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
On the second day in Montreal a local weatherwoman, standing outside in a puffy polar parka, her TV smile looking even more frozen than usual, reported for the morning broadcast that it was 18 below zero with a windchill of minus 30 degrees. Still too cold. Instead of heading for the ice, everybody went to breakfast and talked about deep freezes of regattas past.

Paul Goodwin recalled a world championship in Vermont some years ago when a fellow competitor lost patience with the delay caused by the cold and wrapped a hand around the official thermometer until the mercury reached 10 degrees, the minimum temperature for racing. The wind was blowing big that day, so the top boats were hitting 60 mph. After racing in such bitter cold, the sailors suddenly began behaving like madmen, hopping around and cursing the pain as their feet and hands thawed. Tom Hamill remembered a regatta so cold that when he finished a race and took off his goggles, a white line of freezer-burn ran across his forehead.

Cold comfort indeed, especially on day three, when the temperature was still hovering in the single digits and the IDNIYRA officials had yet to give the racers the go-ahead. During the lull—the Gold fleet would get in only one race that day as well—Dan Bierman offered to let me take his boat out for a brief scoot.

With Bierman's help I assumed the position, lying back in the racing shell with my hands on the tiller, my body a foot above the ice. "Have you ever sailed?" Bierman asked. Just on a lake, I said. "Well, it's the same thing." As soon as he released the brake, the boat started to glide. It needed to. I yanked the sheet as taut as possible and the boat spurted ahead like a goosed motorcycle. The wind stung my face and made my eyes water, but I didn't want to stop. The runners clattered on the straightaways and rasped violently as I came about. It was exhilarating. I wanted to go faster. Much faster. Suddenly I understood why these guys are willing to endure the harshest conditions for even a fleeting taste of speed. I steered the boat back to Commodore Bierman. He apologized for the mediocre run: It seems I was only going 25 mph.

When it comes to technique, the strength lies predominantly in the amount of sweat a racer has put into building and calibrating his craft. For all the experience an iceboater can bring to a race—knowing how to maximize the wind, reading the ice for rough patches, tacking in and out of the herd—an entire regatta can be blown by merely choosing the wrong runners. But it's not entirely about the equipment. The most important variable is, ultimately, the most unknowable: how close a sailor can push his boat to the edge and still avoid disaster. During one race in Montreal, two sailors collided head-on; they were able to walk away from it, but their boats were totaled.

"A lot of time when you're sailing you're right on the edge of control. Sometimes it's just chance out there, you can get lifted or knocked," says Bierman. "The better sailors know where the fine edge of their limit of control is. Novice sailors may cross that line—or not even approach it."

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