A Screaming Comes Across The Ice

It takes a brave heart, a keen interest in cryogenics, and a thick coating of neoprene to climb into an iceboat and fly across a frozen lake at upwards of 60 miles per hour. But hey, hard-water sailors don't mind. What else would they do with all their free time?

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Listen....can you hear it? It's the last Wednesday in February, the fourth and final day of the 26th DN Class World Championship Regatta, the Indy 500 of iceboat racing. For the last three days, a tight-knit band of fanatics has congregated on a vast sheet of unblemished glass known as Lac St. Louis, a three-mile-wide stretch of the St. Lawrence River just west of Montreal. Each day, the racers have prayed for wind and asked whichever frigid deity you go to for such things to make the mercury rise from its bitter subzero perch to a more balmy 10 or maybe even 15 degrees Fahrenheit. And the longer the Weather God has made them wait for the thermometer to hit ten—just high enough to make racing bearable—the hungrier they've gotten for the one thing they crave more than cold beer, frozen water, and strong wind: speed.

Ask any iceboater why he risks cryonic suspension and invariably you will get only slight variations on the velocity theme.

Tom Hamill, 49, a 15-year iceboating veteran, formerly ranked in the top five in North America, who in his other life builds components for Formula 2000 race cars in Davisburg, Michigan: "When you get into an iceboat, it feels like there's no end to how fast it can go. There's so much acceleration, it can flip you right out the back of the boat."

Dan Bierman, 46, official North American commodore of the 1999 world championship and a real estate agent from Green Lake, Wisconsin: "When a puff hits, it's like you're taking off in an airplane. Everybody is basically flying."

Meade Gougeon, 61, the grand old man of iceboating, winner of the North American champion ships in 1981 and 1997, and CEO of Gougeon Brothers Inc., an adhesives company in Bay City, Michigan: "When it's blowing 15 knots, it's the most exciting thing you'll ever do. Winter comes and your ass just itches to get in that iceboat."

Flip. Puff. Fly. Ass. Itch. Iceboat.

There you have it. Whether they've come to the 1999 Worlds from the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Austria, Germany, or Finland, these men who call themselves "hard-water sailors" have all been driven by the same undeniable urge: to lie supine in a 100-pound contraption made of wood and epoxy and stainless steel and hurtle like an oversize bullet across the frozen deep.

Now, if you're out there listening, what you're straining to hear is the low rumble of a herd of iceboats coming at you from about a mile away. Why? Because at 9:30 this morning, the Weather God finally relented. Sure, it's still just 5 degrees above zero, but the race officials—a dedicated bunch who take their sport very seriously and are empowered by the fancy-sounding governing body known as the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association (IDNIYRA for short)—have been assured that the temperature and wind will soon be high enough to race. There is no time to waste. Because of the frigid conditions, only two races have been completed in four days. If they don't finish the regatta today, it may have to be postponed. Unleashed at last, the neoprene-clad racers—all men except for two female sailors—jump into their DN class iceboats and skim over the surface like big water striders, assembling about two miles offshore for the day's first races, their white sails almost invisible against a sky bleached by cold. All told, they are 142 strong, divided into three fleets: Gold (the 49 top racers), Silver (the 48 in the intermediate rank), and Bronze (everybody else). Whoever dominates this last day will become the next world champion.

An iceboat racecourse is simplicity itself: two orange markers spaced one to two miles apart, upwind and downwind. Three laps around make a race. A full regatta comprises seven races for each fleet, but if the weather disrupts things, a minimum of three will suffice. If at least five races are run, each sailor can throw out his worst finish. Scoring is easy: Add up your placement for each finish. The sailor with the lowest total wins. A perfect score in a full regatta is seven.

From a distance, an iceboat regatta looks graceful and peaceful. You can hear the faint roar of the runners and spy the zigzagging sails as they delicately slice the horizon. Close up, that impression shatters. Since each fleet races en masse, the start is a study in explosive motion: Boats shoot every which way in search of the elusive gust, sometimes skating far from the course before flying back at hyperspeed. To someone who's never seen the spectacle, it looks like an experiment in chaos theory. To participants, it makes perfect sense—and puts the lie to the notion that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, at least when it comes to wind and sail.

As for that noise, well, what was once only a faint roar now sounds like a 747 landing on the ice. Blades thunder and rasp horribly as boats careen around the course markers. Masts bend like palms in a hurricane. There are no official speed records kept, but the IDNIYRA reports that racers, using GPS and radar guns, claim to have clocked boats at 90 miles per hour. Luckily, most of the time the sailors avoid smashing into each other. Most of the time. The near-misses are breathtaking.

"This is what it's all about," exults Tom Hamill as we watch the first racers scream around the downwind, or starting, marker. "Guys have been bitching and moaning all week about light winds and no racing and 'Why do I spend my time on this?' But then you're out there and get a gust and you're going 55 and you forget everything else."


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