Some years they go fast — up to 60 mph — with a scant 6 inches separating drivers from the surface.
Other years, they don’t go at all.
In an odd way, both experiences are part of the allure of ice boating. The annual yearning to get outside in the dead of winter and sail across frozen lakes or even bays at breathtaking speeds is impossible to deny once you’ve sampled this hard-water sport. Not knowing from year to year if there will be sufficient ice to support the bladed sailing scooters simply intensifies the anticipation.
It’s disappointing, of course, when the weather fails to cooperate, as was generally the case last winter, but all it takes is a midwinter blast of bitter cold air for three or four days, and fans of the sport start making plans to test the ice and GO! GO! GO!
“There’s no denying the need for speed is one thing that fires up ice-boating fanatics,” admits Bob Reeves Jr., commodore of the Orient Ice Yacht Club. At 76, the Orient resident is still loving the sport, but his roots, like those of many of his ice-riding compatriots, run deeper than you might expect. “I love the camaraderie, maintaining and admiring the boats, plus the heritage, too,” Reeves says. “One of my ice boats is well over 100 years old. I got it from my great-grandfather, who said it was built around 1860. My grandfather had three ice boats that were over 100 years old also, so this goes a long way back in my family, as it does in many other families that you’ll see out on the ice.”
Looking like modified sailboats, Long Island “scooters,” as smaller-style ice boats are called, were originally designed to carry supplies over the water — especially across to Fire Island residents when ice locked up the South Shore 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 generally push 65 to 70 mph, although more recent, bigger and technologically advanced ice boat designs can go faster than that. A few even compete in national ice boating competitions, sometimes heading up to the Great Lakes region or other parts of the Midwest, where large lakes and plenty of cold air typically ensure a longer, more dependable ice boating season.
Most ice boaters are introduced to the sport by family or friends, but spectators can get up close and personal with the action. Many ice boat skippers, in fact, appreciate a crowd of onlookers, not only for the attention but because viewers are a potential source of new recruits for the sport.
“My grandfather, Edwin King, always told me to share this sport as much as possible, and many of our participants feel the same way,” Reeves says. The more people we introduce to the game, the more it can thrive. Fresh faces are welcome and at most of the traditional ice boating gathering spots around Long Island you can probably find someone willing to offer a ride should you be truly curious about getting involved.”
If you’ve never stopped by to witness these events, be assured they are worth the trip. The fast boats are sleek, beautiful to behold and, under a bright blue sky, offer terrific photography potential. If you’ve already tried ice boating, then you are either hooked or likely never to try it again. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. Driving an ice boat is for adrenalin junkies. All others are welcome to watch.
There are two main ice-boating organizations on Long Island: the South Bay Scooter Club and the Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat and Yacht Club. Both clubs, along with the smaller Orient Ice Yacht Club and Mecox Bay Ice Boat Club, post information on the same website, iceboatlongisland.com. All four clubs welcome new members, provide instruction and travel off-Island when necessary to find suitable ice. Some people belong to two or more clubs.
January and February usually see the peak of the season. The main ingredients to get things started are several consecutive days of calm winds and a perfectly timed blast of arctic air to freeze local waters. That precise blend seems to happen only every few years, which rushes ice boaters of all levels to the scene when conditions seem right.
Bellport Dock, at the foot of Bellport Lane, serves as a central meeting place for both ice boating fans and participants. Expect to get an early start 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 hope to get a trial ride, be sure to wear warm gloves and bring along a bike helmet and goggles.
Other places where ice boaters are likely to gather during midwinter cold spells include:
COECLES HARBOR, Coecles Harbor Marina & Boatyard, Hudson Avenue, Shelter Island
HALLOCK BAY, Narrow River Road, Orient
LAKE RONKONKOMA, Victory Drive, Islip
MECOX BAY, Flying Point Road, Southampton
PATCHOGUE BAY, Roe Boulevard, Patchogue
SAYVILLE YACHT CLUB, Boylan Lane, Sayville
SHIRLEY BEACH, Grandview Drive, Shirley
SAFETY FIRST AND ALWAYS
The website iceboatlongisland.com lists basic rules for right of way to avoid collisions while ice boats are under sail. Additional safety guidelines to keep in mind include:
NEVER GO OUT on the ice alone.
NEVER GO OUT on the ice without ice picks (to pull yourself back up on the ice should you fall in).
ALWAYS WEAR creepers (spikes for your boots).
ASK OTHER ice sailors where the hazards are. There is always thin ice somewhere.
ICE MUST BE at least 5 inches thick on fresh water — and even thicker on saltwater — to ensure safe ice boating.
PARTICIPANTS SHOULD BE on the lookout for hazards such as shallow spots, cracks, holes and frozen sticks or other debris. Observers should watch from a safe distance.