|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.”