Stories From the City: Playing With the Wind on the Outer Rim

This post is part of the Stories From the City series.

“We come here to sail and, hey, there’s a party in the neighborhood, too,” says Black Rock Yacht Club co-founder and camp lead Jim (Gym) Pettigrew.  

Gym, Black Rock Yacht Club Co-Founder (Photo by Philippe Glade)

Like Gym, the BRYC camp is a bit scruffy, old-school, and different from the average Burning Man camp. For one, they turn their attention outwards, living on the very edge of Black Rock City’s suburbs where the L ring road stares at nothing more than jagged mountains, flat open desert, and a clear fetch of wind.

Black Rock Yacht Club celebrates that wind, offering an alternative to the music, art and all-day partying that tends to dominate the inner playa and relishing the joys of life in the city’s back streets. BRYC’s jam: sharing their love of sailing, along with their fleet of land yachts they’ve designed and built themselves.  

“Our camp focuses outward, though we appreciate and participate in the kicking party to our backs that goes on all week, with a number of our people also helping out with some of the cool art projects and so forth,” says Gym. 

“The first time we sailed out here was 1997 for a bachelor party. My co-founder and I, Bill Weir, were only barely aware of the Burn. We set up camp in the middle of the playa near Trego Hot Ditch, and sailed all night, jibing about when the campfire dipped below the horizon. We’ve been coming back ever since,” he says.  

“2019 is BRYC’s 16th consecutive year, and the 10th anniversary of Bill’s last Burn. He was a world-class windsurfer and my best friend; we found out he had cancer in 2008 and he died one month after the 2009 Burn. His twin sons raised a big sail in the Temple for him this year.”

Inside the Temple, BRYC dedicate a sail to the 10th anniversary of co-founder Bill Weir’s passing (Photo courtesy of BRYC crew)

That’s the second part of Black Rock Yacht Club that makes them old school — they’ve been at this for a while. Even though the camp is youthful and Gym insists that he’s “passing the torch” to the next generation (which includes his own children), all the sailors and crew in camp point me in Gym’s direction for the interview.

“He’s definitely the guy you want to talk to,” says Lothar. “And you probably want to have the conversation on our famous shady couch too!”

They push the couch out to the desert from where it lives, on a Hobie Cat beach dolly within the confines of their circled-up campers. Gym and I sit together in the still, pure air that barely moves above the heat of the playa. The wind has been pretty gentle for the first few days of this Burn, and several becalmed land-sailing rigs lay sadly on the ground around us.

“It’s best when it blows straight on from Gerlach,” he tells me. “You’ll want to come back. Just watch for the dust storms over here on this side. That’s usually a good sign. We give lessons to anyone who wants to learn. People come back year after year, sometimes joining our camp they love it so much. We build our own rigs, to our own design, and we also help fix other people’s gear right here in our camp too.”

While whistling for a wind that day, Gym tells me more about the camp. “We’ve got 60 people who camp here, but no dues, no generator.  It’s as if we’ve all rocked up to the beach in Baja for a sail, and everybody’s self-sufficient.”

A sailing rig, a “shady couch” and playa as far as the eye can see (Photo by Philippe Glade)

He introduces me to some of his crew, among them a number of Olympic sailors and a couple of Aussies. One of them explains the interesting mix: “We’ve gone to Blazing Swan in Western Australia for five of the last six years, and now have this awesome Australian contingent. Frankly, the conditions for land sailing often aren’t as good there as they are here. The ground is mushy. The first year we had a bunch of mud that everyone was smearing on themselves like a spa treatment until we found out it was full of evaporated agricultural runoff that burnt your skin and dehydrated you severely. Fun times.”

A few days later I come back with a photographer when the wind seems, to my inexpert eye, to be kicking up a suitable amount of dust. I’m greeted enthusiastically and notice that the windsock they’ve rigged up is fluttering. “Out there” between L road and the trash fence, a number of land sailors are pelting along at what look, to me, like wildly irresponsible speeds.

“You can go 50 miles an hour for five seconds, and wake up in Rampart,” Gym says of the special driving zone they operate in. “Or you can go 15 miles an hour all day.”

This gets a laugh, as he shows me a rig that got smashed up that morning, going too fast. “The trash fence can come up on you really quick,” he says. “And if you get going with the wind behind you, and don’t know what you’re doing, it’ll either be a long, long walk back, or you’ll learn the hard way how to tack against the wind.”

Click photos for more details

We discuss the best way to get good photos. Then Gym and four or five of the younger generation mount their rigs and head out into the desert, swirling around the photographer, zipping past him single file or in formation, circling in and out of the dust.  My work taking notes is done, and I simply enjoy the spectacle.

After half an hour or so, when Gym stops, the others keep going. So does the photographer. Everyone loves the moment, the beauty of the sails in the desert. Gym sits down next to me on their famous red shady couch.

He adds a final note to the camp’s grungy mystique.  “The plug-n-play camps started to expand out here into free camping. One year, we showed up and found a big-dollar camp, with a non-ironic ‘Service Entrance’ sign, right in our favorite spot. It really cut down on what we need and prize most of all: the open beach, the wind. We made our case to the org, and to their credit they finally awarded us theme camp status, and I gotta give big thanks to the wonderful Tokyo Sector Placement team for their support. Now it seems like this is preserved, our odd contribution to the Burn, which offers a healthy alternative to partying all day.”

Gym goes silent for a while as he looks outward at the swirling dust clouds.

“For me personally, this year and every year for the last 10, I’ve come to connect with an old friend. I’m in the wind. And Bill is too.”

Top photo: Black Rock Yacht Club sailors cruise the open playa in formation. From left to right, Jorge, Walker, Logan and Gym (Photo by Philippe Glade)

About the author: Ben Buchholz

Ben Buchholz

Ben Buchholz (a.k.a NotBlue) has written several books and articles, including "One Hundred and One Nights", the forthcoming non-fiction book "The Tightening Dark", and an ongoing writers advice column called "The Path to Professionalizing" at The Writer. He's spent more than 20 years in the US Army, working as a Foreign Area Officer out of various embassies throughout the Middle East and now serves as the CEO of Nthos Solutions, based in San Diego. NotBlue has been part of the Big Imagination (747) team for the past three years, where he had the awesome experience of camping with his son, Jack, who attended as a 16-yr old in 2018.

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