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Sailing on the sand

Looking across the Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed in the early summer, it doesn’t look so dry. The shimmering heat creates a classic mirage, and the illusion is amplified by the sight of sails sliding along in the distance. On closer examination, what first appear to be sailboats of a fever dream are, in fact, land yachts, wheeled boats that sail the sandy seas of the desert.

“We call them land yachts, dirt boats, sand sailers, land sailers,” said Pete Lyons, who owns and operates Go Land Sailing. “We call them Blokarts (which rhymes with go-carts) a lot these days, because that’s the name of the brand we use, from a New Zealand company.”

Lyons, a Whitney resident, has been running Go Land Sailing since 1995. He started up near Reno but shifted to the Las Vegas Valley in 2004. He still returns to his native Seattle frequently and calls it home. He likes Las Vegas but prefers to take it in smaller doses.

“I came here for the longer season and the better market,” Lyons said. “Sometimes we’re out there seven days a week.”

Lyons shuts down the business in July and August when the dry lake bed just over the border in California gets too hot. He picks it back up in mid-September and runs it until around New Year’s Day before taking a few months off for the winter rains.

“A good rain storm can shut us down for a couple weeks while the water evaporates and the ground hardens back up,” Lyons said. “The surface is erased clean a few times a year. It’s a great, smooth surface, without ruts caused by off-roaders that a lot of area dry lake beds have.”

During the down time, Lyons takes care of general maintenance in his office at 1050 E. Sahara Ave., which is open only by appointment. He changes worn tires, patches sails, repacks bearings and takes care of the never-ending upkeep the vehicles require.

“The good news is that the rain doesn’t come too much during our season,” Lyons said. “We get it in August and the winter, when we usually aren’t out there anyway.”

Ironically, the other thing that can temporarily shut down the business is too much wind.

“Anything over 25 miles per hour can be a little dangerous,” Lyons said. “They’re very safe vehicles, safer than a bicycle or a motorized off-road vehicle, but we always want to err on the side of safety.”

Part of that safety comes from the drivers being strapped into the Blokart, a vehicle with a mast that prevents it from rolling over. While it’s possible to tip one over, you’ll never see one tumble.

For $125 per person, Lyon’s customers get a few hours cruising across miles of the Ivanpah Dry Lake Bed, which is closed to motor vehicles with the exception of about two miles of the eastern edge of the lake that Lyons and his only other guide, Robin Fisher, use to take customers to the staging area. They meet in the parking lot of the Outlet Mall in Primm. The Go Land Sailing van acts as its own sign and portable office.

Until recently, Lyons depended on his company’s website and tourism websites to bring in customers. This season, much of his business has come through groupon.com.

“I’m always fully booked now,” Lyons said. “I’m trying to see if I can squeeze another session into the day.”

Ivanpah is a wilderness preserve under the care of the Bureau of Land Management. Lyons said the BLM limits use to groups of 10 Blokarts for safety reasons. The afternoon winds are usually best for the sport, so they run a pair of two-hour sessions, one starting at 12:30 p.m. and the other starting at 3 p.m. Traffic on Interstate 15 prevents them from having the 3 p.m. session on Fridays and Sundays, but with the longer hours of June, they may expand to three sessions temporarily.

Fisher likes the ease of operation the latest generation of dirt boats provides.

“They fold up so small, and it’s real quick and easy to put them together,” Fisher said. “They’re easy to operate, too. Most folks take right to it and are going in minutes.”

Lyons said that early land sailing vehicles were bigger and less portable, and transporting them was much more like moving a boat. The Blokarts have easily removable masts and wheels and fold up to be less than a foot deep. They can toss them all into the company van with room to spare.

“It’s 10 times easier than sailing on the water,” Lyons said. “It’s much less technical and more intuitive. There’s more instant speed. Anyone can master it in about 10 minutes.”

On a recent visit a Chicago tourist with some sailing experience was flying across the lake bed in seconds. A group from Toronto in town for a bachelor party had less immediate success. With no sailing experience, they soon found themselves stalled and resorted to pushing the tires, like a wheelchair. True to what Lyons had said, within a few minutes they had worked out the trick of traveling perpendicular and going slightly with the wind. They were tacking and jibing, although none of them knew those nautical terms.

“It looks like they’ve got it,” said Fisher. “Now they can just kick back and enjoy the lake. This is a great place to be.”

For more information about Go Land Sailing, visit golandsailing.com or call 482-7245.

Contact Sunrise and Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 380-4532.

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