Nomads With Wings
With its strong winds and endless plains, the Ivanpah Dry Lake is perfect for the desert adventurer’s extreme sport: landsailing
RANDY BADGER ISN'T your typical sailing type. When most people think about sailboat racing, they picture an East Coast sportsman 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 instead of turtlenecks, he wears blue jeans and trucker hats. In place of a wooden sloop, he sails a Manta TwinJammer, which, with its aluminum frame and bench seat, looks more like a lawn chair than a sailboat. This makes sense, since Manta TwinJammers aren’t designed for water, but for land.
Randy and I are racing at 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, the Goose to my Maverick. More than 70 competitors from as far away as Germany have gathered at Ivanpah for a weeklong regatta — the largest of its kind in North America. Rows of campers, pickups, and trailers line the eastern side of the lakebed, which crowns the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve.
I met Randy a year ago through a series of phone calls. I’d been trying to get into Nevada’s landsailing scene, but like most sporting events, the 2021 America’s Landsailing Cup had been canceled because of COVID-19. Yet Randy was so keen to get new blood into the sport that he drove eight hours from Winnemucca to meet me at Ivanpah, which is one of the most famous landsailing destinations on the planet.
From the moment we shook hands, I could tell he was a salt-of-the-earth type. He’s tall and broad-shouldered, and since he had just retired from his job selling boiler feed pumps for power plants, he had plenty of time to go sailing. We tore it up for a few days out on the lakebed, which we had completely to ourselves. Like many evenings during the pandemic, those sunsets spurred discussions of the state of humanity, how we thought the world might change, and most of all, how we looked forward to things going back to normal. I liked Randy right away, and our friendship was one of those weird COVID occurrences — founded on camping chairs, isolated from the rest of the world, with the Mojave Desert as our backdrop.
A year later, the event is back to its former glory, and sailors from near and far are ecstatic to get out on the lakebed once more. “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 blast coming down here. Everybody is willing to help. There’s no ridicule for coming in last, which is good for me, because I’ve been last a lot.”
A pilot's view from the cockpit of a Manta Twinjammer
Randy has a total of three Manta TwinJammers. He found the first one when his grandson was doing fencing work for a neighbor, who was one of the few land sailors in Winnemucca at the time. He had a Manta TwinJammer in his garage, and he gave it to Randy’s grandson. But Randy has nine other grandkids, so naturally, more were required. “There’s no fun standing around,” Randy says. “So, we had to buy some more.” Randy found two additional boats to complete his fleet, which he uses to take his grandkids out on the Black Rock playa.
In fact, the double bench seat on the Manta TwinJammer might be its best feature. They’re perfect for taking beginners out for a spin, and with speeds between 40 and 60 mph, they never fail to excite. A day before the regatta, some of my friends from Vegas came down to check it out, and at one point, we clocked ourselves at 43 mph. The physics of landsailing allow the boats to go faster than the wind, mainly because they have much less drag than standard sailboats, which have to fight the resistance of the water while moving forward. The fastest boats at this event routinely hit 80 mph, and in 2009, Richard Jenkins’ boat, Greenbird, set the sail-powered land speed record at Ivanpah Dry Lake: an insane 126.1 mph.
With speeds like this, landsailing is more in line with aviation, and when racing, competitors are called pilots instead of sailors. The onboard experience is as surreal as it is exhilarating. There’s no engine noise, only the sound of the wind howling in your ears. When big gusts roll through, dust clouds kick up off the lakebed, which, combined w
ith the three massive solar towers across I-15, gives the landscape an apocalyptic feel. The competitors look like something out of a Mad Max movie, wearing helmets, ski goggles and in some cases, motorcycle armor. (Right, the author rips it up in the Manta TwinJammer fleet.)
“There are a lot of people here because everyone has been pent up for a few years and they want to go racing,” says Dennis Bassano, the North American Landsailing Association’s race director. For several decades, Bassano has been the primary organizer for this regatta. “There’s a lot of new people here, too,” he says. “During the pandemic, people were building stuff in their garages, so now they’re down here to test things out, which doesn’t always go as planned.”
In fact, the America’s Landsailing Cup plays host to nearly a dozen different classes of land yachts. The Manta TwinJammer is just one of these, and other types of boats include Standarts, MiniSkeeters, 5.6 Minis, Sportsman, and various International Land and Sandyachting Federation (FISLY) class boats.
Landsailing originally came from the beach towns of northern Europe, where the tides can recede up to 30 feet, leaving large areas of flat open sand on which to sail. Even today, landsailing is a popular European beach sport. With venues close to high schools and youthful beach communities, it isn’t difficult for French or Dutch or Belgian sailors to get into the sport.
The American rendition is different. Most events take place on the salt flats of California and Nevada, often forcing competitors to drive for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to race. Regattas are as much a camping trip as they are a competition, and looking around the camp at Ivanpah, it’s fun to see the different setups. Some people drive RVs with trailers attached. Others bring Sprinter Vans. I’ve been sleeping in the back of my Toyota 4Runner, which I’ve rigged up to fit a mattress in back.
In the mornings, the air smells of coffee and eggs, as sailors start to tinker with their boats. Air compressors rattle; fairing tools whine. Some people’s camps look like Formula One pit stops, with full-sized tool chests wheeled out onto the dirt. Others are much more modest. One guy, Jeff Beck, threw everything in the back of a U-Haul truck and called it a day. He’s got a four-legged camp stove and box spring mattress, as well as a few shelves and drawers, all parceled out like a miniature studio apartment. Other people stay at the resorts in Primm, spending evenings around the slot machines or blackjack tables.
Renee Fields, a competitor from Reno, has a custom Sprinter Van she calls “Bubba.” She’s built a bunk into the side of the cabin, and the rest of the van is a jigsaw puzzle of toolboxes, shelving units, and spare parts. Fields has been racing dirt boats for about eight years now and has quickly risen the ranks to the top of the pack. She’s the defending champion in the Manta TwinJammer fleet, and she also has three other boats she’s racing. “It’s just great to see everyone’s faces again,” she tells me before racing one day. “There’s a lot of ne
w people, which is great since the sport has an aging population. It’s not like Europe, where they get all the high school kids out on the beaches. In America, you have to have this camping spirit. We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, so you have to be able to work on things mechanically, and you have to be able to tolerate a little dust and dirt. You have to be pretty hardy.” (Left, Augie Dale hanging loose in his C Skeeter.)
For most competitors, getting a younger crowd into the game is a top priority. It’s tricky, though, with all the startup costs. First you need a boat, which can be anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Then you need a truck to haul it and tools to fix it, not to mention a place to sleep while you sail it. “It’s kind of an old person’s sport,” Badger says. “I’m not sure the younger generation really knows about landsailing, which is a shame. Ivanpah isn’t far from Vegas if people want to come down and try. We’re always willing to get new people out here. They 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. Across the world, they’re using nature to unplug from the internet, to slow things down a little, and to enjoy each other’s company in new and meaningful ways. Landsailing offers all of that, except for the slowing down part.
“It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had,” Badger says. “It’s just a bunch of people hanging out, enjoying being together, and trying to kick each other’s butts the best they can.”