Wind, Speed, Ice and Lake Superior
Posted on: February 15, 2017

Lots of wind but a bit gusty…wait for it! (33″ clip).

Ice boating on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. Pie Island in the distance. January, 2017.

Ice boating has a long history on Lake Superior, both in Canada and USA. In the Thunder Bay area ice boats have been around for at least 60 years, probably longer. On both sides of the big lake, the boats are used wherever and whenever ice is good. Good ice can be found on both the big lake and inland lakes. Iceboats are easily broken down and transported and ice boaters commonly travel regionally in search of good ice. In the Thunder Bay area, Whitefish Lake and Loon Lake, as well as other lakes, have seen many visits by ice boaters.

Snow is the enemy of ice boats so ice must be free of snow to get up to speed. Clear, hard, smooth, thick ice is best but bumpy, even pebbled ice will do. Calm is the other enemy. Iceboats need wind and they like plenty of it. Speeds of 70 km./hr. (43 mph) are routine with good wind and good ice, utilizing a standard iceboat with no modifications. The boat is really starting to move at 90 km./hr (55 mph), with the same standard boat.

Many of the early boats in the Thunder Bay area were home built projects utilizing fairly heavy materials and without the excellent sails of more recent years. Most of these boats were about 12 ft. in length with 16 ft. masts. Modern boats have a triangular skate, or blade arrangement, with one blade at the front and two towards the back, widely spaced for stability, about 8 ft. apart. The forward of the three skates does the steering, controlled by a “tiller” or steering mechanism, in the central seating portion of the boat.

The most common iceboat is the “DN.” The boat is named after the “Detroit News” newspaper which in 1937 sponsored a competition to design a boat which could be easily and economically built at home. Thousands of these boats have been built around the world, including locations like Duluth and Thunder Bay. A larger, faster boat is the Skeeter, which is about 20 ft. in length with a slightly longer runner board separating the rear ice blades and stabilizing the boat in high winds. The Skeeter has a mast of about 24 feet and very sleek, modern sails. These boats are seriously fast, topping out at over 100 miles/hr. (we won’t convert that to km./hr – it is extremely fast).

One or two boats present in the Thunder Bay area were huge, “old school” stern steering models, such as those used on the Hudson River in New York state starting in the late eighteen hundreds. Many of these boats were well in excess of 20 ft. in length. The triangular arrangement of the runner blades on these older boats was reversed, one steering blade at the stern on a pivot for steerinf, and two runner blades at the front, widely separated with a runner plank. Boats on the Hudson River were know to race high speed steam trains when conditions were good – and win.

What’s it like to sail in an iceboat? Like nothing you’ve ever tried before. The acceleration is the most amazing thing. Think automatic, instant acceleration, something like an electric vehicle, with no “lag.” When the boat really gets going, especially in gusty conditions, the rear, windward skate often picks up so that the iceboater is literally levitating in the air, all at high forward speed. A well controlled boat is flat on the ice, with all three sharp skates providing purchase and ensuring forward movement, as opposed to sideways slippage due to wind pressure on the sail. A knowledge of sailing’s fundamental principles and dynamics is obviously a requirement on anything but very light wind days.

Many people learned iceboating as kids, coming along for the ride tucked into the arms and thick warm coat of a parent steering and controlling the boat. As kids learned the fundamentals of sailing on water during the summer, at much slower speeds, they were then able to transition to iceboating.

Readers may have noticed other articles about ice boating in the media recently. A prolonged January warm spell of over two weeks in the Lake Superior region led to a surge in iceboat use. Snow on ice surfaces melted away making for clear sailing. When this warm weather was followed by a cold snap, things really started heating up, with excellent, smooth, hard ice. January’s warm weather may have been unusual but it remains to be seen how climate will affect ice boating in future years.

Oh, one last thing. The information above may not have noted that iceboats have no brakes. Imagine being on blades, on ice, with no brakes, traveling at speeds over 70 km. an hour. How do you stop? There is only one way. Iceboats need space. Plenty of it. To stop, the boats are turned into the wind, gliding for considerable distance as the wind “feathers” past the sail.  The boat will eventually glide to a stop, or stall. This 18″ clip, also taken on Lake Superior in January, 2017, shows a boat being turned into the wind and coasting to a stop.

Special thanks to Britt Bailey for the video clips and photos of her ice boating cousin Julia Bailey.


DN Class Ice boats

Ice boat club featuring Skeeter boats

“Old School” Ice boats of the Hudson River area.

Ice boating at Lake Damariscotta, Maine.


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