It's midwinter in North America, the time of year when sailors in Florida, Texas, and other parts south begin to feel smug about the mostly benign weather in their corner of the world. Those sailors are able to keep their boats in the water year round, and they can sail as much as they like. But when they thumb their noses at their counterparts in the frozen north, what they're forgetting is that winter, for some folks up north, doesn't necessarily mean that sailing ends. Winter simply means that sailors in the north change boats and go sailing on hard water.
Iceboating, as it's most commonly referred to, is more popular than most sailors in the south might imagine. From Prince Edward Island in the east to Wisconsin in the west, sailors in the north speed their way across the landscape on boats almost as diverse as those you see on the water. High-tech Skeeters with blade-like sail plans, Nites, DNs, and classic wooden craft dot the lakes, ponds, and frozen waterways in this region when the conditions are right.
And it's not just boats that get sailors out on the water in the winter. There exists a vast array of devices—some store-bought and some homemade—that work on both ice and snow. Consider the Snowfer, or the FreeSkate, or the Skimbat, each of which incorporate windsurfer-style rigs to let sailors avail themselves of the wintry landscape and the frigid winds. Some of these utilize skis (Skimbat), some use boards (Snowfer), and some use both (FreeSkate), but no matter the method, the message is clear—sailing is just too much fun to ignore in the winter months.
Perhaps that's why at the recent DN (Detroit News) North American Championship Regatta, staged at Mille Lacs, MN, 90 sailors materialized from as far away as North Carolina, New Mexico, and Martha's Vineyard to compete in the two-day event. The DN—a 12-foot, single-seater whose history dates back almost 70 years—is the largest iceboating class in the world with over 2,000 registered members. When you consider that similarly popular soft-water designs like the J/24 or Etchells 22 attract comparable numbers for their national and world championship regattas, you begin to get a grasp on just how established and popular iceboating is. Need more proof? There are currently over 230 sailors registered for the DN World Championships scheduled to take place in Poland later this winter.
Of course wintertime sailing on snow or hard water is really nothing new. Iceboating has been an established sport at least since late in the last century, and the folks within the World Ice and Snow Sailing Association (a group that encompasses sailboards, free sails, and kites) have been staging regattas in various disciplines for over 20 years.
But we're talking about a sporting pursuit where the practitioners are regularly subjected to sub-freezing temperatures and finicky weather that can rob them of their playground with not much warning. So what keeps them coming back to the ice and the snow? Sure the varied craft these sailors ride provide them with the opportunity to pursue their love of the sport on a year-round basis. That has to be factored in. And certainly there's that concept which seems to worm its way into the spirits of many who enjoy time on the water—speed. Sailors who engage in iceboating get accustomed to traveling at velocities that often exceed three times the speed of the wind. But it seems there's an even more compelling element that accounts for the popularity of wintry sailing and that's the hands-on nature of this pastime. Most of the folks that participate in the various classes of iceboats build their own vessels and spend a fair bit of time tinkering with them, which in itself provides a special affinity for the activity.
According to John Jombock of Slippery Rock, PA—a sailor and custom builder of iceboats for some 30 years—iceboating has a strong yet limited following. "There aren't tens of thousands of enthusiasts worldwide, but there certainly are thousands. And because there's no volume builder of DNs and other boats, roughly 90 percent of the sailors build their own boats." Explains Jombock, "the sport appeals to the outdoor type of person, sure, and the craftsman type as well."
One contemporary example of this, says Jombock, is occurring with masts in the DN class. Once upon a time, he says, "Everyone built wooden masts according to the plans. As the years went by, mast technology advanced and about 20 years ago aluminum masts become popular. After that, high-tech wooden masts started showing up with carbon and epoxy additives. And then, because aluminum masts wouldn't bend enough and the high-tech masts were tough to get just right, fiberglass masts were introduced. Now most boats sail with fiberglass masts." Because fiberglass masts from the two or three production builders who make them can cost $1,000.00 and more, explains Jombock, the rank and file sailors are starting to experiment with homebuilt fiberglass masts. "Enthusiastic, experimental type guys are now trying to find a way around that with home-built fiberglass masts. The professionally built masts are winning now, but guys are out there working on homebuilt masts and someone's going to figure out an option pretty soon."
With all those individuals putting together their own boats and gear, it seems safe to assume that there's a lot of variety in how the boats come out, and more importantly in how they measure up. "Yep," says Jombock about the DN in particular. "There's always been a controversy about whether the boat is a strict enough one-design." Though class rules for the DN include multiple pages stipulating technical specifications, some sailors feel that design isn't sufficiently standardized, Jombock counts himself among them. "The design is too wide open now," he says. "I don't know what the answer is, but I have a strong opinion that we've gone too far into allowing experimentation. The tremendous improvement in performance that this brings is nice, but it's a shame because this flexibility ultimately decreases the interest in the class."
Despite the "controversy" that Jombock cites, most iceboaters appear to be pretty content with their sport. How bad can it be anyway? If things ever get too out of hand in that respect, all they have to do is wait for the winter to end so that they can return to sailing on soft water. And at least with iceboating, these sailors don't have to endure all the squabbling and politics that PHRF sailors live with day in and day out. So pray for cold weather.
Iceboating 101, the Need for Speed by Bruce Caldwell
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