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
You! non-iceboater! you with the sense to stay off raw, windblown lakes in the dead of winter!

You don't know what you're missing.

You may wonder, of course, whether this pursuit is worth all the waiting around for decent conditions, worth all the frozen digits, chattering teeth, leaky noses, and glaciated cheeks. You may wonder, in short, whether this is a thrilling speed-sport destined for greater popularity or a frostbitten dementia sensibly consigned to an obscure arena inhabited by ice-mad loons.

Well, you can stop wondering, because it comes down to this: Iceboaters don't care what you think. They live to chase ice. Think Ice!, a spiral-bound primer put out by the IDNIYRA that serves as a rule book, how-to guide, and manifesto all rolled into one, describes iceboating as "an international sport of thoroughly amateur standing." And as much as the participants love the speed, that male urge to gather with one's cronies and get a little nutty, in this case while picking icicles off your nose hairs, is just as essential—necessary, even, since the boys spend so much time stomping their feet, preening over their boats, and comparing the size of one another's runners.

It's a powerful drug, ice. In Montreal, it lured such contenders as the 16-year-old Polish sensation Mishal Burczynski; the German veteran Bernd Zeiger; Tomas Lindgren, the young 1999 European champ from Sweden; and Ron Sherry, 37, the 1998 world champion from Clinton Township, Michigan. Most Americans, if they've even heard of iceboating, consider it a peculiar pastime. But northern Europeans have a different opinion. The Swedes, for instance, arrived in Montreal with coaches, helpers, and a modicum of government funding. There were even rumors of a masseuse. Jan Gougeon, Meade's brother and, at 54, winner of four world championships and seven North American championships, remembers the scene at one regatta in Germany: "So many people were out on the ice watching—must have been 5,000 spectators—that they had a hard time keeping the course open. The people even wanted autographs." Poland is especially ice-crazy. When Jan won a world championship there in the midseventies, hundreds of people cheered him at every train stop. When a Polish sailor won the worlds in 1978, they put him on a postage stamp.

There certainly weren't many autograph-seekers out on Lac St. Louis, but that didn't put a damper on the proceedings. Since some racers see each other only once a year, they treat the championships like reunions, trading information on innovations, hoisting a beer or five, and loaning equipment. This dependence on one another naturally breeds esprit de corps.

"These are the most incredible people I've ever met," says Erik Ryan, an exuberant 23-year-old from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, who spends his summers sailing the Great Lakes and is a first-year iceboater. "Ron [Sherry] and Karol Jablonski"—a four-time world champ from Poland—"are fighting for the number-one ranking, and they're good friends. They exchange tips and equipment, they help each other out, they laugh and talk." Ryan looks dumbfounded. "The competition is on the ice, and everything else is camaraderie."

Iceboaters are used to getting their ice ripped out from under them by a snowstorm or a cold snap at the last minute, so during the winter they're in perpetual motion. They set up regional telephone hot lines and Internet bulletin boards to spread the word about which lakes and rivers have good ice, which are mucked up with snow, and how the weather may change conditions. (The IDNIYRA home page, www.paw.com/sail/ice, has links to 21 different iceboating-related Web sites.) In 1998, warm weather forced the world championships to move from Austria to Finland. The 1999 Montreal regatta had originally been scheduled to take place in Vermont on Lake Champlain, but then a snowstorm invalidated that site. Four days before the event, iceboaters throughout North America and Europe still didn't know where they would be racing. Bill Condon, cochairman of the 1999 Worlds, told me, "We're trying to keep it somewhere between Wisconsin and Montreal," as if that were a reasonable range of locations. "We don't think anything of driving 11 or 12 hours for ice." The 2000 Worlds will take place somewhere in Sweden from March 5 through 11; as is customary, the ultimate location won't be chosen until a week or so beforehand.

The first commandment of iceboating is, Go wherever the ice is best. Often this means miles away from roads, parking lots, restaurants, and indoor plumbing. Proud, passionate amateurs, iceboaters don't pander for sponsorship, so they don't feel obliged to cater or compromise. Consequently, they don't get much publicity. (This year, for the first time ever, the Swedes plan to find a sponsor for the 2000 Worlds.) Commodore Bierman recalls the time in 1964 when a crew from ABC's Wide World of Sports showed up at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and drove their van full of heavy camera equipment out onto the ice. It sank. "I don't think they've been back," he notes dryly.

In spite of that we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-publicity attitude, the hard-water sailors of IDNIYRA have had to deal with the International Olympic Committee sniffing around. In 1996, the IOC extended an invitation to IDNIYRA to join the Winter Olympics. The association balked, fearing that inclusion in the Olympics would ruin iceboating's seat-of-the-pants ethic and affordability. (All you have to do to race is pay your $15 annual dues, carry a $300,000 liability insurance policy, and make sure your boat meets the size, weight, and material requirements.) When the IOC said it was going to happen with them or without them, IDNIYRA begrudgingly decided to cooperate.

There were preliminary plans to make iceboating a demonstration sport in Salt Lake City in 2002, but when the Olympic payola scandal hit, according to IDNIYRA officials, the discussions were put on hold while the IOC turned its attention to damage control. If iceboating does become an Olympic sport in Turin, Italy, in 2006, its champions no doubt will come from IDNIYRA's ranks, but many of the sailors most likely to get the exposure prefer good ice over fame. "I hope it never happens," says Meade Gougeon, standing on the frozen St. Lawrence, bundled up so that only his eyes show. "And anyway, who would come out and watch? It's not a spectator sport, it's an incredibly exciting sport to do."

Bill Condon, who also sits on the IDNIYRA committee grappling with the issue, feels certain that iceboats will someday sail in the Olympics. But he, too, seems faintly discouraged by the whole idea. "You'd probably get a lot more people into it, which might be good, but it might change the whole camaraderie of the sport. The problem with iceboating," he continues, chuckling, "is that you can't really justify it. The amount of time you get to sail versus the time you put into it—it's just a stupid sport. But the people who do it love it."

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!