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?

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."

 

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."

Back on day one, the Montreal Regatta had been put on hold after the Gold fleet completed only one race. Reason: too cold. Extreme temperatures can cramp muscles so badly that racers can't control their boats, so the officials opted for safety. This did not hinder the hard-water boys. Most stayed outside, chatting and picking up bits of arcane knowledge. They laughed hard and often, like it was fun to stand around and solidify.

Just before my blood congealed, I ducked into a cozy, midsize RV belonging to Meade and Jan Gougeon, parked onshore near the boat launch. The Gougeons are innovative boatbuilders as well as champions. Years of tinkering with epoxy and carbon—light materials that reduce weight and enhance speed by eliminating the need for screws, nails and other heavy metal parts—have put them in the vanguard of iceboat design. Fervent competitors, both were out on the ice "tuning" their boats—that is, testing the settings of their rig, mast, sail, and runners. Their fellow Swamp Rats (racing comrades who take their name from the frozen marsh they frequent outside Bay City) were crowded in the RV, staying warm.

The Swamp Rats were an impressive group: Paul Goodwin, 45, ranked 12th in the world; Bob Struble, 53, ranked 11th; Struble's 25-year-old son Matt, an up-and-comer who won two junior worlds and half a dozen junior North Americans as a teenager; Cliff Cartwright, 33, ranked sixth, a third-generation legacy whose grandfather helped design the original DN class boat; Erik Ryan, the rookie; and Ron Sherry, who was momentarily sharing the number-one ranking with four other racers,
including Meade Gougeon. (Rankings are based on finishes over the past two seasons in the world, North American, and European championships.)

The men were sitting around in their socks, listening as Ryan, the newest Swamp Rat recruit, expounded on his devotion to iceboating: "I drove 6,000 miles this winter chasing ice—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan—and it was worth it every time." One of the elders asked if he felt that way about Elk Lake, site of the annual Fun Regatta in northern Michigan. Ryan grinned sheepishly. It seems he'd gotten a little cocky up at Elk Lake and had come in for some light hazing, Swamp Rat­style. "They gave me an ice shower and a snow bath," he said, "and then stuck me in a drift."

Just then, Meade Gougeon came back in, looking refrigerated. "I was only out for 15 minutes," he said, his nose dripping steadily, "but when you get going, your hands freeze instantly. I was going to eat a candy bar out there, but it was so hard I was afraid I'd break my teeth." Gougeon put a steel runner on the counter and began to gently rub the edge with a diamond stone.

"He's dulling up the front runner so he can still go fast and come about without sliding sideways," Cartwright explained.

"So that's why you dull them," said Ryan, studying the blade and nodding. "See what I mean about being helpful?"

"Wait until you start winning," growled Gougeon. "I won't tell you anything."

He was joking, of course. Among iceboaters, secrecy is an empty threat. Take Sherry. A hard-water sailor since age nine, he makes his living designing and building iceboats, masts, and components for soft-water boats through his company Composite Concepts; in fact, 12 iceboats in Montreal were crafted by him. His dual role squeezes him between the twin pressures of wanting to repeat as world champ and worrying that the boats he built won't meet the expectations of the friends he's competing against.

Iceboating wasn't always so chivalrous. According to one historian of the sport, its origins, which are sketchy to say the least, can be traced back to about 2000 b.c.—that is, if "ancient bone relics" resembling runners in Stockholm's Nordic Museum are any indication. The next time iceboats appeared in history was the mideighteenth century, when legend has it that a Dutch merchant, impatient over frozen canals slowing down his deliveries, nailed runners to a plank, nailed the plank to the bottom of his boat, and sailed his goods to market.

It didn't take long for the Dutch to bring their new conveyance to the colonies, in this case New Amsterdam. But the boats were too much fun for mere work, more like thoroughbreds than plow horses, and by the late nineteenth century wealthy farmers were racing ice yachts on the Hudson River, some of them reaching lengths of 69 feet with more than a thousand square feet of sail. A yacht called Icicle, built for John Roosevelt, one of FDR's uncles, was reputed to have reached speeds of up to 100 mph, and for a while iceboats were the fastest man-made vehicles on earth. But with the arrival of motorboats, automobiles, and planes, the rich took up other hobbies, and soon the pursuit of good ice trickled down to weekend speed demons willing to toil endlessly over their workbenches, building smaller craft to navigate the lake-pocked wintry wastes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and the Northeast.

There are several types of iceboat, from the eight-foot Skimmer class to the 40-foot, two-person Skeeter class, but the most popular is the DN, the standard race boat at the Montreal regatta. The DN came on the scene in 1936, when the Detroit News (hence "DN") sponsored a competition to design a small, inexpensive boat that could be built in a basement. Since then, epoxy, carbon, and surgical steel have replaced some of the heavier pieces of wood and metal used in the masts and hulls of yore. Over the years DNs have slimmed down from 200 pounds to about 100, but the setup is still the same. The racer, typically swaddled in a neoprene bodysuit, mittens, helmet, goggles, and cleats or golf shoes for traction, lies down inside a 12-foot-long wooden fuselage resembling a sleek jet. The fuselage sits atop an eight-foot cross-plank and is propelled by a 16-foot composite mast supporting roughly 60 square feet of sail. Most sailors still build their own boats from kits, at a cost of about $2,000; a brand-new racing-quality boat will set you back $5,000. "It's a highly technical sport that requires a lot of work beforehand," says Meade Gougeon, "but it fits into almost any basement and doesn't cost a lot of money, so it's a shop guy's dream."

In a sport built around the constant measuring, readjusting, jiggering, futzing, and caressing of one's boat, runners are the supreme fetish. An iceboat glides on three runners—one on each end of the plank and a steering runner attached to the bow and controlled by a tiller inside the boat. A typical iceboater keeps a half-dozen sets on hand, each designed for a different condition; a top competitor like Ron Sherry carries 15 sets. Racers talk obsessively about ice. There's salt ice, shell ice, glare ice, green ice, black ice, snow ice, and cobblestone ice, all of which can be complicated by a liberal sprinkling of snow, which can be further complicated by the amount and type of snow—light, slushy, crusty, frozen. Thus, choosing the right runners requires mastering a new scientific discipline.

Here's Think Ice!, the iceboater's bible, on the subject: "The success of a runner on any given day depends on a number of variables: surface of the ice, wind, temperature, snow, type of metal the runner is made of, length of runner edge, angle of runner, camber of the edge, finish of the edge, sharpness, the leading edge and heel, and lastly, streamlining and ice shedding qualities." Got that? The best runners for DN racing cost up to $1,000 a set. But expensive runners are wasted if the cutting edges of the side pair aren't perfectly parallel. Some racers employ rifle scopes to line up their runners to within 0.010 inch of true and make infinitesimal adjustments with shim tape and epoxy.

Out on the ice, racers check everything with homemade alignment jigs and then listen to what their runners tell them: If the surface is smooth but the runners jump with a scritching sound, they're misaligned; if the leeward runner grinds, it's digging in. Hissing, ringing, these too bear messages for those who can hear them. The ice holds its own secrets. Quoth Think Ice!: "Ice sings and plays music when it is in a dynamic phase of freezing or temperature change. The larger the lake, the more varied the sounds.... The real symphony can only be heard by having direct contact with the ice.... Fresh black ice growing on a large lake sounds remarkably like the recorded songs of whales at sea."

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."

By the fourth day, after enduring this prolonged Arctic blast, any spectators who have stuck around are either beginning to show the early stages of hypothermic dementia or were born that way, in which case it doesn't really matter. I myself have been singing private hymns of praise all day to the humanitarian genius who invented hot packs for feet and hands, but after hours on the ice my fingers and toes, not to mention my nose, feel like icicles. At least that's the way I imagine they feel, since I can't feel them.

Up to this point in the championship the Gold fleet has only raced twice and the sailors are anxious. The racer under the most pressure is Ron Sherry, the defending champion. An intense guy with reddish-brown hair and a beard, he looks alternately pained and distracted whenever I try to interview him, and several times he simply walks away. He manages to win the day's first race—the third for the whole regatta—but still trails Mishal Burczynski, the young Polish phenom, in overall scoring. In the fourth race, Sherry loses by 150 yards to the Swede Tomas Lindgren, the 1999 European champ, but his second-place finish is still good enough to put him into a tie for first with Burczynski, who finished fifth.

By the early afternoon, the wind has risen to about 13 mph, which allows for high speeds but also magnifies mistakes. On the second downwind lap of the fifth race, Sherry leads Lindgren by only a couple of boat lengths. Erik Ryan starts doing the play-by-play for anyone within earshot. "Ron's got to jibe just right or he's cooked," he announces. "Wait... Wait... Wait... OK, now!"

Sherry jibes that very second. Lindgren waits another few moments before jibing—a serious mistake. Sherry lengthens his lead and extends it farther on the third and last lap. As he whizzes by the finish line, he jerks on his mainsheet like a crazy man. Not only does he get another win—he can throw out his eighth-place finish in the regatta's first race, putting his scored finishes at 2-1-2-1.

With the sun going down and the mercury following, IDNIYRA decrees that the sixth race will be the last. All 49 members of the Gold fleet arrange their boats along the starting line, half of them pointed left of the marker, half pointed right. Sherry crouches alongside his boat. When the flag drops, he sprints, pushes his boat into clear air, hops in, and yanks the mainsheet tight. He darts into the lead, but another Swede dogs him closely for the first lap. On the second lap, Sherry begins pulling away, and by the start of the third it's clear that no one can catch him. At the finish he's ahead by at least 500 yards, and he pumps his fist in triumph. He has demolished the competition, with a total of just seven points over five races. No one has even come close to this consistency: Sherry's nearest rival, Bernd Zeiger, has 16 points; Burczynski has 17, followed by a gaggle of Swedes.

Erik Ryan, packing his gear into a milk crate, exhales loudly. "Oh, boy, I can feel a party coming on," he says, looking a little alarmed. Apparently, Swamp Rat decorum calls for more than the occasional ice shower and Ryan's been delegated to help everyone chill. "I've got to get liquor," he declares. "For the car, for the hotel, for everywhere."  

Steve Kemper lives and writes in Connecticut.

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