How Ice Sailing Works

Ice Sailing Safety

Ice sailors fly by the seat of their pants, literally, so wearing safety gear is important in case they have an accident and are thrown onto the ice.
Ice sailors fly by the seat of their pants, literally, so wearing safety gear is important in case they have an accident and are thrown onto the ice.
Libor Fojtik/isifa/Getty Images

Skimming at highway speeds over a sheet of ice is not a risk-free activity. When conditions are ideal and ice boats crowd rivers and lakes, the odds of an accident increase. Two sets of rules ensure the safety of ice boat crews and prevent collisions. Fair-sailing rules require that sailors exhibit common sense, safety and good sportsmanship while on the ice. Right-of-way rules govern approach and passing so that boats maintain safe distances. Right-of-way rules for ice sailing are similar to "rules of the road" or corresponding rules for soft-water boating and windsurfing. In regattas, the race committee might disqualify a captain who doesn't follow these rules.

Sailing when it's not crowded might seem like a good solution to avoid right-of-way rules, but it's never a good idea to be on the ice alone. If you sail off the ice into soft water, with no one around to help or call for help, you might not get the help you need in time to prevent death or serious injury.

Obviously, a life jacket is a vital piece of safety equipment. So are a helmet and padding beneath your outerwear, which can protect your head and body if you fall or are thrown onto the ice. And don't forget to wear winter clothing so that you'll stay warm in the apparent winds during sailing. Apparent wind is what you feel while the ship's moving. Because it's a combination of the true wind and the wind that the boat's motion creates, it can increase the cooling effect on your body. Be mindful of numbing on your nose, ears, fingers and toes -- all body parts that are especially susceptible to frostbite.

Finally, hard-water sailing requires high-quality ice. Before you climb aboard your vessel, make sure you understand the ice conditions where you intend to sail. The best ice has no snow cover because snow stops ice growth and impedes the movement of the runners. "Black ice" is also better than "white ice." Black ice is transparent and can be more than 10 feet (3 meters) thick. It forms under calm conditions, which allow individual ice crystals to grow in long, vertical columns. Unfortunately, high-quality ice often doesn't form across an entire lake or river. Areas of open water, thin ice, expansion cracks, ice heaves and river inlets and outlets can compromise the integrity of ice, making ice sailing more dangerous. If you have any questions, consult with a local ice yacht club, which will likely provide regular reports about ice and weather conditions.

Follow these safety rules, and you'll enjoy all of the thrills ice sailing has to offer without worrying about the chills. For lots more information about sailing and related topics, follow the links below.

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  • Allan, David G. "On a Sheet of Ice and Under Sail on the Hudson." New York Times. Feb. 13, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Daters, John. "Notes from a Frozen Lake: Ice Sailing in Georgetown." Colorado: The Official Site of Colorado Tourism. March 23, 2007. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association. "Ice Sailing Manual for Ice Optimist and DN Sailors." (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Roithmayr, Chris. "The Early History of Ice Sailing." (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Steere, Mike. "Wind-powered craft aims to smash ice speed record." International. April 10, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2009)
  • Travel Montana, Montana Department of Commerce. "Boats Without Water: Ice Surfing/Sailing in Montana." (Nov. 29, 2009)