Herding Cats: A Failure of Representative Democracy.


Blake Learmonth June 2017

Manta Twin Fleet Race 2 Delamar

Photo Blake

A  t least at first, it sounded like a great idea; Nord suggested to the NALSA Board, that we have a series of competitive NALSA events at a variety of locations around the western US landsailing world. The idea was to centralize weekend events to get more people together in one location instead of small groups spread all over the place… because everyone likes large social gatherings better than small ones and everyone is into competitive events using the NALSA scoring and class system…Right?

Actually, maybe not. Traditionally, there have been two or three events that bring in a fair number of folks, The ALC at Ivanpah, In Search of the Holy Gale and the November Cup. People drive a long way for these events. Interestingly only the ALC really uses the full NALSA class system for scoring and awarding trophies. Other events, rely on a sort of small, medium and large system, that gets off more races, so people get to sail more, or some sort of seat of the pants handicapping where everyone sails as many races as they want. Smaller holiday events crop up at several locations. Seems like there are always folks sailing at El Mirage (if it isn’t closed) Memorial Day and Labor Day events including the Nord Nationals, the Cow to Cow, The Pony Express and There are a number of US Mini events happen every year—some of these events have formalized racing, others don’t.

The NALSA board, which makes decisions about how NALSA is run and plans events, is theoretically a representative democracy. All of the board members represent one of the dues-paying clubs (some regional, some brand-based) that make up NALSA. As with many organizations that use this system, representatives to the central organization are theoretically elected, but experience suggests that job usually falls to the one person who is consistently willing to go to meetings. At least in theory, that person represents the members of a smaller club. Representative Democracy!

Now the failure part. For groups that meet regularly, new business comes up at a meeting and representatives take the proposed ideas back to their constituents for discussion and, at the next meeting representatives present how their group feels about an issue and then a solution is negotiated or a vote taken. The catch is that expediency often wins out and an idea gets voted on without consulting constituents. No one really wants to go to more meetings when they could be sailing! That is exactly what happened when the NALSA board voted to run the NALSA series of seven events without any of us going back to talk to our constituents. Even more surprising, the meeting adjourned with almost no discussion of details and no plan of how the details might be worked out. Just some agreement with the idea and the location of the events…cool idea let’s do it—meeting over lets go sail, or pack up our cars, or work on scoring… which led to…

Herding Cats: There really wasn’t a ton of time between ALC and Memorial Day. Nord agreed to host the first event at Delamar, northeast of Las Vegas and high enough to avoid the low altitude heat. It was billed as the Nord Nationals, an event frequently held on Memorial Day in the past. Renée cancelled the Cow to Cow based on apparent lack of interest and to encourage more people to show up at the first event of the NALSA series. Terry (for US Mini) agreed to share the lake with the Nationals…The only thing left was herding the cats and the huge wrong guess about how hard that was going to be. Cats don’t like to be herded! NALSA Board members wildly miscalculated what their constituents wanted and would be willing to do, and then the rumor mill started cranking (with a little bureaucratic wrangling thrown in just for interest).

With the background noise of the NALSA webmaster panicking as Memorial Day approached and the details of the event were still sketchy, rumors of: no wind, bad roads, perfect roads (both true, as it turned out) cold temperatures, hot temperatures, permits not acquired (then mostly worked out) snakes, tortoises, and questions like, “Will there even be an event?” and, “Why would anyone drive that far on a holiday weekend?” began to dominate the discussion.

Ludic skipping to the Lu in the early morning sun. photo: Blake

Ultimately, the cats stampeded in every direction. US Mini moved to Alkali, fearing that the sketchy interactions with the BLM and Fish and Wildlife would somehow impact their future, less official, gatherings at Delamar. The Smith Creek folks decided that the Cow to Cow was going to happen, despite everything; possibly, some Moose folks headed for Tule; and the SoCal folks decided the El Mirage was as far as they were willing to go and five of us showed up at Delamar because we said we would. The first event of the NALSA series didn’t really happen. We ran some races declared winners (despite the event organizer not showing up due to repeated vehicle failures) and had fun hanging out with friends and perhaps learned some things.

The two biggest things learned seem to be that for many people, hanging out with a few friends at a nearby lake is preferable to driving further for an official event. The second, and this seems to apply to this year’s Gale as well, is that permitting, insurance and other requirements… are much more difficult and time consuming for official “events,” with entry fees and races than for gatherings of friends.


From the author’s perspective, the first event of the NALSA series was a complete fail (other than hanging out with good people and getting away from home). It seems like the 2017 NALSA series is DOA. However, Dirtboating does not speak for NALSA so please keep up with the nalsa.org site and the NALSA forum on yahoo for the official word. Maybe, with real input from the sailing public there will be a way to pull this off in the future.


Dirtboating Magazine editor Duncan Harrison’s response…

My response to Herding Cats:

Herding Cats is an interesting account of the recent Nord Nationals and Memorial Day Landsailing in the US.

That Sinking Feeling (wait! can you sink on a dry lake?)

Lately, the trend has been for fewer (and fewer) landsailors (5?) to find their way to the Nord Memorial Day event, (due to the long drives, this year – 12 plus hours one way!) and predicted low turnout. All the time ignoring the 15 to 20 dirtboaters who regularly spend Memorial Day at El Mirage Dry Lake – a 2 hour drive from most everyone in our area!

 What’s wrong with this picture?

At recent Nord regattas there has been a problem with the race organizer arriving late to his events and this year (due to mechanical difficulty) arriving not at all. Listening to the comments leading up to this Memorial Day and following reports from the playa reminds me of watching the movie: TITANIC.

We all know the ending – the ship sinks every time! No thanks! I passed on this event, again, as did several others!


If the NALSA board wants to promote landsailing and get more people interested – it might be a good idea to focus on just three or four “successful” events – held every year: ALC, Holy Gale and November Cup. Focus on events that are well attended, with racing across a broad group of landyachts/classes.

ALC Manta Twin Start Line

The ALC and November Cup are held just a few hours from major the population centers of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A “fourth” event can be chosen from events held near Reno. Smith Creek Dry Lake is just a few hours drive away! Yes, I am aware that landailors from Santa Cruz are stuck with long drives no matter which way they go, yet they regularly show up at these events.

And please! Try and come up with a trophy and explanation/deed for giving it away? I’m happy with the idea of one trophy (The Nalsa Cup) to be given away to one landsailor/dirtboater who attends several events BUT doesn’t have to win everything. The CUP could be awarded to a sailor for any combination of reasons: winning; doing the hard work of getting permits together; regularly travels the most and farthest to be present; is the most helpful to others; contributes . . .

Gerry Lampert and Wind Wizards Landsailing Club recently hosted a “water sailor’s” introduction to landsailing at El Mirage Dry Lake. Present were some 15 sailors from Cabrillo Beach Yacht Club and an equal number of Wizards. I was present to help out as we gave our water brothers and sisters the rare chance to sail faster than they had ever sailed!

Gerry Lampert, El Mirage Dry Lake

When the wind picked up – they were blasting around the playa on Manta Twins. Later we all decompressed around a pot luck and enjoyed cocktails together. Events like Gerry’s will do much more for landsailing than asking a few “hard core” dirtboaters to drive insane miles to poorly attended events on the other side of remote . . . with off chance of winning another trophy.

Last: if after reading this, you still feel the need to drive insane miles to remote places to landsail with few close friends . . . Watch for the next LANDSAILING SAFARI to be held later in the year. Maybe Blake and I and a few intrepid dirtboaters will once again search out remote playas, ghost towns and hot springs!

Duncan Harrison

US 453


Herding Cats