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By Dave Farmer - Tum Tum, Washington - USA

Dave's latest journey in search of more fun!

As my cat sailing season winds down, my thoughts turn towards a brief fling with sailing in the dirt. Some of the boys gather annually in October on the shores of the dry lake bed of the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon, to play on the playa. It's a 12 hour drive for me, south from Spokane, across the Great Plateau, to the very empty country just east of the magnificent Steens Mountains. I'm loaded up with two land yachts, camping gear, and enough food and libation for a week in the sun.

Approaching the lakebed from the north, I'm distressed to identify drops of water on my windshield. "Hey, this is a DESERT! It's FALL! It's not supposed to rain!" Sure, there was a prediction for 20 to 40 percent chance of rain for Sunday and Monday, but it's been sunny and 80 all week here, and gonna be that again come Tuesday, so say the weather gurus. Hell, any rain will probably never hit the ground! Well, no need to panic. I find Burt and a Manta sailor camped on the edge of the playa late in the afternoon, they're rigged and having a ball. I throw together the little boat, and join 'em, getting in a great 2 hr session till the sun sets. I roll into camp to see the smiling face of my sailing buddy Dave, from San Francisco, who's heard rumours of fun with wind on land, and has come to check it out. We met years ago on a 70' catamaran in Puerto Vallarta, and shared an adventure aboard Flight Risk before she came into my possession. He sails on SF Bay, and I've been trying to scam a ride with him ever since. We throw together a meal, get caught up, and retire to dream of wind.

The day dawns gray and windless, so we brew up a casual breakfast, assemble Johnny's Rocket (the big boat) and eventually put Dave in the Fed 5 for a 30 second ride in dying air. He's pushing it back to camp as the first drops descend. An hour later it's clear that there's not gonna be any sailing anytime soon, so he makes the call to try again another time. And a good call it is! Another hour goes by and Burt and I decide it's time to bail.

Let me tell you about a dry lake bed. This is a terminal lake, the lowest point in a 4000' mountain valley with no outlet. All the water in the drainage ends up here, and stays till it evaporates. It's this phenomena that produces this nearly dead flat surface that we landsailers require. When it's dry, it's a hard clay surface that cracks up like a giant jig saw puzzle. When it gets wet, it first gets unbelievably slick, then paradoxically, incredibly sticky. So when it rains, you've got to make a decision as to when to exit. If it stops within a few hours, and you can stay off it, it dries out and all is well. But if you wait to long and try to drive off the playa, the clay cakes to the tires enough to eventually fill the wheel wells and bring you to a horribly messy halt, requiring serious, time consuming drying before anyone can get to you.

So, throw all the muddy gear in the back of the van, drag the the boats and trailer up into the sage, and gingerly creep off the lake floor. By now it's been raining hard for several hours, we're soaked and 4" taller with the mud sticking to the bottoms of our boots, as we drag the pieces of Burt's boat up to his rig. He's had his fun, so he decides to motor on home. I retire to drier clothes, and a book in the back of the van. It's still raining hard nine hours later. But rain's not so bad with a good hat, a few beers, and a hot springs. And the Alvord graciously offers two from which to choose. Sufficiently cooked, I spend a fitful night listening to the rain drumming on the roof of the van, and pondering how I was ever gonna get my gear off the playa.

Morning arrives cool, windy, and blessedly rain free. Cresting the hill on the way back, what comes into view is not a dry lake bed, but a LAKE! Maybe only a 2" deep lake, but certainly not a sailable surface for these machines. So, how long does it take to dry out? I've got no experience with this, and the guys from Montana and Oregon who might know, haven't shown yet. If they will at all. Maybe they've heard...

Well, looks like a good time to evaluate my expectations. I'm on vacation in a beautiful high desert valley, it's not raining anymore, the hiking's great, I've brought a small library and a guitar. Hanging here sounds better than going home to work. So I park the van, drag all the wet stuff out and spread it out over a multitude of sage bushes, and bag the nearest peak. Dale shows up later that afternoon, first of the Montana contingent. It's still blowing 15 kts, and amazingly, the water is receding. Phil rolls in from Portland shortly thereafter, followed by Lance and Dominique. We gather in Phil's motorhome for an evening repast, discuss our chances, and turn in.

It blows all night, and the sun pops up over the eastern ridge. Dale scurries down to the playa and rigs furiously, and gets a 20 minute ride on the expanding apron, before the wind vaporizes and the temperature starts to climb. Pat and Keith arrive, and soon we're all on the playa riggin' and prayin'. The wind never shows, but we all get tuned up, and the playa continues to dry. Until evening. It starts raining again, not as hard yet. But here we are on the playa again, facing the decision as to whether to pack it all up and get to higher ground, or hope it shuts off before too long. We've got time to prepare a bit before dark, but I can't fit all this junk in the van if I wanna use it for a tent. So we commit to staying, and I spend another restless night periodically peering out the door with my headlamp, assessing the depth of the water on the lakebed. It eventually shuts off after midnight, and by morning we can at least walk around without heels.

Thursday's the day! It's not a lot, maybe 5 to 8 kts, 10 kt puffs if we're lucky. But these machines are amazing! Once they're rolling, they build quickly build apparent wind, and we were seeing boatspeeds in the 30s and 40s. With skill, one can keep them rolling thru the lulls. Without it (like me!), it's easy to grind to an ignominious halt. The boys set out marks, and we spend a fair amount of the day chasing each other upwind and down. Wind is on and off, and we're like lab rats, as long as we get a good ride every once and a while, we'll keep pressing the bar.

I decide to explore the limits of what's sailable, and when nicely powered up downwind I start to investigate how far out towards the center of the playa/lake I can go. At 30+ mph I enter what looks like slightly higher ground, only to be gloriously splattered with a generous coating of milk chocolate muck, as I auger in. A small cackle of glee escapes, only to be tamped down by the 100 yard slog through the mud dragging my little toy back to solid ground. Await a puff, and I'm back on top of the world! Later in the day I jump in the Rocket and work at getting her up to speed.

Friday brings more of the same, light air with occasional lulls, but we're getting dialed in! Keith has mastered the art of keeping her moving. When powered up, the Rocket can hang with the big boys some of the time, which brings a big grin to MY face. Everyone is getting good rides, smiles all around. Phil gets his rig rolling strong, and finds a soft spot like mine, only it's a much bigger deal with his much larger boat. He strolls back to camp to recruit a labor force, and we jump in the pickup to head north for the extraction. Five guys in bare feet does the trick, and he's cruisin' again, just a little less shiny. The wind shuts off as the sun sets, and we have a final pot luck, storytelling, and some very fine stargazing.

Phil rolls out before dawn on Saturday, the rest of us sit on our boats and bullshit, waiting. It's warm and sunny, but it ain't windy, so by early afternoon we're breaking 'em down. A bit of sadness that the fun's over for a while, some promises to meet again soon, and I pull off the playa and head for home, humming. Next weekend I'll put the last catamarans to bed, and dream of the fluffy white stuff to come.


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