ice boats

Did I hear that I had no interest in sports? It turns out the stories have been exagerated. Find one that pushes the right buttons and I'm there!

I resisted the impulse to type, "ice yachts" in the caption line, because of the class implications of the word, but in fact, like many sports associated with monied classes, ice boating has always attracted, and offered full and just about equal roles to, people of every social status. Just be enthusastic and good, and the rich will pay the way (unless you're a woman, of course, but this is finally changing).

My father's interest in ice boating and my own childhood memories of his exploits in Wisconsin may have something to do with the attraction of these wind machines, but who could be indifferent to the sight, even the idea, of these beautiful wooden wraiths skimming across wintry landscapes at up to a hundred miles per hour* on the power of wind alone, soundless but for the whish of their huge blades across the ice? And I haven't even mentioned the stimulus of the clear cold air and the perfect excuse to embrace it. On top of it all, this past weekend the boats were lovingly-maintained or restored beauties up to 120 years old! Ok, they are yachts.

The two teams had agreed to race only the old-fashioned wooden boats known as gaff rigs, some of them a century old. From a distance, the rigs resemble 19th-century schooners, with dark spruce masts and tall parchment-colored sails.

Up close, they are more like gigantic wooden crossbows, with a long main beam and a transverse spar running across it for stability.

After a running start and a leap into the cockpit, the boats accelerate at panic-inducing speed. They can go up to six times the speed of the wind — any ice boater can explain the physics to you. And at just 30 miles per hour, the cold cuts exposed skin like a knife and the runners clatter like skipped stones on water.


* "The current ice speed record was set in 1943 at 145 mph (230 km/h) by John D. Buckstaff. It is thought that the record was set in 70 mph (112.7 km/h) winds in Wisconsin USA." [Statistics are quoted from this UK site, where photographs and other tidbits can be found.]

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Published on January 30, 2003 2:09 PM.

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