Land sailors test skills, nerves in Nevada desert

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Updated: 7/18 11:45 am

AUSTIN, Nev. (AP) — Sven Kraja has seen a lot from the pilot's seat of a land yacht.

The world champion racer has sped along breathtaking European beaches and witnessed bloody collisions.

But until a few days ago he hadn't seen anything like the Nevada desert. For the first time in his life Kraja, 43, whipped along an open playa at high speeds for more than two minutes straight.

"It's like a motorsport," said Kraja, who not only races but manufactures sails through his company, Frog Sails. "The speed is a thrill."

A competitive racer for 28 years, Kraja, of Schleswig, Germany, is more accustomed to narrow, rougher terrain along windswept European waterfronts. On the wide, smooth playas of North America, racers have more room and better conditions for long, fast runs.

Kraja is just one of hundreds of competitors who raced July 12-19 in the Landsailing World Championships at Smith Creek Dry Lake in Lander County. It's just the third time since 1990 the global event has been held in the United States and it could be decades before it returns.

Both the remote location and harsh, unpredictable conditions are pushing competitors to their limits, both in terms of logistics and racing skills. Kraja's Frog Sails team arrived at the playa on a customized Citro bus they shipped from Germany to Baltimore then drove to Nevada.

Team member Kai-Uwe Eilts customized the 40-foot, 18-ton rig to haul and house the team and their gear. Eilts, a boat builder by trade, removed much of the seating, installed sleeping, bath and work spaces to accommodate the team even in Spartan conditions such as the playa.

"It's a lot of work but for us it is a lifestyle," said Heiko Hartmann, Kraja's stepfather and a competitor as well, describing the trip that was self-funded with help from Stone Island, an apparel company that sponsors Kraja. Kraja's girlfriend, Gitta Steinhusen, is also a high-level land sailor.

But the Frog Sails team and 12 others that traveled to the event from outside the United States weren't the only ones spending countless hours and untold amounts of money to squeeze every last ounce of speed out of their yachts, some of which can travel at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.

John Eisenlohr of Lakeside, Mont., raced to victory in one of the competitive mini-yacht classes in a sleek, silver rig he built using parts from hardware stores, beating out racers like Kraja who crafted boats with marine parts.

Phil Rothrock, 71, or Portland, Ore., arrived with his 24-foot-high by 19-foot-wide land yacht called the Arthur A., named after his late father who brought him into the sport.

Rothrock, a mathematician, taught himself engineering, aeronautics and metalworking skills to build the shiny, aluminum craft with what is essentially an airplane wing raised vertically serving as a sail. The sleek, silver boat glistens in the sun.

"This is the final iteration," Rothrock said of the Arthur A. "I've made many, many yachts."

Rothrock got his start land sailing in 1980 on the Ivanpah dry lake in Southern California, just southwest of Las Vegas. He fell in love with the sport and the notion of building faster, better boats.

His early wing-sail models featured multiple flaps, like the wing of a commercial airliner. The design eventually evolved into a one-flap model, through much trial and error.

"That began a process of a whole lot of studying, building, breaking and testing," he said. "It is the kind of thing I think about at night. It keeps me awake."

In addition to the challenge of building and racing, land sailing has an element of danger.

Yachts travel at high speeds with pilots reclined in a small seat within a few inches of the ground. Often the only protective gear on the pilot is a helmet and goggles.

Kraja remembers witnessing a serious collision on a beach in Europe in which Hartmann was traveling at high speeds when his yacht struck another that crossed his path.

"It was bleeding bloody everywhere," he said, describing the scene.

The thrill of land sailing can be especially intoxicating for desert racers. European beaches can produce steady, almost predictable winds that propel racers down a narrow strip of sand.

Deserts provide massive, flat playas like Smith Creek, Black Rock and Ivanpah where racers can sail for miles in any direction, oftentimes in winds that can drastically shift speed or direction in minutes.

Racers at the World Championships on Smith Creek spent most of July 13 and 14 baking in the desert heat with virtually no wind. But on the afternoon of July 14, storms started drifting in to the valley and transformed the sky from azure to dark blue and gray and kicked up blinding sandstorms.

In between sandstorms the competitors scrambled to attach appropriate sails for the conditions and participate in races.

"Everybody has been toasting and roasting, frying like a spit of bacon," said sailor Lester Robertson of Carson City, after the wind whipped the playa into a frenzy. "You want wind, it's windy now."

For Mark Thrash, 47, of Perris, Calif., it was worth the drive to Nevada and enduring the harsh conditions to watch the world's top racers compete.

Thrash, a recreational land sailor, transitioned into the sport because he wanted something safer than kite sailing, wore a bandanna over his mouth and tinted goggles on his eyes to protect himself from the elements on the playa. The heat and dust didn't diminish the thrill of watching, he said.

"Those guys go 100 miles per hour," he said of the top competitors. "They are so sleek, they are so beautiful."


©2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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