America’s Cup-winning skipper sets sights on 250kph wind-powered record in SA outback

Glenn Ashby is no stranger to moving like the wind, but he will have to travel considerably faster to break the world record in his sights. 

A champion yachtsman, the America’s Cup winner has, in recent months, shifted his focus from the sea to the land — specifically, to the flats of Lake Gairdner in South Australia’s far north.

While his aim is to travel at 250 kilometres per hour, there’ll be no petrol, nor any other fuel, propelling him. 

Instead, he’ll be piloting a vessel purely powered by the breeze.

“It’s the world wind land-speed record that we’re trying to break,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Jules Schiller.

“The current record is 202.9km an hour and we’re trying to break that … over the next couple of months.”

A land yacht on a surface.
The so-called land yacht is named Horonuku, meaning “gliding swiftly over land”.(Supplied: Emirates Team New Zealand)

Originally from Bendigo, Ashby’s renown rests on his feats as a yachtsman.

An Olympian and multiple world champion, he skippered Emirates Team New Zealand to a famous victory in the 2017 America’s Cup, and the same team will be behind him as he attempts to make history at Lake Gairdner.

If the change of surface — from saltwater to salt lake — will be a challenge, the change of vessel will be a little easier to negotiate, he said.

Four Team NZ sailors stand on a podium with a multi-tiered silver trophy in front of NZ-flag-waving crowd
Ashby played a pivotal role in the 2017 America’s Cup victory.(AP: Gregory Bull)

Named “Horonuku”, which means “gliding swiftly over land”, the so-called land yacht looks like a cross between a dragster and a glider.

“We’ve got a big long arm that’s about eight metres wide that goes out one side of the craft which has got about 850 kilos of steel and lead and a wheel under it,” Ashby said.

“It’s like a keel of a yacht that’s out to the side, and that basically stops us rolling over and behind me is about a 10.5-metre solid carbon fibre wing sail.”

Salt lake chosen for ideal surface

Lake Gairdner has previously hosted feats of the kind Ashby is about to embark on — a favourite of daredevils, it was the site of Rosco McGlashan’s 1994 Australian land speed record of just over 800kph.

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Glenn Ashby spoke to ABC Radio Adelaide’s Jules Schiller about his record attempt at Lake Gairdner.

ABC Radio Adelaide regular and Triple J Science Hour host Dr Karl Kruszelnicki said the flat surface of a salt lake was probably the best possible spot for such an endeavour.

“You can keep the friction way down,” he said.

“With a boat, you’ve got a long hull and there’s a lot of friction, [and] you can reduce that by having little hydrofoils.

“But on land, we’ve got a lot of technology for low-friction wheels.”

Ashby said the South Australian site was chosen after a painstaking selection process.

“We’ve looked at various options around Australia and actually around the world,” he said.

“We’ve honed our sights on Lake Gairdner purely for the fact that it has, generally, a really good surface.

“There still is, unfortunately, a little bit of water [there] at the moment but it is drying.”

A land yacht for a world record attempt.
Ashby described the vehicle as a cross between a yacht, glider and dragster.(Supplied: Emirates Team New Zealand)

The current world land speed record for a wind-powered vehicle was set by British engineer Richard Jenkins in 2009.

To build up the necessary momentum to surpass it, Ashby said Horonuku would need a “runway” of about 7km “to eventually get up to what we’re hoping is going to be close to 250km an hour”.

“We’re targeting 30 to 35 knots of wind. We’re sort of looking at doing roughly seven times wind speed,” he said.

“You start off slowly and you slowly build and we’re about two-and-a-half tonnes of weight all up.

“Once we get rumbling it’s a pretty hairy ride.”

‘Great new challenge’ is ‘reasonably safe’

It might sound paradoxical that a vehicle entirely powered by the wind can travel significantly faster than it.

But, as Dr Karl explained, the principle has been exploited by sailors for centuries.

It involves something called “apparent wind” — and relies on the fact that travelling at an angle to the wind can generate more speed.

“We’ve known how to do it for thousands of years,” Dr Karl said.

“After doing it for a while, tacking to the left and right, the sailors realised that sometimes they were travelling through the water faster than the speed of the wind.”

He said he would be observing Ashby’s progress with “extreme interest”.

“To see physics in action is always a joy,” he said.

Speed week contestants
Lake Gairdner’s salt flats are a favourite with daredevils attempting to set new records.(ABC: Ginny Stein)

Horonuku has already arrived in Adelaide, and will be trucked to Lake Gairdner in the next few weeks.

Ashby will be boldly following in the vessel’s wake. But is he nervous?

“I like to think that it’s reasonably safe — that’s certainly what I tell my wife,” he said with a laugh.

“Compared to a lot of the other boats that I’ve sailed over the years, but on water obviously, I think it’s the most safe [vessel] I’ve ever sailed in my life.

“This is certainly something very, very different to what I normally do so it’s a great new challenge.”