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Iceboating on Clear Lake, Iowa


When temperatures get below freezing and the added chill in the wind makes it feel much colder, most people stay indoors because the thought of being outside is unbearable.  However, there are some people who embrace the bitter winds and freezing temperatures because the cold brings the opportunity to enjoy hard water sailing.

Steve Swift: I enjoy being outside.  I also enjoy the adrenaline rush.  There's times to where you feel like you're almost out of control on these boats, they're going so fast.  It all depends, of course, on the wind.  But a lot of it is the adrenaline rush and going fast.

An ice boat can go three to five times faster than the speed of the wind.  That is because the sail on an ice boat actually acts like an airplane wing or air foil that creates lift which translates into speed.  And because there is very little drag or friction as an ice boat skates across the ice, it is possible to achieve incredible speeds.

Rex Bergo: Maybe it's maybe six years ago Birdsall with his GPS, he clocked 75.5 out here and we had perfect ice the whole lake so he had a good chance to get going and really carry it.  The conditions don't normally allow you to let it go like that.  So you work with what you've got.  Today we've got an extra ridge to worry about and you have to be careful out there and look for trouble because you have to respect water even if it is frozen.

At one time, ice boats were the fastest way to transport people or freight.  In 1871, the New York Times reported on a race on the Hudson River between a passenger train and the ice boats Zephyr and Icicle.  The newspaper reported the novel crafts passed the train at the rate of a mile a minute.

And in a 1935 newsreel, Chevrolet tested one of its cars against an ice boat.  According to the announcer, the Chevy was not only a more comfortable ride, it was also faster.

Announcer: It takes some speed to overtake an ice boat traveling with the wind.  Come on there, fellas, you're getting behind!

Steve Swift: Ice boats have been on this lake since this lake, since people moved onto this lake.  Our parents and grandparents had old stern steerers out here.  Back in the days when there wasn't anything else to do people would come out on the lake and ice skate or build weird boats and go out sailing.

At the turn of the century, ice boats were large and were steered with a tiller that turned a runner at the stern, much like a rudder on a sailboat.  Most modern ice boats are steered with a runner at the bow, or front of the boat, and are much smaller in size.  There are several classes of ice boats but the most popular is the DN.

Named after the Detroit News, the first DN was built in the newspaper's hobby shop in 1936.  Designed to be both inexpensive and something that could be built at home, the boat is twelve feet long and carries 60 feet of sail.  Today, the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association has around 2,000 members.

Rex Bergo: This is a DN that I made about four or five years ago.  It is ash sides and the runner plank is out of ash.  And the walnut accents are trees that I actually feel, dried and then milled.  So I got all my hands on this one.  Most of the fun is doing that too.  Of course it's great to utilize it as well.  So just something about being on the ice.

It's been said that people who enjoy ice boating spend as much time preparing their boats as they do sailing them.  At the speeds the boats are capable of achieving, imperfections in the ice can do a lot of damage.  And there are years when the weather doesn't provide many opportunities to sail.

Rex Bergo: Some of the guys say it's the safest sport around because some years you don't even get to do it.  And that's true.  I mean, if the snow comes in too quickly it is over, over before it started.

Safety is a major concern for anyone involved in ice boating. Helmets are every bit as important as warm clothing and ice picks are worn around the neck just in case a boat goes through the ice.  Jim Anastasi credits the ice picks with saving his life when he went through the ice in 2011.

Jim Anastasi: It was a Sunday morning, came home from church and two of my friends were out here and we had 29 mile an hour winds and it was a wonderful, wonderful wind.  I just wasn't paying attention where I was and I did a jibe and as I came around it was right there, it was open water.  I was in there probably for ten minutes but able to climb out. We all wear picks.  If it wasn't for the picks I wouldn't be here.  It was a wonderful day to sail but that ended it quickly.

Most ice boaters are sailors, who during the summer are on the lake when the weather isn't nearly as cold and the water is in a much more liquid state.  Ice boating allows them the opportunity to enjoy the lake and the outdoors year round.

Rex Bergo: I sure do love the sport.  They're great guys to be with and certainly on an Iowa day like this where the sun is shining and you've got ice and not much else to do, ice boating is fantastic.


Tags: Clear Lake iceboating iceboats Iowa sailing sailors tourism travel winter activities