It's March again! Which portends the arrival of my favorite week of the year. Yeah, my birthday's the 18th, but it's the days and nights on the playa that I look forward to all year. This is the Big Event, when landsailors from all over the US converge on Ivanpah, south of Las Vegas, to race, wrench, eat and hang out together on the edge of a monster dry lake bed. And implore the wind gods to smile upon us!
This adventure always starts and ends with a epic 20 hour drive through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, traversing seemingly endless, broad, high altitude valleys, amidst often spectacular peaks and formations, to the southern tip of Nevada, right on the California border. A way too long drive, made tolerable only by the ever changing, often deliciously empty, landscape. What a land we live in!
I roll onto the playa around 6 pm on a Friday evening, and as soon as the key's switched off, Judy wanders over and helps me bail the van so I can get at the little boat buried beneath all the crap needed to pursue this bizarre and wonderful sport. 30 minutes later I've got her all together, and I launch into a gleeful birthday cruise in 10 to 12 mph winds, plenty to power the Fed up and cover some ground in the fading light. A beer or two with friends under the rising full moon finalizes my celebration, and I crawl into the van smiling fiercely.
It's exactly two years now since Glenn generously invited me to experience this world. I flew from Spokane to Vegas, and within hours he had me at the helm of a Manta single, powered up and badly hooked! Now here I am again, fully committed, with two boats, 6 sails, all the camping gear needed to park here for 8 or 10 days, and a van and trailer to drag it all across the country. It's apparently a bad addiction!
Saturday dawns bright with building wind. Another ride with the next smaller sail, and then Gary shows up from SoCal, helmet in hand, ready to rock. He takes command of the Fed, and I start assembling Johnny's Rocket, with the ever present assistance of the sailors around me. Now the Rocket is still a bit new to me, having had a number of light air rides here and at the Alvord, and few good weekends on Canyon Ferry ice in Montana this winter. But today is the first time to really get her powered up on dirt, and what a rush! She's a big, heavy boat that takes a bit of finesse to to get rolling, but once she's up to speed, it's an impressive experience! 20 mph winds easily brings boatspeeds in the 60 to 70 mph range, which brings up the edge of the playa mighty quickly, and when the puffs hit, the boat leaps forward, and skitters sideways simultaneously, desperately trying to gain enough traction to resist the massive forces attempting to push her to leeward. The rear tires break away under big pressure, and only instantaneous and precise steering corrections keep her on course and out of a spin! The concentration required is massive, and my whole body is tense, ready for the next hit.
Feuding Fed 5s
At the leeward mark, a great arc is required to get the boat from downwind trim, heading with the true wind, through a beam reach with the wind broadside to the boat, to a course with the bow once again heading upwind. At these speeds, all three tires break into a slide, and again great steering precision is required to keep her on course and complete the turn. The sliding scrubs off speed, so once the new heading is achieved, the wing mast is sheeted out to develop more draft and power, and the machine starts to accelerate again. With each new burst of speed, the mast is sheeted in a bit more, which often results in another increase in speed, allowing more trimming, and soon we're fully sheeted in and runnin' at speed again, now searching with steering for that optimum angle to the wind for a good combination of outright speed and best course to windward.
John Emacio's class dominating wingboat, all wood construction. It's art!
At the upwind mark another demanding manoeuver is required, as the boat will once again need to pass broadside to the wind, which of course, wants to tip her over! The key is to commit to the turn, bear away quickly as the mark is passed, which brings breathtaking acceleration along with windward wheel launching skyward. Keep pressure on the steering pedals to complete the turn, and if I've done it cleanly, the wheel lands smoothly, and the acceleration continues. When it levels off, I start to head up gingerly to find more power, and when I touch it, she jumps forward, and I bear away again to maintain control and head for the downwind mark again!
This is such a great adrenaline rush, exhilaration tinged with a certain dollop of fear. I've always dreamed of racing cars, with breathtaking acceleration, and the mythical four wheel drift of a perfectly executed turn. And here I am, getting that same experience powered only by the wind.
Sunday brings more of the same awesome wind, and the beginning of competition. Dave shows up from San Francisco, a sailing buddy who's curious as to whether this sport might hold some attraction for him. So he gets the Fed for experimentation, and I take the Rocket out to the line for it's first race under my command. I'm running with the big boys, the fastest boats in the country, piloted by guys who do know what they're doing! In these winds I've got the raw speed to hold with some, but there's big benefits to those who can drive a smooth line and pick the laylines well. I'm just following them around, doing my best to maintain control of this beast, and hope to finish right side up. The tension produced has me sheeting in as hard as my overtaxed hands can manage, and that coupled with a few chattering slides at the leeward mark, has me finishing in fourth place with bent axles and crushed mast base. The Rocket is retired for the with these ailments, but it barely dampens my high! I've just had two days of rides many can only imagine! The GPS registered a top speed of 80.6 mph in that race, topping my previous record by 15 mph!
The big boat's down for the count, but the little one's still rockin'! Dave's gotten a few good rides, enough to experience the rush of skittering across the playa, inches off the dirt, harnessing the amazing power of the wind. He, Gary and I trade off rides, interspersed with tire kicking around camp, checking out all the other cool machines, and trading fish stories. A catered welcome dinner in the big tent is followed by beers and tequila in lawn chairs under the brilliant desert stars, surrounded by contented comrades.
The wind doesn't stop! 20 to 30 all night, Frank's anemometer registers gusts over
50 before morning. I endured a night like that in a tent at the Alvord last year, which led directly to the purchase of the van that's currently my shelter! Which is still a little less than peaceful in these conditions! Some rain overnight, but continuing breeze and sunshine has us back out on the dirt by noon.
More racing, 5 different classes, in rotation. 20 minute races mostly, upwind downwind. When it blows strong, I can hang onto the leaders in my class moderately well. When it's light, I'm lost. I've a slightly slower boat than some, and a distinct lack of skill when it comes to keeping her rolling when the lulls hit. It's much more difficult to see the wind here, compared to sailing on water where one can see it coming by the ripples on the water. Here, it's easy to sail into a hole and watch your buddy just ahead of you continue sailing away in plenty of pressure. I jump out of the boat, push furiously in a hopeful direction, maybe get her hooked up again, and hope my competitors find a hole. It's amazing how far I can get behind, only to catch a great puff and quickly make up serious ground, and find myself back in the running.
Awaiting the next round of racing
I'm not yet sure I'm a racer at heart. I can sure see how it can really help improve one's skills rapidly, and it's indeed rewarding for doing well against those at a similar skill level. But it's clear to me that I can be endlessly entertained just blasting around as fast as I can go, searching for the edge of control, where the fun is!
Dave is the master of our FISLY 5 class, with a dialed in boat, years of racing experience on dirt, hard and soft water, and a finely tuned sensitivity to this ethereal substance, wind. By the end of the week he's taken first in all nine races. So we follow him as long as we can keep him in sight, hoping to glean any secrets that might be revealed. But mostly Frank and I duke it out for 2nd and 3rd, which because we're so closely matched, is a total blast! Either of us are thoroughly capable of driving into a hole, and being totally bewildered as where to head next. But we somehow get rolling again, and often are within boat lengths of each other again at the next mark or the finish line. So fine.......!
Early evenings bring the daily race results under the big top, followed by sumptuous dinners put on for the whole crowd by the various landsailing clubs. Then hangin' under the stars with one or another group of smiling sailors til the exhaustion sets in, and we wander off to our various nests for the duration. I had the good fortune/intelligence to park next to Frank this year. He's the patron saint of all the landsailors gathered here, a machinist who brings nearly an entire machine shop with him. He and his lovely wife Carol drove TWO pickups towing trailers to this event to accommodate all the stuff he brought! This sport is brutal on equipment, and on the big wind days the guys are taking numbers to receive his attentions. And all his resources, skills and knowledge are bestowed on us generously with grace and humor! A true gentleman of the dirt!
Dennis (our prez) in Frank's shop
One of the things that thrills me about this activity, is that it gets me camping again. Which keeps me outside, where I belong. Each day ends gazing up at the desert sky, a pastime I never seem to tire of. One night Glenn and I sat chatting about heartfelt things, only to be stunned by the most dramatic shooting star I've ever seen! It burst into view with a brilliant flash, streaking towards the twilight horizon, with diminishing intensity, only to have it flash again, followed by another waning trail earthward. Worth the entire price of admission! Another high point! Streaking back and forth along the edge of camp with Dale, wheel to wheel, as the sun sets and the community trundles towards evening vittles. Parking the boats at the big tent, and sauntering in with the knowledge that the day was well filled!
Wind every day! Awesome sailing! It's rare that I ever feel sailing satiated, but by Friday my hands are raw, and my soul is full. We have a great awards ceremony, big smiles all around, and we start the slightly melancholy chore of packing up. Hugs and handshakes, and the rigs stream off the playa. I head north to initiate the next season, there are cats to be launched!
Sunset on the playa. or Sundown. or The sun sets on a week of glee.
Here are a couple of short videos my buddy John Eisenlohr shot at the recent event, for those who might still be interested after all my verbosity.