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, and that's when the hard-water faithful rush to the scene.
Last winter, local enthusiasts were able to take part for 10 to 12 days, says East Marion's Mike Acebo, 65, who has been ice boating for about a decade. That translated to about three weekends of ice time for those boaters who couldn't make it out on weekdays. All in all, "it was a really good winter," Acebo said.
ABOUT THE BOATS
Looking like modified sailboats, Long Island "scooters," as the ice boats are called, 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. Top speed for the best scooters pushes 60 mph, which can make for some wild rides, enthusiasts say.
Ice boaters prefer early starts because the ice is usually hardest before the sun gets high in the sky.
Before you head out, outfit yourself in gear that helps ensure safety. All ice boaters wear helmets, Acebo says, and two ice picks around their necks, one for each hand. They also wear shoes with some sort of gripping device, warm clothes, and possibly a flotation jacket.
Spectators, who stay on shore, should dress warmly, too, and bring along a camera and binoculars. If you're angling for a trial ride (skippers sometimes make the offer), you'll want to wear warm gloves, a helmet and goggles.
There are two main ice boating organizations on Long Island: the South Bay SIcooter Club and the Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat and Yacht Club, both of which post information on the same website, www.iceboatlongisland.com. Both welcome new members, provide instruction and travel off-Island when necessary to find suitable ice. Some people belong to both clubs.
Acebo, who belongs to the Lake Ronkonkoma club and serves as its newsletter editor, says that the club, which was founded in 1923, has about 50 active dues-paying members. (Dues are $10 to $15 annually). The club is scheduled to hold a swap meet on the second Saturday in December, where those interested in learning more about ice boating -- or applying to join the club -- can do so.
The sport is about camaraderie and solidarity, and in winter months club members are said to systematically check the depth of the ice to determine whether it's safe to go out. Boating alone is discouraged.
RULES OF THE ICE
The Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat and Yacht Club lists basic rules on its website to ensure that new and experienced ice boaters stay safe.
* Never go out on the ice alone.
* Never go out on the ice without ice picks.
* Always wear creepers (spikes for your boots, for the uninitiated).
* Ask sailors where the hazards are, as there is always thin ice somewhere.
* While ice must be at least 5 inches thick on freshwater -- and even thicker on saltwater -- to ensure safe boating, Acebo cautions that looking for hazards, like shallow spots, cracks, holes or frozen sticks or other debris, is essential.
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.
Other top spots to watch -- or get in on the action -- include:
* Hallock Bay, Narrow River Road, Orient
* Lake Ronkonkoma, Victory Drive, Ronkonkoma
* Mecox Bay, Flying Point Road, Southampton
* Patchogue Bay, Roe Boulevard, Patchogue
* Sayville Yacht Club, Boylan Lane, Sayville
* Shirley Beach, Grandview Drive, Shirley