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Why ice yachting is the thrilling sport you’ve been missing

Iceboats line up to race.

International DN iceboats line up to race in Poland.

Serene, surreal and scary. Welcome to the frozen world of ice yacht racing. When wet water simply won’t do. 

Adriaen Pietersz’s ‘Der Winter’ depicted iceboats being used in the Netherlands for cargo transportation as far back as the 17th Century. By the late 1700s in America, iceboats were being raced, while clubs dedicated to racing began to emerge in the States by the mid 1800s. 

John A Roosevelt — the former US President’s uncle — founded one of the first, the Hudson River Ice Yacht club, in 1869 and he also owned one of the largest iceboats ever made, a 69-foot long behemoth called the Icicle. 

Ice boats sailing in the Netherlands as depicted in Der Winter by Adriaen Pietersz
Der Winter by Adriaen Pietersz/Wikipedia Commons

Today, clubs are scattered across North America, Canada, Europe, Scandinavia, East Asia and the Baltic regions.

Gareth Rowland, an ice sailor with over 40 years experience, is part of a small British contingency. He shared his knowledge with the SportsGazette.

“I started sand sailing back in the mid-1970s. I was always aware of ice sailing and decided to convert my sand yachts into iceboats,” Gareth said.

Gareth now races an International DN iceboat called the K11, while he also runs a website dedicated to British ice sailing.

The International DN is the most common of around half a dozen different classes of iceboat. The name derives from a Detroit Newspaper competition in 1936. 

The newspaper wanted to find a design of iceboat that was cost effective, easy to transport and could be constructed at home.

Iceboats are named by their nationality and fleet number. Gareth’s K11, for example, is from the UK so takes the letter K and the boat is the eleventh in its fleet.

A DN iceboat will cost around £2,500 to buy brand new, but you can get one for less than £1,000 second-hand. They are even cheaper to make yourself.

DNs measure 12-feet long and have a 16-foot mast that supports a 60-square-foot sail. They use steel ‘runners’ attached to the hull which allow them to glide along the ice. 

“Some of the Russians worked in a tank factory and used pieces of tank armour for their runners,” Gareth said. “Because they are one design you can change them and upgrade them yourself. You can buy a new sail or new runners and improve it yourself.”

Maintenance costs are minimal as there are not many general upkeep repairs needed and there are rarely any breakages during races. Getting hold of a boat and maintaining it is the easy part. Getting on the ice however, particularly as a Brit, is trickier. 

“The only ice you get in England is in your gin and tonic,” he joked. 

“In the early days what you would have to do is drive to Europe. When you got to Calais or Rotterdam you had no idea where you were going. It sounds crazy, but it worked.” 

Commitment and time are important factors and you need plenty of both. Another is the weather conditions, the perfect weather being long periods of cold and dry. 

Gareth continued: “You can drive to a championship and you don’t race. You don’t sail at all. I’ve been to Sweden, close to the arctic circle, driven all the way from England and sailed for two hours. Then driven all the way back.”

London to Drottningholm Palace is a 21.5 hour drive across the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden

“It all comes down to time. Time is the most important factor you need with this sport because you don’t know where you are going or where you might end up.” 

Ice, obviously, is important and the quality has a big effect on races. Wind must also be considered. Too much or too little can prevent sailing. Snow, conversely, can bring proceedings to a halt. 

“We had the British Championships eight years ago. We only sailed for one day out of the planned five because there was no wind for the first four days. 

“In Hungary once it snowed, suddenly, we had four inches when only half an inch was forecast. That was the end of the plans there. We all packed up and moved about 100 miles away to continue. You cannot say ‘we will be sailing here this weekend’ as it just doesn’t work like that,” Gareth said.

When racing gets underway, though, it is well worth the wait. International DN iceboats can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Ice sailing is thrilling, but it’s also a dangerous sport. Being on a frozen lake or river comes with its own dangers and set of rules.

Although — according to Gareth — incidents are not regular occurrences, people should be aware of the dangers before heading onto the ice.

He said: “Rule number one of ice sailing is you must never sail alone. There are many dangers on ice. You could fall through a soft patch in the middle of a lake.

“When I first started the older guys used to tell me not to go there, there’s holes in the ice here, the ice is thin over this area. If it rains, you’ll get cracks in the ice.”

The camaraderie of ice sailing is not just to keep face. It is essential to keeping the sport alive and without people, this sport wouldn’t happen. 

“The social side of iceboat racing is almost as important as the racing itself. You get drawn into the camaraderie of sailing,” Gareth said. “It’s something unique we have in ice sailing. I can travel almost anywhere in Europe, stay at somebody’s house and borrow their boat. There is no other sport like it.

“Quite often, when there is a non-sailing day, we do things socially. Sometimes we’ll go sight-seeing or just relax in a sauna. Sometimes we stay for a couple of days after the racing.”

Ice sailing isn’t just for fun though and there are many competitions all around the world. For example, the DN European Championship recently took place in Poland.  

International DN ice sailing has a democratic international organisation called IDNIYRA. Members can vote on where they want events to take place. 

“Lake Baikal in the Siberian area of Russia is, for many ice sailors, the holy grail. You can sail up to 60 to 70 miles in one direction. The place itself is amazing. It’s a stunning location,” Gareth said, brimming with child-like excitement.

He continued: “Estonia is my favourite place. You can sail on sea ice and actually lose track of the land. A lot of the other places are on lakes. You know where you are and know which direction you’re going on lakes. Estonia is different. You can go off and sail a long way.”

To the outsider, ice sailing may seem daunting and unreachable. Thanks to the internet and low-cost airlines, however, this is not the case. 

“If you don’t know anything about it the best thing to do is jump on a cheap flight to Sweden or Poland. Google ice sailing and find out where the clubs are sailing. Get a contact somewhere who can get you into it,” Gareth explained. 

It sounds simple, right?

More information about ice sailing, specifically DN racing, is available on the IDNIRYA Europe website or via Gareth’s website.

You can even download the plans to build an International DN boat for yourself.

Featured photograph/Andrzej Łuczak/Wikipedia Commons

Connor Woolley
Connor, 26, comes from Long Eaton. As a Nottingham Forest supporter, he’ll say he is from Nottingham, but ask his Derby County supporting friends or family and they will proudly say they’re from Derby. He earned a degree in Media Studies from Nottingham Trent University in 2014. After graduating, Connor spent some time working in Public Relations. More recently, he has volunteered as a Police Special Constable. Passionate about all things football, Connor is specifically interest in goalkeeping. He still plays occasionally, although now it’s more trying than playing. After trying surfing for the first time on holiday this summer, he has found a new love, which he hopes to pursue further in the future. He also practices the Israeli self defence, Krav Maga. Connor hopes to improve his writing and broadcast skills with the Sports Gazette and St Mary’s University.
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