With its strong winds and endless plains, Ivanpah Dry Lake is perfect for the desert adventurer’s extreme sport: land sailing
IT IS NOT RANDY BADGER Your typical sail type. When most people think of sailboat racing, they picture an east coast athlete in a turtleneck at the helm of a wooden sloop off the coast of Nantucket. But Randy isn’t from Nantucket. He’s from Winnemucca and wears blue jeans and trucker hats instead of turtlenecks. Instead of a wooden sloop, he sails a Manta TwinJammer, which looks more like a deck chair than a sailboat with its aluminum frame and bench seat. This makes sense as Manta TwinJammers are designed for land rather than water.
Randy and I are attending the 2022 America’s Landsailing Cup at Ivanpah Dry Lake near Primm. Randy was kind enough to lend me a boat for the event and for the past few days he’s been my wingman, my Maverick’s goose. More than 70 participants from Germany have gathered in Ivanpah for a week-long regatta – the largest of its kind in North America. Rows of RVs, pickup trucks, and trailers line the east side of the lake bed that crowns the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve.
I met Randy over a year ago through a series of phone calls. I had been trying to get into Nevada’s land sailing scene but like most sporting events, the 2021 America’s Landsailing Cup had been canceled due to COVID-19. However, Randy was so interested in bringing new blood into the sport that he drove eight hours from Winnemucca to meet me in Ivanpah, one of the most famous land sailing destinations on the planet.
From the moment we shook hands I could tell he was a salt of the earth guy. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and having just retired from his job selling boiler feed pumps for power plants, he’s had plenty of time to sail. We tore it up for a few days on the bottom of the lake, which we had all to ourselves. As on many evenings during the pandemic, these sunsets prompted discussions about the state of humanity, how we thought the world could change, and most importantly, how we looked forward to things returning to normal. I liked Randy right away and our friendship was one of those weird COVID events – founded on camp chairs, isolated from the rest of the world, with the Mojave Desert as a backdrop.
A year later, the event is back to its former glory and sailors from near and far are thrilled to be back on the lake floor. “This is my second time at this regatta,” Randy tells me. “I’ve been in the class for three years and it’s been a great time coming here. Everyone is willing to help. There’s no ridicule for finishing last, which is good for me because I’ve been last many times.”
Randy has three Manta TwinJammers in total. He found the first when his grandson was fencing for a neighbor who was then one of the few land sailors in Winnemucca. He had a Manta TwinJammer in his garage and he gave it to Randy’s grandson. But Randy has nine other grandchildren, so of course more were needed. “It’s not fun to stand around,” says Randy. “So we had to buy more.” Randy has found two additional boats to complete his fleet, which he uses to take his grandchildren to Black Rock Playa.
In fact, the Manta TwinJammer’s dual seat is perhaps its best feature. They’re perfect for taking beginners for a spin, and with speeds of between 40 and 60 mph, they never fail to amaze. A day before the regatta, some of my friends from Vegas came down to see it and eventually we hit 43mph. The physics of land sailing allow the boats to go faster than the wind, mainly because they have much less drag than standard sailboats, which have to fight against the resistance of the water as they move forward. The fastest boats at the event routinely hit 80 mph, and in 2009 Richard Jenkins’ boat, Greenbird, set the sail-powered land speed record at Ivanpah Dry Lake: a staggering 126.1 mph.
At such speeds, land sailing is more akin to aviation, and in races the competitors are called pilots rather than sailors. The onboard experience is as surreal as it is exhilarating. There is no engine noise, just the howling of the wind in your ears. When large gusts roll through, clouds of dust swirl up from the bottom of the lake, which together with whe three massive solar towers above I-15 give the landscape an apocalyptic feel. The competitors look like they are made of one piece crazy max film, wearing helmets, ski goggles, and in some cases, motorcycle armor. (Right, the author tears it up in the Manta TwinJammer fleet.)
“There’s a lot of people here because everyone’s been locked up for a couple of years and they want to race,” said Dennis Bassano, race director for the North American Landsailing Association. Bassano has been the main organizer of this regatta for several decades. “There are also a lot of new people here,” he says. “During the pandemic, people have been building stuff in their garages, so now they’re down here trying things, which doesn’t always go as planned.”
In fact, the America’s Landsailing Cup hosts nearly a dozen different classes of land yachts. The Manta TwinJammer is just one of these, and other boat types include Standarts, MiniSkeeters, 5.6 Minis, Sportsman and various International Land and Sandyachting Federation (FISLY) boats.
Land sailing originally came from the coastal towns of northern Europe, where tides can recede as much as 30 feet, leaving large expanses of flat, open sand to sail on. Land sailing is still a popular European beach sport today. With venues close to high schools and youthful beach communities, getting into the sport is not difficult for French, Dutch or Belgian sailors.
The American version is different. Most events take place in the salt flats of California and Nevada, often forcing participants to travel hundreds if not thousands of miles to race. Regattas are both a camping trip and a competition and looking around the camp at Ivanpah is fun to see the different setups. Some people drive RVs with trailers. Others bring Sprinter vans. I slept in the back of my Toyota 4Runner, which I modified to fit a mattress in the back.
In the morning it smells like coffee and eggs when seafarers are working on their boats. air compressors rattle; Disguise tools howl. Some people’s camps look like Formula 1 pit stops, with big tool boxes wheeled on the dirt. Others are much more humble. One guy, Jeff Beck, threw it all in the back of a U-Haul truck and called it a day. He has a four-legged camping stove and a box spring mattress as well as a few shelves and drawers, all divided up like a small one-room apartment. Others stay at the resorts in Primm and spend the evenings at slot machines or blackjack tables.
Renee Fields, a Reno-based competitor, has a custom Sprinter van she calls “Bubba.” She has a bunk built into the side of the cab, and the rest of the van is a jigsaw puzzle of toolboxes, shelves, and spare parts. Fields has been racing dirt boats for about eight years and has quickly catapulted himself to the front of the pack. She is the defending champion in the Manta TwinJammer fleet and she also has three other boats that she races. “It’s just great to see everyone’s faces again,” she tells me before going racing one day. “There are a lot of new people, which is great as the sport has an aging population. It’s not like in Europe where they take all the high school kids to the beaches. In America you have to have that camping spirit. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, so you have to be able to work things mechanically and you have to be able to handle a little dust and dirt. You must be pretty sturdy.” (Left, Augie Dale is hanging loose in his C Skeeter.)
Attracting a younger audience to the game is a top priority for most participants. However, it is difficult with all the start-up costs. First you need a boat, which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Then you’ll need a truck to transport it and tools to fix it, not to mention somewhere to sleep while you sail it. “It’s kind of an old people’s sport,” says Badger. “I’m not sure the younger generation really knows anything about land sailing, which is a shame. Ivanpah is not far from Vegas if people want to come down and try. We are always willing to bring new people here. You just have to come.”
Maybe the pandemic will change things. As we enter this post-COVID era, people are beginning to value their time differently. All over the world, they’re using nature to disconnect from the internet, slow things down a bit, and enjoy each other’s company in new and meaningful ways. Land sailing offers all of that, except for the slowing down part.
“It’s one of the funniest I’ve ever had,” says Badger. “It’s just a bunch of people hanging out, enjoying being together and trying to kick each other’s ass the best they can.”