘Whoa, this is a lot more fun than I thought,’ the nervous people who are proud of themselves for doing something they didn’t think they could do, and the Grandmas pop up and say there’s no way they’re going out there, they’re just there to take the picture.” But after some persuasion, these grannies go on the line, and it’s a whole different story: “They realize how easy it is and how much control they have and it’s just so fun to see them cheering and racing for the grandkids. ”

The trick, as I later find out, is to start cautiously and get to know the track over a few turns before you get excited. It’s about feeling the nuances of the wind and the delicate adjustments on the rope. If you lose air and get stuck, that’s no problem – someone will be there to push you back in. It’s pretty foolproof. Unless, of course, you try to do too much too soon.

I witness a guy – a “hotshot,” Hudgeon would call it – speeding around a corner and trying to pass a mate. It drives up on two wheels and promptly tips over. Luckily, he remembered keeping his elbows in the steel cage – something else we’re told in the debrief. After examining him, Hudgeon realizes that the only thing hurt is his ego.

Cozy as a bug in a blokart. | Courtesy of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures

You don’t need to buy your own vehicle to start land sailing. Donna recommends finding a club or class near you through the North American Land Sailing Association, Blokart’s website, or the International Sand Yachting Federation. They usually have one handy to try. You can also find retailers and plenty of opportunities to network with like-minded adventurers on these pages.

I’ll make a note to check it out when I get home – New York and New Jersey have a couple of clubs that look promising. Back at the Bonaire course, however, it only takes a few laps, including a bit of stalling and a lot of bumping into the tires lining the course, but I eventually got the hang of it. The only obstacle I can’t avoid? A resident iguana leisurely meanders across my path.

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Vanita Salisbury is a Senior Travel Writer at Thrillist. Plot Twist: The real daredevil was the iguana.