How Ice Sailing Works

Ice Boats

As with anything nautical, ice sailing has a unique and sometimes intimidating vocabulary. You might want to take a look at How Sailboats Work and How Sailing Works for a good introduction. Even though these articles focus on soft-water sailing, many of the concepts and terms are the same in hard-water sailing. We've pulled some of the more common terms and organized them in the sidebar that appears on this page.

In its simplest form, an ice boat has four basic parts. The main body of the vessel, as with any watercraft, is known as the hull. Sailors in the 19th century used wood to construct the hull, but their modern-day counterparts often use fiberglass or laminate material. However it's constructed, the hull must be able to support one or two crew members, usually in a small cockpit situated a foot or two above the ice. It must also be able to float in the event a boat finds itself in soft water.

A runner plank, made of wood, laminate or metal, lies at the stern of the boat, beneath the hull. It's usually about 6.5 feet (2 meters) long and lies perpendicular to the main axis of the boat. Two runners attach to the plank, one at each end. Another runner -- the steering runner -- attaches to the bow. The steering runner comes equipped with a parking brake to prevent the wind from carrying a boat away during loading or at the start of a race. The runners look and function like big skates, allowing the boat to glide with little friction over the surface of the ice.

The sail, made of canvas or synthetic fabrics, functions as the "engine" of an ice boat. On smaller vessels, the sail may provide about 35 square feet (3.25 square meters) of surface area to catch the wind. On larger vessels, the sails can be massive. Older ice yachts that glided across the Hudson River often boasted 1,000 square feet (93 square meters) of sail.

Based on factors such as sail size and hull design, ice boats fall into different categories. The largest boats are the stern steerers, so named because the sailor controls the craft by reaching back to a tiller located at the rear of the vessel. Stern steerers were popular in the 19th century, but are less common today. Most modern ice boat sailors prefer bow steerers -- vessels controlled by the front steering runner. Bow steerers include both skeeters, which are long, thin boats with a maximum sail area of 75 square feet (7 square meters), and DNs, small, one-person vessels first introduced in 1937 during a contest sponsored by the Detroit News (hence the name "DN").

Up next, we'll look at some of the techniques hard-water boat captains use to navigate frozen rivers and lakes.