Boating on Ice
by P/C Dave Heitzenrater
Ice boats are powered only by the wind against the sail producing lift just as any soft water sail boat. This is the same lift produced by an airplane wing how ever it is in the horizontal forward direction rather than vertical lift of the aircraft wing. The boat rests on three steel runners which are similar to a very large knife, are ground to a sharp edge where each runner meets the ice. This sharp edge actually melts a tiny area beneath the runner which creates near frictionless water surface between the ice and the metal runner. This melting action accounts for the great speeds obtainable by an ice boat which is easily several times the speed of the wind depending on the quality of the boat and ice conditions.
Once the boat begins moving the apparent wind on the sail moves forward very quickly and remains there even when going down wind. An ice boat is capable of accelerating very quickly doubling or tripling its speed in just a few boat lengths. This great speed and acceleration combined with the fact that the iceboat sits just inches above the rock hard ice makes for a wild exhilarating ride experience. Modern, state-of-the-art iceboats travel well over one hundred miles per hour with the speed record not technically established but is somewhere around the one hundred fifty mark... that ought to get your adrenaline pumping!
For those unfamiliar with the iceboat concept, generally an ice boat is a craft that rests upon the ice on three steel runners. Each runner would compare to a super large knife blade about three feet long and six inches high with the edge that sits on the ice sharpened to V point that cuts into the ice. The runners are attached to the runner plank which sits under the boat fuselage built to hold one or more riders. The boat is steered by a third runner that pivots to turn in the same manner as a bicycle wheel except that the steering runner can be in the back or the front of the boat. Ice boating originally began in the mid 1600s with boats that steered from the rear because they were a quick adaptation of a normal boat with a rear rudder however modern iceboat designs steer from the bow.
The smallest is a factory produced metal tube framed 9' Lockley Skimmer 45 ™. The brave sailor sits in a canvas sling with 45 sq. feet of sail and steers with his feet. The most popular type is the 12’ International DN. These are generally home built wood boats 12' long on sitting on an 8' runner plank with 60 sq. ft. of sail and 16' mast. The all up weight is about 140 lbs. and is easily car top able. There are approximately 5,000 sailing world wide with about 1,000 members in the International DN Ice Yacht Association. In 1960 the Arrow class fiberglass iceboat was designed and built by the Boston Sail Co. of Mt. Clemens, Michigan. It was then commercially manufactured with a 16’ fiberglass hull, aluminum spar with 80 sq. ft. of sail. About this same time Dacron became the sail cloth of choice replacing Nylon which previously replaced cotton.;The current fastest boat design is that with the hull extended forward by the addition of a flexible board known as a spring board on which the steering runner is located. There are a number of variations of this spring board design categorized here as Skeeters. The Skeeter represents the state of the art in top speed and expense. The top boats are built of composite materials 30' long with a 28' rotating wing style mast on a 22' long runner plank weighing in at about 450 lbs. These boats can cost as much as $30,000.
The local fleet sailing on Presque Isle Bay is Erie, Pa. is comprised of approximately 60 boats of various designs with actual participation in the February 1st 1997 club regatta at 43. The fleet is comprised of approximately 25 DN'S, 11 Arrows/Supper Arrows, 7 Skeeters, 9 Stern steerers , 3 Skimmers plus other assorted varieties and variations. Any winter weekend with good ice will produce a large number of boaters cruising around the bay and some informal group racing. race will instantly materialize !
Ice boating began back in the mid 1600's by necessity when an enterprising boater rigged skates attached to a plank to his softwater boat to get his meat to the market on the frozen canals and harbors of Amsterdam. This simple iceboat was no doubt steered by adding a blade to the rear rudder. The design of craft improved and the concept moved to North America along with the Dutch settlers who landed along the Hudson River in the late 1700's. In 1861 the Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club was formed on the Hudson River and so begins ice boat racing.Worldwide, iceboating remained the fastest mode of transportation until the airplane was invented in 1903. Boat designs evolved from these stern steering boats to today's highly engineered front steering models made of light weight composites and synthetics. There is photo and written evidence of early iceboating in Erie during the late 1800's and racing in the 1890's with Hudson River style stern steer boats. Two notable circa 1900 boats in the fleet are SNIPE built in 1900 for Annie Strong and ZERO built in 1938 that sail here to this day. Among the others there are several beautiful boats of this rear steering design constructed by David Bierig, Bob Arlet, Dave Forsman and Dan Claxton.
This is an interesting article that appeared in the Erie Weekly Observer, Erie Pa. February 11, 1869 many years before automobiles and airplanes had been invented. An iceboat ride must have been an amazing experience being the fastest method of travel on earth at the time.
Coasting On the Ice
In the mountainous portions of this state the boys consider it rare amusement to coast down the hills in winter, when a sufficiency of snow covers the earth to enable them to pursue this health-giving exercise. Here, in Erie, our children of a larger growth can enjoy a similar, but less laborious, pleasure by coasting over the ice which covers the bay by means of the “ice boat.” These boats are constructed in such a manner as to enable persons who desire the agreeable sensations of rapid, yet safe motion, to skim over the ice at the rate of 30 or 40 mph, by simply elevating a sail and using the wind as the propelling power. These boats are under complete control of the person operating them, and their course can be changed, or, even when moving at the most rapid rate of speed, they can be stopped with the utmost facility. The ice in the bay is now of a sufficient thickness to render it perfectly safe, and a stretch of about 6 miles in length by nearly 2 in width can be navigated over with this species of craft. One of these boats is now in almost constant use, and it will amply repay a visit to the bay to see the rapidity with which it glides over the ice.
For local boat and fleet information or ice conditions contact: