It was January, three months since I had last raised a sail, pulled on a mainsheet, and gripped a tiller. Looking out over the bay, a solid white field of ice stretched for miles.
My ear caught a faint rumbling, rattling sound somewhere out on the ice. Straining my eyes, I picked out what seemed like an incredible sight: a mainsail and a long foresail were rapidly moving down the bay against the backdrop of the trees along the shore. Shortly afterward another pair of sails emerged from the background. Together, the two sets of sails hurtled along, then turned on a dime and began racing back the way they came.
"Scooters," said one of my new friends among the members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat Yacht Club. We'd gathered at a parking lot on the bay for a day of iceboating.
A stay at Club Med or a bareboat charter in the Caribbean were not in the cards. If I was to do any sailing this winter, it would have to be on hard water. After asking around, I learned of a local iceboating club and went to its monthly meeting, held inside the cavernous shed of the Weeks Boat Yard, a 100-year-old establishment that makes Force 5 sailboats (like Lasers) and DN iceboats. Among other purposes, the club served as a network for monitoring good ice conditions in the region.
The shallow Great South Bay freezes early and is the home of scooters. These broad, melonseed-shaped craft are up to 20-feet long with four runners attached to the hull, which is steered by a jib hanked onto a long bulky bowsprit. They were developed from duckboats used to haul supplies across the bay to the Coast Guard station on Fire Island. If they hit a patch of open water, they can usually sail straight across and run back onto the ice.
"These are one wild ride," said Cathy Firnbach.
I shuddered. Cathy and the other club members sail DNs or a longer version, the J14, capable of top speeds near 60 miles per hour on three short blades. What was her definition of wild compared to that?
Fortunately for me, the wind was light on that Saturday. For the club members, however, iceboating means pure speed. "One good run and you'll be hooked!" they all swore. I was hoping for an easier transition from the soft-water speeds of five knots to hard-water speeds that have to be clocked with radar guns.
Two planks spanned the gap between the shoreline and the ice, and the club members were busily carrying masts, sails, runners, and hulls across the planks and onto the ice for assembly.
"Anyone got some spare creepers?" asked Howie Dietz, after seeing me nearly execute a somersault on some slick ice near the planks. A moment later I was handed two pieces of leather, laced at the top and punctured on the bottom with screws, to fit over my boots and provide a grip on the ice. Howie and Richie Crucet later showed me another piece of essential iceboating gear: Two pieces of wood, each with a concrete nail embedded in it, that fit together like a puzzle and hang around the neck by a string. Pulled apart and held like ice picks, they can save your life by giving you the means to climb onto solid ice when you've sailed into a hole. Richie said his pair once helped him crawl through 20 feet of rotten ice.
Planks, creepers, and ice picks are not the only unusual equipment needed for iceboating. Motorcycle helmets are mandatory. At these speeds, it can take a 1,000 feet to stop, and a turn made too suddenly can throw the driver from the cockpit.
Iceboats can reach fantastic speeds, up to 150 miles per hour, by using the apparent wind. Even in a breeze of just five knots, a DN can quickly accelerate between two to four times faster than the true wind. For that reason, the sail is almost always sheeted in to the centerline and the course is always a reach. Sailing downwind, once the apparent wind becomes greater than the true wind, the sail begins fluttering and the boat loses its momentum.
Rigging the DNs took about half-an-hour. First, the eight-foot-long lateral plank is set out on top of short supports. Next the hull is fitted crosswise onto the plank, the blades attached to the ends of the plank and the bow, and the sharply raked, rotating mast fitted onto its ball-joint, the shrouds are attached, and the sail is raised.
The light air from the north wasn't promising. A few members ventured out, but could be seen doing more pushing than sailing. The group loitered in the parking lot, waiting for the wind to rise, and dealing with a park ranger who had shown up.
While we were waiting for the wind, which had backed from the north to the southwest, we could still see and hear scooters barreling over the ice three miles across the bay near the South Bay Scooter Club. After driving through the suburban and village streets to get a closer look, I was surprised to be greeted by Freddie Krause, who'd managed to sail across the bay faster than I could drive there. The wind was fitful, though, and all of the boats were now parked, with the scooters resting on their sides and their long, wooden masts with the shepherd's crook at the top.
A large variety of iceboats was scattered on the ice. In addition to the scooters, some of which were over 60 years old with elaborate wood carvings, there were stripped-down frames of aluminum tubing and canvas sling seats, "shingles" or wooden platforms with scooter rigging, and homemade boats using Sunfish sails.
As the wind piped up and straightened out the American flag and club burgee near the clubhouse, Freddie headed back and other iceboaters began pushing off. I drove back and found the ice in front of the parking lot empty, but the boats soon began returning. Even the best cold weather clothing can't keep one warm for long while iceboating.
|"Even the best cold-weather clothing can't keep one warm for long while iceboating."|
Howie offered me a ride in his boat, pushing me along to overcome the friction until the wind took over. For a few minutes, gently nudging the tiller and hauling in the mainsheet, I flew along silently, sailing a short distance across the frozen bay before the wind petered out again.
After we pushed the boat back, we found that our time on the ice was coming to an end. The afternoon sun was melting the ice along the shore, widening the gap spanned by the planks. As we shifted the planks to a narrower gap, the ice gave way beneath me and I plunged in up to my calves before I could jump back onto more solid ice.
The club members were hurrying to get their gear back on shore before the gap became any wider, but they were solicitous and worried. Was I OK? The brief dip had caused no harm, and I had some spare socks. Their bigger concern was that the wind had not cooperated to give me the ride that would hook me on iceboating.
No need to worry on that score. I was already mentally combing through the budget for the funds to buy a used iceboat.
Good ice conditions can be elusive, making this sport one where travel is necessary and safety comes in numbers. Clubs maintain telephone hotlines and websites for reporting conditions at favorite locales, and also provide the ready hands for getting gear onto the ice and for rescues.
While this is a speed sport, it is not just a game for the young. Like many soft-water sailors, iceboaters sail for life. Many of the members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Club have three and even four decades of experience with iceboating. Racing enthusiasm is high, but there are also many who simply enjoy the camaraderie and the time on the ice under sail.
The DN class of iceboats is the most popular. Developed in a contest sponsored by the Detroit News in 1937, the DN has an international association with over 2,000 members and world championships alternating between North America and Europe. A new DN can cost $4,000 and more, depending upon rigging, which can include a carbon-fiber or fiberglass mast and four or more blocks to manage the heavy load on the mainsheet at high speed.
As in soft-water sailing, length equals speed. Except for South Bay scooters, which have four long runners fixed to the hull, most iceboats have three runners in a triangle configuration, two at the ends of a lateral plank and a steering blade at the bow, for stability and steering. The greater the triangle, the greater the stability in strong winds and the greater the sail area that can be carried hence greater speed. Skeeters, for example, can be as much as 30 feet in length and can reach top speeds of more than 140 miles per hour.
Most iceboats seat one person; the Nite seats two. Sidecars for small passengers can be attached to the lateral plank on DNs and some other classes. The largest of the South Bay scooters can carry up to six. But some race rules allow the scooters to lighten the load and return with fewer crew members than they had at the starting mark, leaving some to walk back.
Sail area: 60 sqare feet.
Length: 12 feet
Hull width: 21 inches
Mast length: 16 feet
Runners: Two are set on an eight-foot lateral plank and one at the bow for steering (sometimes mounted on a springboard extending three feet beyond the bow). Blades are used for hard ice; runners with angle irons instead of blades are used on softer ice.
Last edited by administrator; 01-26-2009 at 12:30 PM.