Wind-Powered

When the lakes freeze, hard-water sailors hop on their sleek ice boats and glide across the frozen expanse, reaching speeds up to 60 mph // Photos courtesy of Gretchen Dorian
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Ice boats come in several different designs, ranging from classic wooden styles to sleek solo ones. The boats are lightning-fast on their three runners (similar to the blades on ice skates) when the conditions on frozen inland lakes are just right.

When summer is over and the water becomes too cold to enjoy, most Michigan boaters wrap up their vessels and store them away for the winter. Until the ice melts, the Michigan boating season is over.

But not for one group of sailors, who believe frosty weather only makes their season better: ice boat racers.

Ice boats, also called ice yachts, are small, fast sailing craft perched on three runners. They can reach speeds of 60 mph or more by using the power of  “apparent wind.”

Found in the Netherlands as early as the 17th century, ice boat racers first appeared in the United States on New York’s Hudson River in the late 1700s. The practice gradually began to spread, and ice boat racing made its way to Michigan in the late 1800s — although interest fell off with the introduction of motorized boats.

When the sport caught the attention of Detroit News President William E. Scripps in the mid-1930s, the newspaper ran a contest to develop an inexpensive, easy-to-build ice boat for the general public. With the birth of the model DN, named in honor of The Detroit News, interest in ice boating took off in Michigan and sporting clubs appeared across the state.

Local ice boat clubs host races and other events throughout the winter. Newcomers often are encouraged to attend.

Although the DN is the most common, ice boats are found in several different designs. They’re primarily divided into two categories, determined by a boat’s bow or stern steering ability. Ice boat designs such as Nite, Skeeter, Renegade, Ice Optimist, and the DN are raced across many of Michigan’s frozen lakes when winter conditions are right.

Today, the thriving sport attracts competitors, thrill-seekers, and those who just love to sail. Calling themselves “hard water sailors,” clubs organize racing events and regattas when the weather cooperates.

Although some events can be fiercely competitive, members can just as often be found speeding across the ice just for fun. Gail Turluck, a member of the Gull Lake Ice Yacht Club, near Kalamazoo, says the sport keeps her love of sailing alive. “It’s all about sailing,”  Turluck says.  “I don’t care if it’s hard water, soft water, big boat or small.”

For Ron Sherry, ice boating is more than a sport. It’s also his business. Sherry’s father, a Lake St. Clair ice boat racer, and the winner of more than 30 ice boat racing championships in the U.S and around the world, introduced his son to ice boating when he was 9 years old. Sherry won his first major race at age 12.

Today, Sherry’s company, Composite Concepts, constructs custom ice boats for racers. He also builds and supplies components such as hulls, masts, and runners. “I build parts for all kinds of boats,” he says, “but DNs are what I do the most.”

The thriving sport attracts competitors, thrill-seekers, and those who love to sail. It even can be a fun family outing.

Ice boats, including the ubiquitous DN, seem lightning-fast when conditions are right. Sherry maintains that safety should be the No. 1 concern, whether racers are just starting out or have been in the sport for years. For beginners, safety considerations should never be disregarded. “Don’t go sailing the first time in high winds. Go with a group that’s experienced, as there’s safety in numbers,”  he says.

Ice boats fly across the frozen surface on three runners, similar to ice skate blades, which are carefully sharpened to reduce friction. With so little contact between the boat and the ice to create drag, the boats regularly attain speeds that are three or four times that of the actual wind. At that speed, an ice fisherman’s hole or other imperfection on the surface can quickly end a racer’s day. For that reason, racers regularly relocate to find the best, and safest, ice for the day’s events.

The ice must also be thick enough to support the entire group of boats and people, so club scouts regularly inspect area lakes to find the right conditions before alerting other club members to the perfect destination.

“We try to find the safest ice,” Sherry says. “That means we often pick up and go to another location. If you’re not willing to do that, you need to find a different sport.”

Many clubs love to introduce newcomers to the sport. At their annual kick-off meeting last fall, Gull Lake Ice Yacht Club members announced an event called Ice Boats on the Bay, scheduled to be held at the south end of Gull Lake in February.

“It’s like an open house for ice boats,” Turluck explains. “People can come see the boats and learn about the sport.”


PLAN IT!

Information about ice boating in Michigan can be found on local club websites such as gulllakeiyc.org, iceboatracing.com (Composite Concepts), and the Ice Boating in Michigan and Ohio Facebook group page.

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