Sail­ing the sands

With over 12,000 miles of coast­line, who could pos­si­bly be op­posed to a sport that gets you closer to the sand and the sea?

Boating NZ - - Contents - KIA KOROPP

An in­tro­duc­tion to land-yacht­ing in Blokarts.

For cen­turies New Zealan­ders have been coastal crea­tures, cre­at­ing ways to har­ness the wind in their de­pen­dence on the ocean for food and trade. As tech­nol­ogy has de­vel­oped, the op­por­tu­nity to turn the fo­cus from es­sen­tial needs to so­cial in­ter­est has launched a new era of dis­cov­ery – find­ing ways to har­ness the wind for sport.

Now when you head to one of the thou­sands of bays that line New Zealand’s coast, you won’t find hard­ened sea­men and women push­ing their out­rig­ger ca­noes out to sea, but sports­men and women pad­dling out on surf­boards, blow­ing up kites, bal­anc­ing on pad­dle­boards and row­ing surf skis. And – ever so rarely – blast­ing past you in a land yacht. You can prob­a­bly pull up an im­age when some­one men­tions a surf­board, a kite­board or a stand-up pad­dle­board. But what about a land yacht?

If you’ve never heard of one, you are not alone. My first ob­ser­va­tion of one was only a few years ago when I watched a fa­ther teach his son how to con­trol a sail on a breezy day on Muri­wai Beach. Hav­ing had a fa­ther walk me through the same sail­ing prin­ci­ples in a two-me­tre Op­ti­mist sail­ing boat, I was in­trigued to see the same lessons ap­plied on land to a small ve­hi­cle with an at­tached sail.

The child, around age eight, held onto the lead sheet as he re­clined in a three-wheeled cart. “Hold on!” the fa­ther yelled as the boy sheeted in and the cart gained mo­men­tum.

In a split sec­ond the cart cat­a­pulted his son down the beach with such speed that it made my own adren­a­line spike.

“Let out your sheet! Point up into the wind!” the man cried, and a split-sec­ond later the wind over­pow­ered the cart and flipped it side­ways onto the sand. It brought back old mem­o­ries of times on the wa­ter with my fa­ther as he taught me to sail… but here we were, sail­ing down the beach on dry land. What is this wheeled sail-rigged con­trap­tion – and how do I get one one?

Let me in­tro­duce you to the world of land yachts, bet­ter known in New Zealand as ‘Blokarts’ after the Kiwi de­sign name. To­day’s slick lit­tle con­trap­tions may look brand new, but trav­el­ling over­land pro­pelled by the wind is an age-old con­cept. Paint­ings of wind-pro­pelled land carts have been found in the tombs of an­cient Egyp­tian pharaohs and they are de­scribed in some of the ear­li­est Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture.

How­ever, we’ve come a long way from har­ness­ing the wind as a means of trans­porta­tion, turn­ing it in­stead into a pop­u­lar sport.

The present-day ‘wind-wagon’ is of­ten de­scribed as a sail­boat with wheels, but for those un­fa­mil­iar with the sport, this def­i­ni­tion will prob­a­bly bring up the wrong im­age. Think in­stead of a hy­brid be­tween a wind­surfer and a dune buggy.

The mod­ern de­sign is typ­i­cally a three-wheeled cart with an at­tached sail. The cart is driven on a hard sur­face, typ­i­cally on packed sand or dirt. The ve­hi­cle usu­ally has a me­tal and fi­bre­glass frame cradling a sin­gle driver who sits in a re­clined seat. A small steer­ing wheel at­tached to a pul­ley sys­tem con­trols the front wheel.

I re­cently had the op­por­tu­nity to sit in one and as I pulled on my crash hel­met and rac­ing gloves, a sail­boat was the fur­thest thing from my mind. As my pit boss rolled me out onto the run­way, I tucked my­self into a braced po­si­tion and white-knuck­led the steer­ing wheel. My pulse sped up and fear started to seep from the dark­est cor­ners of my sub-con­scious­ness. I read­ied my­self for a high-speed charge into a hor­i­zon­tal crash two me­tres down the run­way.

I re­alised this was like sail­ing a small boat – just a heck of a lot faster!

As I rolled into po­si­tion, I was given my first set of in­struc­tions. I was handed the main­sheet and told to pull in as I turned into the wind and ease the sheet as I turned away. There was no re­verse and no brakes, so I’d be stop­ping ei­ther by means of a fast, side­ways dunk onto a hard sur­face, or by turn­ing into the wind and re­leas­ing the sheet.

As I lis­tened my nerves calmed – this was all very fa­mil­iar. I might be sit­ting in some­thing that re­minded me of a minia­ture For­mula One race car, but I was go­ing to drive it like a sail­boat. I knew this stuff… I could do this!

And therein lies the sail­ing as­pect of the land yacht. Just like a sail­boat, there is a sin­gle mast with a bat­tened sail pro­vid­ing the propul­sion. Just like a sail­boat, all its power comes from the wind. Just like a sail­boat, there are two ways of chang­ing di­rec­tion, ei­ther a tack or a gybe. Does this sound like Sail­ing Ba­sics 101? It does! Learn­ing to drive a land yacht is

essen­tially an ed­u­ca­tion in the fun­da­men­tals of sail­ing.

Un­like other sports where the learn­ing curve is steep, land yacht­ing is easy for a be­gin­ner and the skills de­velop as un­der­stand­ing and com­pe­tence builds. The in­vest­ment in kit is small and driv­ing the kart can be learnt on dry land. It doesn’t de­mand a level of phys­i­cal fit­ness and it can be en­joyed by all ages. Chil­dren as young as nine or ten can get in the driver’s seat and start to learn the me­chan­ics of both steer­ing a car and sail­ing a boat, and adults of all skill lev­els can en­joy a spin down the run­way.

The com­mu­nity sur­round­ing the sport is a tight one and week­end re­gat­tas bring fam­i­lies and en­thu­si­asts to­gether, of­fer­ing a so­cial out­let ev­ery­one can en­joy.

But be warned – land yacht­ing of­fers more than a light­hearted gan­der down the run­way fol­lowed by a few beers, a fam­ily pic­nic and the dis­tri­bu­tion of a few tro­phies. It is clas­si­fied as an ex­treme sport and is one of the fastest wind­driven sports out there.

That lit­tle kart breez­ing down the beach? Oh yes. A land yacht can reach speeds of over four times the wind speed, which ex­ceeds the abil­i­ties of mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar race yachts. For sail­ing en­thu­si­asts, isn’t that a record to im­press?

Fact: The fastest recorded speed at the 35th Amer­ica’s Cup race in a 50-foot state-of-the-art cata­ma­ran was 87 kilo­me­tres per hour. The fastest recorded speed at the 2016 Blokart World Cham­pi­onship in a five-foot, off-the-shelf land yacht was 126 kilo­me­tres per hour. That crash hel­met? Yeah, there’s a rea­son for it. My spin around the track didn’t get me near those speeds. As a novice, I was given a flex­i­ble mast and a smaller sail so that I wasn’t blown over with the first gust of wind.

I was given the thumbs-up to pro­ceed down the run­way. I ten­ta­tively pulled in the sheet and the kart surged for­ward. Be­fore I knew it, I was blast­ing down the track with only inches be­tween me and the un­for­giv­ing ground. The only sound was si­lence, the slap of tread on tar­mac and my pound­ing heart.

Sud­denly, I caught my first gust of wind and the right wheel

lifted off the ground, giv­ing me a side­ways view of the track. A com­peti­tor whizzed past and yelled, “It’s harder to flip than you think!”

Tak­ing this in good faith, I tight­ened my grip on the sheet and pulled in hard. The kart bolted for­ward like a crazed stal­lion with me clutch­ing her sides – we were off, rac­ing the wind.

From my ini­tial con­cen­tra­tion on dam­age con­trol, my fo­cus quickly shifted to ac­cel­er­at­ing my speed and mak­ing tighter turns. My speed built with each cir­cuit around the track and my ini­tial trep­i­da­tion turned to con­fi­dence as I re­alised this was like sail­ing a small boat – just a heck of a lot faster. My eyes were glued to the Win­dex to max­imise my speed over ground and with ev­ery gust I’d hold hard on the sheet and ride the wave on an an­gle, back wheel spin­ning mid-air and me whoop­ing like a mad woman.

Fi­nally – and very re­luc­tantly – I pulled the kart over and clam­bered out of the seat. My host walked up, and with one look at my face said, “I see you have the Blokart grin!” I think it will stay on my face for weeks.

INSETThe writer tries out a Blokart at Ard­more Air­port. RIGHTA spec­tac­u­lar beach pro­vides the set­ting for ex­cit­ing club rac­ing.

ABOVE Blokarters can en­joy close rac­ing with speeds some­times ex­ceed­ing four times the wind speed.

LEFTBlokarts are fast and ex­cit­ing to sail, but easy enough for a be­gin­ner to mas­ter.

TOPAdults of all skill lev­els can en­joy a sail down the beach or run­way. LEFTWeek­end re­gat­tas bring fam­i­lies and en­thu­si­asts to­gether.

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