Break the Ice - Soundings Online

Break the Ice

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Here’s a Victorian couple dressed fashionably for winter, ready for a ride on an iceboat. They had better hold on. The image belies the rigors of the 200-year-old sport. At one time, the iceboat was the fastest man-made conveyance on Earth.

The iceboat came to the U.S. in the late 1700s from Europe, where it served as a utilitarian craft on frozen canals and rivers in Holland, Scandinavia and Russia. The first hot bed for this desgin in America was New York’s Hudson River where, in 1790, boatbuilder Oliver Booth put a box on top of a set of skate-like runners, added a tiller/runner combination for steering, and powered it with a primitive sail. His contraption worked.

By the mid-1800s, iceboating had gained a core of ardent
supporters. Clubs and regattas abounded, and boat design grew more sophisticated. The basics consisted of a long, slim hull with a cockpit mounted on a perpendicular runner plank to which two skate-like runners were attached at each end. A third steering runner-tiller combination was placed aft.

The boats got bigger, too. Some of the 19th-century “stern steerers” carried as much as 1,000 square feet of sail, racing hard-frozen, triangular courses faster than the speed of the wind. In 1885, Icicle, a 69-foot monster, reached the unbelievable speed of 107 mph on an upstate New York lake. Nothing had gone that fast before.

Iceboating moved onto the Midwestern lakes, too, where the inland waters froze early. Sail racing legend Buddy Melges grew up on the sport in Wisconsin, going out as a 6-year-old on an iceboat built by his father.

Today’s iceboats, now steered by a bow runner, break down into six main classes, from the beginner’s Ice Optimist and the popular International DN to the Skeeter, the “Formula One” of iceboats.

On any one of those designs, a passenger will learn there’s nothing like racing across an expanse of clear, open ice with only the sound of the runners. It’s adrenaline. If you’re going 40 to 50 knots across the ice, everything else just melts away. 

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue.

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