SUPERIOR DRY LAKE, CA - Now I know why they call it a boom.
You know, that horizontal piece of wood on a sail? The one that swings back and forth?
Here's what it sounds like when it hits you in the head:
All I can say is that it's a good thing I had a helmet on. Otherwise, I would have been left sprawled out, unconscious, where other land sailors could have rolled right over me on their way to victory.
Yes, this was a race. And I was at the helm of a land-sailing yacht.
Me, with absolutely no sailing experience whatsoever.
Fortunately, I had Carl Eberly at my side. Eberly has been sailing on land and on water for more than 30 years. In all that time, he still hasn't learned not to take on a novice sailer who might crash his rig and kill him.
You think I'm kidding. I am not.
The twin manta in which Eberly and I rode can travel at speeds of up to 60 mph. Sitting two to three inches above the ground, you begin to think about things like ultimate road rash. Or, as in our case, when we headed directly into the path of a much larger land-sailing yacht -- the equivalent of pitting a Tinkertoy against a brick -- crippling injuries and death.
There we were, both tacking -- a nautical term for doing the impossible by sailing forward into the wind. The big land yacht headed southeast. We headed northeast. Fortunately, the larger yacht veered off slightly.
"OK," said Eberly. "He's going to let us go in front."
I was happy not to have to envision myself as a hood ornament as we zipped across the other yacht's bow.
My (shaking) hands were on the rope that pulls the sail tight, my feet on the lever that turns the front wheel of the craft.
"You want to start making a turn now," Eberly told me.
I pushed my right foot forward to turn the rig to the left -- a counterpoint I never did quite adapt to -- we made a 45-degree turn and . . . BOOM! I got knocked in the head.
Maybe I'm too tall for land sailing, but every time Eberly had me make a turn . . . BOOM! I'd get whacked again. Tacking . . . BOOM! Jibing (downwind) . . . BOOM! At one point I couldn't see the tail lines on the sail, which indicate how well the sail is catching the wind, because the boom was on top of my head and I couldn't look up.
Everybody else on the lake was land sailing, I was head smacking . . . BOOM!
Finally, the finish line was in sight.
Dazed, and more than a little confused, I pointed the front wheel straight toward the tape stretched out across the lake bed.
We were almost there when a sudden gust of wind ripped into us. The right wheel of the yacht lifted and kept going. We were sideways at 45 mph, on the verge, I was certain, of being spread like human butter across the desert pavement. But if I was going in, Eberly was going with me. At least I'd have company. We'd be dead together.
Then the gust died. We dropped back down to earth. We crossed the finish line to find we had actually won the race -- OK, Eberly won, I was only doing what he told me.
All we had to do was park the land yacht and celebrate. But first we had to make a wide turn . . . BOOM!