By Reed Sisson
It’s early in the morning on a brisk wintry day, with the wind howling across the black ice. For most people this sounds like an awful time, but for ice boaters there is no better place to be. Don’t tell them you’re glad that spring is here – they’re just hoping for temperatures to dip below freezing one last time.
“We’re usually referred to as the crazy guys that zoom around on the ice,” says lifelong ice boater Billy Bluefeather of Worcester. “But I also get the occasional ‘What the heck are you talking about?’ look.”
The truth is, many people have never heard of ice boating. Yet there are national and worldwide competitions, as well as small groups of people who just do it as a pastime – especially here in New England.
An ice boat is basically a long boat body with a cross plank. At the ends of the cross plank are skates, called runners, and a steering runner is at the front of the boat. A mast is attached to the body and setup with a sail. This is the basic setup of an ice boat; they can vary greatly in style, model, and size.
“Some people don’t understand that ice boats are powered by wind,” Bluefeather said. “When I show them my boats they usually ask where’s the motor is.”
Bluefeather has sailed countless areas in New England for over 30 years. Measuring distance with a GPS, he said he sails an average of 2,000 miles every winter season on the ice.
“It’s amazing – nothing else like it,” Bluefeather said. “You can’t truly understand the rush you get unless you’ve sailed on the ice.”
The smaller of these finely tuned ice boats can reach speeds of up to 60 mph; larger ones can go up to 80 to 90 mph.
“There’s no brakes – that’s another thing that makes people think I’m crazy,” Bluefeather said. “You just need to know how to sail and read the wind so you don’t end up running into someone’s lake house at 70 mph, which I have done.”
Ice boaters compare their passion for sailing on the ice to other extreme sports. They share the need for speed, and the thrill of riding on the edge using nothing but the power of wind.
Ice boaters will sail wherever there is ice. “It all depends on ice conditions and wind readings,” Bluefeather said. “That’s why, if there’s good ice up in Maine or on the Hudson River, we’ll wake up at 3 and get there for 8 o’clock to setup and sail for the day.”
There are certain dangers that obviously come along with this sport, and there are several rules to make sure that sailors have a safe trip. Special traffic rules regulate the crossing on the ice so that collisions are avoided. Ice boaters also take care to sail together, so that if something happens there are others there to help out.