AUSTIN – Sven Kraja has seen a lot from the pilot's seat of a land yacht.
The world champion racer has sped along breathtaking European beaches and witnessed bloody collisions.
But until a few days ago he hadn't seen anything like the Nevada desert. For the first time in his life Kraja, 43, whipped along an open playa at high speeds for more than two minutes straight.
"It's like a motorsport," said Kraja, who not only races but manufactures sails through his company, Frog Sails. "The speed is a thrill."
A competitive racer for 28 years, Kraja, of Schleswig, Germany, is more accustomed to narrow, rougher terrain along windswept European waterfronts. On the wide, smooth playas of North America racers have more room and better conditions for long, fast runs.
Kraja is just one of hundreds of competitors racing this week in the Landsailing World Championships at Smith Creek Dry Lake in Lander County. It's just the third time since 1990 the global event has been held in the United States and it could be decades before it returns.
Both the remote location and harsh, unpredictable conditions are pushing competitors to their limits, both in terms of logistics and racing skills. Kraja's Frog Sails team arrived at the playa on a customized Citro bus they shipped from Germany to Baltimore then drove to Nevada.
Team member Kai-Uwe Eilts customized the 40-foot, 18-ton rig to haul and house the team and their gear. Eilts, a boat builder by trade, removed much of the seating, installed sleeping, bath and work spaces to accommodate the team even in Spartan conditions such as the playa.
"It's a lot of work but for us it is a lifestyle," said Heiko Hartmann, Kraja's stepfather and a competitor as well, describing the trip that was self-funded with help from Stone Island, an apparel company that sponsors Kraja. Kraja's girlfriend, Gitta Steinhusen, is also a high-level land sailor.
But the Frog Sails team and 12 others that traveled to the event from outside the United States weren't the only ones spending countless hours and untold amounts of money to squeeze every last ounce of speed out of their yachts, some of which can travel at speeds approaching 100 miles-per-hour.