By JENNIFER MEIER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Skeptics beware. The ice boaters on Lake Wawasee have indisputable proof that they go fast — very fast.
“Before this,” said lake resident Bob Fanning, displaying his GPS watch, “people pretty much thought we were lying when we told them we were going over 50 mph. Now we’ve got the proof.”
His GPS confirms that last Saturday his top speed was 51 mph.
These narrow one- or two-seater boats range from 10 to 32 feet long and are supported by three razor-sharp skates that can be anywhere from 36 to 56 inches long. One skate is attached to the front of the boat and the other two are on each end of a 10- to 19-foot plank that is bolted perpendicular to the hull.
Sails can be from 60 to 75 square feet. Ice boats are controlled much like sail boats. However, due to high speeds and lack of friction they are a little trickier to handle.
Ice boating in some form has been around for thousands of years. During the revolutionary years, ice boaters where key to moving goods along the Hudson River durng the frozen winter months.
The boats seen today flying across the ice are mostly modeled after a design created by master craftsman Archie Arroll along with ice boaters Joseph Lodge and Norman Jarrait in Detroit, Mich., in the late 1930s.
Ice boat racing, known as regattas are held all over Europe and in the northern half of the United States as well as in Canada. The principles of aerodynamics allow these crafts to reach speeds of 50 to 100 mph. With the right conditions, ice boats can “hike up” on two skates and still be controlled.
“You have got to have the wind,” Fanning said, “But, anything over about 20 mph is too much for some of the smaller ice boats. In those conditions it is hard to control.”
Fanning has proof of that. Hanging in his office is 12-foot plank, broken right across the middle — a reminder, or perhaps a souvenir of what high winds and fast speeds can do.
Ice boaters number around two dozen on Lake Wawasee, but only about a dozen take the sport very seriously.
“There are about eight to 12 of us who regularly start obsessing about ice boating in late September,” Fanning said.
On Lake Wawasee, the ice boating season can start in December and with just the right conditions, can last until mid-March.
“Wawasee is probably the southern most lake that can support ice boating,” Fanning said. “I think this year we were first out on the ice in early January.”
Last year’s mild winter was a rough one for the group. But it gave these ice boating enthusiasts plenty of time to build and fine tune their crafts.
Because there are no manufacturers of the ice boats that most boaters use, each wooden boat has to be hand made. Long-time lake residents Jeff Hedrich and his 22-year-old son Ben made their latest boat and even stitched up their own sail.
The time and effort pays off. Going fast on a 3,400-acre lake with no docks, buoys, ski boats and jet skies to worry about is just what these ice boaters treasure.
Ben began ice boating when he was just 5 or 6 years old.
“You can go all over the lake real quick,” he said. “One time my sister and I were going out to dinner at a restaurant on the lake. I took the ice boat, she took the car. I’m pretty sure I beat her to The Frog.”
The variability of the conditions makes sport challenging and sometimes dangerous. Part of the lake can freeze one night, another part another night says Fanning. Snow can cover up cracks and areas where the ice is thin.
Five or more inches of ice is ideal for boating, but Hedrich says that even four inches will support some of the ice boats.
Knowing where the ice can and can’t support the boats isn’t easy, and Hedrich has already broken through the ice once this year.
Luckily, the boats can float and almost never completely go into the water.
“It’s become a lot safer over the years,” Fanning said. “We’ve got whistles, ropes, augers, ice spikes (worn around the neck) and most importantly a buddy system. Everyone watches out for everyone else.”
That buddy system came in handy on the day Hedrich broke through the ice. Fanning realized something might be wrong when he hadn’t seen his friend and was able to locate him and help pull the boat out of danger.
But most days, ice boating is just fun, fast — and, well, cold.
“Having the right gear is most important. We wear a helmet, goggles and a snowsuit,” Ben said. “But the right gloves and shoes are the most important to keep you warm.”
In between rides, the Lake Wawasee ice boaters will often stand around in the middle of the lake.
“People see us out there and ask us why we are doing that,” Fanning said. “I tell them it’s to get warm.”
The most serious group of ice boaters live on the lake year round. Just the right conditions are sometimes hard to come by.
“It’s a day-to-day, hour-to-hour thing,” Fanning said. “You have to be here and be ready.”
To see a video on ice boating at Lake Wawasee, visit You Tube and enter “Ice boat on Wawasee Gambit dudes.”