The need for speed

Iceboaters test their equipment — and their resolve — in extreme conditions.
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Iceboating

By Jon Osborn

Rushing wind and clattering skates are the only sounds as the wintery world races past on the frozen lake. The landscape becomes a blur of white as the drum-tight sail catapults the nimble vessel to dizzying speeds. 

Mercury levels hover near zero and a blustery nor’easter whips across the icy expanse. If it weren’t for the insulated helmet and form-fitting layers of technical clothing, the bitter cold would cut like shards of broken glass. 

Conditions are perfect for a wicked case of frostbite, but iceboaters like Chris Stoppel and Dean Runk wouldn’t have it any other way. There are iceboating clubs in lake communities across Michigan, and these diehard winter enthusiasts have a need for speed. 

“Iceboating is like flying a fighter jet or driving a top-fuel dragster,” Stoppel explains.  

For instance, 10 knots is considered fast in traditional sailing, but that’s barely moving in an iceboat. Stoppel first became enamored with the sport about 20 years ago and currently holds the position of vice commodore at the Grand Traverse Ice Yacht Club.  

ice boat racing

“I just love going fast,” he admits. “In most motor sports, speed is controlled by pushing an accelerator; in iceboating, you’re reacting to external forces that are beyond your control. Catching a good gust of wind is like punching a super charger.”  

Hurtling across the ice at triple the wind speed is a major adrenaline rush.  

“It’s absolutely exhilarating,” says Dean Runk, commodore of the West Michigan Ice Yacht Club, established in 1954 and one of the larger clubs in the state. A veteran sailor, Runk got turned on to the sport in the 1970s and often travels to find good ice and for competitions.

“You can go from zero to 55 mph in a matter of seconds,” he says.  

Balanced atop three skates — sharpened to a keen edge, the width of a human hair — iceboats are essentially wind-powered missiles. Sporting a sleek, dart-like fuselage, they appear fast even when standing still.

ice boat racing group

But aerodynamics like these come at a premium, and iceboaters often don wet suits and specialized shoes to reduce drag. The pilot, or skipper, lies flat on his or her back to maintain the lowest possible profile. And make no mistake — this isn’t a sunset pleasure cruise. 

Iceboaters enjoy testing their equipment — and their resolve — in extreme conditions. 

“Wind chills can dip as low as 100 degrees below zero out there,” Stoppel notes.  

And while iceboating requires cold temperatures, ironically there can’t be much snow.

“What we’re ideally looking for is a base of bare, black ice,” Runk adds.  

The design parameters for modern iceboats (known as DN-60) originally came about in 1936-37 when The Detroit News sponsored an iceboat design competition. In those threadbare, recession-era years, you would have needed about $50 to get started. These days, introductory models cost around $2,500 on the used market, but the price for a brand new, customized craft can soar as high as $15,000.

And while the concept of iceboating dates back to the 13th century, the sport gained popularity much later in the United States. In the 1800s, iceboat racing was enjoyed only by America’s wealthy elite, including the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families. It wasn’t until the Great Depression when iceboating evolved into an “everyman’s” sport.

Iceboat illustration

Interested in exploring iceboating? Based in Michigan, the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association boasts more than 9,000 members worldwide. However, Stoppel and Runk recommend joining a local club, noting experienced members are eager to lend a hand to newcomers.

“We have a saying in iceboating,” Runk reflects. “Your first ride is free, but your second ride (because now you want to buy a boat) could cost $600 to $4,000.”

With so much focus on going fast, it should come as no surprise that the non-motorized, land-speed record is held by an iceboat, Stoppel says. And, according to avid iceboaters, ripping across a frozen lake is precisely what makes it so much fun.

Author and freelance writer Jon Osborn resides in Holland.

Photography courtesy Marc Hoeksema/WMIYC; Illustration by Gary Odmark 

For more information about iceboating:

sailmichigan.org/resources; ice.idniyra.org

Gull Lake Ice Yacht Club, gulllakeiyc.org

Grand Traverse Ice Yacht Club, gtiyc.org

West Michigan Ice Yacht Club, wmiyc.org

Other locations: Cass Lake (Oakland County); Elk Lake Iceboating Club, Elk Lake (Antrim County); Lake St. Clair (Macomb County)

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