Sailing World - - First - BY PETER McGOWAN


Ilook to my left and then to my right and think, I can out­run th­ese guys. I’m rock­ing the boat, carv­ing chan­nels in the ice so my run­ners don’t stick. One hand is on the tiller, and the other is clench­ing the limp wire shroud. The stay flexes as I rhyth­mi­cally push and pull the boat, build­ing up po­ten­tial en­ergy, like draw­ing a bow. When the race starts, I want to be on the back stroke so I can cat­a­pult it for­ward and sprint away from the line.

When I go, I’ll be run­ning full tilt, steer­ing as I sprint like a 50-yard­dash ma­niac. I can cheat the boat into the wind to climb high on the guy to lee­ward of me be­fore jump­ing in the boat and bear­ing off for speed. Other DN sailors tell me it’s bet­ter to im­me­di­ately bear down to get it go­ing and reach­ing over the guy be­neath me, build­ing speed while do­ing so.

I wouldn’t know ei­ther way, be­cause it’s my first DN ice­boat start, my first race and re­ally only my fifth time sail­ing my DN. Bolted to US 8 is a set of used run­ners I bought hours be­fore the re­gatta, and frankly, I have no idea what I’m do­ing out here on the ice. But I’ve al­ways been a fast run­ner, and the week be­fore, at the gym, I did sprints to con­di­tion my legs and make sure I don’t pull a ham­string.

The start­ing line is a ny­lon-web­bing strap pulled taut to the ice. Half the fleet faces the wind on port tack, the other half on star­board. The lee­ward run­ner has to be close to the web­bing. Every­one has a start­ing place based on rank, marked with lit­tle metal medal­lions on the web­bing. High rank­ings and pre­vi­ous fin­ish or­ders de­ter­mine your place­ment. Even num­bers start on star­board tack, odd on port, with lower num­bers start­ing in the mid­dle. On ac­count of my reg­is­ter­ing late, I’m pretty far to the out­side, low 30s, with only two boats out­side of me.

As I inch my right run­ner to the web­bing, day­light is fad­ing and I’m amped. Some­one on a mega­phone asks, “Rac­ers on the right, ready?” and then “Rac­ers on the left, ready?”

I’m un­cer­tain how the whole start thing goes, but I’m rock­ing my boat and ready, chan­nel­ing my in­ner Usain Bolt. While I wait for a clue that sig­nals a start, I’m con­fi­dent, think­ing, I have a de­cent chance for a good fin­ish. With any luck, maybe I can qual­ify for the gold fleet. How hard can it be? I have no idea. All I know is I’m just go­ing to start when the guy next to me moves. I got to the re­gatta late. I’m tired from my solo drive half­way across the coun­try and through the night. I haven’t had a healthy meal in days. I didn’t even have time to read the sail­ing in­struc­tions, but I know the course is wind­ward/lee­ward. How many times? I have no idea.

When the racer to wind­ward of me lunges for­ward, I push and run, head down, like an Olympic bob­sled­der. The javelin-throw­ing cleats I bought on ebay bite into the ice, and I sprint un­til I find my­self hav­ing to hold the boat down by the shroud as the boat ac­cel­er­ates and the wind­ward run­ner starts to sky. I step one foot on and con­tinue to push with the other, as though I’m kick­ing a scooter down the road.

I clum­sily drop into the cock­pit, set­tle in and get low. My heart is rac­ing, and I’m think­ing,

Don’t sheet in; don’t choke the sail. The boom is trimmed onto my right shoul­der, pin­ning me in the cock­pit.

The guy next to me is rolling. Maybe I should pull more sheet on. Maybe I should bear away. I search for an an­swer while the boat rat­tles across the ice, run­ners hit­ting bumps and im­per­fec­tions in the ice. The boat res­onates like some sort of large, hol­low mu­si­cal in­stru­ment. I’m in the mo­ment, in the zone, in the noise, star­ing at the tell­tales. I don’t want to stall the sail, but I’m not sure how its shape is re­ally sup­posed to look. There are no other boats to be con­cerned about hit­ting, so I focus on my speed un­til I’m near the lay­line. Boats nearby start to tack. I ques­tion my tac­tics. Should I go too? Tacks are costly, I think. I’m try­ing to go fast, to set­tle my nerves. I don’t need to out­think any­one. I just need to keep the thing mov­ing. There are no waves, no vis­i­ble puffs on the wa­ter to gauge what the wind is do­ing. All I have are those seven tell­tales to rely on as I steer around snow piles, avoid­ing them like Bos­ton pot­holes.

I can’t wait any­more. There’s only one boat out­side of me. It’s time to tack. I slide for­ward in the cock­pit, push the tiller slowly and ease the main­sheet so I can get my head un­der­neath the boom. It still bangs against my hel­met.

The turn seems like an eter­nity, but the sail comes across and I trim it again. Not the best tack, but I don’t get stuck in irons. Now I’m on the lay­line and pos­si­bly over­stood. With­out any traf­fic, I make it safely around the mark, com­plete the re­main­ing laps and fin­ish 29th of 42. Hey, it’s not last place, but it’s my first taste of DN rac­ing.

Plus, I didn’t hit any­one, and that was it for the day. No gold fleet for me. I’m solid sil­ver, and I’m cool with it.

As twi­light ar­rives, I kick and glide 2 miles back to shore, where a friend from New Eng­land sug­gests I tie my boat to his for the night. I didn’t bring an ice screw be­cause I didn’t know I needed one to keep my boat from be­ing blown to the other side of the lake. Sleep comes easy. I’m ex­hausted and in­tent on get­ting to the ice early.

The Charlevoix, Michi­gan, air is frigid under a hazy cloud cover when I ar­rive to rig. The place is bustling with rac­ers swap­ping sails and run­ners, and race-com­mit­tee types fir­ing up their four-wheel­ers. The fore­cast is for stronger winds, so now I’m ap­pre­hen­sive be­cause my sail is de­signed for lighter con­di­tions. I’ll be over­pow­ered and slow, but it’s the only sail I have. I also re­al­ize I’m over­think­ing ev­ery­thing.

When I get to the start­ing area 2 miles down­wind, the wind is at least 10 knots in the gusts. It’s hard to tell be­cause win­ter wind is denser, but I can feel its weight against my face. The ice plate groans like a dis­tant jumbo jet, an eerie sound caused by rac­ers prac­tic­ing. I’m ex­cited to race, and when my time comes, I find my lit­tle medal­lion on the web­bing. To my right is Chris, who I know from Nan­tucket, Mas­sachusetts. He’s been rac­ing DNS for a few years and still rel­a­tively new to it.

I know how the start­ing sys­tem works now, and again, I’m think­ing my run­ning abil­ity will give me a head start into clean air. I slide the boat back and forth, start on time, put the bow down and get it fly­ing as soon as pos­si­ble. As I run, my cleats slap the ice. I try to load the rig, and focus on hav­ing a smoother en­try into the cock­pit. Once I’m in, I take a quick look around. I’m in a good po­si­tion, par­al­lel­ing and keep­ing pace with Chris.

It’s windier today, so I know I can two-block it, flat­ten­ing the sail. I’m try­ing to keep all the tell­tales stream­ing. Chris squirts out and is sud­denly 50 yards ahead, faster and higher. In the mo­ment, I find my­self ques­tion­ing ev­ery­thing again: What am I do­ing wrong?

When I start feel­ing a lit­tle lonely out on the lay­line, I tack, and this is where it gets re­ally sketchy. The puffs in this corner of the course are com­ing hard and fast. The first big puff hits im­me­di­ately af­ter my tack, and the wind­ward run­ner lifts high into the air. It feels as if I’m get­ting bucked off a horse. I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced it be­fore, let alone in the mid­dle of a North Amer­i­can cham­pi­onship race. I ease a foot of sheet and the run­ner vi­o­lently smacks the ice when I land. Not fast on any kind of boat. I’m back down and go­ing again, happy not to have wet my pants, which I’d been warned is not un­com­mon in DN sail­ing.

I re­gain my com­po­sure but re­al­ize I’m now high of the mark, do­ing what feels like 40 knots. A boat in front of me tacks, gets wal­loped by a gust, spins 180 de­grees and wipes out. I think, This is get­ting crazy. There’s an­other one ap­proach­ing on port tack. I’m on star­board, but I don’t know what to do about him. Ca­reen­ing into the mark, I’m ner­vous. I have other is­sues, and it’s all snow­balling. He’s out of con­trol, I’m out of con­trol, and all I’m think­ing is, I hope he tacks.

He does tack, and in a heart­beat, his rig buck­les. I’m high of the lay­line and com­ing into the mark fast, faster than I’ve ever sailed. In the chaos I see a group of race-com­mit­tee peo­ple and ob­servers sit­ting just above the mark with their four-wheel­ers. If I have to put my bow down and ease my sheet to get around the mark I’m go­ing to have prob­lems. Los­ing con­trol and spin­ning out come to mind. The gap be­tween them and the mark looks too small. If I turn and sud­denly have no way out, I’ll surely plow into the race com­mit­tee. Back and forth in mind is a rapid vol­ley of at­tempted logic: How do I turn? Shoot, what do I do? How do I get out of this alive? Do I stay on the course or bail?

Screw it. I stuff the boat into the wind, sail off the course and shoot above the race com­mit­tee. I calm my nerves be­fore turn­ing back down­wind and onto the course the long way.

Be­fore the next race, Steve Mad­den, an­other New Eng­land fleet guy, who went on to win the sil­ver fleet, ex­plains to me that I need to lean out of the boat and hike it flat to make the turn. When the op­por­tu­nity ar­rives in the fol­low­ing race, it’s the same, with the race com­mit­tee and ob­servers and a seem­ingly small gap, but now there are other boats around as well. It’s like go­ing into a corner in NASCAR. It may not look pretty or aero­dy­namic, but I’m hang­ing half­way out of the cock­pit. I have to pinch to make the mark, which means I’m slow, with less ap­par­ent wind. Boats zip past me as if I’m on the side of a high­way, pass­ing 18-wheel­ers spray­ing me with slush. Still, I make it around, learn­ing how to tame this thing one day and one race at a time. I can’t wait to sail and race again, but sadly, spring is here. I ask my­self, “What’s the equiv­a­lent of frost­bit­ing for an ice­boater?” Q


The dy­nam­ics of hard-wa­ter sail­ing are unique for a long­time soft-wa­ter sailor, but hik­ing still mat­ters.

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