Hard-Water Rush

A tall, dark-haired man in a fleece jacket stands at the edge of Elk Lake. Its icy surface, pocked with a half-dozen fishing holes, is otherwise blank. No shanties. No skaters. No sails. He pokes the toe of his shoe into the cloudy ice clinging to the shoreline. It splinters, and water swallows the shards in one soundless gulp.

“Damn,” he says.

The man, David Frost from Lansing, is an iceboater, a hard-water sailor, one of a small legion of folks who spend their winters chasing ice – ice that is good, solid and slick. When the sailors find it they round up their comrades, load up their boats – essentially sailboats on skates – and get there.

He tells me he hightailed it Up North last night, kids and wife in tow, to sail in the Grand Traverse Ice Yacht Club’s 2007 Fun Regatta, an event that draws iceboaters from all over the Midwest. Originally, the regatta was set for the last weekend in February. But a few unexpected warm spells bumped it into early March. Then mid-March. Then late March. Then, at 8 p.m. on March 30, word went out that Elk Lake was sailable: 12 to 15 inches of honeycomb ice, the top half firm white; the bottom soft black. Not great conditions, but with the rumor of cold temps herding in after rain, April 2 looked promising.

Because he was en route when club members made a final check of Elk Lake on April 1, David hadn’t known they’d determined the ice too soft for sailing. It wasn’t until he’d shown up at the edge of the empty lake this morning that he realized the regatta had been cancelled, and iceboating, for the season, was over.

Iceboating is not a sport for the easily disheartened. Or the impatient. Most iceboaters will tell you it’s a sport that draws Type A personalities: tenacious, determined people who will wait all year for a season that lasts, at best, 12 weeks, and for conditions within that season – a veritable Rubik’s Cube of environmental variables – to align.

First, there must be ice – at least a two-mile-wide swath of it. It must be at least 4 inches thick, preferably black, sans snow, with few cracks or holes, and free of ice skaters, fisherman and roaming dogs. (In desperation, of course, ice that’s mottled, cloudy, snowy, cracked, punctured and shared will do.) There must also be wind – 12 mph is ideal, though if the ice is right, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sailor unwilling to white-knuckle it up to 16, or unused to making the most of a puff above 4.

As for the sailor, he must be hardy. He will spend entire days running across an icy expanse, diving into the open cockpit of his iceboat and careening around in, necessarily, below-freezing temperatures. Depending on the boat occupied, he will typically zip about at speeds around 60 mph; in some boats, 100 mph or more. When racing he will maintain the highest speed possible while navigating a tight circular course shared with an army of fellow iceboaters who both chase and hurtle toward him, hopefully obeying right-of-way rules.