Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Ice sailing is the thrilling sport you’ve probably never heard of

Posted on 2 March 2019 by Connor Woolley

Welcome to the frozen and thrilling world of ice yacht racing. When wet water simply won’t do. 

Ice yachts were used, for cargo transportation, as early as the 17th century. Adriaen Pietersz’s ‘Der Winter’ painting is one of the earliest recordings.

By the late 1700s, in America, iceboats were being raced. Clubs dedicated to racing emerged by the mid-1800s. 

John A Roosevelt (the former President’s uncle) founded one of the first clubs, the Hudson River Ice Yacht club, in 1869.

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

“I started off sand sailing back in the mid-70s,” said Gareth Rowland, a British ice sailor with over 40 years experience.

“I was always aware of ice sailing. When I first started I decided to convert my sand yachts into iceboats.”

Gareth races a type of ice yacht known as an International DN. It is the most common of around half a dozen classes of ice yacht.

The DN in its name derives from a Detroit Newspaper competition, in 1936, to build the best iceboat on a standard wage. 

These days a DN costs around £2,500 brand new. You can get a second-hand one for under £1,000. It’s even cheaper to make one yourself.

“They all have strict, standard, measurements. They must be 12-foot long, with a 16-foot mast and a 60-square-foot sail”, explained Gareth.

“They use steel ‘runners’ attached to the hull. This allows them to glide along the ice. You can change them and upgrade them yourself. 

“Some of the Russians worked in a tank factory and used pieces of tank armour for their runners.”

Maintenance costs of ice yachts are minimal. There isn’t much general upkeep to do and breakage repairs are infrequent.

“Getting on the ice, particularly as a Brit, is the tricky part. The only ice you get in England is in your gin and tonic,” Gareth joked.

“Before the internet, you would have to drive around Europe looking for ice, you’d have no idea where you were going.

“You can still drive to a championship, thousands of miles away, and not even 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 drove all the way back.

“Time is the most important factor. You don’t know where you are going or how you’ll get there,” he said.

London to Drottningholm Palace, Sweden, is a 21.5 hour drive.

Commitment and time are important factors. You need plenty of both. Another is the weather. You need long periods of cold and dry. 

“Ice, obviously, is important. The quality has a big effect on races. Wind must also be considered. Snow can bring proceedings to a halt,” explained Gareth.

“We had the British Championships eight years ago were we only sailed for a day. We had planned five days but there was no wind on the first four.”

“It snowed suddenly in Hungary once. 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’ it just doesn’t work like that.”

When the racing starts it is well worth the wait. Some ice yachts can reach speeds of over 100 miles per hour.

Ice sailing can be a dangerous sport. Not just because of the speeds involved. Being on the ice comes with its own dangers and set of rules.

Although — according to Gareth — incidents are rare, people should be aware of the dangers before heading onto the ice.

“Rule number is you must never sail alone. There are many dangers on the ice. You could fall through in the middle of a lake.

“When I first started the more experienced guys used to tell me to avoid certain areas, where holes were likely to be and where the ice was thin,” he said.

This advice is characteristic of the camaraderie of ice sailing. It is essential to keeping the sport alive and, importantly, you alive. 

“The social side of iceboat racing is almost as important as the racing itself. You get drawn into the camaraderie of sailing.

“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.

“We often do other social things when there is a non-sailing day. Sometimes we stay for a couple of days after a race and go sightseeing.

“Lake Baikal in the Siberian area of Russia is, for many ice sailors, the holy grail. The place is amazing. It’s a stunning location.”

Beaming with child-like enthusiasm Gareth continued:

“Estonia is my favourite place. You can sail on sea ice and actually lose track of the land. 

“On lakes you know where you are and know which direction you’re going. 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. 

“Just Google ice sailing. You can find out where clubs sail. Get a contact somewhere who can get you into it.

“If you’re brave enough best thing to do is jump on a cheap flight to Sweden or Poland,” said Gareth.

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