Sailing Across the Plains and Desert

By Beacon Staff

LAKESIDE – A handwritten message on the sail of John Eisenlohr’s champion landsailing boat reads: “Made From Trees and Glue.”

His boat is an anomaly. Most successful landsailing boats use steel and aluminum, fiberglass, carbon and Kevlar for a combination of aerodynamics and power that sends them hurtling across dry lakebeds in desert regions.

But as a custom cabinetmaker, wood is Eisenlohr’s material of choice. And it’s working: At speeds of around 80 miles per hour, Wingnut III is one of the fastest landsailing boats in the United States and Eisenlohr is this year’s Class IV winner of the America’s Land Sailing Cup Regatta, the sport’s premier race in this country.

“I’m the fringe within the fringe sport,” Eisenlohr said.

At its most basic, landsailing is sailing and racing on land in modified boats. Boats vary in type and size, but they’re typically three-wheeled vehicles that function much like a sailboat, except that they’re operated from a sitting or lying position and are steered by pedals or hand levers. The sport works best in windy, flat areas, and races often take place on beaches, dry lakebeds and airfields.

“There’s nowhere really to do it here in Montana,” Eisenlohr, who lives in Lakeside and runs Lakeside Cabinetry, said. “The closest dry lake is the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon.”

Racecourses are set with windward and leeward marks spaced a few miles apart, Eisenlohr said. By sailing across the wind rather than being pushed by it, a landsailing boat can reach speeds up to five times as fast as the wind by using the velocity of its own movement to create an additional wind current.

Competitors wedge their bodies into the boat’s fuselage, leaving only their helmeted heads showing. They start from a dead stop and tack the boat at about 35 degree angles upwind to the windward mark. When they round the windward mark, they jibe at wide angles to reach the leeward mark. Races are usually three or four laps, Eisenlohr said, and last about 20 minutes.

The landsailing speed record is 117 miles per hour. There are no brakes.

“You have to give yourself plenty of room to maneuver and you can tip over if you’re not careful,” Eisenlohr said. “It’s really a matter of understanding the science.”

And it’s there that Eisenlohr excels.

While he enjoys the adrenaline rush and competition of racing, Eisenlohr describes designing and building the boats as “my thing.” His cabinetry shop doubles as his boatbuilding and lab-testing space.

To see what wing sections and flap combinations work best, Eisenlohr has constructed his own wind tunnel out of plywood, kitchen scales and a fan normally used to clear the air during cabinetry work. When air is drawn through the tunnel, a pendulum swings, registering weight in pounds on the scales. The backward motion measures drag, and the upward motion lift.

More than a dozen miniature wing prototypes line a windowsill by the wind tunnel. “I ended up taking a competitor’s design and making it better,” he said of Wingnut III. When asked how much better, he smiles and replies, “I went from not beating him to beating him.”

After testing and tinkering, Eisenlohr uses his carpentry skill to build each piece of his boats, including the sails, with wood by hand. Larger boats take about six months to complete, and Eisenlohr estimates he’s made about a dozen in all. He takes a relaxed and open approach to competition, sharing many of his designs online and selling some of his wing kits.

“They still have to figure a lot of it out themselves,” he said. “And I try to encourage as many people as I can to get into the sport.”

Eisenlohr started landsailing as child, when his father went to work for “soft-water” boat builders in California and eventually ended up working on landsailing boats. During the week, the family would work on building the boats, and on the weekend they’d go to the desert to race.

Now, Eisenlohr works on boats and races with his son, Brian, and nephew, Will. During the winter, they adapt the land boats to ice and ice sail – essentially traveling across ice in a boat on blades or runners – on Somers Bay or Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena.

Still, Eisenlohr looks forward to warmer months when he can take the boat on land: “You know the desert won’t fall out from under you,” he said.

Iceboating at Somers Bay