Ice Boats

Kevin Brooker
Posted January 1st, 2007

Snow dominates winters in Vermont and controls how many of us spend our recreation time. The lack of snow in 2005 might have been a bust if not for the discovery of hard-water sailing.
After lakes and ponds have frozen and before the arrival of snow, many people dig into the  backs of closets to exhume almost-forgotten ice skates. The lake skating season is short, usually less than two weeks, and ends at the first significant snowfall. Last year’s relatively snowless winter was cold enough to produce some of the best lake ice in decades, and it lasted until April. Many grounded snow sports enthusiasts turned to the ice to get their outdoor fix.
In addition to skates, other forgotten ice rigs came out of storage. An abundance of ice boats were back in use after years of neglect. These wind-powered sailing craft are extremely fast (speeds in the mid-30 mph range are common) but can be rendered useless by a three-inch layer of snow,even if it’s just slightly heavier than champagne powder.
When there’s no snow, as was the case much of last winter, Dan O’Hara of Lyme, New Hampshire, goes ice sailing, also called hard-water sailing, on Lake Morey in Fairlee, Vermont. His small racing boat is an International DN. It carries 60 square feet of sail, and the hull is twelve feet long, with a runner plank eight feet wide. In the right wind, DNs can top 60 mph. Last year he had the perfect conditions to do just that. “It was just awesome ice. Hard and clear of snow. It was great being able to sail and not travel more than ten miles,” exclaims Dan.
“Ice boats are capable of speeds two to three times the wind speed. If winds are steady at ten to twelve knots, one can cruise in the mid-twenties with bursts into the thirties. Those are perfect conditions,” he explained, while setting up his second boat, a homemade “stern steerer.”
Ice boats have been in use for hundreds of years. Modern ice boats have three runners: two fixed runners on a plank located at the rear of the hull, and one steerable runner mounted out front. Another design, called “stern steerers,” mirror this, with the fixed runners and plank up front and the steering runner at the stern.
Steve Voight of Norwich, Vermont, a veteran soft-water sailor, explains the basic differences between sailing on water or ice. “Ice boats require a much more aggressive mentality when tacking. Sharp runners won’t slide so the sailor must turn wider and keep the momentum when tacking. An iceboat handles much the same way as a catamaran. Get it caught in irons (stopped and pointed directly into the wind) and it’s a bear to get it started again.”
Before heading out, most hard-water sailors dress warm to combat the wind chill, and for safety put on a snow machine helmet as well as boots with studded soles. Despite the speeds these rigs can go, they almost always require the sailor to start out with a push similar to that of a bobsled team. Push hard for ten yards, jump onto the plank, climb into the cockpit,”sheet in” and go!
One of the highlights of the 2005-06 Vermont ice boating season was the Skeeter Nationals that took place on Malletts Bay in Colchester in mid-March. Thirteen sailors came from as far away as Michigan to take part in the three-day regatta, and were treated to the best racing conditions in over a decade. Hard, clear ice and ten to fifteen knots of wind made for a great competition.
Unlike O’Hara’s DN mentioned earlier, the Skeeter is a very open design class with the only real limit being sail area and depth of pockets. A state-of-the-art Skeeter is made from carbon fiber and most of the pieces are custom made. They are transported in trailers over thirty feet long and can take a crew of four almost two hours to rig.
Racing was the focus of the Malletts Bay event but this did not scare away the casual sailor. In addition to the DNs and Skeeters, the great ice conditions had sailors from all over the east coast in attendance. The state boat access was the pit area and it was filled with over 50 boats. The ice boating community is very close and the regatta had the feel of a reunion. Everyone was friendly and enthusiastic about sharing their sport with spectators. A fantastic write-up of the event is available on the web at www.skeeterice If you’re interested in learning more about ice sailing, there is an active club called the Lake Champlain Ice Club. Bob Schumacher of Burlington, a former commodore of the New England Ice Yacht Association (NEIYA) and ownerof Canoe Imports, describes the club.
“We are a small group that sails any weekend we can find ice within 100 miles. We often sail with another club in Montreal and we are members of the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association and the New England Ice Yacht Association.
“The best spots in Vermont vary year to year. Early in the year we will often sail Mississquoi Bay on Lake Champlain, in Phillipsburg, Quebec, and on Shelburne Pond. The nice thing about this area is Lake Champlain. It freezes in stages so there is always new ice forming.The next bodies of water to freeze may be Malletts Bay, south of the Crown Point Bridge, and the Inland Sea by Sand Bar State Park. We do have a telephone line with arecorder and outgoing message that lets people know where we are sailing. We start updating the recording in December (802-985-1469). You can also visit the NEIYA website ( and learn about available ice around New England.”
Snow dominates winters in Vermont and controls how many of us spend our recreation time. The lack of snow in 2005 might have been a bust if not for the discovery of hard-water sailing. Dan O’Hara summed it up best. “If it snows, I can ski and if it doesn’t, I sail. It pretty much makes the winters a win-win for me.”
More information on ice boating can be found at these websites: and