Happy Wanderer: Ice Boating is Midwest’s big adventure sport

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: December 24, 2010

Now that it’s officially winter, boating season is under way in the upper Midwest. We’re talking ice boating here — a sport that combines sailing and snowmobiling in weather so raw your whole body has to be covered.

Find almost any Midwest lake with safe ice and you’ll see boats flying across the shimmering surface.

“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” world champion racer Ron Sherry says.

Sherry drives a DN boat, named for the Detroit News, because the first DN boats were made in the newspaper’s hobby shop during the winter of 1936-37. The ice boat was a cheap form of fun during the Depression and the first DN boats were built for $32.

Today, the standard DN boat has a 12-foot hull with a plank that holds two side parallel runners. The mast is 16 feet tall with 60 square feet of sailing area.

“You steer with the tiller and the main sheet is between your legs,” Sherry says.

In other words, picture being in a luge — flat on your back with your toes pointed, with about the only thing showing being your head encased in a crash helmet.

The crash helmet is key. Ice yachts can go faster than 90 miles an hour (the world record is 148 mph) with a fuselage that weighs just 46 pounds.

“When you’re going on a boat that light, you’re literally flying,” Sherry says, “and one simple flip of the tiller can send you spinning out in a pretty big hurry.”

The wind chill, which can chap the hide of even the heartiest Viking sailor, is also a challenge. Yet despite the chattering teeth and the jarred spinal columns, ice yachters eat up this sport. Many of them plan their winter schedules around races held as far away as Europe.

“If you’re afraid of traveling, you’ve picked the wrong sport,” says Sherry, who racks up the miles pulling his boats and gear to any lake that’s been cleared as safe for racing. He says “you can race pretty safely on three inches of ice” and that racers h eye the ice for its color and texture, marking it for hazards.

But even the best laid plans go awry at times. Just ask DN racing champ Rick Lemberg, who has had his boat fall through the ice.

“I’ve had many close calls where I thought I’d get killed.” he admits. “The first time it happened, the whole boat went in. I hit it real fast and the boat broke into several pieces when the ice broke.”

Luckily for Lemberg, he was near the edge and able to pull himself out.

“I walked a mile to my father-in-law’s house and had hot chocolate,” he laughs.

Now, Lemberg brings a little lifesaver called a bear claw on his boat. “It’s a spike for each hand that folds up and hangs from your neck,” he explains. When you fall through the ice it unlocks and turns into ice picks so you can pull yourself out.

Whether watching regattas or just casual cruising, spectators can see much of the action from shore. They also can bring a deck seat or lawn chair to a lake’s local yacht club or marina.

To get even closer, folks go out on the ice themselves with snowmobiles and skates. In Europe, viewers use kick sleds with two runners and a handle like a scooter.

No matter how you view the action, the reward is a front-row seat to a thrilling winter sport. Just be sure to bring your muffler and thermos.

IF YOU GO: This year’s DN Gold Cup World Championships are scheduled for Jan. 30 through Feb. 4, with the site still to be determined.


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