Melissa Walsh

GETTING STARTED WITH THE GREAT LAKES’ BEST WINTER TOY

Great Lakes Scuttlebutt | November 2019 | Getting Started In Ice Boating

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Getting Started In Ice Boating

By Melissa Walsh

GETTING STARTED WITH THE GREAT LAKES’ BEST WINTER TOY

There are two kinds of people living in the Great Lakes region: those who complain about winter and those who find recreation in it. Ice boaters fit the latter type — each fall, hoping for a nice, long, frozen winter ahead, so that they can enjoy zooming along lake ice in their boats on- blades as much as possible.

“It’ll be one of your favorite toys you’ll ever own,” says world champion ice boat racer Ron Sherry.

Sherry runs a business in the Detroit area developing and supplying ice boats and ice boat components. In this role, he meets many newcomers to the sport.

“If you wanna race, or just increase your performance and be better in a wide range of conditions,” Sherry says, “you could add components to the boat as you go on. One or two pieces a year that make you go a little faster. That makes for good birthday presents, Christmas presents. Who doesn’t want a toy?”

“The Nite is a good one for a beginner,” says Deb Whitehorse, who was raised in the sport in Madison, Wisconsin, and who launched and manages iceboat.org, an important resource for ice boaters from novice through expert.

“My father was a builder [of ice boats] and a championship sailor,” adds Whitehorse. “It was always something I did as a kid. We were going to regattas a lot, and it was a lot of fun.”

The Nite is a one-design with a two-seat side-by-side fiberglass hull. It’s lightweight and easily transportable. The Nite’s dedicated racers compete in two national regattas: the International Skeeter Association’s regatta and the Nite Nationals title at the INCA National Championship Regatta in January. Nite enthusiasts stay informed via the Nite National Organization website: niteiceboats.org.

“My Nite is personally my favorite boat that I own,” says Sherry, “because I can take people sailing on it and give them a really good experience that they can tell their friends and grandkids about for the rest of their lives.

“And it’s ok for learning as well. You put two people in the boat. It’s pretty easy to sail. It’s got a steering wheel and foot pedals. It’s really fun. One person can easily sail the boat and take someone for a ride.”

The Nite was the first iceboat that novice ice boater Rhea Nicholas purchased two years ago to launch her first ice boat cruising and racing season.

She became interested in the sport through friends she met in a summer learn-to-sail class after moving to southeast Michigan. That winter, they invited her to an ice boat regatta in Wisconsin.

“I didn’t know what ice boating was because I was not born and raised in Michigan,” Nicholas says, adding she always enjoyed skiing and snowmobiling in other parts of the country.

“I was looking for a winter sport, because winters are long here,” she says.

After going for rides on her friends’ Nites, Nicholas was hooked and bought her own. During the second winter living in Michigan, Nicholas purchased a DN ice boat.

Like the Nite, Whitehorse and Sherry recommend the DN as a good starter ice boat. The lightweight, low-cost, and easily transportable DN is the most popular one-design ice boat class, with racing fleets throughout North America and Europe. DN enthusiasts stay informed via the International DN Ice Yachting Association, of which Whitehorse serves as Executive Secretary and idniyra.org Webmaster.

“What’s also nice is that if you have a small piece of ice, the DN is very maneuverable,” says Sherry. “Some of the bigger boats are not as maneuverable. They need more ice to be the safest, especially if the wind is up.”

Weighing 46 pounds, the DN is capable of reaching 90 mph. Used DNs for sale online, on sites like iceboatracing.com or tiyc.net, range from $400 to $2400, depending on wear and age and whether the boat comes with extra runners, covers, and other add-ons.

“People can build their own DN,” says Nicholas. “A lot of people don’t have the money, but they are able to go into the shop and build a DN themselves.”

“DN was a result of the Detroit News having a design contest in 1936 to come up with a home-build form of winter entertainment during the days of the [Great] Depression,” explains Sherry. “It was a great way for people to get out and have fun.”

In those days, it was men enjoying the sport, but today, Whitehorse says ice boating is a sport that people of both genders and all sizes enjoy.

“It’s not really a function of weight that controls an ice boat,” Whitehorse says. “It’s more about the nut behind the wheel, or the skipper, who’s pulling the sheet and steering.”

Speaking of smaller sizes, Sherry says the Ice Optimist is “a nice way to get juniors into ice boating.”

Like the Optimist dinghy used by junior sailors on the water, the ice version is small — three meters long by two meters wide. It’s less powerful than the DN.

“Usually an ice optimist course is quite short,” says Whitehorse, “so you never let the kid go out of your sight, obviously. If you sail with a club or other people that know what they’re doing, they’re going to make sure that that ice is safe for the kids.”

Adult ice boaters also are “supervised” by their peers. Ice boat clubs assign scouts to locations to check ice conditions, walk the ice, and measure it.

“Each group of ice boaters has satellites and they call each other to let each other know if the ice is good,” says Sherry.

“You don’t want to do it alone,” says Whitehorse. “You want to do it with a friend who’s experienced. You never assume that the entire sheet of ice is safe. Ice is never safe.”

As for what to wear, Whitehorse adds, “You want to be sure you have all of the proper safety equipment. And that would be a helmet and shoes with spikes, so that you don’t slip on the ice. You want to wear ice picks around your neck, for insurance, in case you do run into some thin ice and do go through. You want to be able to pull yourself out.”

Nicholas recommends wearing a helmet that does not restrict peripheral and down vision.

“Having a first ice boat experience that’s really safe and fun is really important,” says Sherry. “That’s why I like the group that we have. All these people are willing to help get new people involved and make that available to them. Having said that, if you come out to the ice and it’s blowing 15 or more, we’re probably not going to let you go out there for the first time by yourself.”

For those wondering if ice boating is a sport only for those who already know how to trim sail, Nicholas says, “Absolutely not. It’s different than sailing. You have to know where the wind is, but it is different... You have to be careful. In sailing, you might want to reach to gain speed. You have to be very careful when it’s windy doing that on an ice boat, because you can very easily shoot up very fast.”

Knowing how to read telltales and where the wind is coming from is an advantage a sailor might have, she adds. With practice, a new ice boater will develop skills for sailing across ice — at a boat speed that surpasses wind speed.

“It wasn’t really that hard,” Nicholas says of her own experience. “The thing is with ice boating, people might take you once, but it’s not something that you can hang around and come out and just take rides. So once you want to do it, you have to buy a boat and get into it. You have to take care of your own boat and learn how to put it together... It’s not really a casual thing.

“People will take you out; see if you like it. Then it’s up to you to move forward or not,” explains Nicholas.

“The best thing to do is find someone and try to go out,” says Sherry.

He adds that he’s unaware of any learn-to-ice boat programs, but ice boat clubs and networks are ready to assist those interested in getting started. Through his iceboatracing.com site, Sherry maintains a network of ice boaters. Ice boat clubs throughout the Great Lakes do the same, including Toledo Ice Yacht Club, West Michigan Ice Yacht Club, Wisconsin Stern Steerers Association, Green Lake Ice Yacht Club, Minnesota Ice Sailing Association, and The Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club.

“There’s so many ways to enjoy the sport,” says Sherry.

Melissa Walsh was raised on the shores of the heart-shaped lake nestled between the St. Clair and Detroit rivers that pumps the lifeblood of water recreation and the “blue economy” in Southeast Michigan. She’s enjoyed learning to navigate the shallow depths and sail the shifty winds of Lake St. Clair. So naturally, as a freelance journalist, Walsh delights in writing about power boating and sailing.

Gearing Up for ice Boating

A SHORT CHECKLIST OF RECOMMENDED GEAR

  • HELMET THAT DOES NOT RESTRICT VISION LAYERS OF WARM CLOTHING
  • FACE MASK (UNDER HELMET) GOGGLES
  • DINGHY LIFE VEST
  • SAFETY PICKS
  • SAFETY WHISTLE
  • ICE CLEATS (METAL GOLF SHOES OR TRACK CLEATS WORK) WARM GLOVES WHILE PUTTING THE BOAT TOGETHER
  • HEAVY-DUTY MITTENS WHILE RACING HAND AND FOOT WARMERS

GET TO KNOW YOUR MODELS OF ICE BOAT

  • ICE OPTIMIST — A SMALL, LIGHT, LESS POWERFUL ICE BOAT DESIGNED FOR JUNIOR ICE BOATERS
  • DN — A ONE-DESIGN MODEL POPULAR INTERNATIONALLY FOR ITS LIGHTNESS, LOW-COST, AND EASY TRANSPORTABILITY
  • NITE — A ONE-DESIGN MODEL WITH A TWO-SEATER FIBERGLASS HULL
  • SKEETER — KNOWN AS THE “FORMULA ONE” TYPE OF ICE BOAT, DESIGNED FROM CARBON FIBER WITH AN AIRPLANE-TYPE COWLING; LIGHT AND AERODYNAMIC — THE FASTEST OF THE ICE BOATS
  • RENEGADE — THE FASTEST ONE-DESIGN MODEL; SIMILAR TO, BUT SMALLER THAN, THE SKEETER ICE BOAT
  • STERN SKEETER — USES CREW AND A JIB WITH STEERING GENERATED FROM THE BACK (ORIGINATING FROM THE FIRST ICE BOATS USED FOR COMMERCE IN AMSTERDAM, WHICH WERE REGULAR SAILBOATS WITH BLADES ATTACHED BENEATH THE HULL)
  • ARROW — A TWO-SEATER ICE BOAT WITH A COCKPIT AND A TILLER SKIMMER — A SMALL STEELBAR-TYPE OF ICE BOAT ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■ ■