SLED HEADS

TH­ESE SAILORS TAKE THEIR COM­PE­TI­TION DEEP INTO THE OFF SEA­SON, WHERE BLADES OF STEEL, CUS­TOM DECK SANDWIND SURF­ING RIGS ARE ALL THE EQUIP­MENT THEY NEED.

Sailing World - - Sled - BY DAVE REED

Ed Sch­nei­der is a lifer in Tay­cheedah, Wis­con­sin. His play­ground is Lake Win­nebago, and not only during the sum­mer when the lake is nice and soft and the wind cranks at the bot­tom of the lake. Today, he co-owns an amuse­ment park and a wa­ter park, but those be­ing sea­sonal, he gets his win­ters off. There’s no hi­ber­nat­ing or snow­bird­ing for this guy, though. In the heart of win­ter, Sch­nei­der’s happy place is on the ice, or more pre­cisely, on a wind-pow­ered craft, hurl­ing him­self across the ice.

We’re not talk­ing about ice­boats, ei­ther. Sch­nei­der prefers sleds pulled along by wind­surf­ing sails, kites and hand­held wings. Hours on frozen Win­nebago is how he hones his skills and equip­ment for a lit­tle-known pas­time called short- track sail­ing. That’s STS in the sub­cul­ture of win­ter wind sports.

There’s noth­ing else like it, he says. “Jet- fighter speed stuff, re­ally fast. It’s about be­ing in the zone, in 3D warp drive.”

Sch­nei­der hasn’t been short-track sail­ing long — 10 years or so — but its roots me­an­der to North­ern Europe long ago, where even the king of Swe­den once glided across the ice with his own con­trap­tion, which is still in use today. The mod­ern com­pe­ti­tion is con­tested on a rink about 120 me­ters in di­am­e­ter, and like other forms of sail­boat rac­ing, there’s a start­ing line and a se­ries of cones to round in a fig­ure-eight reach-tore­ach con­fig­u­ra­tion with hair­pin turns. Five rac­ers are on the course at once, and first to fin­ish wins the race. A race is rarely longer than a minute. “As soon as the start flag drops, the hair on the back of my neck is stand­ing up,” says Sch­nei­der.

For a short-track start, rac­ers line shoul­der to shoul­der, strad­dling hand­crafted boards, or sleds, ap­prox­i­mately 5 feet long and 20 inches wide. Be­neath each sled are long stain­less-steel blades mounted on cus­tom axles or trucks with beefy rub­ber bush­ings.

At the 2018 World Ice and Snow Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion Cham­pi­onship in Lahti, Fin­land, Sch­nei­der holds firm a stan­dard­is­sue wind­surf­ing boom. He’s in full bat­tle gear: ther­mals, lightweight BMX body ar­mor and a wind­proof layer to block the sub­freez­ing chill, a snow­board hel­met and what­ever gloves will keep his hands warm be­tween races.

“The young punks out there go with only kneepads,” he says. “But I’ve taken enough cracks to ap­pre­ci­ate the ar­mor.”

A cold po­lar wind blows per­pen­dic­u­lar to the di­rec­tion of the first leg, a 60-meter reach to the first cone. The ideal wind range for ice sail­ing is 15 to 20 knots. “Below 10, there’s more pump­ing,” says Sch­nei­der. “And when it gets to 20 or more, now we’re talk­ing.”

Stand­ing be­fore him is a race of­fi­cial, start­ing flag in hand, poised high above his head. Sch­nei­der’s eyes lock on to the blue mark screwed into the ice. His legs re­coil into a sprinter’s pose. His arms pull and push the boom, rock­ing the My­lar sail back over

his shoul­der. Gusts tug at the sail.

The flag drops. Sch­nei­der sprints three steps, mounts his board and vi­o­lently pumps the sail. The stronger he pumps and the harder he leans into the power of the sail, the quicker he can sep­a­rate from the pack. He wants to be first around that noo­dle, com­ing in high so he can arc a sharp, smooth tran­si­tion onto the sec­ond leg.

Crouched in the mid­dle of his board, his quads burn­ing, he rakes his sail back, now ca­reen­ing full tilt into the turn. He gives his sail a stern pump and then grace­fully lays it hor­i­zon­tal to the ice, push­ing down against the wind with his for­ward arm and lift­ing up on the boom with his rear arm un­til the sail is flat to the wind.

He bends his knees and carves through the turn, press­ing into the bush­ings, blades melt­ing the ice into cre­vice wakes. Once past the noo­dle, he flips the sail from his left hand for­ward, shoves it around, shifts his feet and re­po­si­tions his body for a fast exit onto the new jibe.

“The best tech­nique is to flip the sail with­out ever back­wind­ing it,” says Sch­nei­der. “You want zero speed loss. Short-track rac­ing is all about the turns.”

Once through the first turn, it’s a jibe-for­jibe, tack- to- tack zigzag­ging course with six or more mark round­ings be­fore the fin­ish. While there’s usu­ally space be­tween com­peti­tors af­ter the first mark, traf­fic man­age­ment and aware­ness are es­sen­tial. There can be con­tact, and in the blur of a race, it’s easy to lose track and miss a mark.

It’s also pos­si­ble to take out a com­peti­tor if, and even­tu­ally, when, you wipe out and slide across the ice like a curl­ing stone. Take some­one down with you and you’re dis­qual­i­fied.

First to fin­ish ad­vances to the next top heat, last place gets bumped down and so on un­til the re­gatta’s com­plete. The stan­dard STS course is the fig­ure- eight, but there is also a for­mat for down­wind slalom: “Five marks you zig through like ski­ing — left, right, left, right. No mat­ter the course, the races are in­tense,” says Sch­nei­der.

With the ex­cep­tion of sails and spars, the boards, trucks and blades are any­thing but stan­dard or one-de­sign.

When Sch­nei­der first started wind­surf­ing on ice, the best board avail­able was a Fiberspar Freeskate. “It was 5 feet long, the deck about a foot wide, and fiber­glass. It was durable, had good flex and used the big­gest skate­board trucks you could find,” he says. “The blades were 2 inches high and

12 inches long, and the thing was su­per fun and su­per fast.”

Fiberspar stopped mak­ing sleds, so Sch­nei­der and a few friends re­pro­duced the mold and laid up about 15 of their own. Then, along came the Hiberna from Latvia. “Like a Fer­rari to the Chevette,” says Sch­nei­der. “It was far bet­ter qual­ity and a much smoother board with good-size trucks and blades. When I stepped on this ma­chine I felt much more con­fi­dent at 30 knots.”

Com­peti­tors from North­ern Europe and the Baltic re­gion have since come up with de­signs of equal qual­ity and speed, and some very high-tech. A good mod­ern sled can be lam­i­nate, wood, cored, all car­bon, fiber­glass or com­pos­ite, and cost $800 to $ 1,500. For $ 2,000, says Sch­nei­der, you can fetch an ex­cep­tional board. The real beauty of the equip­ment el­e­ment of the sport, he says, is that every­one claims to have the fastest board, but no­body does, so the arms race wages on.

Trucks and blades, too, are a mat­ter of pref­er­ence, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and en­gi­neer­ing gump­tion. There’s a whole science to the blades, says Sch­nei­der. North­ern Euro­peans know their ice in­ti­mately and keep their blades ra­zor sharp, ob­sess­ing over them be­fore and be­tween races. An on- ice pit row will have all the tools, the stones and even the belt san­der re­quired to hone the stain­less-steel blades.

Sch­nei­der’s been ice sail­ing long enough to know when his blades are dull. “They’ll talk to you,” he says. “Es­pe­cially right be­fore they lose their bite and send you slid­ing on your back­side through the turn.”

Sail choice is a mat­ter of how much wind power the sailor thinks he or she can rea­son­ably har­ness, and how eas­ily they want to flip it during ma­neu­vers. When sail­ing on pure ice, re­sis­tance is min­i­mal, so a big sail is overkill, says Sch­nei­der. “To re­ally learn how to wind­surf, it’s bet­ter to start on the ice than in the wa­ter. Take out part of the equa­tion that has the wa­ter and drift­ing — you’ll learn more in one hour on the ice than you would on the wa­ter. As soon as you lean into the sail, it’s pure and un­in­ter­rupted. It’s off-the-charts fun.”

Ed­i­tor’s note: Sch­nei­der and his ice brethren will host and com­pete in the 2019 WISSA World Cham­pi­onships in Fond du Lac, Wis­con­sin, in Fe­bru­ary, an in­ter­na­tional gath­er­ing of ice sailors and ice kiters on open and short-track courses.

TUUKKA LUUKKO­NEN

Ed Sch­nei­der, a grand­mas­ter, was an early adopter of win­ter sail­board­ing. He keeps his skills sharp in the sum­mer by kit­ing and wind­surf­ing in Wis­con­sin. PHOTO :

TUUKKA LUUKKO­NEN

With a dizzy­ing ar­ray of turns, the crit­i­cal skill in slalom rac­ing is get­ting around the marks. The goal is a smooth and arc­ing jibe, com­pleted with­out stalling the sail. PHOTO :

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