Interview with Street Sailor Robert Torline
By Tim Garcia
Q: So, tell me about this little trip that youíre planning to take?
A: My objective is to cross the United States under sail power - not on water, but over land. I will use a standard Street Sailor (see www.streetsailing.com) and windsurfing equipment. Iím calling the project "Sail Across America."
Q: Sounds amazing! What roads will you take?
A: The route will run South to North from the Mexican border crossing at Brownsville, TX to Maida, North Dakota on the Canadian border. There is quite a network of county and farm roads that will provide plenty of options based on wind direction. The route is 2,181 miles and passes through 99 towns/villages. For legal and safety reasons Iíll stay off freeways and highways. There are even a few miles of dirt roads on the route to keep things interesting.
Q: What about the cops? Is this legal? Wonít they try to chase you off the roads?
A: I have been in touch with the Nebraska Highway Patrol who said that as long as I follow the laws other road vehicles must follow, I will be okay. I consider myself to be in the same category as a bicycle.
Q: Why are you doing this?
A: Several reasons:
1) I love the purity of it. You are using the natural power of the wind to get where you want to be. Man has been crossing oceans under sail for centuries. Crossing an entire country overland is something entirely new and challenging that hasnít been done before. Until recently it was not feasible to sail on the roadways with conventional land sailors Ė they are too wide with fixed masts that wonít clear bridges & power lines. With the advent of the Street Sailor, I have the cross sectional profile and maneuverability of a bicyclist riding along the shoulder of the road. The mast only stands 15í and can easily lower under overhead obstructions.
2) Challenge. Our society is so surgically safe and sterile. Itís become the national pastime to view others facing challenges on TV (Survivor!). I prefer to be the one out there facing them myself. Itís the Lewis and Clark gene, to venture out, to find what your limitations are. To me, thatís when I really feel alive! Its like the adage goes, "a ship in the harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."
3) To increase the publicís awareness of alternative sources of transportation and energy. According to Worldwatch Institute, wind power is the fastest-growing alternative energy source with a 22% annual growth rate and with todayís gas and electricity prices, the timing is right for a trip like this. Not that I think wind-powered travel is the future, it just shows what is possible with a little imagination.
4) To promote the sport of Street Sailing. It is already popular on the French and Belgian beaches, but is still an emerging sport in the US with only a handful of participants.
5) Okay, I admit it: Iíve always wanted to hold an official World Record.
Q: So this will qualify for a new world record? Explain.
A: Iíve contacted Guinness Media with a project proposal which they reviewed and sent back qualifying guidelines for new records that include video documentary, logbook, witness signatures, etc. The existing record for distance landsailing is the ĎTransat des Sablesí race held in Mauritania. It consisted of 8 daily stage races of up to 100 miles each. My trip will be at least twice as far.
Q: You sound like a nutty kind of a guy, what other "crazy" things have you done?
A: That depends on your definition of crazy! I have always been pushing my physical limits. I was a professional exhibition high diver for 14 years, performing dives daily from 80-100í into water, lighting myself on fire, clown diving, acrobatics, etc. Iíve competed off the cliffs at Acapulco three separate times, taking the bronze at the 1993 championships.
Of more relevance to this project, Iíve done some long distance windsurfing passages in the Philippines and Micronesia. On yachts Iíve sailed across the Pacific Ocean, down nearly the entire length of the Mississippi River, Mexico to Columbia via the Panama Canal and beyond. I love to Scuba dive, having dived with the Hammerhead Sharks at Cocos Island off Costa Rica, Bungee jumped in South Africa and skydived in Hawaii. Iím looking for another challenge Ė this one sounds completely normal to me.
Q: Who are your heroes?
A: I really admire the long distance around the world sailors Bruno Peyron, Peter Blake and Christophe Auguin, each of whom are famous for winning different around the world races, yet share the passion for global racing. I also admire the mountaineers who have done some extraordinary climbing and lived to write about it like David Breashears and the crazy Swede Goran Kropp.
Q: When does the event take place?
A: I plan to depart from the Brownsville Mexican border crossing precisely at dawn on Sunday, April 29, 2001 and finish at Maida, ND on June 16, 2001.
Q: How long do you figure it will take?
A: Sailing comfortably at 15-20 mph in good wind conditions, I feel I can average 45 miles per day which would cover the 2,181 miles in 48 days. It depends mostly on the wind Ė some days Iíll cover more, some less if Iím forced to not sail at pace levels. 45 miles per day will give me some days off and time to spend with the media or sightseeing.
Q: How many hours/day do you plan to sail?
A: As many as possible, again all dictated by the winds and my energy. I can sail 8-10 hours per day as long as there is wind. Under ideal conditions a 200-mile day could be possible. By doing the trip in May & June I maximize the daylight available.
Q: How will you hang on to the sail for so long?
A: Because a Street Sailor has less rolling resistance than a wind surfer through the water, generally less force is required to hold the sail up. However, when sailing into the wind there are times when I will have to utilize a windsurfing harness that transfers the pull to the body in a sort of seat. All my arms have to do is make slight adjustments of the sail in response to the apparent wind direction and strength. I have also tested water ski gloves with grips.
Q: What about equipment breakdowns?
A: Things always break. By putting in the miles, researching and R&D, I hope to learn what to expect from my equipment. Iíll have spares of nearly everything. For example, when I experience a flat tire Iíll have another tire wheel ready to bolt on to save time. Iíll also have other sails rigged to go when the wind conditions change, so I donít waste time re-rigging. Sort of like changing gears with wind conditions.
Q: What kind of publicity are you getting?
A: As much as possible! Before departing Iíll have a press conference and arrange TV interviews in San Diego. I plan to contact all the television news stations along the route to arrange on-the-go interviews. There will be a website with daily updates and photos, plus Iíll release the story to all the sailing/windsurfing magazines. Most obvious of course will be the thousands of passing cars I encounter out on the open road. Iím a travelling billboard Ė even better because my billboard is doing something cool!
Q: What about your job?
A: Jobs are what hold most people back from realizing their dreams. I will try to arrange an unpaid leave of absence. If that doesnít work outÖ. Iíll add the trip to my resume. Iím committed 100% to this project.
Q: How much will the trip cost and how will you finance it?
A: I have worked out a very detailed budget of all costs. Sponsors and suppliers will have to provide the majority of the roughly $40k it will take in operational and opportunity costs. Ideally Iíd like to link it with a childrenís charity such as the Starlight Childrenís Foundation, Childrenís HeartLink or Save the Children. I think it could generate increasing media interest as I progress northward. Everyone I talk to say itís a great idea but as yet nobody has offered a sponsorship.
Q: How fast can you sail?
A: The Street Sailor sails safely and comfortably at 15 mph; faster than bicycle cruising speed. It doesnít take much wind to get it moving and on a reach I can sail faster than the wind blows. To date my maximum is 33.3 mph achieved at the El Mirage dry lake bed. It gets scary when I sail faster than I can run. Iíve heard of speeds in excess of 40 mph by Jean Rathle, builder of the Street Sailor. Thereís a guy in France trying to break the 100 kph barrier on a special design, but heíll need a lot of wind. Iím not aiming for raw speed, rather consistent, sustainable and safe speeds.
Q: How do you know the wind will blow from the right direction?
A: Through analysis of historical surface wind data purchased from NOAA. Iíve studied data from weather stations along the route with breakdowns of wind direction and velocities for each month. This gives me a fair idea of what percentage of the time the wind historically blows from which direction at what velocity along the route. Iím also compiling surface wind maps from this year, during the same dates of the trip for next year, and performing a Ďvirtualí cross-country sailing trip based on these winds. It will be interesting to see the results!
Q: Are there any limiting wind conditions?
A: This is sailing, so there are some limiting conditions, but nothing that canít be overcome.
First, I can not sail roughly to within 35 degrees into the wind. That is why I planned the route to be mostly downwind. I wonít be able to safely and effectively tack into the wind the way a sailboat does. My optimum point of sail is a broad reach, bringing the apparent wind angle just forward of the beam. The first 80% of the trip should have prevailing S-SE winds, the last 10% up in North Dakota will be W-NW.
Secondly, a lack of wind will slow me down, although I can sail in winds down to three mph with a big sail.
Lastly, too much wind and severe conditions will force me to stop for safety reasons. Iím going to bring a very small "storm sail" to safely handle the higher wind ranges. The idea is not to get moving too fast to control or jump off.
Q: Got any brakes on that thing?
A: The whole sail is a large airbrake! Back-winding the sail acts as an effective brake, allowing me to slow down enough to hop off. I will also carry a simple foot-operated brake on the front wheels for stopping while running downwind or downhill.
Q: How do you sail up hills?
A: Gradual and moderate hills are not a problem as long as there is wind in the right direction. I can switch to a larger sail to generate more power if necessary. This has already been tested around San Diego where I can ascend a hefty gradient.
Q: Can you get under all the power lines, bridges and trees?
A: Iíve been doing some research on this. The largest city I plan to sail through is Brownsville, Texas at the start. Iíve called the Brownsville Public Utilities and spoke with an engineer, Mr. Arunulso Mejia, who said along the main route all the primary power lines are 20-22í above the street. The stoplights are at 17-18í. My longest mast will be 15.5í when held vertical. If I encounter anything lower, I simply lean the mast over to reduce the height. I feel one of the reasons a wind-powered journey like this hasnít been attempted before is because the masts on all land yachts are fixed. Trees are another obstacle for they tend to block the wind. Thatís why Iíve planned the route away from forests and through the Great Plains.
Q: What about passing vehicle turbulence?
A: As I plan to stay off the highways with fast-moving trucks this shouldnít be much of a problem. All objects create a "wind shadow" of which I need to be constantly aware of. The stronger the wind the greater the shadow. If a large vehicle passes fast to windward of me I will anticipate and luff the sail until the turbulence passes. This is another reason for the support vehicle: to warn and slow such traffic so they pass me more slowly. Again, I have been testing this effect in San Diego with city busses passing at 65 mph.
Q: Why not sail West-East "coast to coast?"
A: I donít know of a feasible route through the mountains or forested areas at this time. Perhaps with more research one can be found coast to coast. Who knows, maybe other continents would follow, leading to the ultimate: a global circumnavigation!
Q: What are you doing in preparation?
A: Apart from all the logistic planning, as much Street Sailing as is possible. In the last 9 months I have sailed over 600 miles locally doing testing in all conditions. I expect to have sailed well over 1500 miles before I even begin the trip! In addition, I work out twice per week with weights and run five times weekly. Iím already in decent shape, but the focus will be on the specialized muscles used in a long distance trip like this: forearms, biceps, upper and lower back, hamstrings and calves.
Q: Where are you going to sleep?
A: My support vehicle will be an RV, complete with beds and kitchenette. At the end of the sailing day, the stopping point will be marked and noted. The support vehicle will then find the nearest place to spend the night, returning to the previous nightís stopping point to begin a new dayís sailing.
Q: What about food?
A: Iím approaching this like a long distance ocean voyage. I plan to stock up with food beforehand so as not to spend much time grocery shopping and keep costs down. The RV will have a kitchenette for meal preparation. Water management will be a challenge to replenish and properly dispose of water for drinking, cooking and washing.
Incredible! It sounds like you have really done your homework. Good luck and I look forward to following your trip.