Ice Boat Racers: Meet the Frozen Lake Warriors

It’s Wednesday at 1:15 p.m., and we’re frantically refreshing a web page for an event update, 15 minutes later than recently promised and four days later than originally planned. It’s not details on a surprise concert or music festival – instead, we are looking for the location of this year’s North American Ice Boat championship. Approximately 100 competitors are also anxious to find out the spot so they can lug their ice boats to a frozen lake for two days of non-stop racing. At last the details appear: We’re heading to Charlevoix, Michigan.

Ice boats – miniature sailboats with three metal blades called runners – have been around since the 19th Century, and modern enthusiasts of the winter sport (officially called “ice yachting”) gather at various frozen lakes around the U.S. every year when “hard water” sites are available.

Arriving at the launch site on Lake Charlevoix, competitors unload their ice boats off trucks and affix their runners. Meanwhile, ice inspectors drill into the frozen lake to ensure it’s safe to race on; optimal race conditions are very specific, and wind is one of the most important factors.

 

After weeks of delays due to snow and extreme cold followed by unseasonable warmth, everyone is ready to get going. Surrounded by a mile of ice on all sides, a group of 50 racers – full of adrenaline, no doubt – cues up at the starting line. The temperature has dropped to 20 degrees.

Racers push off from a starting line on the ice, metal cleats beating into the ice as boats begin to split apart and weave back and forth to pick up speed. After gathering momentum, they lay flat on the boat and use the sails to guide them around a circular track. Participants do three laps, hitting speeds of 60 MPH, and the first one to cross the finish line wins. Crashes seem imminent as boats careen dangerously close – but each time, with a split-second correction, they miss each other. As racers hit top speeds, they sound like jet fighters flying overhead.

 

 

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