Forgot your password?

Sailing Stones : Do they SAIL by themselves ?

By Edited Jul 1, 2016 9 9

                Will a regular stone at your feet intrigue you? Will you be curious to read about a stone? I would not, unless the stone has some mysterious properties or origins (read outer space or earth inner crust).

 Sailing stones are rocks found in the dry mud lake at Racetrack Player in Death Valley National Park, California, which leaves a trail of their movement. There is nothing special about the stones except for the fact that they are moving and leave a trail on the mud. “How do they sail?” – This is the question which puzzles the scientists for four decades.

In 1915, when this phenomenon was first documented, most thought that to be a prank by some locals or park officials. But, later geologists observed and confirmed that this geological phenomenon has no human or animal interference. An article has been published on 1948 in Geological Society of America Bulletin about the sliding rocks/moving rocks (known by these names also) phenomenon.

Sailing Stone 1
Credit: Ocean/Corbis
Sailing Stone 2
Credit: Ocean / Corbis

How does those stones sail? The theories and rumors started feeding the frenzy. All kinds of theories have sprung up right from the supernatural properties of the stones to mysterious spirits moving them to alien intervention.

Extensive experiments were conducted and major progress has been done in 70s. A set of rocks has been identified and given names like Mary Ann, Nancy and Karen and then studied each year. The rock “Karen” has disappeared around 1994 (maybe due to severe winters in 1992 and 1993). It (Karen) has been rediscovered in 1996 by a geologist around 800 meters from its previously observed location.

The most logical amongst the theories after the studies were conducted is – “Stronger Winds or moving ice sheets sail the rocks”. But, the observation/experiments for around a century have shown that rocks as heavier as 700 pounds have been moved for more than 600 feet. The wind speed calculated to sail those kinds of rocks (700 pounds) should be of far greater in magnitude than is observed at the Racetrack Player lake bed. Please take a look at the following pictures for an idea of size of sailing stones.

Sailing Stone 3
Credit: Ed Darak / Corbis
Sailing Stone 4
Credit: Ocean / Corbis
Sailing Stone 5
Credit: Ocean / Corbis - Smithsonian Magazine

Also, the tracks are not always linear. The tracks take a perpendicular turn in some scenarios. Not all rocks have sailed the same distance. Some of them sailed in completely different directions. (See image below) 

Sailing Stone sailed in perpendicular path
Credit: Ocean / Corbis

Lots of theories have been proposed and lots of experiments were conducted to find the cause of SAILing stones. None has given a satisfactory explanation except for a recent one, which is believed now, unanimously, to be the actual cause of the SAILing stones.

Professor Ralph Lorenz, a planetary geologist at NASA, has proposed that the stones were frozen with ice around them during the colder months and the bottom tip/edge of the stone which would be submerged in icy water for a couple of inches would be prone to soft winds. Once the stone is covered with ice in the muddy soil, it does not totally submerged or totally float. The top portion will float while the bottom which is not fully ice-covered will be touching the soil up to a couple of inches. This greatly reduces the friction between the rocks and the mud surface. With reduced friction and light winds, these stones easily sail leaving their marks on the soil/mud beneath them. Once the frozen areas melt down, those marks left by stone tip were visible to the naked eye and thus the stone has sailed.

The theory by Prof. Ralph Lorenz is also just another theory, until someone proves with a video footage proving or disproving it. But, this theory is the most convincing now since Prof. Ralph Lorenz has tested the theory domestically in his kitchen sink with frozen solid and some ice cold water and the theory holds good in domestic testing in his kitchen table.

You can argue about placing a video camera in the Racetrack Player and record everything and find out the truth. In 2009, an inexpensive time lapse digital camera has been installed and pointed at the Racetrack Playa. But, this phenomenon occurs once in three or four years and should last only tens of seconds, which makes it extremely hard to be captured on a digital camera. In 2013, wind-triggered imagery is being used to greatly reduce the amount of captured digital media and the amount of work one should process post recording them.

In the meantime, the Death Valley National Park officials at Racetrack Player have initiated investigations into the disappearance of a large number of stones from its premises. It is believed that park visitors would have stolen them for some occult beliefs or supposedly divine/magical properties of those stones.

It seems people are still curious about the sailing stones. The people are not ready to hear these theories but love the mysterious part of the ‘sailing stones’ even after convincing theory and proof of concept that it is moved by nature anyway.

So, what would be your theory for these SAILing STONEs…??? Please share them below in the comments. 



Jul 2, 2013 8:32am
This was a great topic. I knew these were under observation, but I had on idea they were named and watched as closely as you noted. The tracking tends to support the wind (combined with moist earth, like potters glaze, very slippery) theory, but for now I guess we really don't know. I have a vague memory of a short film of one of these things in action, but I can't recall the source. Good comeback article!! And a thumb.
Jul 2, 2013 12:53pm
Thanks Vic for the comment and the thumb. If you remember that short film, let me know and I will add the video with credits to you. :-).

Thanks for the inspiration and the tips as well. ;)
Aug 11, 2013 8:24am
Still loving the stones--congrats on the feature.
Aug 12, 2013 2:09pm
One thought that came to mind was the effects of magnetism drawing or pulling the stones. Interesting. I have never heard of this phenomenon and will explore it more.
Aug 13, 2013 9:28am
Thanks Vic & jlsheldon42.

Magnetism ===> One more new theory being proposed via this article. Great...!!!
Aug 20, 2013 8:19pm
Great article savickram, truly fascinating topic, had never heard of these rocks before
Aug 30, 2013 10:16am
Thanks MrRooibos. I came across these rocks while I was surfing. Google 'Sailing Stones' & you will be flooded with magazine article links..
Oct 2, 2013 1:14pm
Excellent job, Savick!

Physical phenomena is nowhere near my areas of expertise (if I have any!), though I love hearing about ghosts and flying saucers, Bigfoot, Stonehenge, Bermuda Triangle, and why The Detroit Lions can't reach the Super Bowl!!
Oct 7, 2013 3:23pm
Great subject--mind boggling and thought-provoking--2 thumbs way up and a rating--nice writing and nice work!
Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.


  1. Joseph Stromberg "How Do Death Valley’s “Sailing Stones” Move Themselves Across the Desert?." Smithsonian.com. 10/06/2013. 1/07/2013 <Web >
  2. "Sailing stone." Sailing stone - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopeia. 1/07/2013 <Web >

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB Technology