How Ice Sailing Works

Ice Sailing Techniques

To sail an ice boat, a sailor must properly orient the craft so its sail captures enough wind to generate thrust. Before we talk about basic maneuvers, let's review the principles behind propulsion. Sails propel a boat in one of two ways. The first, known as sailing downwind, occurs when the boat moves in the direction of the prevailing wind. In this situation, the sailor lets out the mainsail to trap the moving air, which pushes the vessel in the direction of the wind. A sail can also propel a boat that is traveling into the wind, known as sailing upwind. In this case, the boat often uses a zigzagging technique called tacking, which we'll discuss later on this page, and the mainsail acts like a vertical wing, generating lift as the air moves over the top of the sail and down its curved surface. Because the sail is oriented upward, the "lift" is directed horizontally, not vertically. This lift pulls the boat along the ice. You can read more about the physics of lift in How Sailboats Work.

Once an ice sailor understands sail aerodynamics and how to use the wind effectively, he can move with great ease and speed. Before sailors can fly over the ice, though, they must first master the art of starting their vessels. This is usually done by orienting the boat so it's headed directly into the wind. Sailors refer to this as being in irons, which means no wind can be caught in the sails. This prevents the craft from blowing away unattended. Most iceboats also come with a brake to help secure the vessel before sailing. To get his boat moving, a sailor stands next to the vessel, releases the brake, holds the tiller and pushes, first into the wind and then at an angle to the wind. When the boat begins to move briskly, he jumps in, trims the sail and feels the vessel race forward. With little friction to slow the boat, it rapidly obtains a high speed. A sailor running a DN-class iceboat can achieve speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour (80 to 97 kilometers per hour), while a skilled skeeter captain can reach speeds well over 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour).

Steering is accomplished via a tiller, a lever that's accessible in the cockpit and connected to either a rudder skate in stern steerers or a pivoting steering runner in bow steerers. This makes it sound easier than it really is. Because ice boats don't experience the resistance of their soft-water cousins, they can be challenging to steer. Sailors must have a delicate hand on the tiller to avoid spinning out of control on the slippery ice. They must also be prepared for their iceboats to tip to one side when running fast. This is known as heeling and also occurs in soft-water sailing, requiring sailors to provide a counterbalance by shifting from one side of the boat to the other.

Tacking and jibing work the same way in ice sailing as they do in traditional sailing. Sailors use both techniques to turn their vessels. Tacking occurs when the boat turns into the wind. Jibing occurs when the boat turns away from the wind. Either maneuver can be used to swing a boat around 180 degrees. To stop, a sailor simply steers his vessel into the wind and lets the sail go free. This shuts down the boat's propulsion system, allowing the vessel to coast to a gentle stop.

Unfortunately, some stops in ice sailing aren't so gentle. In the next section, we'll review the hazards associated with ice sailing and how to avoid them.