Snowmobiling and ice fishing are staple winter activities in Minnesota’s lake country, but for a select few, it’s a time for a higher-octane sport: iceboat racing. The boats resemble bobsleds with sails attached. The fuselage is bolted to a wooden plank, and two runner blades flank the sides. A third runner at the front steers the vessel. Ice provides minimal friction, so iceboats routinely sail at 50 mph, with record speeds closer to 100. Anyone who’s hopped on an iceboat will tell you it is one of the most thrilling things they’ve ever done.
“The speed and acceleration is what keeps me coming back,” says Mike Miller of Mound. Miller has spent the past 20 winters racing iceboats. “It’s a great way to keep the sailing season going. We always get bummed in the fall when we’re packing up our “soft-water” boats, but as soon as that season ends, another begins.”
Iceboats originated in the late 1800s in Europe to ship goods when vital waterways froze over. They eventually became popular in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the U.S.—and it didn’t take long for people to start racing them. In 1937, the Detroit News sponsored an iceboat-building contest. The winning design was cheap and practical, and it eventually became the International DN class of iceboats, with the “DN” standing for Detroit News. It’s the most popular version, and the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association (IDNYRA) is now the governing body of the the largest and most competitive group of ice sailors in the world.
“The first time I went to a regatta in 2003, I was dumbfounded at the level of commitment,” says Miller. “It was the Great Western Challenge up on Buffalo Lake, and when I showed up with my boat, there were people from all over the U.S. and Europe who had flown in to compete. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Watching an iceboat event come together is like going to a big-wave surf competition without the crowds. Unlike Minnesota’s summer sailing events, which are confined to a few locations, iceboating takes sailors virtually anywhere—as long as the ice is good and there’s a place to park their trailers. Organized competitions depend on a specific set of weather conditions. For a race to occur, sailors must first find a smooth sheet of ice. If a lake freezes unevenly, either from temperature variance or high winds, it is unusable.
“One of my favorite parts of iceboating is scouting out the ice,” says Miller. As the former Western Region Commodore of the IDNYRA, Miller has driven all over the Midwest searching for ice. This can be a frustrating process, as Global Climate Change has made recent weather patterns more unpredictable, often causing ice to freeze late or unevenly. When a lake is deemed sailable, event officials will employ a network of email threads, text messages, and social media posts to alert competitors that a regatta has been called on. Often times, competitors will have just days to make travel plans, but they never fail to miss a chance to race because they know their window for quality conditions is narrow at best.
Heavy snow is a killer, and most lakes offer just a week or two of activity before Mother Nature shuts them down for the season. Sailors need enough wind to make the boats go, but not so much that it leads to carnage. Unlike soft-water sailors, iceboat racers cannot see the wind on the water. When gusts hit, they react by feel alone, executing split-second decisions that mean the difference between winning and losing, not to mention making it back to shore in one piece.
Many iceboat sailors are constant tinkerers—garage engineers doped up on gas-station coffee and adrenaline. They tow trailers full of equipment across the country to ensure they’re prepared for whatever conditions they encounter. One of the most important pieces of gear is the set of runner blades. Most competitors bring between 5 and 15 sets, but the diehards have been known to bring over 30. Some racers bring separate masts that bend differently under certain conditions, or they decide among multiple runner planks, which also flex differently depending on the wind speed and ice condition. Some ice can be as smooth as a hockey rink; other times, it’s riddled with snowdrifts and pressure cracks. No matter how far racers have to travel, and no matter how much equipment they have to pack, the need for speed is always worth the journey.
“You are always riding on the edge,” says Miller. “And you have to be ready for anything. Events rarely go completely as planned. The sport is finicky that way, but there’s nothing else like it.”
For more information, visit idniyra.org, iceboatracing.com, or find “Minnesota Iceboaters” on Facebook. Members of Minnetonka Yacht Club, Wayzata Yacht Club, Calhoun Yacht Club, and White Bear Lake Yacht Club take part in iceboating.