Iceboating on the Upper Mississippi River

Lake Pepin is a hot spot for the oldest and coldest extreme sport on the Mississippi

Big River is an independent magazine about the people, places, life and events on the Upper Mississippi River.

"In the winter, when I'm not out iceboating, I'm working on the boats, and when I'm not working on the boats, I'm talking about it." - Ed Newcomb

Flying Low, Flying Fast Over the Ice

Ice Boating on the Upper Mississippi

From Big River Magazine
January-February 2007

By Pamela Eyden

Winter sports enthusiasts usually avoid those open spaces where the icy wind sweeps across miles of frozen river. Except iceboaters. They go out looking for it.

Iceboaters harness the wind to push boats that are mounted on skate-like runners. All they need is a good wind and good ice. Good ice is at least four inches thick, covered by less than four inches of snow, and free of holes, heaves, fissures and pressure ridges. When they find good ice, they'll converge on the site at the speed of the internet.

"Iceboating is about the most fun you can have in the winter!" said Sig Anderson of Lake City, Minn. Lake Pepin is one of the country's well-known sites. Last year, the National Regatta was held on the lake.

These cross-shaped rigs glide across the ice on three steel runners. They move much faster than sailboats - 60 mph is common, 120 mph is possible.

There are two basic types. The older, bigger, stern-steering boats have one runner in the back connected directly to a tiller, and two runners extending out to the sides like outriggers. They generally hold two to four people and are powered by two sails. The newer, more stable DN style has the two outrigger-like runners extending out to the sides, with a third at the bow of the boat. DNs carry just one person and have a single sail. They are lighter, easier to move and assemble and are more responsive than the stern-steerers. The DN got its name by winning a design contest sponsored by the Detroit News in 1937.

In his 11-foot DN, Anderson stretches out feet first and steers with a tiller between his knees. All it takes is half an inch of knee movement to control the tiller, which is connected to the front runner. He keeps one hand on the line that controls the boat's 75 square feet of sail. That isn't much sail, he said, compared with a sailboat, but it's plenty. Iceboats whip along at as much as five times the speed of the wind.

As with ice skates, the pressure of the stainless steel blades on the ice creates a thin layer of water. The iceboat actually glides on this water.

"After you push the iceboat five or ten steps to free it from drag, you jump in and sheet the sail down. The boat jumps. You go from five miles per hour to 30 miles per hour instantly!" Anderson said. He's clocked his boat going six miles in six minutes, or 60 mph.

It's easy to stop. You just turn up into the wind, as you would in sailing a boat on liquid water.

For protection, Anderson dons layers of winter insulation, coveralls, insulated boots, nice thick gloves and a snowmobile helmet with a full face mask. Still, he says, "It's the adrenaline that keeps you warm."

Lake City Ice Yacht Club

Anderson is one of the last people in Lake City to continue this traditional river sport, although many people in town still own old boats and remember when they used them.

Iceboating has a long history on Lake Pepin. In fact, it's one of the oldest sports on the river. In the 1880s farmers built big stern-steering iceboats that carried 10 or 12 people. Some of the crew rode in the boat; others stood on the side runners to give the boat weight and prevent it from lifting off the ice and tipping over.

"They'd race from one end of the lake to the other. They'd even race the trains!" said Anderson.

Some of the original stern-steering boats, or at least parts of these old boats, are still sailing the windy lake. When the Lake City Ice Yacht Club burned down around 1900, the wooden boats burned leaving only their steel runners. They were salvaged and used to build other boats.

Love of the Sport

Pepin, Wis., just across the river from Lake City, is a hotbed of iceboating. The 25 or so members of the Lake Pepin Ice Yacht Club own 14 boats, ranging from kids' boats to small DNs and larger, older stern-steering boats. They meet at the Pickle Factory Bar and Grill on the waterfront. Their biggest boat is the Rum Runner, an antique 33.5-foot long by 18-foot wide boat that carries four people. Club members restored it 10 years ago, and they sail it every year.

"It's not terribly fast, but it will go 50 or 60 mph," said Ed Newcomb of Menomonie, Wis. Newcomb started iceboating when he was ten years old, on a DN his father built for him. That was 46 years ago, and he still sails the same boat.

"In the winter, when I'm not out iceboating, I'm working on the boats, and when I'm not working on the boats, I'm talking about it," he joked. "I'd say the ratio is 70 percent talk, 20 percent work and 10 percent actual iceboating time."

Iceboaters love the thrill of speed, but they also like the technical details of sailing, and making and fixing the boats. Iceboats are all home-made, except those made for national and international racing. They are bought, sold and upgraded frequently via the internet. Hobby DNs cost from $600 to $1,500, with the stainless steel runners accounting for most of the cost.

Knowing the Ice

Repair is part of the game. Holes hidden under the snow can snag a runner; fierce gusts of wind can lift the boat off the ice and tip it over; cables can fail.

"When you hit something solid at speed, it's pretty common that something on the iceboat will break and the whole mess comes to a sliding stop," said Geoff Sobering, a Madison, Wis., iceboater who also sails on the Mississippi. "Injuries are remarkably uncommon, given the speed and proximity in a race."

One rule of iceboating is to wear a good helmet. Another is to always watch for other iceboaters on the ice.

"Two friends of mine had a nearly head-on collision on Lake Pepin last year," said Sobering. "Both their boats were pretty much destroyed. One fellow sprained his ankles and the other was unhurt, but they had to walk the two miles back to the landing."

The most important safety precaution is to know the ice in the area or sail with someone who does.

"You have to be watchful for cracks, pressure ridges and other local conditions, like places where the water comes up over the surface," Anderson explained. "For example, on the downstream side of points that stick out into the current, there are fluid formations called Ōgyres.' The water is warmer and moves at higher velocity. It makes for thinner ice." Anderson, an engineer by profession, said he always carries ice picks with him, just in case he has to haul himself out of the water.

Since the speed of the boat depends on both wind and good ice, some years, iceboaters only get a few good days. In Ed Newcomb's memory, iceboaters got their fill of the sport only once.

"Four years ago, we were out there from about Thanksgiving to mid-March," Newcomb said. "We iceboated so much we got sick of it."

When the ice isn't good, some iceboaters pack up and travel to lakes in Wisconsin, northern Minnesota, Michigan and farther. For races, they think nothing of driving 1,000 miles to find good ice.

Last year about 80 iceboaters from the United States, Canada and Europe gathered on Lake Pepin for the North American Championship Regatta for the International DN Iceboat Association. The race had been scheduled for Montreal, Canada, but conditions there deteriorated, so two days before the race it was relocated to Lake Winnebago in central Wisconsin. After two days of drizzle and melting ice, they moved again, to Lake Pepin.

The annual World Championship ( "Gold Cup") alternates between North America and Europe, and usually draws from 130 to 150 sailors. This year (2007) it is scheduled for February 18 to 20, with the location to be determined by ice conditions.

Pamela Eyden is news and photo editor for Big River.

Copyright 2007 Open River Press