Winter Sailing: Adventures in Iceboating

Ever wondered what it takes to get into iceboating? Turns out its main requirement is a unique mindset.
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It’s 1100 on a Saturday morning in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, day two of the 2010 Northwest Ice Yacht Racing Association (NIYA) championship regatta. The temperature hovers around 20 degrees, typical for late January. Dozens of iceboat crews and their supporters mill about the South Side Ice Yacht Club (SSIYC) on the banks of Lake Winnebago, which is covered with hard black ice as far as the eye can see. There’s just one problem: no wind. Welcome to the world of iceboating, in which patience and a willingness to “chase the ice” wherever and whenever it forms is the name of the game.

In this case, the process of chasing and waiting for the right conditions for the 2010 NIYA championships began days earlier when race committee member Greg Simon of Madison, Wisconsin, started scouting sites for the upcoming event. On the Wednesday before the regatta, after spending hours on the phone, Simon learned from Mike Peters, an SSIYC member, that conditions looked good on Lake Winnebago. According to Peters, the ice was smooth, solid and almost entirely snow-free. Simon made the fateful decision to set the race for Friday through Sunday at SSIYC.




Immediately, the news spread through the iceboat community, and sailors from as far away as New England and Minnesota began preparing their boats. Nearly 1,000 miles away, defending Skeeter class champion Dan Clapp of New Jersey received word of the decision from NIYA secretary Paul Krueger and promptly hauled his boat’s 54-inch runners into his shop for a sharpening. Within hours he and his support team were on the road and headed west. Barring any mishaps, they hoped to have their A-class Skeeter Insanity rigged and ready by noon on Thursday.


In fact, top iceboat sailors spend far more time maintaining their boats than actually sailing. Runners must be sharp with correct profiles. Side runners must be perfectly parallel, with cross pieces, or runner “planks,” carefully measured for deflection. Masts must be tested for stiffness. Stays and shrouds must be at optimal lengths to allow for loose or tight adjustment depending on the wind condition.


But for iceboaters, that’s all part of the fun.

A Little Patience

Friday morning arrives sunny and clear, a bad sign: a high-pressure system is now firmly established. Nonetheless, a carnival like atmosphere pervades the SSIYC mooring area. Four different classes are set to compete—the DN, Stern Steer, Renegade and Skeeter classes—and masts from a variety of boats fill the sky, from the world’s largest iceboat­—the 55-foot A-class stern steerer Deuce­—to a 9-foot youth-training Ice Optimist.


Eventually, Simon, who competes in the Renegade class, and NIYA Commodore Chip Sawyer decide to cancel the day’s racing, but the fleet takes it in stride. Clapp and other skippers line up their boats for a Skeeter class photo. Other sailors discuss the agenda for that evening’s annual business meeting. Following the meeting, skippers and their families head back to the yacht club for an old-fashioned Midwestern fish fry.


Saturday morning brings more of the same. But the fleet is used to waiting. As midday approaches, Sawyer swaps out his iceboating helmet for a chef’s hat. The smell of grilling venison steaks fills the air as he serves lunch to those race organizers who must remain out on the course in anticipation of a change in conditions. Everywhere, you can hear the crunch of metal-spiked boots as sailors make their way to the club for a lunch of brats and sauerkraut.





Suddenly, there is wind! The race committee springs into action and takes the unusual step of setting up two separate courses to make up for lost time. The DNs and Stern Steerers will take turns racing on one course, while the Skeeters and Renegades share the other. Simon and Mike Peters volunteer to score and judge the second course, foregoing their chance to compete. Tension builds as boats line up. No one is wondering whether it was worth the wait.


Iceboat races are sailed over a windward-leeward course, with the marks ideally placed at least one mile apart. A starting line is set up several hundred feet downwind of the leeward mark. Three laps is typical for most classes, although Skeeters typically sail more because of their speed.


On this particular day, the four-lap Skeeter race is over in less time than it takes to sharpen a set of runners—blindingly fast! The high-powered craft scream over the finish line then turn into the wind to stop. Clapp slides Insanity’s clear canopy away and nimbly jumps out. He walks over to congratulate Jay Yaeso, skipper of Haywire, who finished first by only a few seconds.


The second race is equally fast, and this time Clapp finishes just ahead of Yaeso. As the sun sets, the fleet sails back to the mooring area. Sails come down and runners are lifted off the ice. All four classes have sailed a full complement of races.





Worth the Wait


Sunday morning dawns with the wind turbines along the Lake Winnebago shore spinning madly. Skippers speed out for a few pre-race laps to learn the wind patterns and check for bumpy ice. Clapp wins the first race of the day, giving him a one-point lead over Yaeso, who finishes in second, setting the stage for an epic finish.


The third lap of the fourth and final race sees Clapp and Yaeso running neck and neck as the 15 boats in the Skeeter fleet gybe around the leeward mark. Judge Simon stands with his shotgun ready to signal the first boat across the line. Insanity and Haywire are wound up, screaming downwind side by side. At the very end, Haywire soars ahead of Insanity by the half a runner’s length. Clapp and Yaeso finish with six points each overall and will share the NIYA Skeeter title—a great finish to a great regatta.


Despite the lack of wind on Friday, all four classes have managed to get in enough races to determine a champion. As for Simon and Peters, their sacrifice has not been lost on the other sailors. “A fine display of sportsmanship that reminds us what good sailing is all about,” says Renegade sailor Greg McCormick.


Racing concluded, everybody helps each other disassemble their boats. A couple of hours later, the only sign there was a regatta here are the tracks left by the runners on the empty frozen lake. But the memories will last a lifetime. 





Unlike summer “soft water” sailing where there’s a lot of drag on the hull passing through the water, iceboats experience very little friction as their runners skim across the ice, which allows them to regularly sail six times the true wind speed.


As a result, one of the biggest differences between iceboats and conventional soft-water boats is the role played by apparent wind on a reach or run. Sailing upwind in an iceboat is similar to sailing upwind in a soft-water boat. But iceboats are so fast, and the apparent wind goes so far forward off the wind, that gybing downwind is much like sailing a beat, with the apparent wind crossing the bow, the same as when tacking.


To start a race, skippers stand next to their boats, which are lined up at a close-hauled angle to the wind. When the gun sounds, the skippers all push their boats forward in a running start to begin generating apparent wind. Once the boat is moving as fast as the skipper can push it, he or she climbs in, bears away slightly and adjusts the sheet to accelerate to top speed.


Iceboat sails are cut extremely flat to accommodate the narrower tacking angles they experience. Draft depth for an iceboat sail is approximately 5 percent of chord length, compared to 10 percent for a catamaran and 15 percent for a monohull. In the DN class, the middle of the mast is also allowed to curve, or bow, dramatically to leeward, so that the luff of the sail parallels the twist in the leech. The resulting spoon-shaped sail creates a better ratio of lift to drag, and therefore greater speed.

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