A Frozen Thrill
When I was six, my grandpa told me that the fastest vehicle in the entire world was once an iceboat. “What about trains and cars and airplanes?” I asked. “Nope,” he said, “before the gasoline engine, iceboats could go faster than any other vehicle.” He went on to explain to my eager ears that an iceboat was just like a sailboat except instead of floating on water, it skated on ice. Putting physics in kindergarten terms, he explained that since ice was very slippery, a sailboat built on ice skates could go very fast on it – “faster than a cheetah,” he said. I imagined flying towards the horizon across a vast plane of ice, while gripping the rope with my sweaty palms. Thus began my fascination for iceboating, a sport that seemed incredibly exciting, dangerous and foreign to my young mind.
Fourteen years later, in the frigid woods of Vermont, I set out to discover the thrill of my childhood dreams. Built with T-shaped wooden frames on metal skates, iceboats could catch the wind in their sails and travel over 100 miles per hour in strong winds. I had seen plenty videos, but this time I wanted the emotions to be mine: wind stinging the cheeks, seat rattling beneath me, fingers gripping the tiller for dear life. I wanted the weather to be cold enough for frostbite, the wind to be howling so I couldn’t hear, and I wanted the boat to be faster than the cars on I-89. I wanted fun, I wanted danger, I wanted adventure. But perhaps I would watch someone else do it first. With a few phone calls and Google searches, I quickly found that someone.
“Sandwiches, snacks, gloves, hats…” T listed off the things I would need for a long day out on the ice. The man I talked to on the phone was named James Theiler, but everyone just calls him T. By the numbers, he is the best iceboat racer in New England, and by self-admission, he is addicted to the pure speed that an iceboat can deliver with no engine and barely any friction on the ice. “Once you’ve been in an iceboat,” he says with a grin, “sailboats are fucking boring in comparison.” I was intrigued.
The event I had been invited to was the 2012 New England DN Iceboat Championships at Mallets Bay on Lake Champlain. I came prepared for an Antarctic trek, complete with hand warmers to prevent frostbite, yak tracks to keep my boots from slipping on the ice, and enough camera gear to produce a feature film. It all turned out to be quite necessary. I struggled to shake hands with all the other racers under all my gear, as they undoubtedly wondered why on earth I wanted to spend a perfect ski day out on the blustery, frozen lake. T told me right away to hop on his boat so we could get out to the race course. I jumped on the narrow front of his boat, and T jolted the boat forward. Push, scrape, stop. Push, scrape, stop. I had expected to immediately begin soaring across the lake, but instead T barked: “No wind yet, gotta walk.” Among the many kinds of waiting associated with iceboating, pushing your boat across the lake in hopes of finding wind around the next point is one of the most excruciating. We trudged a mile and a half over crunchy ice and buckling pressure cracks until we reached the smooth ice of Outer Malletts Bay, where T and his crew set up the race course.
“I like going fast,” he said, “forty, fifty, sixty miles per hour, the runners rattling in your ears, your head’s bobbling a foot away from solid ice.” T admits that at 43, he’s on the young side for most ice boaters, but sets himself and the other racers apart from weekend “cruisers” who are usually even older. Out on the ice, T certainly looks like a racer. He is clad in black spandex with a full-face helmet and ski goggles. His lean body towers over many of the older competitors, but his friendly New England accent quickly reassures anyone intimidated by his appearance.
He went on to explain to me that iceboating is a much slower sport than the racing makes it appear. “It’s two percent sailing, twenty percent building, and eighty percent talking about it,” says T, without adding up the numbers. That eighty percent refers to the conversations that take place during the hours of downtime spent checking ice and rigging boats and during long drives to find open ice. Racers lug their boats from as far as Michigan, New Jersey and Canada for the few regattas that take place each year. All this preparation requires both dedication and the ability to stay amused for hours, so T says that ice boaters tend to be passionate, talkative, and more than a little crazy. And after the races are complete and boats are packed up for the day, winners and losers alike head to the nearest local bar to warm up and swap stories. The evening’s activities often include: translating jokes for Canadians and Swedes, chatting up the waitresses, and drinking many rounds.
For now, I was focused on the sobering cold of standing on a frozen Lake Champlain. The peeking sun offered little comfort from the blowing wind, but T was excited: the conditions were ideal for a day of iceboating, and I hurried to ready myself for my turn sailing a boat. T had given me some pointers about how the boats work on the way out, and I felt ready to take one for a spin myself. “I’ll help you score the first race,” offered T, “but for the rest you’ll be on your own.” I would start the day scoring the races, which basically consisted of standing still and counting boats. My turn in a boat would be delayed until after a few races. Instead I got to chat with T about iceboating and life.
For T, the passion for ice and speed was seeded at age 20, when he worked on a boat in Maine one winter. “I’ve been a sailor all my life, but I had never seen boats going as fast as they did on frozen ponds.” He gave the sport a try, met a couple crazy Mainers, and got hooked. “I searched all over the Northeast that year, but nobody would sell me a boat because the ice was so good,” he lamented. The next fall, T was poking around his buddy’s barn in Annapolis and tripped over an iceboat that hadn’t been used for ten years. “It was a piece of shit, but I found every patch of bare ice in New England that year.” From then on this quest became a yearly ritual. Each fall, T worked on repairing and tweaking his boats so they could deliver greater and greater thrills and, eventually, win some races.
T cautioned that safety is especially important in a sport where not even your playing surface is guaranteed. “My rule of thumb is to spot at least two ice fishermen before putting your boat on the ice. Better they test it first.” Another one of his favorite tricks is checking the ice with an axe while on ice skates. “That way you’ll be past the bad ice when it breaks,” he says confidently – I chuckled at the thought of a spandex-clad T skating around the lake with an axe. In a vehicle capable of keeping up with interstate traffic, yet features no brakes, T mentions that planning a place to stop is also “kinda important.” As the first race ended, he pointed out how the racers slowed their boats by making long turns into the wind while the runners scraped the ice and slowed the boat down to a stop. I had a couple races of being a spectator before I had to worry about any of this.
T hopped into his boat for the second race, and I got to run the start by myself. “Ready on the right. Ready on the left. Flag is up.” Whoosh. With one wave of a homemade green flag, I sent sixteen men sprinting across the ice, pushing small wooden boats. As they sped up, the racers began to hop into their boats one by one. I couldn’t hold back my laughter as some struggled to gracefully transition into their boats. As they sped towards the horizon, man blended into boat and all I could see from the starting line was a pack of white triangles crisscrossing the vast lake. But as soon as I thought I could relax and enjoy the scenery, I noticed that boats were now getting bigger again and speeding back towards me. I scrambled to prepare my scorers sheet and furiously write down the sail numbers of each boat as it completed the first lap. Two more quick laps and the race was complete, and I hurried over to T to deliver the results. Most racers knew where they placed, but T read out the results anyway. “Does everyone agree with the order,” T asked, checking my work. “No,” barked one racer, “I want to be first!” After a quick warm-up, the boys were back on the line again for the next race.
In between races, T explained to me that a century of designing and tweaking has gone into the boats they’re sailing today. T and the racers at Mallets Bay sailed a fast and light class of iceboat known as the DN, which has been the racing standard for the past seventy years. Although the history of sailing on ice can be traced back to over 4000 years ago in Holland, the sport was first practiced in North America at the turn of the century by Michigan lumberjacks looking to amuse themselves during frigid winters. The large, heavy ice yachts they built could reach seventy or eighty miles per hour in strong winds, but were slow to accelerate, hard to maneuver, and expensive to build. In 1932 W.E. Scrips, the President of the Detroit News, asked his friend and master ship builder Archie Aroll to build one for a Christmas present, and Aroll delivered a simple, but beautiful one-seat boat. The next year Aroll began producing this model of iceboat in the News’ Hobby Show, and he called it the Blue Streak 60, which was soon changed to the initials of boat’s original benefactor, the Detroit News. The design was officially modified in 1953 when the International DN Ice Racing Association settled on a set of specifications for modern racing boats, and these have changed very little over the past 60 years.
The DN iceboats are small and built for acceleration and simplicity. They and include many features that make them ideal for racers like T and Eric Anderson, who is the Commodore of the New England Ice Yacht Association. Eric prides himself on his low-wind sailing ability and the DN’s lightweight construction allows him to slide across the lake in winds of only five miles per hour. More importantly, racers can push then quickly off the starting line and accelerate quickly to top speed, which is easily twice the wind speed. For comparison, only the fastest sailboats can even approach the wind speed when sailing on water. Racers at the 2012 New England DN Championships came from long distances: Bob Shumaker from Nova Scotia, T from Rhode Island, and Eric from New Hampshire. The simple design allows racers to drive the boats long distances and then assemble and rig them quickly.
Finally, I received the question I had been waiting for. “Wanna take a ride, Pete,” said Eric. I think I only responded with a huge smile, which was hidden under my scarf, but Eric understood my excitement and handed me his helmet and goggles. Eric isn’t a tall man but his round belly, wispy grey hair and talkative nature made me like him immediately. I started to push the boat, like I had seen the racers do, and Eric laughed and told me to just get in. Instead, he began to trot behind the boat and barked at me to grab the tiller and the main sheet. “Pull it in!” he commanded as we began to speed up, signaling that I should pull the sail tighter to catch more wind. He hopped on and we were off. The rattling of the steel runners made it hard to hear the instructions Eric was giving me. As we sped up to twenty, then thirty miles per hour, the rattling became louder and my heart pounded faster. This is it, I thought, this is the moment, the feeling, that I had been searching for.
Despite my excitement, I was amazed how calming it was to be sailing across the ice. With two miles of flat, unobstructed ice ahead of us and only wind to push the boat along, the sport struck me as primitive and natural. Yet despite the simplicity of it all, we were travelling faster than humans had ever gone without engines. As we glided across the ice, my mind began to wander. How many people in the world have done this before? What would my parents and friends back home in New York City think of this? To them, I was like Jon Krakauer, venturing places and tackling activities unfathomable to their narrow, cosmopolitan minds. Perhaps I was exaggerating.
I followed what I could hear of Eric’s instructions as we tried tacking one way and then the other. I pressed my head back on the floor of the boat as the sail swung right over my head from left to right. Eric instructed me to take a different line, which would put the wind at our back, and immediately we began to accelerate faster. Sailing downwind proved to be the most fun and fastest part of sailing, and we flew towards the starting line and the collection of racers waiting there. Eric shouted above the wind noise to make a big loop around the group of boats, and that’s what I headed for, leaving plenty of room in between us and the racers. I was surprised as how harmlessly we glided to a stop, as I steered the boat straight upwind. The whole experience had been amazingly smooth for every part of my body except my fingers, which were now screaming to be put pack in my pockets.
As the boats cast bigger and bigger shadows across the ice, T called the last race of the day. Despite his racing prowess, he only finished seventh out of sixteen racers. His only regret was not putting on a better show the day I was filming. As we sailed back to the cars, he excitedly told me that he was packing up his boat to send to Sweden, the site of the DN World Championships this year. There was also a community of ice boaters in the Nordic countries, he explained, and the Championships alternated between the US and Sweden each year. Sure enough, I checked in with T two weeks later and, out of 185 boats, T had placed 14th in the top division.
Despite the temperatures, it had been a great day and I met a great group of guys who love to have fun on the ice. I had learned more than my share about a sport that rarely makes it into the sports pages or the public eye. More importantly, I discovered a community of sailors from across New England that was bound together by the crazy combination of high winds, frozen lakes, and fast speeds. They shared with me their passion for an exhilarating yet little-known sport and their secret to keeping warm on the ice: humor. I remembered very first phone call with T, in which he explained to me intense in-season training and diet regimen as he ordered lunch: “I’ll have the double whopper with cheese,” he barked at the drive through window, “and make it a large fries.”