How Ice Sailing Works

By: William Harris
Extreme Sports Image Gallery Ice boats prepare to race on a frozen lake in the Czech Republic. Warmer winters have kept many adventurers from ice sailing as regularly as they might like. See more pictures of extreme sports.
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In March 2009, Briton Richard Jenkins set the world land sailing speed record by driving his vehicle, the Greenbird, at 202 kilometers per hour (about 126 miles per hour) on a dry lake bed near the border of California and Nevada. Now, Jenkins plans to sail for a new speed record -- on ice! But ice sailing is not the newest thing in the world of competitive extreme sports; rather it's a mode of transportation used at least since the 17th century.

Dutch sailors are believed to have been some of the first to experiment with ice sailing, not to break speed records, but to transport goods across frozen lakes, rivers and bays. They modified their traditional vessels by strapping blades or runners to the hull. This kept their shipping businesses functional and profitable, even during the long winter months. In the spring, when the "soft water" returned, they simply removed the runners and set sail as usual.


It didn't take long before ice sailing began to pique the interest of sportsmen and adventurers. By the 19th century, thrill seekers across Europe were building vessels especially for "hard-water sailing," as the recreational activity was known. Speed attracted people to the sport, and it was not unusual to see ice boats overtake the fastest locomotives of the day. Across the Atlantic, American sailors wanted a piece of the action. Large ice yachts began appearing on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers in the mid-1800s. Iceboat clubs also emerged. The New Jersey-based North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club formed in 1880 and remains in existence today.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, ice sailing reached its zenith. Then, interest in the sport slowly began to wane. The rise of the automobile, which brought speed to a wider audience, likely contributed to the decline. But the bigger issue was changing weather patterns. As winters grew warmer and shorter, rivers and lakes -- especially those in the Northeast -- failed to freeze deeply enough to permit safe ice sailing.

Despite global warming, ice sailing is becoming popular again with a new generation of sailors, even those who can pursue the activity only one or two weekends a year. We'll explore the reasons why in this article. Let's start with the ice boat itself, which looks like a cross between a soft-water vessel and a sleigh.


Ice Boats

As with anything nautical, ice sailing has a unique and sometimes intimidating vocabulary. You might want to take a look at How Sailing Works for a good introduction. Even though these articles focus on soft-water sailing, many of the concepts and terms are the same in hard-water sailing. We've pulled some of the more common terms and organized them in the sidebar that appears on this page.

In its simplest form, an ice boat has four basic parts. The main body of the vessel, as with any watercraft, is known as the hull. Sailors in the 19th century used wood to construct the hull, but their modern-day counterparts often use fiberglass or laminate material. However it's constructed, the hull must be able to support one or two crew members, usually in a small cockpit situated a foot or two above the ice. It must also be able to float in the event a boat finds itself in soft water.


A runner plank, made of wood, laminate or metal, lies at the stern of the boat, beneath the hull. It's usually about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and lies perpendicular to the main axis of the boat. Two runners attach to the plank, one at each end. Another runner -- the steering runner -- attaches to the bow. The steering runner comes equipped with a parking brake to prevent the wind from carrying a boat away during loading or at the start of a race. The runners look and function like big skates, allowing the boat to glide with little friction over the surface of the ice.

The sail, made of canvas or synthetic fabrics, functions as the "engine" of an ice boat. On smaller vessels, the sail may provide about 35 square feet (3.25 square meters) of surface area to catch the wind. On larger vessels, the sails can be massive. Older ice yachts that glided across the Hudson River often boasted 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of sail.

Based on factors such as sail size and hull design, ice boats fall into different categories. The largest boats are the stern steerers, so named because the sailor controls the craft by reaching back to a tiller located at the rear of the vessel. Stern steerers were popular in the 19th century, but are less common today. Most modern ice boat sailors prefer bow steerers -- vessels controlled by the front steering runner. Bow steerers include both skeeters, which are long, thin boats with a maximum sail area of 75 square feet (7 square meters), and DNs, small, one-person vessels first introduced in 1937 during a contest sponsored by the Detroit News (hence the name "DN").

Up next, we'll look at some of the techniques hard-water boat captains use to navigate frozen rivers and lakes.


Ice Sailing Techniques

To sail an ice boat, a sailor must properly orient the craft so its sail captures enough wind to generate thrust. Before we talk about basic maneuvers, let's review the principles behind propulsion. Sails propel a boat in one of two ways. The first, known as sailing downwind, occurs when the boat moves in the direction of the prevailing wind. In this situation, the sailor lets out the mainsail to trap the moving air, which pushes the vessel in the direction of the wind. A sail can also propel a boat that is traveling into the wind, known as sailing upwind. In this case, the boat often uses a zigzagging technique called tacking, which we'll discuss later on this page, and the mainsail acts like a vertical wing, generating lift as the air moves over the top of the sail and down its curved surface. Because the sail is oriented upward, the "lift" is directed horizontally, not vertically. This lift pulls the boat along the ice. You can read more about the physics of lift in How Sailboats Work.

Once an ice sailor understands sail aerodynamics and how to use the wind effectively, he can move with great ease and speed. Before sailors can fly over the ice, though, they must first master the art of starting their vessels. This is usually done by orienting the boat so it's headed directly into the wind. Sailors refer to this as being in irons, which means no wind can be caught in the sails. This prevents the craft from blowing away unattended. Most iceboats also come with a brake to help secure the vessel before sailing. To get his boat moving, a sailor stands next to the vessel, releases the brake, holds the tiller and pushes, first into the wind and then at an angle to the wind. When the boat begins to move briskly, he jumps in, trims the sail and feels the vessel race forward. With little friction to slow the boat, it rapidly obtains a high speed. A sailor running a DN-class iceboat can achieve speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour (80 to 97 kilometers per hour), while a skilled skeeter captain can reach speeds well over 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour).


Steering is accomplished via a tiller, a lever that's accessible in the cockpit and connected to either a rudder skate in stern steerers or a pivoting steering runner in bow steerers. This makes it sound easier than it really is. Because ice boats don't experience the resistance of their soft-water cousins, they can be challenging to steer. Sailors must have a delicate hand on the tiller to avoid spinning out of control on the slippery ice. They must also be prepared for their iceboats to tip to one side when running fast. This is known as heeling and also occurs in soft-water sailing, requiring sailors to provide a counterbalance by shifting from one side of the boat to the other.

Tacking and jibing work the same way in ice sailing as they do in traditional sailing. Sailors use both techniques to turn their vessels. Tacking occurs when the boat turns into the wind. Jibing occurs when the boat turns away from the wind. Either maneuver can be used to swing a boat around 180 degrees. To stop, a sailor simply steers his vessel into the wind and lets the sail go free. This shuts down the boat's propulsion system, allowing the vessel to coast to a gentle stop.

Unfortunately, some stops in ice sailing aren't so gentle. In the next section, we'll review the hazards associated with ice sailing and how to avoid them.


Ice Sailing Safety

Ice sailors fly by the seat of their pants, literally, so wearing safety gear is important in case they have an accident and are thrown onto the ice.
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Skimming at highway speeds over a sheet of ice is not a risk-free activity. When conditions are ideal and ice boats crowd rivers and lakes, the odds of an accident increase. Two sets of rules ensure the safety of ice boat crews and prevent collisions. Fair-sailing rules require that sailors exhibit common sense, safety and good sportsmanship while on the ice. Right-of-way rules govern approach and passing so that boats maintain safe distances. Right-of-way rules for ice sailing are similar to "rules of the road" or corresponding rules for soft-water boating and windsurfing. In regattas, the race committee might disqualify a captain who doesn't follow these rules.

Sailing when it's not crowded might seem like a good solution to avoid right-of-way rules, but it's never a good idea to be on the ice alone. If you sail off the ice into soft water, with no one around to help or call for help, you might not get the help you need in time to prevent death or serious injury.


Obviously, a life jacket is a vital piece of safety equipment. So are a helmet and padding beneath your outerwear, which can protect your head and body if you fall or are thrown onto the ice. And don't forget to wear winter clothing so that you'll stay warm in the apparent winds during sailing. Apparent wind is what you feel while the ship's moving. Because it's a combination of the true wind and the wind that the boat's motion creates, it can increase the cooling effect on your body. Be mindful of numbing on your nose, ears, fingers and toes -- all body parts that are especially susceptible to frostbite.

Finally, hard-water sailing requires high-quality ice. Before you climb aboard your vessel, make sure you understand the ice conditions where you intend to sail. The best ice has no snow cover because snow stops ice growth and impedes the movement of the runners. "Black ice" is also better than "white ice." Black ice is transparent and can be more than 10 feet (3 meters) thick. It forms under calm conditions, which allow individual ice crystals to grow in long, vertical columns. Unfortunately, high-quality ice often doesn't form across an entire lake or river. Areas of open water, thin ice, expansion cracks, ice heaves and river inlets and outlets can compromise the integrity of ice, making ice sailing more dangerous. If you have any questions, consult with a local ice yacht club, which will likely provide regular reports about ice and weather conditions.

Follow these safety rules, and you'll enjoy all of the thrills ice sailing has to offer without worrying about the chills.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Allan, David G. "On a Sheet of Ice and Under Sail on the Hudson." New York Times. Feb. 13, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Daters, John. "Notes from a Frozen Lake: Ice Sailing in Georgetown." Colorado: The Official Site of Colorado Tourism. March 23, 2007. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association. "Ice Sailing Manual for Ice Optimist and DN Sailors." (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Roithmayr, Chris. "The Early History of Ice Sailing." (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Steere, Mike. "Wind-powered craft aims to smash ice speed record." International. April 10, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Travel Montana, Montana Department of Commerce. "Boats Without Water: Ice Surfing/Sailing in Montana." (Nov. 29, 2009)