A dry lakebed might seem like a strange place to try sailing. But this time of year people come from all over the world converge on a dry lake a few miles south of Prim. There, they harness the invisible force of the wind and compete for who can use it best. KNPR's Ky Plaskon reports.
PLASKON: Dry lake beds are called playas, the Spanish word for beach. Ivanpah is a playa, a few miles south of Primm between Las Vegas and L.A. The white sun-cracked surface extends for miles.
SOUND: Whirly Gigs and Flags
PLASKON: This time of year a seeming ghost town of trailers and tents on the playa's edges where the wind blows flags and whirly gigs franticly. The residents of this empty encampment aren't far away and occasionally they pass by.
PLASKON: How fast are you going?
SAILOR: I have no idea.
PLASKON: In the distance, a rainbow of sails dance across the playa silently kicking up a thin film of dust. Some are going just as fast as cars on the nearby highway 15.
PLASKON: Using a megaphone, Mark Harris Nevada Public Utilities resource planning engineer summons the sailors off the playa.
HARRIS: Pilots Meeting, Pilots Meeting.
HARRIS: People out here have shown that they can be very efficient in creating a vehicle that can go three four five six times wind speed and that's pretty impressive.
PLASKON: He is also the treasurer of the North American Land Sailing Association, which hosts the America's Cup of land sailing in Prim every year. The vehicles look like sailboats only because most of them have sails. Below the sail is an aluminum triangular-shaped frame with a wheel at each corner. Canvass is stretched between the frame and that's where the pilot lays down to control the boat. The bigger speed boats look different. Still triangular, but 20 feet long and aerodynamically teardrop shaped. Last year one these big three-wheeled boats known as the Iron Duck broke the world wind speed record cruising at 116 miles. The wind was only 40 miles an hour. Ben Gooch sails big fast boats on dry lakebeds. He has a profound respect for wind that can push boats like the Iron Duck.
GOOCH: It is a huge thing, and it weighs a couple of thousand pounds and it doesn't even move until the rocks start blowing and you know the wind gets going when rocks start blowing in your face.
PLASKON: Boats like the Iron Duck aren't using a sail they have a giant wing. It's up to two feet wide and rises 20- feet straight up in the air to catch the wind. The wing is controlled by the pilot with a wheel. The pilots lay down so low in teardrop shaped cockpits that only their helmets poke out. Pilot Mike Moody explains how the wing works.
MOODY: The sail on a land yacht is shaped a little like an airplane wing it is like squeezing a watermelon seed between your fingers and so with a 20 mile an hour wind you can go twice the speed of the wind because of the design of the sail.
PLASKON: At the pilots meeting the Iron Duck's pilot and world wind speed record holder Bob Dill goes over the forecast. Winds on this day could gust up to 40 miles an hour.
DILL: Go out there and sail a little bit and go around these marks to see how you are going to tear them up.
PLASKON: Pilots don't want to tear up the playa, or in other words break its crust because the surface takes decades to recover.
SOUND OF BOAT SQUEAKY AND RATTLY
PLASKON: Pilot and psychotherapist Pat Morrisey is rolling into camp crossing ruts created by cars 15 years ago. Unlike the speedboats his can carry two people.
MORRISEY: Why don't you get on the left side and I will get on the right.
PLASKON: The passenger and pilot lay down between the rear wheels on the canvass sling below the sail.
MORRISEY: You kind of have to watch your feet because I need my feet for steering.
PLASKON: Down by his feet is a pair of handlebars with bicycle grips on them he uses to steer the boat.
PLASKON: He starts pulling and cranking ropes, carrying us slowly out into this parched lakebed.
MORRISEY: We are going very fast.
PLASKON: In fact the boat stops moving and we are stranded on the playa.
MORRISEY: There is just no wind, just not enough wind.
MORRISEY: When we said lets go try this there was a gust of wind and it was really hard to tell if that would be sustained or if it would just blow through.
PLASKON: Morrisy and the other pilots are all stalled with no wind to carry them. But the position in these carts is comfortable.
MORRISEY: Yup, we are in a pretty place the weather is good, the company is good, it beats being at work all day.
PLASKON: The longest Morrisey has ever been stuck without wind out on the playa is a half hour. Like sailing on water land sailing requires patience. Some land sailors say this is a more physical sport than sailing on water. There's no dispute that it is faster. But the wind is erratic. The stalled pilots out on the playa hungrily watch limp flags for signs of wind.
MORRISEY: But the flags behind us have kicked off so we should have some wind soon.
PLASKON: He tries to get some momentum by pushing with his feet.
MORRISEY: I am trying to push us to get started a little bit.
PLASKON: He cranks the sail up and down, loosening it and then cranking it tightly or flattening the sail. But the light wind dies again.
PLASKON: One sailor gives up, dragging his cart for a mile off the still flat playa. Eventually the low rumble of the wind begins to build as it draws closer, and suddenly . . . that quickly the cart is zooming across the barren landscape.
MORRISEY: This is 20 miles an hour.
PLASKON: I am going to cross these rough racks, there is one of the big boys.
MORRISEY: We are now doing 25. Okay I am going to turn around, flatten the sail a little bit. Oh common Pat! If you turn off the recorder I will tell you that I blew that last turn and that is why we almost came to a stop.
PLASKON: This is the first time he has tried to drive two people with very little wind. But using his feet he gets the boat going again.
PLASKON: It feels like we are sliding?
MORRISEY: We probably are a little bit. We will make the mark as if we were racing so you have to go around the flag the pylon and the yellow net. I am going to turn here, we will see if we can head back toward camp.
PLASKON: Morrisey uses a land sailboat called a Manta Twin a typical recreational cart that comes in a box and cost about 2,000 dollars. Others cheaper boats steer like bicycles and fold up small enough to fit in a closet. The bigger boats are all custom made, especially the ones that break world records. This week an Englishman with a big boat arrived in Las Vegas. He'll be spending the whole month in Nevada on dry lakebeds in an attempt on the world record of 116 miles an hour using nothing but the power of the wind.
Ky Plaskon News 88-9 KNPR
LINK: North American Land Sailing Association