Friday, December 13, 2013


"Two inches will hold the weight of a person,
four inches will hold the weight of a car"
He said, naming off some of the things about ice thickness that are basic information, that any Minnesotan knows.

Twin Cities native John Kerschbaum is a guy I've known for probably ten years now.  I've rowed with him on expedition, in competition, and here in Newport during his annual visit for Valentine's Day.  John is like a brother to me, we've heard each other's stories many times, but now and then he'll surprise me with something new - like iceboating.
John comes out to California each winter to row, because as you might have guessed, his gondolas aren't available for cruises in February. 
The St. Croix River freezes in winter.

John wrote me the other day, telling me that his gondolas were out of the water for the season.  he sent me a few photos of the boats, the property and this strange craft called an "Iceboat".

I had to call him on the phone. There were just too many questions.

He'd just gone out on one for the first time and was still riding the adrenaline wave as he told me about it.
I'd heard of iceboats, but mostly I'd heard of their land-sailing cousins that folks sail in the desert and on salt flats.  Those vehicles travel on wheels, the thing John went sailing on was moving across the ice on steel blades.

"Different lakes and rivers freeze at different times and to different thicknesses.
The best scenario is when a lake freezes before the snows come, because once the snow falls on the ice, you can't skate on it."
John went on to describe things to me on the phone.  We'd talked for years about things relating to water, but never about frozen water.
"Sometimes we go out skating with our life jackets on, wear spikes around our necks in case we fall through - we can use the spikes to climb out."

"You learn to read the cracks and look for bubbles under the ice"

"Usually you skate with friends, sometimes we skate with rope so we'll have something to haul someone out with".
My obvious next question: have you ever fallen through?
"I've never fallen through, but you always have to be ready"

"When you see ice fishermen, you know it's safe,
you can ask them how thick it is."

Like us crazy gondoliers, there's a whole culture of these iceboaters; they sail for fun, and compete too - it's called "ice yachting". 

Before you laugh, consider the physics.

A sailboat has to plow through the water, a iceboat has almost no resistance.
With a skilled operator, an iceboat like the one John rode on can exceed 50 MPH in 10-12 mile per hour winds.
Other types have been clocked at over 100 MPH...that's enough to drag adrenaline junkies out into the cold windy winter conditions.

When I first rowed with John Kerschbaum, it was on an expedition down the Hudson River.  At one overnight stopping point, John camped by the gondola and visited a maritime museum where he learned about some of the river travel of the past. He said that in the 1800's, river boat captains built iceboats because they got bored in winter.
Originally iceboats were actual boats that had been modified to travel on blades, and some on skis as well.

 One sweet ride.

Today's iceboats are built according to certain criteria so they can fit into different sailing classes.  The boat John went on was in the International DN Class - as is evident by the markings on the sail.
DN stands for Detroit News. In 1937 the Detroit News (newspaper) held a design contest and the winning design looked something like the boat in the photo.  
Over sixty years later the International DN Class is one of the largest and most popular classes, with competitors in North America and Europe.
John told me that the iceboating is so great in his area, that he knows of a guy in Germany who keeps an iceboat in Minnesota and travels there each year just to sail across the ice.

Iceboating, just one more thing I have to try before I die.

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