Faces in the Crowd

'Obscure sport' unites aficionados from many countries

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Mar 27, 2014
Photo by: Bill Buchholz Ice boats prepare to race in Ostersund, Sweden. The boat sailed by Camden resident Bill Buchholz is third from the right.

Camden — For some people in Maine, not only does sailing season never end, winter is the best part of it.

Bill Buchholz is one of those people. From March 8 through 14, he was in Ostersund, Sweden, about 500 kilometers (300 miles) north of Stockholm, competing in an international ice boat racing event. He also belongs to the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club, which sails and occasionally races on local lakes and ponds. Information about the club, as well as the blog Buchholz kept about his Swedish adventure, is available on its website, iceboat.me.

Ice boats began in the Netherlands as winter transportation for freight and people, Buchholz said. The Dutch brought them to America when they settled in the Hudson Valley of New York, where the sport is still popular, he said. Early ice boats were steered from the rear, or stern, and some boats used in racing, especially in Europe, still are, he explained.

However, most of the racing ice boats in the United States are now steered from the front, or bow. One of those is Buchholz's Whizzard, a Whizz-class ice boat he built from a 1950s design published in Popular Mechanics. The body of the boat is plywood, the material usually used for ice boats, covered with a veneer of Makore – African cherry. It has a carbon fiber mast.

The boats have three runners, one on either side in the front, and one in the back, and can go very fast – up to 60 miles an hour or more. To start, the sailor stands next to the cockpit and pushes the boat while running across the ice. They are steered by controlling the runners with either a steering wheel, foot controls or both, and the speed is mostly controlled by tightening or loosening the sheet, or rope, attached to the sail. Since it is not unusual to be thrown out of your boat, ice boaters wear helmets.

“Any sport you go fast in, you're going to get hurt,” Buchholz said.

Because ice boating is, “a pretty obscure sport,” most sailors build their own craft, though there are a few available commercially, he said. In a way, it was Buchholz's interest in building boats that led to his invitation to compete in the Swedish event. As the owner of Apache Boatworks, he builds and repairs “soft water” sailboats – the conventional kind. A few years ago, he saw a notice inviting racers to the World and European Ice Boat Championship in Sweden. He applied, but was told the field was full.

He decided to build his own Monotype 15, the 24-foot, two-man, stern-steered ice boat very common in Europe that is used in the race in Sweden. The organizers of the Swedish race kept in touch, following his progress with the boat he named Fast Piece of Furniture, from the 1920s slang for a loose woman. That boat has been on exhibit since October at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, and will remain there until June.

After he finished the Monotype 15, he published an article about it in Wooden Boat magazine. Buchholz was subsequently invited to compete in this year's race in Ostersund. The organizers procured him a sponsor, the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which provided a boat and a crew member named Dmitri to handle the sail. Since the crewman was Russian, nonverbal communication became the order of the day, as he describes in his blog entry from the second day.

“Today we explored the lake in a fresh breeze, and I learned how to communicate with my sheet trimmer: thumbs up, thumbs down, turn signals and head nods and shakes. It appears to translate very well into Russian.”

By the third day, all the competitors had arrived – teams from the Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Poland and Russia. But after a practice run, the wind prevented any more racing that day, Buchholz said.

The next day was better, with just enough wind to race. Buchholz and Dmitri came in sixth in a field of 23. His blog entry recording the fact makes clear his excitement.

He mentions meeting the Polish team captain, who came in fourth, “He managed a fourth in yesterday’s World Championship, edging out team CIBC at sixth place. (I’m burying this incredible statistic deep in the text not wanting it to go to my head, but believe me, that’s exactly where it’s gone: WOW!!!)”

Between wind that was either too strong or not strong enough and soft ice, there was less time for racing than participants might have liked. But as Buchholz acknowledges in his blog, “We all know that the big elephant in the room of iceboating is that we like everything associated with the actual sailing and racing: building, repairing, scouting, connecting, traveling, and then, finally, maybe: sailing. … So we socialized, old sailing buddies became re-acquainted and talked old times, secrets were shared, and new contacts were made. ...”

And next year, he is invited to race in Poland.

While the Chickawaukie club sometimes holds a race, called a regatta, Buchholz said a lot of time is spent finding ice that is clear of snow and thick enough to sail on. As it warms, the structure of ice changes from horizontal to vertical, so that the grain becomes like a bunch of pencils held together in a rubber band. If it is thick enough, even this “pencil ice” will support an ice boat, but it is not ideal, he said. So when good ice is found, mostly club members just enjoy sailing on it. However, it is racing that hones a sailor's skills.

“You learn to sail an ice boat well if you're racing,” Buchholz said.

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