Glide Like the Wind: Iceboat Sailing

WRITER | MATT DAVIDSON
PHOTO | BILL CUTTING

Iceboat sailing, also known as ice yacht sailing, has been a popular winter pastime for many who relish the feel of the wind taking hold of their sails and propelling them across the frozen surface of a lake at breakneck speeds.

The sport began in northern Europe in the late 1700s as something for all to enjoy during the long winter months. By the 18th century, it had made the jump to the United States. Ice yacht sailing was all the rage along the frozen rivers and lakes of the Northeast, with the Hudson River serving as the sport’s main base of operations. The iceboats of this period were made of wood and their sails of canvas, and they were embraced by all economic groups. From the late 1800s to mid-1930s, however, the sport became more of a hobby for the very rich, with ice yachts reaching lengths of 70 feet and some as finely appointed as the stateliest rooms of the time.

Peter Sarelis, current member and former Commodore of the Gull Lake Ice Yacht Club, explained how modern ice yacht sailing has once again become a sport that anyone can enjoy.

“In the 1930s, the Detroit News held a contest seeking an affordable design for an iceboat that could be assembled from a kit by your average person in their backyard. This is how the DN Class of ice yacht came to be.” He went on to say, “The DN Class is highly portable, with a hull that is 12 feet long and a plank that is 8 feet wide. The 16-foot mast can be transported right on top of your vehicle; most minivans are capable of transporting a DN to your lake of choice.”

There are iceboating clubs spread across Michigan, and there are many different breeds of sailor within those clubs. Some enthusiasts have ice yachts made of high-tech alloys created through state-of-the-art manufacturing processes. These boats are capable of skimming across the ice at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour. Others ply the frozen waters in rugged boats capable of plowing through snow drifts; these powerhouses obviously don’t require the mirror-like ice conditions that some others do.

Sarelis described the optimum conditions for iceboating. “You need at least 4, preferably 5 inches of hard clear ice with little to no snow cover for prime conditions on the course. With the amount of snowfall we receive, it often requires you to remain on standby, ready to go as the lakes become ready.”

Bill Cutting of the Grand Traverse Ice Yacht Club described ice yacht enthusiasts by saying, “We’re a wayward bunch of eclectic friends who chase optimum ice conditions wherever they may lead us. We spend a lot of time hanging out together on the ice in the cold, waiting for the right wind. It’s definitely a sport for hardy souls. You end up becoming good friends with such a diverse group of people from all walks of life.”

Cutting went on to say, “We welcome the public to come check us out and see what iceboating is all about. We have meetings beginning in October where we get together and discuss everything to do with the sport; most members love sharing what they know in hopes of attracting new participants. We also keep our Facebook page updated with planned upcoming events.”

Cutting described participants as nomadic when chasing the perfect ice conditions. “Different lakes have good ice at different times in the winter; we go where the ice is. In the Lower Peninsula, Houghton Lake, Lake Skegemog, and Birch Lake are some of the early ones to hit before heavy snow makes conditions less than stellar. Club members travel all over the state and northern Midwest, with Government Bay, St. Martin Bay, and Munuscong Bay in the Upper Peninsula often drawing groups of iceboaters.”

Each year, enthusiasts from across the state and the world get together for a yearly regatta, which is a mix between highly competitive racing and the friendly atmosphere of a family reunion. Last year’s event was held on Lake Charlevoix; this year’s venue is yet to be decided. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend. To learn more about the sport, contact your local ice yacht club or check out their Facebook page.