While land-sailing is not too well known in Britain, it is well established in France and even forms part of the school sports curriculum. Land-yachts are rather odd- looking things: imagine a windsurfer and replace the board with a three-wheeled cockpit. You lie snugly in the body while steering with pedals, which are hidden at the bottom of the craft. The accelerator is the sail, which is regulated by a sheet rope that dangles temptingly above your nose.
Gordon, my instructor, reassured me on the telephone that it would stand me in good stead if I had sailed before. Unfortunately he has never seen me sail. Nevertheless there was no going back on my have-a-go date with the Cefn Sidan Club.
After brief introductions two other pupils and I wheeled our land-yacht down to the beach. We were promptly given a run-through of the three basic rules. Number one: when told to stop the craft, respond immediately by sailing directly into the wind - I already felt a little out of my depth. Second: steer clear of people and animals at all times. And third: when you are not sailing, stand close to the safety bollard. Even if a land- yacht comes hurtling towards us, we were told, it was vital to stay glued to the spot. It is far easier for a land-sailor to avoid one solid group than it is to steer a zig-zag course through scattering hordes of people.
That was the theory done with; now it was time to get on and learn. Gordon is a great believer in learning through practice. A course was set out for us to follow. Our goal was to make a figure of eight around two bollards. My fellow land-yachters, Alan and Horris, were true gentlemen: I was nominated as the first guinea pig to attack the course. I climbed into the cockpit and found that lying down on the job was surprisingly comfortable. With an encouraging push from Gordon I picked up steam and began to ease myself around the course. At first steering did not seem too difficult as the pedals responded with ease. I successfully completed two respectable figure- eights. Then the wind got up.
This change in the weather made my tracks resemble random snail trails and I found that the faster I went the harder it was to steer. My land- yacht started whipping along the course and I sent the bollards flying. This was more like it - now I was really shifting.
Land-sailing is a very safe sport. (It is compulsory to wear a helmet and seat belt.) In its 15 years of existence the Cefn Sidan Club has witnessed only one broken ankle. Nevertheless, being in such a small craft and moving at speeds of up to 70mph can be scary. You feel a bit vulnerable, but your fears are quite groundless because of the high degree of protection you have.
Gordon told me I had been whizzing along at just 40mph. But, believe me, when you are lying that low to the ground 40mph feels fast. The power of these speeds was brought home to us by something that happened to one of my fellow students. Within two loops of the course, and at great speed, he was already heading for an accident - right for the safety bollard, and us. With great difficulty, I managed to stay rooted to the spot. The other pupil fled, looking over his shoulder with trepidation as the land- yacht bore down on him.
The next stage of our lesson involved jibing or, in other words, turning away from the wind. This is the quickest kind of turn you can do and I soon found that with this manoeuvre it was pointless trying to steer while in the turn because the slightest movement will send you flying off-track. You have to set your course carefully before going into a corner and pray that you get it right. Before you realise it, the land-yacht will have been sucked into the turn and you are being spat out at the other end.
As if this wasn't enough to contend with, Gordon now decided to introduce us to the sheet rope. Pulling it in makes you go faster; letting it out slows you down. Driving into the jibe turn we were told to pull the rope in to accelerate. This time the jibe turn was a complete blur. At the end I just managed to grab sight of the end marker, force my foot down on the pedal and let the sheet rope out to give myself the required leeway to get back on-track.
Sadly my three-hour lesson was soon over. I had learnt within a short period how to landsail and felt I understood the basics. And two-wheeled turns? These would have to wait for lesson two.
When to go
There is no season for land-sailing; it is a year-round sport - as long as you are willing to brave cold winds in winter. Remember to wear warm and comfortable clothing, and waterproofs are a must.
Where to go
To find out about venues and sailing days, contact the following clubs:
Cefn Sidan SYC, 1 Meadow Street, Cockett, Swansea, South Wales (tel: 01792 519608);
Anglia L.Y.C., 3 Earls Gardens, Royston, Herts (tel: 01763 247138);
Brean SYC, 15 Thatcham Court, Yeovil, Somerset (tel: 01935 72583);
Fylde ISYC, 80 Kipling Drive, Marton, Blackpool, Lancs (tel: 01253 697164); Kernow LYC, Mylor Yacht Harbour, Nr Falmouth, Cornwall (tel: 01326 376191);
Doug Sharp, 3 Eastwood Ave, Sandringham Park, Blyth, Northumberland (tel: 0191-281 0405).
The following prices are for Cefn Sidan Club. (Other clubs will have slightly varied prices although they are all in the same price range.)
Annual membership: pounds 40 per year. Yacht hire: pounds 10 per day for full members.
Beginners: pounds 10 for three-month insurance and hire of the yacht for four sessions with a tutor.
Extra kit is free, and, for example, includes helmets, gloves and goggles. If you want to buy your own land-yacht, you can get a good second-hand one for pounds 500. A new basic training yacht will cost from pounds 1,200, and a new racing yacht costs around pounds 2,000.
The British Federation of Sand and Land Yacht Clubs national information line (tel: 01509 842292).