Watch Land of Speed on Wednesday 12 April at 1830 AEST on Fox Sports 505 and Kayo. Sign up HERE
Glenn Ashby still isn’t sure what he’s meant to call himself.
Sure, he’s a Member of the New Zealand Order Of Merit.
An Olympian too, with a silver medal to boot.
He’s also a world champion across countless sailing categories.
But when it’s put to him that his new title is the fastest man in a wind-powered land vehicle on the planet?
“I guess it could be,” Ashby told Foxsports.com.au ahead of the airing of a new documentary on the world record attempt, Land of Speed.
The 45-year-old is as modest as they come, which is why this title may take some time getting used to.
‘Land of Speed’ – sneak peek | 00:34
“Growing up sailing all your life, you don’t really think a whole lot about it until you’ve actually done it,” Ashby said.
“Then you go, ‘Crikey, there’s actually no-one else on the planet that’s gone any faster in a wind-powered vehicle on land or water or ice.’
“It’s quite surreal, to be honest.”
Acquiring this moniker was not straightforward by any means.
Mother Nature thwarted Ashby and his Emirates Team New Zealand peers at every corner, putting the Bendigo native on the mental brink.
There were fears and hesitations from some within the team in the early phases of planning this highly complex project as Ashby set out to beat Richard Jenkins’ speed of 202.9km/h set in 2009.
But, as Ashby said: “If records were easy to break, I suppose everyone would be doing it all the time.”
WHY INTERNAL HESITATION WOULDN’T HALT LIFELONG DREAM
Ashby was just seven years old when he first thought about how fast one could go and left no stone unturned in his pursuit of testing that theory.
“We’d be mucking around with skateboards and bedsheets, making little sails and turning them into billy karts and then more elaborate land yachts,” Ashby recounted.
“Growing up in central Victoria where we didn’t have a huge amount of water at the end of summer, it was all we could do.”
Born into a sailing family, it is a sport Ashby has known all his life and has achieved tremendous success in it.
A 17-time world champion, Ashby also skippered Emirates Team New Zealand to an America’s Cup win in 2017 and was a part of their successful defence in 2021 as their mainsail trimmer.
But it was just a few months before the 2021 America’s Cup when Ashby hatched the plans for a world record attempt that would cement his place in the history books.
“In about October 2020, I actually talked to the team and spoke to a few of the designers and engineers and my boss at the time, basically flagging the idea of taking this project on as a challenge post the America’s Cup,” Ashby said.
“Obviously we needed to be successful winning the America’s Cup to make this all happen.”
Ashby wanted to take the on challenge during what he describes as the “quiet period” after the iconic sailing race, as “things sort of quieten off for a 12-month period” once the America’s Cup is in the books for another year.
Thanks to Emirates Team New Zealand’s victory, attention could be fully shifted to the attempt.
Talks turned from a grand scale idea into something more concrete in June 2021, as significant backing and support from team principal Matteo De Nora and CEO Grant Dalton gave Ashby the green light he needed to press on.
That’s not to say it was a straightforward process in which everyone was instantly on board.
“We had some pretty robust discussions about whether we should be doing it or shouldn’t,” Ashby said.
“There were a few people in the team that were initially a bit hesitant just because it was so bespoke and something we hadn’t really done before.
“But really, in those meetings we had, in the end, once we initiated the project, everyone really came on board.
“And I think as the project went on, there was fantastic buy-in.”
Typically, anywhere from 100 to 120 staff will work on Emirates Team New Zealand’s America’s Cup campaign.
In comparison, Ashby had help from 45 team members, with a “core group of nine to 12 personnel that were really involved in that project as a stand-alone project under the team umbrella.”
There was plenty that had to happen between Ashby first revealing his ambitions and the record attempts.
A craft had to be designed, built and tested to ensure it would be suitable for the challenge ahead.
Horonuku, which translates to “gliding swiftly across the land” in Maori, was born.
The 2800kg craft is a 14-metre long, 11-metre high hard-winged land yacht with no engines, meaning it relies entirely on wind for speed, and is built from carbon composite materials.
Although it is a yacht by definition, it did not feature a conventional sail.
Instead, Horonuku would generate pace thanks to the thrust acting on the rigid carbon wing protruding from the middle of the craft, while an aeroplane wing connected to the aerofoil-shaped pod helps create lift.
The team also had to settle on a location for the record attempt and had to meet a handful of important criteria, none more so than being a natural surface with a flat elevation.
Lake Gairdner, a picturesque location 440km northwest of Adelaide, was chosen.
The lake is 160km long with a 48km diameter and an incredibly thick layer of salt on top.
Most importantly, it’s almost always bone-dry.
With Horonuku in tow, Ashby and his loyal crew set off last September to South Australia in pursuit of breaking Jenkins’ record.
Yet nothing could prepare them for the wild weather and frustration in the coming weeks.
HOW NIGHTMARE 70-YEAR FIRST ALMOST KILLED OFF RECORD ATTEMPT
The team targeted October for the record attempt as that is when Lake Gairdner is supposedly at its windiest.
Ashby got a handful of test runs in not long after their arrival and came “very close” to breaking the record in October, but wet weather halted those plans.
At best, the crew hoped it would only hinder their progress for a few days.
But days very quickly turned to months.
Ultimately, Ashby had to twiddle his thumbs until late November amid an unprecedented and unrelenting amount of rainfall.
“We basically got flooded out of the lake for about six or seven weeks,” Ashby said.
“We packed up, left everything there but got everyone back to New Zealand and basically waited for a dry period to come back.
“We had a few trips back-and-forth to the lake when we thought it was going to be good. We’d get there, we’d get fully set up and then we’d get rained out again with all that crazy rain that was coming through.
“It was a very frustrating time through that September, October, November period for us.”
To put the amount of rainfall into context, Ashby and his team had to sit and wait out what would be the wettest September to December period in 70 years as the rain plummeted from the heavens.
It seemed as if anything and everything was conspiring against Ashby in a sign from the universe that maybe, just maybe, Jenkins’ record wasn’t meant to be broken.
The mental strain eventually began to take its toll on the Victorian.
“It was a crazy period and we thought, ‘Maybe we can’t get this done, maybe we simply can’t get this done,’” Ashby said.
“I just kept trying and trying to put ourselves in a position where we could run and make sure we got people back to the lake at the right time.
“We’d get set up, we’d get a couple of runs in, we’d get close and then we’d get ready for the next day.
“Then you’d get a whole lot of rain overnight that wasn’t forecast and you’d be back to square one, pack everything up, head off and wait for it all to dry out.
“It was very, very frustrating.”
Eventually, a lucky break in the forecast allowed Ashby and his team a small window of opportunity to launch an all-out assault on breaking Jenkins’ 13-year record on December 11.
Ashby squeezed in a handful of practice runs the day prior but couldn’t quite crack the 200km/h barrier, albeit the wind conditions didn’t provide much assistance.
Knowing he’d have the necessary wind speed to have a full crack, Ashby needed no reminding of the “pretty immense” weight resting on his shoulders.
“I felt a lot of pressure probably put on largely by myself, but for the whole project and everybody that’s been involved and the wider team,” Ashby said.
“You just want to get it done and you want to break the record and do it well.”
With Mother Nature conspiring in his favour for once, Ashby strapped on his helmet, locked himself inside the cockpit of Horonuku and took to the salty plains of Lake Gairdner.
As the wind began to pick up, Ashby went about conducting some practice runs to prepare for the record run.
But commandeering the craft in winds at that speed is no simple feat, even for someone as experienced as Ashby.
“You’re juggling a lot of different forces,” Ashby said.
“You’re steering, you’re sailing, you’re flying. You’re doing all these different skills that you’ve learned over the years all rolled into one.
“It’s a bit like driving a car with an 11-metre wing on the roof headed down the motorway at 200km/h in crosswinds. It’s not easy.”
Once Ashby had a few practice runs under his belt and the wind speed had picked up to 22 knots, the Victorian told his team: “It’s time to really send it here, so let’s see what we can do.”
And send it he did.
Ashby flew around Lake Gairdner, his eyes firmly fixated on the speedometer inside Horonuku.
The meter continued to tick along as Ashby willed it on.
By Ashby’s own admission, it was a scene similar to the opening moments of Top Gun: Maverick as Tom Cruise pushes to reach Mach 10 in his hi-tech aircraft.
But the Victorian didn’t need any encouragement from a Goose-like figure and, unlike Cruise in the film, didn’t need to eject from his craft.
Instead, Ashby had his loyal team members nearby who were waiting for him to declare over the radio he’d broken the record.
And that moment came when Ashby eventually called out the number he saw in front of his very eyes as he flew across Lake Gairdner: 222.4km/h.
“It’s almost like time slowed down,” Ashby said.
“You got to the point where you were going through the turn and watching the speedometer go up and up and up.
“You’re like, ‘Wow, this is it. We’ve done it.’
“It was pretty special. It was a super cool feeling where time stood still for a few seconds while you’re looking at the speedometer.”
What made the success even sweeter was the timing of it.
Ashby got a Christmas present that will struggle to be topped, as he and his team got to go and spend the festive season with their loved ones knowing it was mission accomplished.
With one lifelong dream ticked off, Ashby can now slowly make his way down his bucket list.
So, what else is on the cards for the 45-year-old?
Well, he has grand ambitions of crossing Australia in a wind-powered or solar-powered craft.
He’s also salivating at the prospect of becoming the fastest man on water in a sailing boat too and you best believe he’s already flagged it with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Ashby also looks at the achievements through an environmental lens and hopes the feats can show people what’s possible with technology and how it can impact green-powered vehicles in the future.
But truth be told, it doesn’t sound like Ashby will ever be satisfied no matter how many world championships or medals or world records he ultimately lays claim to.
“I’m probably always someone who wonders, ‘What if,’” Ashby said.
“That’s been my whole life. What if? Can we do more?
“I probably don’t sleep well at night knowing I can do some small changes and go even faster. That’s how I’ve grown up in my sporting career and certainly sailing career, pushing the performance envelope super hard.
“That’s really what drives me as a human being.
“I’ll probably never be fully content until I’ve got to the point where I’ve scared the bejesus out of myself.
“But until that point, I’ll always wonder how much more is left in the tank.”
Watch Land of Speed on Wednesday 12 April at 1830 AEST on Fox Sports 505 and Kayo. Sign up HERE