Saturday, January 16, 2010

Flying on Hard Water!

I just had a nice visit from a SRU friend from PA.  He was coming over to sail his ice boat on Lake Charlevoix in a regatta.  Ben drove over on Wednesday and spent the night with me catching up on news about Slippery Rock.  We left Wellston at 7:00 AM for Boyne City.

Here is Ben's truck with his sailing gear.  The launch site was just North of the marina in town.  The ice was 4" thick of good solid black ice with only a small 1" covering of snow.  Ben wanted to have Thursday and Friday to practice as this was his first outing of the season.

I noticed two local ice boats were stored over on the side.  This was good new for Ben.  He could leave his boat on the ice overnight and save an hour of setting up time. They use ice screws to hold them in place overnight and put on covers.

We carried out four long bags of gear, two storage crates of stuff and all the equipment needed to set up the ice boat. The wood plank was unpacked first.  Ben had the plank constructed for his weight.  It has a bow to it that flattens out two inches when he is on it.  The black end pieces holds the two back blades.  Ice boaters have several blades for different conditions and for practicing and racing.  They carry tools to sharpen the blades if needed.

The Polish fiberglass body was fastened to the plank with one bolt.  It is a simple cockpit and you can see the long handle in front that steers the front blade.  Ben bought this ice boat body from the Polish Racing team that races in the USA and then sells the boats after each race to save on shipping costs back to their country.  Most ice boats are hand-made with wooden bodies.  I'll show you some pictures later in the blog.

In the background you can see about 14 wooden pallets that were donated from a local store.  The ice in front of the ramp was weak and since it was going to warm up, the ramps would be needed to carry gear out on the ice.  This saved  some money over buying several sheets of plywood and is sturdier to walk on. In this picture the steel blades have been attached with one bolt at the end of the plank.  The edge has a sharpened V  point and cuts a track in the ice or fingers if you happened to have it run over you.  That is another story.  The snow on the ice is a problem.  It slows down the boats.  Here only an inch of snow is on the ice so the race is on for Saturday and possibly Sunday.  The racers start over for the race from several states and keep track of news on the way to find out if it is still on or moved to another location or state.  The weather and ice conditions can change in a heartbeat, so the racers have to keep checking.  Ben wanted to have Thursday to set up the boat and get re-acquainted with it. 

Ben is attaching the front blade to the boat.  The small narrow black strip on top of the boat is the ball swivel for the mast.  You can see the thin wires going to the front blade for steering control as you move the pivot arm in the cockpit.  Some of the terms I am using might not be the correct racing boat terms but you get the general idea.

Ben was glad to see a local boater show up as it is better not to practice by yourself.  There have been two deaths in the ice boat community this year when boats went through the ice.  The black masts is just set down on the swivel ball and held in place by the three guy wires.  Two wires go to the end of the plank and one to the front of the boat.  The tension is adjusted to allow flexing of the mast.  There is a lot of tuning to make the boat sail properly.  Ben said that about 80 percent of the ice boaters are summer sailors.  It is obvious that certain sailing procedures would be the same. Ben has a 38 foot sailing boat in Erie that needs a semi-truck to haul around.  That is why it stays up there. This sport is different than many other sports.  The older competitors are usually the better sailers.  The boats are sailed in categories accoring to size, weight and experience.  All things equal, the older guys with more experience are faster.  Ben said that a small 2 to 5 percent advantage in summer sailing at 5 mph doesn't mean as much as in winter ice boating where the boats are going 50 mph.  So a small advantage on the ice means a much faster boat.

Ben's friend has a pleasure boat and is getting out his sail.  It is a handmade boat.  Pleasure sailors enjoy the ice as much as the racers and still enjoy racing just for the fun of it.  Racers are competitive!   On Friday, they will set up a course so the boats are all going in the same direction.  They set up a diamond shaped course that you have to follow.  Each boat can take a different path but have to navigate around all the points of the course.  The changing winds causes different tracks around the course. Today, you just sail and keep an eye out for the other boats.  Two boats traveling at 50 mph each and heading for each other can cause a big impact.  If they crash, the boats always take heavy damage.

The sail is in the groove and getting threaded up the channel on the mast.  The sail is a stiffer, plastic-like material rather than like the soft nylon sails used in the summer.  The front blade has a metal band that can be dropped down  around the blade to act as a brake to keep the boat in position until you are ready to sail.  The wind could start you soaring before you are ready without the brake.

The sails are up and the boats

are ready.  Now the pilots have to get their sailing gear on. 

Ben has his practice jacket on that has a built-in life preserver and a pair of ice picks.  Practicing the ice boating is more dangerous than the races.  Today, Ben and others will check out the ice conditions and help determine the best course setup.  Notice the spiked shoes that Ben is wearing for the running starts.

Ben is psyched!  It is the first ice day of the season for him.  He wants to get re-acquainted with the boat and get some ice time in.  Today is a little dangerous as everything has to be checked out; the boat, the controls, the ice and the conditions.  There is no course so today everyone is just warming up.

You can see the tiller for steering the front of the boat.  Ben has his helmet on, goggles and leather gloves.  To start the boat sailing , he positions the boat at a slight angle to the wind and by pushing on the two back guy wires and pushing off with his ice spikes the boat starts to move.  It is a running start.  Then he stands up on the plank to get into the cockpit.

He is off for the first run of the season.

I'm sailing, I'm sailing!  The boat can reach speeds of 50 mph so large lakes are preferred.

After watching for a while, I decide to go ice fishing.  I drive down the lake to an area away from the racing.  I have never fished this lake so I look for a place that has ice fisherman on it.  I head out and talk to the others out on the ice.  It seems that perch are in the area and maybe some walleyes.  I set up and drill a hole.

My first fish on this lake and a double header!  I release the fish and think I am going to have a good day.

I hear a swishing noise and look around.

Ben sailed over and stopped to check on me.  The ice is thinner up here.  He is enjoying the sailing but the snow is piling up in front of the runners and makes the boat slower.  It is getting warmer and the snow is starting to melt off. Will they be able to race on Saturday and Sunday? 

I came back to the launch area after fishing.  No more bites and it was time to head over and meet my brother, Gary, for dinner.  Here are some shots of the pleasure ice boats that are handbuilt by their owners.  The wood is beautiful.  They are heavier than Ben's racing boat.

The ice is 4 inchs thick and clear.  When I was walking on the ice I could see right through to the sandy bottom.  It looked like you were walking on a thin piece of glass.  A little eery!  The snow is melting off and hopefully the water won't freeze bumpy overnight.

Here is the last shot.

These boats are very beautiful. Ice boating is big in Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Some of the races will be there. You have to travel quite a distance to race your ice boat.

Check out ice boat races, maybe one will be held near you.  Maybe the pleasure boaters will be out on a lake near you.  Hope you enjoyed this blog.


  1. Thanks Dr. Don! What a wonderful introduction for those not familiar with iceboating. The wooden boats also race; actually the fiberglass ones are the exceptions. The racing on Saturday was very fun and I steadly got the "cobwebs" out as the day went on. The sailors were split into three fleets - Gold, Silver, and Juniors. I raced in the Silver Fleet. The wind was never very consistent and shifted in both direction and strength making for very tactical conditions. I placed 20th, 22nd, and 17th in the 3 races out of about 25 boats inthe Silver Fleet. The other 2 fleets completed 3 races each on Saturday. On Sunday the wind was even lighter but all the fleets went out to see what would happen. The Junior fleet was up first and completed one race in very light air; many of the skippers needed to push their boats around the course to finish! The Gold Fleet went next but the race was scrubbed since thelead boat did not finish within the time limit required by the racing rules. The Sliver and Junior fleets were then given a start but neither race was scored due to the time limit again. At 1:30 pm the regatta was called over and the sailors headed back to the pits to tear-down the boats and pack up for home. I said my good-bys to all my iceboating friends and hit the road for PA. My wife Lori was glad o see me when I pulled in the driveway at 11 pm! All in all an excellent adventure. I got to spend time with Dr. Don,met his brother Gary and wife Jane, sailed Thhursday, Friday, and Saturday, and enjoyed the company of the many DN sailors who are my friends. If you are ever in Boyne City be sure to eat at the Red Mesa Grill - the food is EXCELLENT! Thanks Dr. Don.

  2. Don, Ben's boat "Silver Wheel" is a 30 footer, but it sails like a larger boat! Otherwise, the two of us wouldn't have been able to handle the task during five days of racing on Lake Erie in June. It still does require a semi-trailer for ground transport.
    Glad you took good care of him.