How Land Sailing Works

By: Linda C. Brinson
Image Gallery: Extreme Sports Land sailing often takes place on dried up lakes. See pictures of extreme sports.
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Imagine this: You're in your small sailboat, skimming along at speeds that top 50 or 60 miles per hour. The wind whips your face. Exhilarated, you skillfully guide your craft, moving the sail to adjust your speed. The landscape is a blur until you gradually head up into the wind and allow your sailboat to slow to a stop.

Then you step out of your boat, smiling, and walk over to the shade where your friends have been sitting, watching you sail.


No, you aren't walking on water. You're participating in an extreme sport called land sailing.

Some historians trace land sailing back to ancient Egypt and other cultures that used vehicles with sails for land transportation. Drawings exist of land sailors on the beaches of Belgium in the 1500s [source: Bassano]. These days, land sailing is popular in Europe, where it's called sand sailing. Boats race along sandy beaches at low tide, and racers may attract big-name sponsors. Land sailing also is popular in New Zealand, Brazil and other places with wide, open spaces.

In the United States, land sailing gained popularity in the late 1960s and has been growing and evolving since. Racing dominates the sport, with events like the annual Americas Landsailing Cup regatta. In 2010, the event will take place March 21 through the 26 in Primm, Nev. But enthusiasts also enjoy recreational sailing.

Most racing happens on the dry lakes (playas) of high deserts. Land sailors also can be found on some beaches and even on sports fields and in parking lots.

The North American Landing Sailing Association (NALSA), an organization of individual land sailing groups, was formed in 1972. NALSA affiliated itself with the older International Land and Sandyachting Federation (FISLY) in Europe, which had developed rules and standards for its races [source: Embroden].

Mark Harris, NALSA treasurer, said regular land sailors in the United States number in the hundreds, as compared to the thousands in Europe [source: Harris]. But NALSA leaders expect more people to take up the sport, because it's relatively inexpensive, safe and environmentally friendly. Prices of popular models such as the Manta start at less than $2,000 [source: Wind]. You don't need a dock, and the boat uses no fuel.

And best of all, land sailing is thrilling. Interested in trying your sea -- make that land -- legs? Read on to learn more about what makes land sailboats go.


The Physics of Land Sailing

Sailing on water and sailing on land have some things in common, but they also have a lot of differences. In fact, a land sailboat is really more comparable to a glider on wheels than a sailboat [source: Weber].

Land sailboats usually have three wheels and one sail. They go too fast to use jibs or spinnakers. (Jibs and spinnakers are the two main types of headsails, or sails used in front of the mainsail, on sailboats.) Made by several manufacturers, land sailboats range in size from a sailboard (sort of like a surfboard with a sail) on wheels to a huge land yacht.


In smaller boats, the sailor may sit or lie on the frame. Usually, sailors steer with their feet, moving a T-bar, which basically is two pedals. You push with the right foot to turn left, and with the left foot to turn right. Steering with the feet leaves the hands free to use a rope (also called a line or sheet) to maneuver the sail. The sail is used primarily to adjust speed, not for steering. For some maneuvers, such as going around a racing maker, the land sailor will use the sail, but mostly just to adjust the speed to allow for accurate steering [source: Bassano].

One brand, BloKart, uses a hand-operated tiller, so disabled people can sail.The tiller is a lever that helps steer; on a BloKart, it's attached to the wheels, while on a sailboat, it's attached to the rudder underwater that steers the boat [source: Blokart]. In larger boats, the sailor may be enclosed except for the eyes and top of the head in a long, low craft. These sailors look like they've been stuffed, in a reclining position, into a close-fitting rocket ship or experimental aircraft with a sail. In racing, rules in some classes say that standard boats cannot be modified, while open classes regulate only the size of the sail and allow sailors to experiment with designs.

What attracts many people to land sailing is the speed. The speed record, set by Richard Jenkins in March 2009 at Ivanpah Dry Lake on the Nevada-California border, is 126.2 miles per hour (203.1 kilometers per hour). The wind that day was 40 miles per hour (64.4 kilometers per hour) [source: NALSA].

The physics at work is the same as in water sailing, but the results are different because the conditions are different. Forces make things move, and forces can slow or stop moving objects. In sailing, the forces causing motion are the push of the wind on the sail and the pull of the air passing over the curve of the sail, creating lift much like on an airplane wing (but imagine it turned sideways). The forces holding back a water sailboat are the friction of the water on the hull and some friction of air on the boat and sails.

Land sailboats can go faster because their wheels face much less friction on dry surfaces. Because the whole boat is exposed to the air, land sailors meet more air friction, but that doesn't slow a boat nearly as much as water friction [source: Brinson].

Land sailing isn't just sitting back and letting the wind push the boat, though. Sailors must move the boat side to side to maintain that lift.

What's it like to go land sailing? Read on.


Land Sailing Conditions

To stop a speeding land sailboat, you turn into the wind.
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If you try serious land sailing, you're likely to be high as well as dry. The most popular places for land sailing in the United States are on dry lakes in the high deserts in California, Nevada and other Western states.

Dennis Bassano, North American Landing Sailing Association (NALSA) president, estimates that about half of land sailors started out as sailors on water. The rest of them are often people who ride motorcycles or all-terrain vehicles or people who try other sports on America's high deserts and happen to see land sailors while in the area. People see how fast land sailboats can go and want give it a try. There's also a lot of crossover with ice boaters, who in the summer switch out their runners for wheels and take up land sailing.


The primary season for land sailing is March through November. In between, rains make the dry lakes muddy bogs. The federal Bureau of Land Management allows land sailing on some public lands and even encourages it. Powered only by wind, land sailing has less impact on the environment than many sports do [source: Bureau of Land Management].

Some popular land-sailing sites include:

  • Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conversation Area in northwestern Nevada
  • Ivanpah Dry Lake, on the California-Nevada border, near Primm, Nev.
  • The Alvord Desert in Oregon
  • El Mirage Dry Lake near Victorville, Calif.

People who don't live near dry lakes sometimes sail on beaches at low tide, although most American beaches are too regulated or populated. Some people with smaller boats sail on athletic fields, in parking lots or on airstrips, when they can get permission. It takes more skill to sail in these smaller areas, where the boat is more likely to run into an obstruction.

On the dry lakes, the atmosphere is likely to be dusty, and the temperatures can be high. Sailors won't notice the heat once they get going, of course. Unlike in Europe, land sailing sites in the United States tend to be remote, without many amenities. Many people combine sailing with camping.

Read the next page for some tips on land sailing.


Land Sailing Tips

Take it easy, matey. If land sailing sounds interesting to you, don't just rush out and buy a dirtboat. Do a little research first:

  • Rentals and charter trips are available, especially in the Western United Sates, for those who want to try before they buy. Such trips can be a fun vacation as well as a way to decide if you're serious about the sport.
  • Attend local land sailing events to see what's involved. Many events are held spring through fall. The North American Land Sailing Association's Web site is a good place to learn about events and clubs in various locations.
  • Talk to land sailing enthusiasts. Most are passionate about their sport. They love to talk and want the sport to grow.
  • Investigate the various kinds of boats. They range widely in size and price. Land sailing is less expensive than water sailing.
  • Attend the annual America's Landsailing Cup to get a good look at the different types of boats in action.
  • Think about your goals: Do you just want to have fun, or might you want to get into racing? If you like to tinker, you might want to work with your own design in the open classes where the only restriction is the area of the sail [source: Harris].

But with those high speeds, can land sailing be safe? Keep reading to find out.


Land Sailing Safety

When you're likely to reach speeds of 50 miles per hour, it's a good idea to wear a helmet.
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Land sailboats often go four to five times the speed of the wind. With a minimal wind of 10 miles per hour (16 kilometers per hour), you can be racing along at 40 to 50 miles per hour (64 to 80 kilometers per hour). When the wind speed is higher, boats may go two to three times the wind speed. Speeds of 80 miles per hour (128.7 kilometers per hour) are not unusual.

If you're flying along that fast in a boat with no real brakes, you could run into trouble. But land sailing is usually one of the safest of the extreme sports, if sailors use common sense. The first bit of common sense is using protective gear. Land-sailing tours and rentals insist on its use, and most land sailors use it as a matter of choice.


The main types of protective gear are:

  • Helmets: a top priority.
  • Seat belt: Those who go land sailing on beaches usually don't wear seat belts for fear of turning over into the water and becoming trapped. But in the United States, where they are sailing on dry lakes or other hard surface, most people do buckle up.
  • Goggles or other eye wear
  • Gloves
  • Pads: Knee and elbow pads are usually good. The need for other pads may be determined by the type of boat and the position of the sailor -- what body part is likely to take a beating. Some people use shin pads; some use back protectors.

The larger the area for sailing, the safer. On a huge dry lake, there's little to run into. If you have trouble figuring out how to slow or stop the boat, you have room to figure it out. So, how do you stop the boat? Essentially, you stop it by steering it directly into the wind. Coming to a complete halt may take quite a distance. Sailors in smaller boats may drag their feet to help when the boat has almost stopped. Larger, enclosed boats have something like a parking brake to bring the craft to a stop once its speed is down to 4 or 5 miles per hour (6.4 or 8 kilometers per hour).

Those who sail in smaller settings take more risks. In parking lots, sailors can run afoul of light poles and curbs. Problems can arise in popular land sailing areas. If too many boats are sailing close together, some are likely to run into each other.

One of the obvious safety advantages of land sailing over its water cousin is that land sailors are unlikely to drown. If something goes wrong, a land sailor can get out of the boat and start walking.

Until your skills are well developed, it's a good idea not to sail too far from camp or vehicle. If you injure yourself, you don't want to have to trek a long way across a dry desert lake to your vehicle [source: Bassano].

For more information on sailing and other sports, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related articles

  • About Go Landsailing. (Dec. 15, 2009) Go Land
  • "Alvord Desert." U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
  • "An Introduction to Land Sailing." Sailing Ahead. (Dec. 21, 2009)
  • Bassano, Dennis. President, North American Land Sailing Association. Personal interview via telephone. (Dec. 19, 2009)
  • "BloKart: Best Toys on the Planet." BloKart. (Dec. 21, 2009)
  • "Book a Trip -- Get Blown Away!" Land Sailing Tours LLC. (Dec. 22, 2009)
  • Brinson, Lloyd. M. Ed. in Physics, UNC Greensboro. High school physics teacher, retired. Personal interview. Dec. 22, 2009.
  • "Description of Land Sailing." Wind Chaser. (Dec. 21, 2009)
  • Embroden, Nord. "Landsailing in America." American Landsailing Federation Newsletter May 12, 1998. Reprinted on (Dec. 15, 2009)
  • Harris, Mark. Treasurer, North American Land Sailing Association. Personal interview via e-mail, Dec. 19-20, 2009.
  • "Introduction to Land Sailing." Landsailing.Net. (Dec. 15, 2009)
  • "Ivanpah Dry Lake." U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
  • "Manta landsailers." Windpower (Dec. 23, 2009)
  • North American Land Sailing Association. (Dec. 15, 19, 21, 22, 2009)
  • "Off-Highway Vehicle Areas & Trails." U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
  • "The Sirocco, Sirocco Spring, and Sirocco Twin -- Great Fun, Outstanding Performance." Sirocco Land Sailer. (Dec. 21, 2009)
  • Weber, Robert. Southern vice president, North American Land Sailing Association. Personal interview via telephone, Dec. 19, 2009.
  • Weber, Robert. "Water Sailing vs. Hard Surface Sailing."