A first-time’s take on the scary thrills of hard water sailing
They promised me it was completely safe. Safe? Screaming along at 40 mph just a foot above an ice-covered lake is completely safe? On my way to the lake, I wished I’d purchased those Depends my coworkers and I had joked about, because I was afraid I might actually need them.
As the production coordinator for Hagerty Classic Cars, I never thought that coming up with the idea for an experiential story would require me to actually be the one to experience it. I’m not a writer, nor do I typically seek “adventure.” But there I was, crawling into the tiny cockpit of an ice boat on Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay on a brisk, 20-degree day in late March, and I was scared.
Boating has always been a part of my life. My father purchased a 1964 Columbia 29-foot sailboat, Blackjack, back in the late 1970s, and some of my best childhood memories involve sailing with Dad around the bay in my hometown of Traverse City. We even raced together and took first place in our fleet. When he bought an ice boat (one of many boats he has owned), I thought he was crazy. Why would you squeeze yourself into a coffin-sized boat and sail around on frozen water at high speeds? Add to that the potential of breaking through into frigid waters while wearing full gear and carrying only some wimpy ice picks as an insurance policy, and I swore I’d never take him up on any of his offers to go for a ride. Famous last words …
Ice boats date back as far as the 1800s and were used to transport goods as well as to race. In 1937, ice boating changed when the Detroit News sponsored a home-buildable ice boat design, which spawned the International DN boat, a specific class of ice boat whose name is a nod to its journalistic patron. The design features a narrow, single-person cockpit that glides on three steel blades, and it remains the most popular ice boat design in use today. Typically the DN is 12 feet long, with a 21-inchwide cockpit and an 8-foot-wide runner plank. The plank is where the two side blades attach, and the front blade is referred to as the “front runner,” which is rigged with a steering rod that connects to the tiller. The 16-foot mast supports a 60-square-foot sail, and the sheet line is used to adjust the sail to the wind. I’d be taking my maiden voyage in an International DN.
Traverse City is home to some pretty brutal winters, which makes ice boating a great hobby for those looking to make the best of those long months, so long as the conditions are right. I first met with John Russell, incoming commodore of the Grand Traverse Ice Boat Yacht Club (GTIYC), in 2011 to discuss this story. But since our recent winters had been (relatively) mild, the moment of truth was put on hold. The delays just added to my nerves. Finally, this year, we had what you would call a typical winter — lots of heavy snow and negative temperatures. John told me that some of the best ice boating is done in late February and March.
I arrived at the club on West Grand Traverse Bay on what looked to be a perfect March day for boating. After three years of anticipation, the ice was great and there was no more delaying the inevitable. "This is really happening," I thought. Near the launch area, I put together my gear — long underwear, snow pants, winter jacket, ski gloves, wool socks, boots, hat, helmet, goggles, Ice Trax and ice picks. I headed out to the staging area and met John and other members of the GTIYC. I was surprised by how little assembly was required as the boaters set up their craft.
While helping John attach the blades to his International DN, I couldn’t help but think that I was minutes from clambering inside and sailing toward deep frozen waters. I really hoped I’d screwed the blades in tightly enough.
Even with my background in sailing, I was still unfamiliar with this kind of boat, and my inexperience made me more than just a little apprehensive. I procrastinated by talking with a few members who welcomed me with enthusiasm and excitement. I asked for advice and Jim Dye, a member and longtime ice boater said, “Ice boating is like when you first get your driver’s license and drive 70 mph on the freeway. It’s only scary at first.” It didn’t make me feel any better, but “at first” was the key takeaway.
Fellow GTIYC members Dick and Diane Hirtreiter offered John and me their two-seat Arrow ice boat so I could watch and learn. After settling in, John set us on course for the open hard water (a proud distinction made by ice boaters). The ride was bumpy, my nerves uneasy. “Slow down!” I yelled. “You’re going too fast!”
Too fast was probably 3 mph. After a few figure 8s and circles, I took the tiller and sheet line. The tiller controls the front runner and the sheet line controls the sail. Constant adjustments are required in the sheet line to get the sail just right in order to gain speed. After a few loops on my own, I began to loosen up.
JUST LIKE THE OLD DAYS
John’s International DN would be a whole different experience. The DN is small and light, which means it is much faster. And she was waiting for me. I gave myself a mental pep talk before this new challenge, though my nerves were getting the best of me. Then my Dad showed up. I told him the two-seat boat was great, but that I was trying to motivate myself for the DN. He suggested I follow him onto the ice. I couldn’t think of better person to give me the confidence I needed. My dad wouldn’t let anything happen, right?
I adjusted my gear, made sure my ice picks were still around my neck for fear I might need them and started to climb into the boat. It felt beyond small. Literally lying all the way on my back with my head propped up a few inches, I had to be careful to not let the boom hit my head, but I also had to crane my neck to see where I was going. Typically in ice boating, you run alongside your boat and jump in as it speeds up, similar to a bobsled start. Being a newbie, however, I accepted a push from the crew. It wasn’t my goal to impress anyone, just to keep down my coffee.
I followed my Dad away from shore at an easy speed. My legs shook and my neck strained, but there was no turning back. Once I was farther out, I adjusted the sail and tiller and got used to the speed and the turns. Then I realized I wasn’t scared anymore — I was having a blast. I got braver then and started to turn away from the wind and pull in the sheet line, hitting the sweet spot where the boat really picks up speed and the sail is trimmed with the wind.
I circled the frozen bay with a permanent smile, fearless and hooting with joy. It was then I realized my dad was watching from shore and I was so thankful that he was a part of this special experience. All it took was a little coaxing from the first sailor in my life to give me the confidence I needed.
When I could no longer hold my head up and my face hurt from my perma-smile, I headed back in to the staging area to celebrate my victory.
Spring arrived before I could go out again, but I attended the last GTIYC meeting of the year to thank the members for their time and encouragement. Ice boaters, like collector car enthusiasts, graciously share their passion and they are friendly and hospitable to a fault.
As a northern Michigander, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m counting down the days until winter so I can get back on the ice.