Riding on The Edge

by: Dean Geddes

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Chris Gordon grew up sailing Lasers and other small boats at the Nantucket Yacht Club. But as a young man he made the transition to ice-boating. The reason for the switch can be summed up in one word: speed.

His sailing days are now in the dead-cold of winter, when the water freezes over, and no longer on pristine summer days on the harbor. It’s the price you have to pay in order to sail as fast as a car on the highway, as ice boats can travel two to four times the speed of the wind.

“It’s addicting, and kind of like surfing. Before you know it, you’ve got multiple sails and runners,” Gordon said.

Ice-boating is a hit-or-miss hobby. In the same way that surfers long for that perfect wave, ice-boaters covet perfect ice. In the last three years, temperatures haven’t dropped low enough, over a long enough time, to freeze the ponds. Prior to that, however, there was nearly a decade of good ice-boating action.

“Everyone has their fingers crossed hoping for some ice this year. You really need three days of temperatures in the teens to get good ice,” Gordon said. “Three years ago, it was so cold for an extended period of time, we were able to sail for eight straight days.”

Chris Gordon ice-boating on Hummock Pond in January 2014.

Gordon heads off-island chasing prime conditions. For the last handful of winters, he has loaded his ice boat onto a trailer and headed out to the Midwest to race, where conditions have been much more consistent.

Most of the ice-boating in the last two decades has taken place on Hummock Pond, whose shallowness usually means it's one of the first on the island to freeze over when temperatures drop low enough. But this year there is concern over the availability of the pond because of its constant breaching to the ocean, as brackish water requires colder temperatures to freeze.

It’s the same problem at Sesachacha Pond, which islanders haven’t been able to ice-boat in the last four years.

“It’s an awesome pond (for iceboating) because it’s completely round and it doesn’t matter the angle of the wind,” Gordon said.

Gordon could be considered the de facto captain of Nantucket’s loosely-organized group of ice-boaters, which numbers 10 to 15 boats. The majority use what are called DN’s, the most popular model of ice boat in the world. The name DN refers to a style that won an iceboat-design contest sponsored by the Detroit News in 1937.

Tim Mahoney rigs up his ice boat on Hummock Pond during a cold snap.

It features a 60-square-foot sail and a very narrow hull, just 21 inches wide. The length of the hull is 12 feet and skippers control the boat while seated near the stern. Three metal runners that look like giant ice-skate blades support the hull, which is raised slightly above the ice surface. DN’s can travel two to four times the speed of the wind, with maximum speeds of just under 70 miles per hour.

In the last 10-20 years, there has been a move toward commercially-built ice boats, but prior to that, it was mostly homemade craftsmanship, Gordon said.

Phil Bartlett remembers building homemade iceboats on wooden frames attached to a sunfish sailboat.

"The real old ones, like my father made in the 1930s, were basically an A-frame and a catboat sail," Bartlett told The Inquirer and Mirror in 2000.

During the middle of the 20th century, whenever the harbor would freeze over, ice boats would often be launched from the Washington Street Extension, gliding across the ice to Wauwinet or Coatue and back.

Even the homemade ice boats could reach speeds up to 40 mph, Bartlett said, and sailors had to battle not only the stiff freezing winds, but holes in the ice. One wrong move and they could find themselves submerged in freezing water. Bartlett remembered one time when a large gust of wind knocked him off his boat and dunked him into the water.

Given the unpredictability of salt-water ice, and the fact that it takes an extended period of cold weather, you rarely see people ice boating in the harbor anymore. But occasionally the weather lines up just right for it to happen. The last time was in 2002.

This year, islanders are hoping for the chance to get back on the ice, but only time and Mother Nature will tell if the threeyear ice-boating drought will be snapped.

“Back in the old days, they were certainly able to get a lot more sailing in,” Gordon said. “Global warming isn’t helping us. But it goes in cycles, and I’m hoping this year will be a good year.” ///

Dean Geddes is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

Alfie Sanford sails an ice boat on Hummock Pond during perfect conditions.

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