Detroit on Ice

Like surfers of the great north coast, ice boaters wait for word of "good ice" in early December. Many will pack their boats on a moment's notice and drive up to 15 hours to experience the frigid thrill of silent speed. It is speed, not necessarily the cathartic cold that captivates ice boaters. When they talk about the sport you are likely to hear the word "addictive" used often.

Ron Sherry, a three-time world ice boating champion who makes custom ice boats and components for a living, became hooked as a child when his father packed him into a single-seat ice boat and took off. "It didn't go real fast, but fast enough to give me a ride," he recalls. Ice boats are sleek race cars on skates that can achieve 80 mph routinely, and some may go as fast as 120 mph.

There's nothing like the elegant hushed velocity of ice boating, says Leon LeBeau, an events marketing consultant. "I've gone 140 miles an hour in a car. On a motorcycle I've gone over 100 miles an hour. You don't get the feeling you do when you go ice boating. And there's no motor. The only thing you can compare it to is a motorized sport. There's no track. You're on the open lake. It's really thrilling that you're sitting on three ice skates going 60 to 100 miles an hour."
Dr. John Harper, a Grosse Pointe dentist and commodore of the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association, remembers his first ice cruise vividly. "I went out on glass-smooth ice. It was quite windy. I lined up on the starting line and went around the race course. I remember going up wind and going around the first weather mark, then the boat taking off, going from 20 to 50 (mph) in about three seconds." The thrill of the first ride ended when he lost control of the boat and it overturned. "I laughed," he says. "This is too much fun. I wanted to do it again."

'Surf's up'

Members of the Detroit Ice Yacht Club get together on Wednesday nights in a shop behind LeBeau's office in Midtown Detroit to drink a few beers, swap stories and work on their boats. The club's hotline offers news on ice conditions throughout the northern United States. When there's "good ice," it's akin to "surf's up." An understanding spouse is often a requirement for this pastime — a spontaneous outburst of "good ice" might lure an ice boater for a long weekend hundreds of miles away. Dr. Harper acts out a scene ice boaters will understand: "Oh my God, there's ice on Houghton Lake, honey! I'll see you. I'll be back, Sunday!" Sherry and LeBeau are both married to ice boaters. Dr. Harper is single.
While a competitive sport, there are far more recreational boaters than racers, Sherry says. Compared with water sailing, ice boating is less expensive, but also less social – at least while sailing. Essentially, it's a solo ride, with the exception of some two-seaters. Prices for ice boats vary by style, but a used boat may run between $600 and $1,000. You can make the boat at home if you enjoy woodworking. Blueprints are available for the "DN" model, today a standard ice boat, created in a competition sponsored by the Detroit News in 1936, hence the "DN" moniker. Ice boaters today still use the original plans for the DN, which is made of spruce and mahogany, and is about 12 feet long and weighs only about 46 pounds. The three-foot blades, or runners, are made of stainless steel and constantly sharpened. It's not unusual for an ice boat racer to have multiple sets of runners for different wind and ice conditions.

There are several types of ice boats ranging in size from the DN to "Ferdinand the Bull," a large historic craft of 50 feet, with six-foot runners and space for passengers or cargo. LeBeau and Sherry have restored a 1953 Chris-Craft wood "skeeter" boat, used mostly for demonstration but still sailed in non-competitive regattas. Another club member, Paul Goodwin, is putting the finishing touches on a new, sleek, 26-foot skeeter with a unique carbon fiber fuselage (no wood frame) designed and built by students at Lawrence Technological University. The boat, which places the driver in the front of the boat and covers the cockpit with an aerodynamic hood, received local and national awards for innovation. It is valued at $50,000, according to Goodwin. He hopes to launch it in the 2007-2008 season.

Proper protection
With speed comes serious wind chill. Ice boaters wear layered clothing, covering everything including the face, protecting eyes with goggles and head with a ski helmet. LeBeau wears a three-piece outfit – silk underwear, fleece inner suit, and a skin diver-like rubberized outer suit, packing foot-warmers in his track shoes. Ice boat racers use thin track shoes for traction.

Despite the cold, it's not unusual for an ice boater to spend up to eight hours on the ice. Dr. Harper keeps a snowmobile suit for the down periods when he's not sailing. When is weather a factor? Always, but it depends on the day. Some days are brutally cold. If the temperature drops below 10 degrees, races are canceled, but recreational boating is still allowed. However, 10-degree temperatures may result in a risk of frostbite or hypothermia.
Although Dr. Harper is a triathlon athlete, and Sherry works out regularly in a gym, you don't need to be in top physical condition. It helps to have a strong upper body, especially the neck, because when racing you lay back in the boat, steering its front rudder with both arms and straining your neck to see. Recreational ice boats allow you to sit up, taking pressure off the neck.

People as old as 80 are known to sail ice boats, and even race. Sherry's father raced until 75. Some people literally live for ice boating. "People who have gotten into it, stay in the sport until they die," Sherry says. Ice boating helped a friend cope with cancer. "It keeps them from dying, because one thing everyone wants to do is get back (to) ice boating. That's what they want – one last iceboat ride. People who have been really sick come back mainly because of wanting to compete in ice boating."
The sport is reasonably safe, as long as boaters are cautious. Scouts sail the courses, drilling holes in the ice to gauge thickness, looking for hazards. "When we're racing, it is on ice that we've looked at and someone has sailed on. We always go out as a group." Dr. Harper says. "When you're racing there's no time to check the ice. You're lying prone to the ice. You have no perspective, particularly what's immediately in front of you. When people are out recreationally (ice) boating, it's like ice fishing. They tend to go a little further than the last guy went. That's when you get into trouble. You don't ever go on ice that you're not familiar with. You make sure that someone you know watched it freeze." A common hazard is bad or thin ice, he says. "There are things called gas holes. You can have nice ice everywhere, then there will be a spot the size of your desk that's a quarter-inch thick – not enough to get stuck in, but part of your boat breaks through there. That tears up the boat. That's why you don't go alone." Ice boaters carry ice picks around their necks so if they break into the water they can climb out.

Midnight sailing

The mild Michigan winters in recent years concerns ice boaters, who have to go farther for fewer good days of ice boating. Some have sold their boats for lack of use and fewer are getting into the sport; fewer young people, in particular. LeBeau remembers when Lake St. Clair froze from December through April, but opts not to blame Global Warming. He and Sherry prefer to dismiss moderate temperatures as "climate variation." If they're wrong, Sherry says he'll not only lose a passion, he'll be out of a job.

There's still more than enough bleak cold winter for a lot of people in Michigan. Too bad, says LeBeau, a robust fellow whose St. Clair Shores lakefront house is a hangout for ice boaters. "They're mopey. …They hide in their houses and wait until springtime to go out again," he says, referring to people who don't take advantage of outdoor activity in winter. "Our clan is looking for a way to get the (ice) boat out of the garage and to a lake. If we had our druthers and the lake froze we'd put nine, 10 boats outside my house and leave them there. We have some for kids, some that we race."
On Super bowl Sunday, when many will be gathered around the warm glow of television screens, LeBeau and the families of other ice boaters hope to be on the cold lake outside his house. If the weather cooperates, there will be a bonfire, a fishing shanty, and plenty of ice. "We're not football fans, but we're definitely sailing fans. We've gone sailing until midnight."

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelancer.

For more information on ice boating, call the Detroit Ice Yacht Club hotline at 248-988-0851.


2001 Gold Cup World Championship

Ron Sherry Copyright Dave Krieger

DN Ice Boat

Sailing a DN Ice Boat

All DN Ice Boat Photographs Courtesy of the 
International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association

Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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