Just add wheels.

Title photograph courtesy of Big Al. If you are wondering where that is i’ll tell you later on ; for now i can tell you that it’s not in the UK and not the coast i’m about to talk about at first.

Here’s today’s question  ‘ what do : a green bird, a very fast motorcyle, a desert, a beach and a shed or 3 have in common….look sharp now crew !

Many years ago i lived near the Lancashire coast in the north west of the UK and i think today that it’s one of the bleakest, strangest and most hostile coasts in the country .Most of that coast faces west so it gets the full force of the Irish sea and our dominant weather systems which are from the west and south-west.  The northern end,  which is the coast next to our Lake District is one of the wettest parts of the entire country.                       There isn’t much shelter but what there is there are a few muddy estuaries, rivers and creeks which are more like those on the east coast although a lot more exposed.         From the south there are the Dee and the Mersey rivers , in the middle you’ve got the Ribble (i always referred to it as the ‘Dribble’) then the Wyre and the Lune , and to the north of that is the strange area around Morecambe bay and the estuary of Barrow-in-Furness.

In the winter of one year i regularly rode out to one of those shallow, muddy and extremely tidal rivers (the Wyre) to race an old three-quarter ton class ‘offshore’ yacht usually over a course that would have been about right for dinghy’s….even then you’d have expected and got lots of shouting.  One well know character at the club, well known for his gob, was simply known as ‘motormouth’ ; i sailed with him once and nearly came to blows with him the next time we met !

The river is only a half-tide affair so there’s a whole fleet of deep keeled ‘offshore’ yachts leaning up against dodgy old wooden pilings with extremely green and somewhat rotten decking.  It’s not a very long or wide course to race over so there was a high premium on the deck work which was my one useful racing specialty but i can’t say i enjoyed the sailing very much ; i remember it as always being bitterly cold and riding home afterwards even colder.

Skippool creek (Photograph : visitcleveleys.co)


With my old motorbike i went exploring up and down that bleak coast from the Mersey estuary in the south right up to Fleetwood and Morecambe bay in the north.                       I learnt to sail in the Menai straits and still had friends there so for the first couple of years during my nurse training at Preston i regularly used to ride over to north Wales to race in the straits and the Irish sea circuit.   I only gave that up when my regular boat moved to the south coast ; far to far away to ride down for a race in the Solent……crewing on a boat in the Wyre was my attempt to get at least some sailing and racing done.

North of the Wyre is the Lune with one of the few marina/docks in the whole area and then north of that is Morecambe bay : the latter being a highly dangerous shallow and muddy bay with a very fast moving tide on a big spring.    Commercially it used to be important for prawn/shrimp fishing and the shellfish trade ;  you might remember it for the deaths of a whole crew of Chinese cockle ‘fishermen’ in 2004 when they were cut off by the tide.  Many visitors to my site will know that the sea is at it’s coldest at that time of the year and how easy it is to get stuck in the soft mud and ‘quicksand’ of a bay like that.  The cockle-crew were illegally brought into the country by ‘Triad’ gangs by the way and incidentally smuggled into the country in a shipping container organised by Chinese gangs…..a strange echo of what just happened in Essex.


At the time i had a passing interest in one type of local working sailing boat, the Morecambe bay Shrimp/Prawn trawler or ‘Nobby’ as they are known on that coast.       We had one at Dickies that had been partially converted into a yacht and i’d even considered buying that one and converting it into a liveaboard cruising boat.                   In my explorations of that coast i did actually go looking for ‘Nobby’s’ and it became a useful excuse if i was challenged or asked why i was somewhere…..scruffy bikers being regarded with some suspicion then…as now .  Some time i must tell the story of one of my encounters with the police during another national event that happened near where i lived…the miners strike and why iv’e been wary of the police since then.

When i first thought about my classic boat as cruising boat project it was a Nobby i had in mind because they were fast and tough boats.   They were built to work hard,  sail in shallow bays , lay on a beach nearly upright and they had to deal with the difficult inshore conditions of a lee shore in the Irish sea.  To this day iv’e not yet sailed one and would like to now that i understand gaff rig a lot better.

Morecambe bay prawner (Nobby)


Photo…Morecambe bay maritime museum.



However, this post isn’t really about the Lancashire Nobby much as i would like to put across a post about the history of English working sail : rather, it’s about something else that i saw being done on that coast and i really wanted to have a crack at and never did ie land/sand yachting

Typically my mate Al, down in NZ has a couple of land yachts and they go out ‘cruising’ in them as it sounds as though there are ideal conditions for them in parts of NZ.             As some readers will know we’ve made a couple of trips to NZ ourselves but i don’t remember us ever going to the beaches that Al has been telling me about including ’90-mile’ beach up in the north and some of the beaches on the west coast that front the Tasman sea which, like the Irish sea coast of Lancashire, is a major lee shore….except sunnier !

Photograph courtesy of Big Al.

90 mile beach 11 14 010

The link here, if you’re wondering how the dots all join up, is because the first and only time iv’e actually seen land-yachting happen in the Uk was during my explorations of the Lancashire coast and today i can’t quite remember whether it was down near Southport or maybe at Lytham st Annes.      Whatever and however, one day i was out riding on one of the coast roads heading back north towards home at the time.  It was a grey and blustery ride along a road that ran along a wide expanse of bleak hard-sand foreshore ; i remember that i had a low sand dune to my left and a brisk south-westerly wind blowing in that ear and i wasn’t going very fast because i was trying to get glimpses of the wide beach and shoreline there.     What happened next seemed very weird at the time as i saw the top of a sail and rig whizz past me, seemingly on the beach.    I rode along until i caught up, found several cars in a small car park and what i now recognise as a couple of land yachts ‘parked’ by the cars.

Out of sheer curiosity i pulled up and said hello to one of the land yachters as he climbed out of his rig wearing a leather bikers jacket, a crash helmet and goggles, and sailing salopettes just like the ones i was wearing…..he explained that the leather jacket and helmet combination was very good windproofing and protection and the goggles essential for the sand and spray.   The bloke did offer me the chance to have a go in one and gave me a phone number to arrange a ‘sail’ but sadly i was never able to take him up on the offer.   My impression of his boat was something like ‘go-cart meets Laser dinghy’ which isn’t too far out.

Anyway…i asked Big Al about the whole thing because i know they have a couple of land yachts and it’s quite a big deal down there so here’s the man himself and his response to my questions :

land yacht jazz 004

I asked our man Al about the whole land yachting scene as it is in New Zealand and he responded with some notes and many of the photographs that appear in this post ; what he also did was direct me to have a read of the useful wikipedia page.  What i know now about land yachting can now just about fill the back of a fag packet so v’e used a combination of Al’s notes and the wiki page to put this part of the post together.

Al’s eye view. (Alan Smith video)



First then the classes and types of land yacht.

Wiki….”. There are a number of basic types, or “classes”, of land yachts. Because of the very different nature of each class, they compete separately in races. The largest class of yachts are known as Class 2, which may have masts as large as 8 metres (26 ft). The massive sail area provides significant power, although the speed of Class 2 yachts can sometimes be limited by their large size these are sailed mainly in continental Europe and USA.

The Class 3 is probably the most popular of the large yacht designs, almost identical to the Class 2 in appearance, but significantly smaller. Class 3 yachts are generally made from fiberglass, sometimes in combination with other high-tech lightweight materials, such as carbon fibreKevlar, or various composites, with a wooden rear axle. They are capable of reaching speeds up to 70 miles per hour (113 km/h).

The Class 5 is much smaller style of yacht than the 2 and 3, and is in a very different shape. The pilot still sails the yacht lying down, but unlike the 2 and 3, he lies in a seat that is suspended from or cantilevered off the chassis, rather than inside the body. The chassis is usually made of steel and aluminium, with a fibreglass or carbon–Kevlar seat. Class 5 yachts are capable of reaching speeds up to 60 miles per hour (97 km/h), and some have been faster, closer to 70 miles per hour (113 km/h).

Al says…their boats are class 5 and he bought a couple of them secondhand in NZ and then rebuilt them well enough so that they are reliable….when they were both here i remember him talking about building carbon rigs for them.  I’m surprised how fast they are : Al says he’s had his one up to 68 kph and his partner Nina holds the family record at 91 kph !.     Hearing that i’m now not surprised that one came zipping past me on the beach that day, i reckon he was doing a good 40-45 mph in about 20 knots of wind.

The sport has a much longer history as there are designs for early versions back to the 1600’s (wind wagons) and then even a certain Mr Bleriot got in on the act on the flat coast of northern France with his own designs and even came up with the term “aeroplage” for the place to drive/sail them.

I asked Alan what kind of place and conditions you need for driving land yachts and down in NZ that seems to break down into 2 major types of venue : airfields and beaches.   From what Al tells me, what is needed is plenty of space, good hard sand otherwise a capsize is likely….so, that seems to need a low tide situation at the right time of day and then an exposed coast with a brisk reaching breeze.  I have to assume that what then takes over is the physics of apparent wind just like multihulls : that as the ‘boat’ goes faster the apparent wind comes forward and ultimately the vector gets so extreme that there must come a hard limit on speed vs wind angle.  I checked though and the speed record is much higher than i expected at 126 mph or 202 kph…..knowing Al his attitude will be “100 mph eh ….hold my beer’ !



I really enjoyed putting a post together about Al, Nina and their experiences with land yachting.  Knowing their country even to the small extent that i do i can see why they have the right conditions, some of the time, to really go cruising in these rigs and not for example just do circuits of an airfield.   From there i can also see why we don’t have as active a land yachting scene in the UK, i can think of a few places where we might have the space, the right wind direction and the right kind of beach but they are far and few between.   From what i have found out there is an active land yachting scene just over the channel on the French coast up at the north-eastern end : i think i went there many years ago and do remember some flat, hard sand beaches.

Al said to go and look at the wikipedia page about land yachting, which of course i did, and i note that the other popular venues are the dry lake beds and ‘playa’s’ of the American deserts.  From what i can tell the actual land yachting speed record was made in a dry lake bed in the Mojave desert (Ivanpah dry lake) and is actually held by a Brit….yay ! and here’s a quick cut and paste of the wiki page….

On 26 March 2009, Jenkins broke the world land-speed record for a wind-powered vehicle. He reached 126.1 mph (202.9 km/h) in his land yacht Greenbird on the dry plains of Ivanpah Lake in Nevada. The previous record of 116 mph (187 km/h) was set by American Bob Schumacher in 1999, driving his vehicle the Iron Duck in the same location.

Top speed is actually quite scary. The structure and tyre grip is all at the limit, so keeping it in a straight line under full control takes full concentration,” Jenkins told The Guardian. “

And…..”Greenbird is the fifth iteration of the land yacht that was first known as Windjet. Greenbird is powered by a carbon composite wing that produces thrust similarly to how an airplane wing produces lift.”

Get this.


And this.


Greenbird, it’s designer/pilot and his crew really made me smile.  If you’ve ever seen the film of New Zealander Burt Munro and his record breaking side valve Indian motorcyle ; built in a shed down in Invercargill , or seen anything of what crazy Englishman Colin Furze gets up to in his shed then it’s all from a similar mold as our man Al.  He might be a bit embarrassed by that comparison but he’s actually got the same kind of level of practical skills and imagination that could design and build a record breaking land yacht….that’s not a challenge by the way, just an observation !

More next.

As you can see i got more than a little excited and inspired by all of this and it got me thinking about a project that iv’e always wanted to do but never had the time, space or skills to get started on.  I have a small shed/workshop now and i’m slowly building that up now so that i can take on more difficult projects : i’m also deliberately trying to learn new practical stuff , an example being that i want to learn to weld and work with metal.  As i write this post i’m simultaneously picking Alan’s brain about the basic set-up that i would need so that i can start to do just that.

What i have in mind directly is a steampunk-esque vehicle powered by wind and maybe pedals as the auxiliary drive.  Iv’e always enjoyed the look of steampunk tech and also, as i write, i’m eagerly awaiting the HBO ‘Dark Materials’ series which has a very steampunk aesthetic to it….airships and so on.   I had several attempts at making a steampunk/post apocalyptic airship gondola model out of natural and ‘found’ materials one time and never got very far with that.  For the first time i can exactly envisage my steampunk (sail-punk ?) pedal 3 wheeler , essentially a wind powered tricycle and the ability to weld would be my route in to building the frame.

Whether that comes off is another thing, in real life iv’e got so many jobs and projects on the go, what with the boat and the gardens that it might not happen but it’s daydream territory which is surprisingly creative and enjoyable.

Photo courtesy of Big Al

land yacht jazz 003



Al’s notes

“Land yachts classes, the most common here are class 5 and class 3 these have to be built there used to be a big fleet but as nobody makes anything now (another subject altogether) it has reduced.
Class 5 these are the ones we are currently sailing brought them off trade me years ago in a rough condition did enough rebuild to make them reliable.
Wikapedia has a post on the various classes.
Steering is by foot pedal there is a hand steer lever on the cockpit side for when you do a push start. Brakes, what brakes the sand brake will stop that last little bit when you round up.
class 3, I have the hull shells built but need to build the rest they have a full carbon wing mast soft sail set up
The most common land yacht is the blokart there is a lot of them around as you can buy them and they pack up small, they sail them at Ardmore airport in Auckland and various trips we have been at 90 mile beach when they have their annual meet, as a class 5 is quicker we are not generally popular 
It’s all about apparent wind sailing we sail on the west coast with a SW or west wind 10 to 15 knts is perfect you can sail each way powered up, much more “solid” wind (which it was last trip ) and it gets a bit exciting  if you look at Google maps for Glinks gully we sailed to Poto point and back last couple of trips. 
Other venue is 90 mile beach up north that’s a 2 -3 day trip to get the best of the drive up there, there is a campsite at where we stay. 
We have done the full length of the beach, it isn’t 90 miles 
To go sailing in a perfect world it needs to be a low tide during the middle of the day  and the W/ SW wind. 
Soft sand is a non starter capsize is the usual result  hence the low tide requirements. 
Speed wise Nina has the record at 91.1km/h pretty sketchy at that speed,  I hit 68.7 last trip but you can cruise in the 40 – 50 brkt obviously wind depending. 
Trim wise every little tweak makes a difference I raked my mast a few deg further forward as I was sliding sideways, much improved, outhaul etc is all important for sail shape, if it’s light you can push the boom up to windward by hand and get more drive. Once you get going the wind comes forward it’s all on 
Photographs courtesy of Big Al.

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