Ice Boating: Striking while the water is frozen

Bill Kanz of Orient ice boating on Great Pond in Southold. (Credit: Garret Meade)
Bill Kanz of Orient ice boating on Great Pond in Southold. (Credit: Garret Meade)

Before the invention of the airplane, the fastest moving vehicle on the planet was an ice boat. Ice boats can fly on solidified water. All it takes is a stiff wind, a flat ice surface and an adventurous soul.

Bobby Abel of East Quogue, who has been involved in ice boating for 46 of his 51 years, said it is “like flying on land. There’s nothing like it.”

High-tech ice boats, powered only by wind, are capable of exceeding 100 miles per hour. A 2003 story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Chuck Nevitt set a record as the world’s fastest naturally powered human being during a sail across the black ice of Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin in February of 1947. Nevitt was quoted as saying that stopwatch-holding spectators figured he was doing about 150 miles per hour, maybe even 155.

Doug Hardy of Southold said he has probably reached 55 to 60 miles per hour himself. “The acceleration is unbelievable,” he said. “There’s no friction. … You can go four or five times the speed of the wind.”

And, as fast as a boater is going, he or she undoubtedly feels every bit of that velocity, being out in the open, so close to the ice.

“It’s like going into warp speed,” said Joe Townsend of East Marion.

Partially because of the stories, photos and video of ice boating on the Internet, some ice boaters say their sport is gaining popularity.

Ice boating is believed to have been introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s. It has a long history in Orient that goes back to the 1880s, according to Bob Reeves Jr., commodore of the Orient Ice Yacht Club, which he believes is the largest club of its kind on Long Island with about 120 members. He said there are a dozen or so boats in Orient that are over 100 years old, and races were held in Orient Harbor back in 1905.

Reeves said ice boating has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. He said he was less than a year old when he first rode in one, and recalls seeing a photo of himself when he was about 3 on Hallocks Bay. “It’s been in my blood all my life, I guess,” he said.

Abel was 5 when his father first took him out on an ice boat, and he was hooked from the start. “There was no doubt that I was going to do this until I couldn’t do it any more,” he said.

Frigid, wintry conditions that keep some people huddling indoors for warmth has ice boaters with a need for speed clamoring for clean, thick ice. Mother Nature has been pretty good to them so far this winter. Places like Great Pond in Southold, Swan Pond in Calverton and Long Island’s largest lake, Lake Ronkonkoma, can be good venues for gliding ice boats. Whenever Hallocks Bay freezes, boaters check its suitability for sailing. Modern technology helps, with email alerts and text messages tipping off boaters on sites with good ice.

Because ice boating is at the mercy of the weather, when the conditions are right, boaters have to be ready to strike.

“You have a tendency of having a sick day on really good ice-boat racing days,” said Mike Acebo of East Marion.

Acebo, the owner of Brewer Yacht Yard in Greenport, said he is too busy with customers during the warmer months to do much sailing himself. A member of four ice boating clubs, Acebo races and cruises. Like others, he has traveled to other states to be where the ice is.

“Usually there is ice somewhere,” he said. “It may not be where you live.”

Depending on boat sizes and whether the body of water in question is freshwater or saltwater, the minimum desired ice thickness can vary, but about five inches of ice or more usually means all signs are go.

Smart ice boaters dress warmly in layers, with a warm jacket, gloves, a winter hat and boots to protect them from the elements.

Ice boating has a danger element to it. “There’s been people killed doing this sport,” said Abel, who worked one of the nine Lockley Skimmers on Great Pond’s glassy surface last Thursday.

Reeves said accidents don’t happen often but they do happen.

Many boaters bring along safety gear such as throw lines and ice picks, and because of the danger of falling through ice, it is strongly recommended that a boater never go out on the ice alone.

“You can’t sail alone,” Abel said. “It’s just too dangerous.”

In an emergency, Reeves said, “Ice boaters have to save ice boaters because no one else is going to get there in time.”

The cost of a boat can vary from a few hundred dollars for a used one to tens of thousands of dollars. Townsend bought his boat in 1978, the year Hallocks Bay froze over. “You could walk from Greenport to Orient,” he recalled.

For the next five years, he said, the bay didn’t have any ice. More often than not, the past 10 years have brought ice boaters what they wanted, he said.

“Everybody’s itching to go to Florida, but this is the only thing that gives me pause about traveling south,” Townsend said. “When the weather gets like this, you have such a short time to use it.”

And it’s not necessarily quantity as quality that counts.

Abel said, “You get that one good sailing day a year, that keeps you going for the next two years.”

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