Scantily clad French land sailors in 1990. | Pierre Bessard/AFP/Getty Images
Scantily clad French land sailors in 1990. | Pierre Bessard/AFP/Getty Images

How to Turn a Desert Vacation Into a Sailing Adventure (Minus the Boat)

No water? No problem.

Spend some time at Ivanpah Dry Lake, nestled in the northern end of the Mojave National Preserve about 30 minutes from Vegas, and you might start to see things. Here on the Pleistocene playa, the lake bed is cracked yet coated with a smooth sheen; the post-apocalyptic setting of mountain-fringed nothingness both dusty and, in the clashing temperatures, veiled with a watery mirage. So much so that when you see the land yachts—curious three-wheeled wind-powered buggies slicing through the nothingness with shark-like fins—you might believe they’re actual sailboats.

And depending on when you visit, you may even spot an influx of boats that don’t float. Because unlike other dry lake beds in the area—utilized year-round for everything from off-road adventures to camping to art-festival shenanigans to filming movies like Casino—the Bureau of Land Management takes measures to preserve Ivanpah for the use of non-motorized wind craft. It’s thus considered one of the smoothest landsailing courses in the world, akin to ice boating’s frozen lakes. And with winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour, it’s a regular destination for adrenaline junkies participating in elite regattas like the America’s Land Sailing Cup, a multi-vehicle competition put on by the North American Land Sailing Association, as well as the solo-style Blokart Worlds (it rhymes with go-cart).

Goin' fast on Ivanpah, apparently sponsored by Smirnoff. | Bob Martin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was here in Ivanpah that British engineer Richard Jenkins set the record for land yachting, reaching a whopping 126.1 miles per hour in the sleek alien-like Ecotricity Greenbird, which favored a carbon airplane-like wing over a sail (land yachts indeed come in all shapes and sizes). It was also here that the latest Blokart record was set, tied by two competitors—AKA pilots—in 2018.

“They were out on the playa and they looked at each other and could see one of those dust storms coming their way,” says Andrew Sands, co-owner of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures and an internationally-ranked pilot himself. “They gave a thumbs up that they were gonna take their chances and keep on sailing.” That day, Scott Young from Arizona and Dave Lussier from Rhode Island both defied the odds by clocking in at a record 77.7 miles per hour—all with their bums hovering just a few inches off the ground.

Before a couple of months ago, I’d never even heard of land sailing, let alone seen a yacht on wheels. But then I found myself in the breezy Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire, watching the wind-powered go-karts whip around and around a rubbly oval track. Here, some riders could care less about speed. And why would they, when the scenery beckons you to relax? To the right, the sea splashed high up against rocks, while on the left, a bored donkey stood, grazing near cacti. Every so often, an iguana would cross the track. “I’m pretty sure there’s an iguana brothel on the center of the track at the top there,” says Donna Hudgeon, co-owner of the company and Sands’s wife. “I’d be surprised if you hadn’t seen an iguana.”

Though it’s the first time the sport and I have crossed paths, some iteration of land sailing has been around pretty much since wheels became light enough to be mobilized by wind power. There’s evidence Ancient Egyptians tooled around on their version of the vehicle, while texts and paintings suggest that the Ming Dynasty was rife with carriages equipped with sails. During Westward Expansion in the 19th century, the US had their own wind-powered carts, including—in true American style—one resourceful entrepreneur who attempted to bypass horses and harness the wind for profit, using it to transport passengers over the rolling plains. It failed on its maiden voyage, but he still earned an enviable nickname: Wind Wagon Thomas.

A 1979 homemade rig in Denver. Probably going to the grocery store. | Glen Martin/ The Denver Post/ Getty Images

In 1898, a pair of Belgian brothers created what is regarded as the first-ever recreational land yacht, followed by the first competition in Belgium in 1909. Increased vehicle production led to land yachting clubs springing up on the beaches of France in the 1950s. While the rest of the world typically powered their sand buggies with ocean breezes, when the US got in on the action about a decade later, it prompted a convergence of individualist inventors intent on making good use of the country’s ample dry lake beds and rugged deserts. Today, the sport goes by a slew of monikers around the world, tailored to the countries that practice them and the terrain they race: From sand sailing to land yachting, beach sailing, wind karting, char à voile (France) and carrovelismo (Argentina). The most illustrious? Dirt boating. That one’s all American.

In the US, you’re probably most likely to encounter the homegrown Manta Landsailer, first produced in 1974 in Oakland, California. But in Bonaire, the vehicles of choice are Blokarts—also with its own verb, blokarting—a relative newcomer in the history of the sport and perhaps the easiest for a beginner to navigate. The buggies were created in 1999 when Paul Beckett, an avid land sailor and hang glider, wanted to create a more accessible toy that allowed everyday consumers to zip around the beaches of New Zealand.

Competitors earlier this year in Brean Sands, England. | Michael Steele/Getty Images Sport

Unlike the Manta, which you steer with your feet, Blokarts only require your hands for both steering and adjusting the sail , making it adaptable for a variety of users including paraplegics and lower extremity amputees. The karts also fold up neatly into a suitcase for transport, and are easily assembled once you’re ready to hit the sand. Throw it in your trunk and take it to the beach, or check it at the airport for your competition at Ivanpah. Sails come in four sizes and the whole rig starts at around $4,000 each.

“New Zealanders tend to be very inventive, DIY kind of people. There were versions of land yachts out there, but nothing that was repeatable, just something someone put together in their garage,” says Hudgeon. “So when Blokart hit the scene, that was it. Everyone just jumped onto it like ‘Hey, this is super easy.’”

For one half of the Bonaire Landsailing Adventures husband-wife team, it was definitely love at first sight. “Paul sent me out on the track with his Blokart to give it a try, and he had to come out at the end of the day to collect me,” recalls Sands. “I was still sailing around the track.”

Today, Blokart is sold in 27 countries, including Bonaire. Already a go-to for kitesurfing and wind sailing (Bonaire is a breeding ground for some of the world’s top windsurfers), opening a land sailing venture on the island seemed like a natural fit. Hudgeon and Sands looked at wind profiles—the space had to be flat and breezy year-round—but what clinched it was the personality of the island itself.

“The thing about Bonaire, is that the people that come here aren’t necessarily the kind that want to bob around on a beach,” says Hudgeon. “They’re doing people. They’re active.”

Scenery with a side of sport in Bonaire. | Courtesy of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures

That is exactly what I’m there for: to do. Sporting my helmet and a pair of provided gloves, I half-listen to the debriefing—things like pull the rope to speed up, let it out to slow down, have fun. But watching participants circle the track in their little papooses, I get a little nervous. The truth is, I’ve never been good on wheels. In fact, I think the word once used to describe my driving skills was “nuisance.” Apparently, if you have sailing experience and know your tacks from your jibes, that can help. I don’t, but I’m assured no experience is necessary.

“We get all types,” says Hudgeon. “The hotshots who are like ‘Whoa this is a lot more fun that I thought it would be,’ the nervous people who are proud of themselves that they’ve done something that they didn’t think they could do, and the grandmothers that show up and say there’s no way they’re gonna go out there, that they’re just there to take the photo.” Yet after some convincing, those grandmas get out on the track and it’s an entirely different story: “They realize how easy it is and how much control they have, and it’s just so funny to see them out there egging on and racing the grandkids.”

The trick, I later find out, is to start off cautiously, getting to know the track over a couple of revolutions before getting fancy. The point is to feel the nuances of the wind and the sensitive adjustments to the rope. If you lose steam and get stuck, no big—someone will be there to push you back in. It’s pretty much idiot-proof. Unless, of course, you try to do too much, too soon.

I witness this as a guy—a “hotshot,” Hudgeon would say—comes speeding too fast around a turn, trying to overtake a buddy. He goes up on two wheels and promptly tips over. Luckily, he remembered to keep his elbows inside the steel cage—something else we’re told in the debriefing. After checking him out, Hudgeon finds the only thing bruised is his ego.

Snug as a bug in a Blokart. | Courtesy of Bonaire Landsailing Adventures

To get started with land sailing, you don’t need to buy your own vehicle just yet. Donna advises finding a club or course near you via the North American Land Sailing Association, Blokart’s website, or the International Sand Yachting Federation. They’ll usually have one on hand you can try out. Through these sites, you’ll also find retailers and plenty of ways to link up with like-minded adventurers.

I make a note to check it out when I get back home—New York and New Jersey have a few club locations that look promising. Back on the course in Bonaire, though, it takes just a few laps, including a little bit of stalling and a lot of bumping into the tires lining the course, but I eventually get the hang of it. The only obstacle I can’t avoid? A resident iguana leisurely snaking his way across my path.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Plot twist: The real daredevil was the iguana.