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Land Sailing Finds a Beachhead in Bonaire

March 24, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell
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Sailing that Christopher Cross never had in mind is a wind sport popular in the ABC island of Bonaire.

I've sailed the British Virgin Islands. I've sailed off the coast of Tangiers. I've sailed off Martha's Vineyard.

So what the heck am I doing sailing on dry land?

In a contraption that looks like a go-kart but attached to a sail -- a silly grin pasted on my face -- I'm whipping around a track really, really fast on the island of Bonaire in the Dutch Caribbean.

As a kid, I always loved go-karts. So, when I heard the only landsailing track in the Caribbean for "blokarts" -- go-karts powered by the wind -- was on Bonaire, better-known as a diver's and snorkeler's paradise, I eagerly signed up.

The downside: no brakes. The plus side: the freedom to sail at the speed and whim of the wind; no engine, so it's a "green" sport with no carbon emissions; no danger of toppling into the water, and no need to duck when the sail turns, either.

"Landsailers can reach five times the wind speed, much faster than windsurfing. On a good day, you can do about 30-35 miles an hour here," said Nelson Croft, a Santa Monica native who owns Landsailing Bonaire. "It's due to friction and momentum, and hardly any resistance."

After being shown a map that suggested I "tack" -- turn into the wind -- at a certain point near the sea, and "gybe" -- turn from the wind -- at another point, I was then buckled into my seat belt by a long-haired, bleached-blond Briton, Stephen Thuell, whose accent betrayed years in Zimbabwe, Australia and Holland.

I tried to ignore the notice posted that this could be dangerous unless I was careful.

The map tips meant nothing for two reasons, I soon found: All my previous sailing had been as a passenger only, sipping wine and admiring the scenery, not actually steering the boat.

And when I was actually on the track, sheer survival instinct took over as I soon picked up speed faster than I could possibly imagine.

Yanking on a rope attached to the sail meant I could lure the wind into starting, and I did it as impatiently as possible. But once sailing began, I found there was no way to stop, unless the wind died down, or --if I didn't feel like hurtling around the track forever -- I deliberately crashed into the tires placed in the center, painless but dusty.

A Pristine Environment

Flat, dry, cactus-and-mesquite-covered, and dotted with houses in vivid primary colors like yellow, sky-blue, orange and mustard, Bonaire is one of three of the "ABC islands" -- Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao -- off the Venezuela coast. There is spectacular scuba-diving and snorkeling due to its pristine marine environment -- its crystal-clear waters and reefs were declared a National Marine Park in 1979 -- on Bonaire, and almost 100 dive spots dot its southern coast.

I even snorkeled across the street from Flamingo International Airport in Kralendijk, the capital.

But its northern coast is known for wind sports, like windsurfing and kite-boarding, due to steady trade winds year-round. Blokarts would be a good fit, Croft thought, so he opened his landsail center here, a 10-minute drive from Kralendijk.

Landsailing is practiced on flat, wide-open terrain, like the desert near Las Vegas and Reno, and near Los Angeles. In Europe, it's practiced on beaches in Holland, Belgium and Britain, and in Australia and New Zealand, explained Croft.

Though windsailing first began with wooden sailships and later with fiberglass hulls, the blokarts he uses have very light, plastic sails about 3 square meters in size and easy-to-handle carts, invented by a New Zealand-based company, Blokart International, in 1999.

After meeting the Blokart people a few years ago, he decided, in one of those blessed midlife transitions, to trade corporate life for the Caribbean.

Considered the longest purpose-built landsail track in the world (you can landsail on Aruba, but not on a track), it's coated with a by-product of salt production. Salt, in fact, is the reason why Bonaire was colonized in the 17th century by the Dutch West India Company, as it was in demand to preserve fish and meat before refrigeration. It's still Bonaire's major export.

The salt flats on Bonaire's southernmost tip are one of the most surreal sights I've ever seen: soft pink water on my left, turquoise Caribbean on my right; white pyramids of salt, resembling snow-blanketed mountains, towering in the distance.

The tiny island does have vestiges of Holocaust history: During World War II, Bonaire served as an internment camp for German crew. After the Netherlands was invaded in 1940, much more populous Curaçao seized all German ships, placing their crew of nearly 500 in internment on Bonaire until the war was over.

For more information, see: www.infobonaire.com.

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