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Ludicrous speed on hard water

2019 February 1

For hardy sailors, the racing season really gets going—and going fast—when freezing temperatures create the perfect iceboating conditions

DN sailors gather at the starting line on Minnesota’s Battle Lake in early December.
J.H. Peterson photo


An epic Minnesota challenge

At the end of last year, iceboaters gathered at Battle Lake in northwest Minnesota for the DN Western Challenge and the ISA Regatta in early December. SAILING Magazine contributing photographer J. H. Peterson was on hand to capture the action.

The “Great Western Challenge” was especially epic this time around, according to Wayzata, Minnesota-based DN racer and ice scout Mike Miller. For almost 25 years, John “JD” Dennis has hosted this annual preseason fun regatta for DN racers. This event is never postponed or canceled, so it’s up to scouts like Miller to find the best ice in Minnesota for the weekend after Thanksgiving, which means the regatta’s location might not be announced until just three or four days prior to the event.

No matter, 58 sailors found Battle Lake for three days of medium air, a huge sheet of mostly smooth ice and more scrub races than their necks could handle. No registration fees, no trophies—just great racing on fresh Minnesota ice.

Sailors from four European countries as well as those from Canada and the States made the trek. Participants with the longest drives hailed from Nova Scotia and Florida.

“Ask anybody what made this year’s challenge so special, and they all will say Saturday,” Miller reported. “Without a doubt, Saturday was the day everyone will be talking about for years to come.”

On that day, the two fleets each sailed five adrenaline-filled races, each with a very long course on a huge sheet of very fast ice. Most of the day, the wind blew 18 to 22 miles per hour.

“Word on the ice was that the Gold Fleet raced in sustained winds of 21 miles per hour with gusts to 26,” Miller said. “Upwind and downwind, the boats were just flying. Necks were snapped back at the weather mark, and runner sharpness was measured at the leeward mark. Across the course, boat-handling skills were tested.”

Surprisingly, for all the wind, there was very little damage. At the end of Saturday, 13-time North American Champion Ron Sherry held a slight lead over Hungary’s Peter Hamrak and Minnetonka’s John Dennis. In the Silver Fleet, former Western Region Commodore Mike Miller was at the top of the score sheet, followed by Chris Gordon and then Richard Gordon.

The wind piped up on Sunday, and forecasts indicated that it would build throughout the day. Most sailors chose to enjoy the shelter of the pits; less than a dozen boats even dared to venture out to the course.

“It was so windy that Mike Bloom made it out to the course without raising a sail,” Miller recalled. “He loaded all his gear in the boat and reached the course under a dead stick, simply by standing on his plank. Once at the course, he was not surprised to see it was mostly Minnesota sailors out on the ice.

“Notably, JD was already out sailing a few hot laps,” he said. “After a short delay, the powers that be decided there would be no races and declared the regatta complete.”

Apparently, even the hardy Midwestern iceboaters know when to cry uncle. That just means it’s time to start looking for the next stretch of perfect ice. --H.S.

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