Landsailing at 90 mph on a dry lake bed with no brakes puts a new spin on life. American enthusiasts take on Europe's sport.
SUPERIOR DRY LAKE, CA - It's 105 degrees in the shade.
If there was any shade to be had.
There are the shadowed edges of the slightly curled potato chiplike pieces of dried white mud that make up the natural pavement here. But those thin lines, defining an immense jigsaw pattern, hardly offer any refuge from the heat.
Watery mirages radiate off the dry lake surface like a low gray curtain. And out of this shaky haze emerges a three-wheel, missile-shaped vehicle with a mast and full sail. It kicks up a thin line of dust behind it as it races ahead, shooting by at 60-plus miles per hour.
The only sound is the rumble of its rubber tires.
Sunk low in the open cockpit of the craft is pilot Nord Embroden. The Pinon Hills resident has spent nearly 40 years building and racing landsailing yachts. His desert home is close to the dry lake beds where he sails his yachts when he isn't teaching construction and design at Victor Valley College. Along the way, he's captured several world titles and held landsailing's speed record for 15 years.
What continues to elude him is why more people aren't interested in the sport that took hold of him when he was just a kid.
While it enjoys widespread popularity in Europe -- France reportedly has 1,000 landsailing clubs -- landsailing has attracted only a handful of people here in the United States. Some of them spent this past Memorial Day weekend here racing one another in a toned-down national championships.
Normally the event draws as many as 225 participants. But enthusiasm for this competition has been siphoned off by an international meet, the Pacific Rim Championships March 27-April 1. Held in southern Nevada at Ivanpah Dry Lake, Embroden says that event drew more than 200 people.
"We had 60 yachts racing at one time," Embroden says.
But here, only about two dozen people have shown up.
There are a variety of styles of land yachts they have brought with them, everything from skeleton frames made of metal tubing to Embroden's sleek, French-designed model molded from a Kevlar/graphite polymer.
What is consistent is the enthusiasm of the pilots. It is 20 miles to the nearest paved road. Anybody without plenty of enthusiasm never makes it out this far.
The North American Land Sailing Association doesn't register individual members, only clubs, of which there are five. Embroden estimates there are potentially 1,000 active landsailors in North America.
"I came out four years ago just to watch and got addicted," says Wendell Dang, 45, of Simi Valley. "It's pretty relaxing, but as the wind picks up, it's exciting. You get up to 50 mph in one of these and your heart gets going pretty fast.
"The record in one of these is close to 60. And," he adds with a smile, "no brakes."
The "one of these" Dang is referring to is an aluminum pipe, three- wheeled, open-frame cart called a manta. It's slung with a rectangle of heavy nylon for a seat. The sail is the size one might see on a single-man dinghy. Dang also is jury-rigging a flexible plumbing tube to the front of his mast to replace a broken wind indicator.
"If you don't know where the wind's coming from, you can't sail well," he says.
It's one of a few fundamental things that make sailing possible. The basics, Dang says, can be learned in a day.
"Anybody can learn to do it," he says. "A half-hour lesson is about all you need in a moderate wind."
Learning the finesse that makes one competitive, however, is a never-ending lesson.
A bed sheet to power a pushcart
Embroden has spent his life studying the wind's effect on a sail. Hisfascination began when he was a kid. His father, Morgan, a boat designer, began teaching Nord to sail when he was 5. But the young Embroden wasn't content with limiting the concept of windpower to water-bound vehicles. He remembers trying to use a bed sheet to power a push cart.
"I was 6 or 7," Embroden recalls. "That was my very first land yacht."
It took one gust of wind to blow his mast over. But Embroden wasn't finished.
At 10, he built a four-wheel cart using soap box derby wheels and a mast from his Sabot dinghy. Soon he was sailing along the boardwalk in Long Beach.
The sight of what appeared to be a boat passing by their windows surprised many local residents, Embroden recalls.
"They'd come running out on their porch to see the sail that went by," he says.
Few people knew anything about landsailing at that time, he says. In Europe the sport dates back to 1912. And there was landsailing in the United States on a limited basis in the 1960s when the bug bit Embroden.
"Most of them were made out of water pipe and pipe fittings and old cotton cloth for sails and wheelbarrow wheels," Embroden says.
A fellow enthusiast, Don Rypinski, had traveled to Europe and seen the sport there.
"He had all these stories about the sophisticated things that were being done," Embroden says. "We were working to build the sport to a greater degree than it had been, and it was kind of taking a giant leap."
At the same time, he says, "we found a yacht built back in the 1930s and it was really quite a sophisticated yacht, built like an ice boat. It had stickers on it for where they had been racing, and one of them was from Murock (Dry Lake, near Edwards Air Force Base).
"So there was a whole generation of fairly sophisticated yachts back in the 1930s that just kind of died out," he says.
During high school, Embroden worked on land yacht designs, and the summer after he graduated, he produced his first fiberglass enclosed-hull ship. The first time he sailed it -- on El Mirage Dry Lake west of Victorville -- he encountered an old problem.
"I remember my mast broke," he says.
That design flaw was fixed. And 32 years later, the same yacht is still running. For a while, it was owned by Embroden's high school buddy Carl Eberly -- who is here on this weekend with a two-seater manta -- but he sold it to Paul Ackerman in 1991.
Ackerman, 59, of Lake Los Angeles, says nothing has really changed about the red yacht that still bears the original "Sunshine" logo, set in the pop art style shape of a bird.
"Everything is pretty much the way he built it," Ackerman says. "The idea is to keep it in its original state as much as possible. Even though it's the oldest boat out here, it's usually up in the top of the class.
There's always manana
In fact, during one of the day's races, Ackerman ends up battling for the title with Embroden and even leads his yacht's designer for much of the race. But in the end, Embroden, half a lap from the finish, takes the lead and leaves Ackerman rolling to a distant second.
In third place, out of three yachts in the friendship class, is Morgan Embroden. At 79, Morgan remains an active competitor, but takes a philosophical approach to racing.
"It's called manana" he says, referring to his yacht. "If I don't do well today, there's always manana."
While he prefers water sailing, Morgan says he continues to race his land yacht because he enjoys the element of speed.
"I go faster in this than I drive my car," he says.
In 1976, on this spot, Nord Embroden set a landsailing speed record of 88.4 mph over a quarter mile. The record held until 1991 when an asymmetrical land yacht -- one capable of traveling only in one direction instead of being able to tack and jibe -- went 94.2 mph. In 1999, a similarly designed yacht went 116 mph.
Carl Eberly says speed is a big attraction to the sport.
"We're both sailors," he says, referring to Nord, "but this is a lot more fun. There's no crew involved, but you have all the same things you use in sailing and it's not wet. And you're going much faster."
What hasn't gone very fast is the growth of interest in the sport in the United States. Participation here is a a mere fraction of what it is in European countries like France, Germany and Holland, where it enjoys widespread popularity.
"We're lagging in the U.S.," Nord says. "With the Internet, I think there's going to be a big boom."
At least one observer is here on the dry lake due to that very reason.
Mike Singer, 47, a firefighter from Lancaster, has spent the day watching the landsailers zip back and forth across the dry lake bed. He even got to take a ride in a two-seat yacht.
Singer says he accidentally discovered landsailing. Initially, he was trying to find a way to use wind power to move an all-terrain board.
"I got on the Internet looking for power kites and I'm looking at landsailing," he says. "And I thought, `Yeah, there's a sport.' "
It's people like Singer who give Embroden greater hope for the sport.
"I'm hoping it will catch fire," he says.
Or, at least, catch some more wind.
For information on landsailing, call the Inland area's club, the Wind Wizards, at (760) 868-4484.
Mark Muckenfuss can be reached at email@example.com or call (909) 890-4463.