The Iceboat Cometh and It StayethFeb 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
The sailing community in the Finger Lakes is like a large family. So, what happens in winter when the spontaneous gatherings on the water stop, temperatures turn chilly, and bathing suits get moved to the back of the underwear drawer? Some just can’t wait till spring to feel the wind pull them along on the water. These people trade keels for metal runners, and soft water for hard.
Hard water sailing, more commonly called iceboating, was a common form of winter transport in the Netherland canals and Gulf of Riga in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to Britannica, the first iceboat appeared on the Hudson River in 1790. Ice yacht clubs came about in the mid-nineteenth century, and soon people with extra money and time were racing each other in boats with crews of six or seven, reaching speeds faster than any other vehicle at that time—breaking 100 miles per hour in 1885.
Joseph Meade IV, president of Mercury Integrated Manufacturing of Hammondsport, grew up a part of the Keuka Lake sailing community. In January 2010, Joe was at his grandfather’s memorial service at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum where his grandfather’s iceboat was on display. Joe’s Dad (they’re all named Joseph Meade) had done some iceboating, but skiing took over wintertime recreation, and he hadn’t yet introduced his kids to it. But as he stood looking at the iceboat that day, Joe says, “David Farmer walks up to me and says, ‘What’s a perfectly good iceboat doing in a museum? We were up on Waneta Lake sailing all day. Would you like to come up with us tomorrow?’”
Iceboating is something you love or hate, Joe explains. “No one walks away and says, ‘That was okay.’” He loved it, and thought, “How come nobody else is doing this?” Even though the local club—KEWASA (named for the lakes Keuka, Waneta, and Salubria)—began in 1957, it wasn’t very active then. Even five years ago, it was common to show up on a lake when conditions are good and see two other boats. Now it’s more like fifteen to twenty.
In 2013, Joe took his friend Rick Gordon—an avid boater and water-skier—for his first ride on ice. Joe had already built his own iceboat with a wooden mast. “It was a pretty windy afternoon,” Rick says of that first day on Lake Waneta, “and a couple of cones placed on the ice indicated windward and leeward marks to sail around. I remember going pretty darn fast and looking at how much that wooden mast was bending under load. I couldn’t believe it was not breaking. I took about three laps and gave the boat back to Joe.” Within two weeks, Rick had his own ice boat and the two have been traveling and racing together ever since.
The boats they have are International DN boats, the largest and most popular class. It was the winner of a contest held by the Detroit News in 1937 for a design that people could affordably make at home and would be easily portable. According to DNiceboat.org, where you can download boat specifications and plans, the DN class “has embraced technical advances while keeping the home builder in mind.”
DN boats are single seaters used for racing. There are many classes, which can be more expensive, seat more than one, and are more comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with cruising, and Joe emphasizes that you don’t have to go fast for a perfectly nice tour of the lake. But Joe likes speed.
The DN has a long narrow hull, with a plank that crosses near the stern and sticks out for support. There are three steel blades, one front (attached to the tiller), and one at the end of each plank. It’s light—around forty pounds.
Boats need a running start in order to break the friction of the ice. It looks like someone jumping into the window of a sports car when the doors don’t open—Dukes of Hazard-style—except they’re pushing the sports car and it’s inches off the pavement. When you watch a video of a race from above (there are many online), there is something graceful and insect-like about the boats.
Joe has a sidecar for his and has taken his wife and kids out. His thirteen-year-old son shares his fascination and now has a youth-sized iceboat of his own. Is it safe? Nothing about ice is safe, Joe often reminds people, but “It’s safer than golf,” he always adds. As with any other recreational hobby, it’s important to know the safety procedures and etiquette, have the proper gear, gage ice conditions, and build your skill—and speed—incrementally.
Due to a phenomenon called apparent wind, boats can go forty miles per hour in ten miles per hour wind. Just like on a bicycle, as you start going faster you produce your own wind. An iceboat can go from zero to fifty in mere seconds. There is no brake; just turn upwind and let the sail out.
Though we don’t often hear about iceboating, Joe says anywhere lakes regularly freeze a group can be found. KEWASA has a Facebook group, and members watch the weather and plan where they’ll meet. The season starts on Lake Waneta, which is smaller and freezes first, then moves to the north end of Keuka near the college. “There has not been a year when we couldn’t sail locally,” Joe says, though admitting, “A few times it was just one day.” The last time Keuka froze completely was 2015.
If it sounds finnicky, it is. But this uncertainty seems to increase the anticipation and camaraderie amongst enthusiasts. For Joe, chasing ice means traveling to places he’d never have had a reason to go, meeting other iceboaters. He’ll never forget one night under a full moon on a glass-smooth lake in Vermont. “You could sail forever.”
For information about DN racing or sailing, check out the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association at idniyra.org, watch the Finger Lakes Boating Museum events at flbm.org to see when Joe will give another lecture or workshop, or find the KEWASA Ice Boat Club on Facebook. Heck, if you see iceboaters on a lake, walk up and ask if anyone will give you a ride. They may be crazy, but they’re friendly.