Zipping across frozen Bellport Bay at breakneck speed with your head a scant two feet above the ice, the crackling sound of salt ice flexing under the boat's runners nearly overpowers the guttural howl of the wind in your sails.
A visit from the polar vortex has opened a window for ice boating, and that means there's just one thought in mind: GO! GO! GO!
OF ICE AND WIND
Ice boating is a bit of an elusive hobby on Long Island. January and February see the peak of the season -- as long as there's a few consecutive days of calm winds and a perfectly timed blast of arctic air to freeze local waters. That precise blend happens only sporadically every few years -- 2011 was the last time -- and that's when the hard water faithful rush to the scene.
"We don't get out all that much," says Blue Point resident Ed Behan, 55, a member of the South Bay Scooter Club and skipper of a beautiful mahogany scooter. "But when we do, it provides an unforgettable experience."
Looking like modified sailboats, Long Island "scooters" were originally designed to carry supplies over the water to Fire Island residents when ice locked-up the bays. Most sport 16- to 20-foot sails, 14- to 16-foot hulls, 4- to 6-foot horns, plus four fixed runners. These vessels have the capacity to cruise up to three times wind speed and "scoot" easily over small cracks, puddles or gaps in the ice. The top speed for the best scooters pushes 60 miles per hour.
"It all makes for some pretty wild rides," says Jamie Mills of Greenport, also a South Bay Scooter Club member.
Hitch a ride on an ice boat, says Mills, 60, and you'll instantly find yourself in one of two camps: "Hooked for life" or "can't get off the ice fast enough!"
Lee Costelloe, 61, from Blue Point, loves the instability and of the ride and camaraderie of the sport. "It's exhilarating!" he says, like taking a very scary roller coaster ride. "There are good people in this sport, too, mentors who are willing to share their knowledge," says Costelloe, a member of the Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat and Yacht Club.
Indeed, solidarity is a hallmark of the sport -- members flock to systematically check the depth of the ice to determine whether it's safe to go out. Boating alone is highly discouraged.
CATCH THE BREEZE
Bellport Dock, at the foot of Bellport Lane, serves as a central meeting place for both ice boating fans and participants -- when the time is right. As a rule, ice boaters prefer early starts because the ice is usually hardest before the sun gets high in the sky.
Spectators should dress warmly, bring along a camera and binoculars, and stay on shore unless planning to participate. If you're angling for a trial ride (skippers sometimes make the offer), you'll want to wear warm gloves, a helmet and goggles.
Of course, there's no way of telling when sufficient ice will form. Some years it flourishes, some years it doesn't -- but the recent polar vortex just delivered a full weekend's worth of boating on the shallowest waters. Still, most ice boating fans will tell you that any year they can squeeze in some hard water joyriding is a good one.
"If there's solid ice to be found," Behan says, "We'll be out there every chance we get."
ICE BOATING CLUBS
Two clubs dominate Long Island's ice boating scene in terms of membership, participation, racing get-togethers and history. Both welcome new members, provide instruction and travel off-Island when necessary to find suitable ice. Some people belong to both clubs.
POPULAR ICE BOATING SPOTS
Bellport Yacht Club: Bellport Lane, Bellport
Sayville Yacht Club: Boylan Lane, Sayville
Shirley Beach: Grandview Drive, Shirley
Patchogue Bay: Roe Blvd., Patchogue
Lake Ronkonkoma: Victory Drive, Ronkonkoma
Hallock Bay: Narrow River Road, Orient
Mecox Bay: Flying Point Road, Southampton