Few people know ice like Bob Dill. He has raced ice boats (sailboats that run on blades) for years, held the world speed record in a land yacht and, these days, puts his engineering background to work for a website which explains ice dynamics to those who enjoy getting out on New England’s frozen lakes and ponds.
Name: Bob Dill
Residence: Burlington Occupation: Retired engineer
Primary sports: Nordic skating and high speed sailing
VS: How did you get started with ice boating?
BD: We started in the late 1970’s with a homemade boat and then built a DN [a one-design racing boat named for a boat building competition in the Detroit News]. We got some local sailors interested and there was an active fleet here. I organized the World Championship on Mallets Bay in 1989 and we had people from as far as central Russia. Lake Champlain has been host to more championship DN events than any other lake; six in the last 40 years. It has the right climate and elevation and lots of bays, which makes it ideal for ice skating and sailing. Last winter the DN Eastern and New England regattas took place in Shelburne.
VS: How did you move from ice boats to land yachts?
BD: When I was learning about ice boats I read as much as I could and I saw claims for high speeds that were just preposterously fast. I bought a radar gun and started measuring the speeds of the ice boats, from DNs to the really high speed ones. The fastest I went in a DN was 62 mph and other racing iceboats rarely got over 80 mph., even though many claim higher speeds. In 1993 I built an iceboat with Bob Schumacher, but we didn’t get it on the ice until the middle of March 1994 and by then the ice was too soft to go fast. That summer I got interested in land sailing, which is easier to measure, so we modified the iceboat for land sailing, named it the Wood Duck, and took it to a speed event in the Mojave Desert. The first day the wind was only 25-30 mph and we couldn’t get it to take off. But the next day it was 40 mph and we got it up to 71 mph. Unfortunately, a wind gust tipped the boat over and broke a wing. I learned a lot about what I shouldn’t do and we ended up building a new boat called the Iron Duck. We kept making modifications to it and in 1999 I got it to 114 mph and Bob Schumacher got it to 116.7. (He was always the better sailor.) That set a world record for wind-powered vehicles, a record that lasted for ten years.
VS: You Nordic skate now more than sail and have become somewhat of an unofficial scout for the local skating community. How does that work?
BD: It depends on the weather but generally in the last half of November I start looking at some of the ponds in New York with another skater from Moriah. There are some bodies of water that commit very early and often we start the season there. It’s a good place to wear a dry suit because we can be on ice that’s pretty thin. From there we often go south to smaller bodies of water in Chittenden County like Shelburne Pond. After that, there might be ice at Missisquoi Bay and around Alburgh and then Inner and Outer Mallets Bay around New Year’s. In the first part of January the ice starts to work on some of the bays like Thompson’s Bay or Point Bay. By late January or early February there may be some progression towards the deepest part of the lake from Thompson’s Point up to Burlington but most years we don’t get that.
VS: Last winter the Broad Lake froze over for the second year in a row. Did you get to skate that section?
BD: I’ve been on that part of the lake in an ice boat but this was my first time skating across it. It was possible because there were two large leads off Appletree Point and Shelburne Point and since the snowfall had been light, the ice was snow-free. Most years the ice would have been much rougher than it was last year.
VS: What are some of your favorite places to skate?
BD: Last year we skated about 30 miles from Benson’s Landing north to the Champlain Bridge. It wasn’t an easy skate because there were some tricky spots. Another area I like which is a lot tamer, but very pretty is the North Shore of Mallets Bay. Lake George is also s always a great place to skate.
VS: What made you create your website – lakeice.squarespace.com?
BD: I was DN class secretary for a number of years and wrote a bunch of safety articles. But what really spurred me to start working on it was a particularly bad snowmobile accident in 2010 which killed three people on Lake Dunmore on ice that looked safe but wasn’t. The purpose of the site is to give people a source for information on how ice behaves and to learn what gets you into trouble. The reality is that very few people die on the ice –maybe 50 a year– but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve fallen through or been out on ice we shouldn’t have been on. The website is designed for people to get an understanding of what they’re dealing with and what to watch out for and if they want to delve in further there’s plenty of scientific information.
VS: What is the most basic advice you can give to someone heading out on the ice?
BD: Use your head and carry the right equipment: a throw rope, ice claws, and poles. You should also wear some flotation. With it, you can stay in the water for an hour and be rescued but without it you can lose your ability to swim in ten minutes. Also stay off the ice at night when you have far less ability to avoid problems and rescue yourself or others. Definitely don’t take people on the ice who don’t know what they’re getting into. It’s a bit like mountaineering in terms of potential danger.
VS: You’ve been involved in a couple of ice rescues. Can you tell us about those encounters?
BD: Several years ago we found a loon on the ice near the Sand Bar. It was too late to get someone from Fish and Wildlife but we talked to a bird rehabilitation expert and the next day we took a coat and carried it off the ice to a spot with open water. It stayed there for a few days and then moved on. Last year we found a deer on Shelburne Pond that couldn’t stand up. We got a rope and two of us managed to get the rope under the deer and slowly drag it to the edge of the pond to some snow where it was able to stand and bounded off. I also recently rescued a dog on Lincoln Pond. We had to yank it by the paws and it didn’t seem very happy with us, but we got it out.