Land Yachting (apparently pronounced with a hard “ch” sound, at least by our safety briefer!). It’s an interesting concept. Basically, you take a boat-like vehicle on wheels, and attach what looks a lot like a slightly-larger-than-windsurfing-sized sail onto it, and as soon as a gust of wind comes along in the right direction you’re OFF! Of course you’re entirely dependent on mother nature’s whims to ensure enough power to keep you moving…. but we’ll get to that in a little bit. Anyway, land yachting (sometimes called land sailing), at least here, involves sort of laying down on a 3-wheeled vehicle, and pulling a rope to tighten or loosen the sail above you. This will, respectively, increase or decrease your speed by changing wind resistance. Then, to steer, you use foot pedals to change the angle of the sail. The land yachts are very easy to control, and with doubles and singles, and various sizes, there’s something that’s appropriate for everyone. Just be careful and wear your helmet, as I did see someone in our group get beaned by the boom at one point!!
The Land Yachting center we went to was in the Grand Barra desert, about a 90 minutes drive away from downtown Djibouti Ville. A 4WD vehicle is recommended for the trip, as you do have to drive across the desert sand to get to the center, and/or down a fairly bumpy & rock-strewn road to get to the Center. We set out from Djibouti pretty early on a Friday morning (as Friday is the weekend in Djibouti – 6 day work-week, Saturday to Thursday – but I think I’ve referenced that before), and got there well before lunch time. We had the place to ourselves, which was good because we were with a pretty big group. In fact, you can actually rent out the whole center for your group if you prefer. We had come out from Djibouti Ville in a caravan of vehicles, trading wise-ass remarks over our hand radios along the way. Isn’t that what they are made for? 🙂 It reminded me of a certain regular (if not quite annual) 8+ hour road-trip some of my friends and I take up the coast of the northeast US, during which the use of our walkie-talkies has allowed us to ensure that everyone makes it to the same spontaneous stops along the way. That led to our discovery of what is now our favorite food stop: Super Duper Weenie, in Fairfield, Connecticut, and to the assigning of various radio nicknames. But I digress.
It was around 11am when the firsts amongst our group climbed into a land yacht, and strapped on their helmets. The land yacht club staff gave them a running start, and they were off! Well, at least for a few yards….. then they stalled and got another good shove. Then they waited a little bit longer before getting another shove, and finally, a gust of wind came along, and they started to move a little bit. But not too much. They spent a good chunk of time getting pushed along by staff, and some even tried to treat the yachts more like a giant skateboard with a sail, pushing off the ground with their feet. After watching them for a little while, I decided to give it a go myself. I strapped on my helmet, and climbed into a single person yacht. After taking a moment to familiarize myself with the controls, I found myself being pushed out away from the center by one of the employees of the center.
I picked up a little speed as he ran, but then found myself slowing down again, and eventually coming to a stop. One of my coworkers, P, who was out with us for the day came over to give me another shove in the right direction. Again, I went a short distance before stalling again. P came back over again and gave me another good push, running behind my yacht as he pushed, until finally a gust of wind came in the right direction, and I caught it with my sail. And then I was off!! I headed off towards the white flag off in the distance they told us to use as a marker. I found myself quickly flying across the desert sand, farther and farther from the center, and closer to that white flag. Then, the wind died down again, as I started to turn to head back to the center. I realized that if I didn’t turn back soon, and if I didn’t catch a gust of wind to bring me back, I’d have to walk and push my land yacht all the way back, so it was probably a good idea to stop where I was.
I started to turn around, and came to a full stop about half-way through my turn. I looked at the far off land-yachting center, and hoped for a gust of wind. I alternately tightened and loosened the sail by pulling on the rope, hoping to catch the right gust of wind at the right moment….. in vain. I tried changing the direction of the wheels in the hopes of turning in the right angle to catch even the faintest breeze. No luck. So I waited. Then I leaned out the side of the yacht to try to push off the ground with my hands….. what I wouldn’t have given for an oar in this particular moment! So a slight roll in a forward direction, then another shove off the ground, and all I was left with was one foot less of distance between me and the far off land-yachting center, and dirty hands. I sat a few minutes longer before giving up and climbing out of my yacht. I stood up, and loosened my hold on the rope. The boom swung around so that it was perpendicular to the base, and the strangest thing happened: it started to catch a breeze and move the yacht! Fantastic! Except that I wasn’t in it!! Now, I would love to tell you that I gracefully slid back into the moving yacht, but I suspect that “frantically fumbled” into it is closer to how a spectator might describe it, as I quickly tried to get back into the seat to regain control of the now moving vehicle. Luckily, it isn’t complicated to get control of the lightweight cab, so as soon as I clamored back into it I was able to get control of the sail and steer myself in the right direction. I was amazed at how much speed I picked up in a short period of time! I covered the distance back to the center in a matter of minutes, and then realized that there is no brake……. without a second to spare, I figured out how to turn into the wind to stop, just in time to keep me from bowling for coworkers as I quickly returned to the center. Having narrowly avoided mowing down my friends, I resisted the urge for one more run, and climbed out of my land yacht, thus putting an end to my Grand Barra land yachting adventure.
Until the next adventure,
As an aside, if you’re interested in an article about a race that happens in this part of the desert each year, click on this link.