A rush across the ice
As the crew adjusted the sails and steering to pick up more speed, I clutched the side handles, picturing myself flying out of the ice boat as we made turns around Geneva Lake on Sunday afternoon.
After all, a coworker gave me this warning when setting up my assignment: “One caveat ... It’s pretty dangerous, and you could be killed or seriously injured.”
Unfortunately for me, screaming wasn’t allowed as Gazette photographer Dan Lassiter was videotaping our ride.
But I lived to tell about my adventure, thanks to driver Erich Schloemer of Walworth and crew Michael Peters of Oshkosh.
“It’s a great sport,” said Peters, who calmed my fears by lending me his helmet for our ride. “It’s definitely an adrenaline rush. It’s definitely an incredible, natural rush.”
They were among about 75 ice boats that took to the lake Friday through Sunday for the Northwest Ice Yachting Association Regatta, the first of the season. Mother Nature controls when and where the regattas are held, and Geneva Lake is the only place in the United States right now with the right conditions for ice boating, Peters said.
Schloemer and Peters finished with two first places, one second place and one third place. Sorry, no money involved, just a trophy.
While it’s only a hobby for the team, Schloemer and Peters plan to compete next month in Stockholm, Sweden.
“I like the competition, but I also like the thrill and enjoyment of sailing 60 to 100 mph,” Schloemer said. “You’re going as fast as you probably want to go with no engine, no horsepower.”
This weekend’s event drew sailors from around Wisconsin, nearby states and as far away as New Jersey.
“It’s such a small, eclectic group of people that seems to do this crazy sport that we all know each other,” Schloemer said.
So what made for the desired conditions on Geneva Lake?
You won’t find snow plows or Zambonies cleaning off the ice—Mother Nature does it all.
Most lakes are buried in snow, as was Geneva Lake a few weeks ago. But the right mix of rain to melt the snow and then freezing temperatures left about six inches of “snow ice,” which is relatively soft. Below that is about eight to 10 inches of hard, black ice.
Sailing in Schloemer’s boat, built around the 1920s and since upgraded, the blades glide smoothly across the clear ice, but the ride turns slightly bumpy over patches of snow and crusted ice.
“It’s sailable, but it’s not perfect,” he said.
The boats have “very little” power when they’re not moving and require a push or running start.
“It’s just like soft water sailing, except that we have less friction so we go faster,” said Schloemer, who also sails in summer. “The sensation is different, and it’s a little more seat-of-the-pants.”
The boats go an estimated four to seven times the speed of the wind. My begging for a “slow” ride keeps us under 40 mph.
Everyone always asks Schloemer how he can go faster than the wind.
“We’re not being pushed by the wind. These are basically vertical air foils,” he said pointing to his sails that stretch 41 feet high. “We’re flying through the wind … the faster we go, the more air there is flowing over the sail, the more power it has, the faster we go. And it’s a vicious circle.”
Changing the attack and shape of the air foils affects the boat’s speed and direction, along with the driver steering the back rudder.
An ice boat race is unlike car racing—there’s no track, only two orange flags to mark each end of the course. And don’t expect a big scoring booth.
Instead, look for the vehicle with the license plate holder that says “I’d rather be ice boating.” Inside sit Mary Jane Schalk and other racers’ wives who keep tallies as each boat completes a lap.
The boats sail four laps around the 2-mile course, then Schalk moves her vehicle in line with the orange flag so that each boat drives between her vehicle and the marker to finish.
“You always hope they don’t hit you,” she only half-jokes.
While Schalk takes rides with her husband, Steve, being around the sport is more about the friendships that form.
“It is like one big family,” she said. “(You) kind of get to see all your old friends again. Everybody is very, very serious and competitive out racing, then you get back in the pits, and it’s a fun time.”
And that’s just what I had, despite my initial fears. Just don’t expect to see me in an ice boat going 100 mph.