Let it slide

Let it slide

While some may be counting the days until spring, a group of area sailors are making the most of the cold and ice. By racing across the ice at more than 40 mph, being on Clinton Lake is a year-round activity for them.

The cold weather of the last several weeks has meant plenty of opportunities for ice boating and five boats sailed on the frozen lake on Jan. 7. Jim Westervelt of Champaign sailed more than 67 miles on the ice in four and a half hours and hit a top speed of 45 mph that day.

Blog Photo“The speed is thrilling and amazing. You can zip along really quickly,” Westervelt said. “It’s another way to get outdoors in the wintertime when everyone else is complaining how awful it is.”

Westervelt was introduced to ice boating by friends in the early 1980s and fell in love with it. He bought a boat several years ago from a sailor at Lake Decatur, which has long had ice boaters.

Perry Biddle of White Heath is another regular winter sailor at Clinton Lake. He has been ice boating for 10 years.

“It allows you to sail all winter long, and it’s fast. I probably like the speed more than anything. The acceleration is really something,” Biddle said.

Their boats are International DN iceboats, the largest class of one-design iceboats. The one-person, 12-foot-long boats have a narrow hull and three blades -- one on each side and a steering blade in the front. The sailors sit in a prone position just inches above the ice, with the boat’s boom directly above their heads.

Blog PhotoWhen the ice is smooth, the boat can travel four to five times the speed of the wind. Biddle has hit speeds of 50 mph in his boat.

“It’s not relaxing. It’s loud, and you’re by yourself, so you can’t really have a conversation while you’re ice boating. It’s more like flying an airplane or racing go-karts,” Biddle said. “Because you don’t have friction, you can keep generating more and more speed, whereas with a sailboat, you’re constricted by the drag of the boat in the water. If the ice is really smooth, you can really get a lot of speed going.”

The upper Midwest has many serious ice boaters and ice boat races. But Clinton Lake is actually a pretty good place for the sport, Westervelt said. It doesn’t get as much snow as more northern states. If too much snow builds up, the boat can’t go through it. A good wind will blow it off the ice, but “with 7 inches or more, everyone looks like Pig Pen out there, with snow just flying up around you,” Westervelt said. And if it rains on top of snow and the snow gets crusty and icy on top, it takes a strong wind to be able to cut through it.

Blog PhotoHow much ice boating the group -- most of whom are members of the Clinton Lake Sailing Association -- can do in a winter varies with the weather. Several years ago, the Clinton Lake sailors were on the lake in ice boats for at least three months. Last year, they had just two weeks of good ice.

Ice boaters are constantly in search of good ice, Westervelt said, and will travel to find it.

“You have to be able to get in the car at a moment’s notice and go out when the conditions are right, because they don’t happen very often,” he said.

The Clinton Lake sailors monitor the temperatures and test the ice on the lake with battery-operated drills. They drill holes in various places to gauge the thickness and strength of the ice.

“If it looks OK, we get on the boats and go out further and continue drilling holes. We do a lot of checking of ice,” Westervelt said.

The strength of the ice depends on water temperature, air temperature and how much water is flowing into the lake. There needs to be several days of very cold temperatures to get enough solid ice, Biddle said.

Westervelt said there should be 4 inches of ice to walk out onto the lake. But even with several inches of ice, there are always areas where the ice can be thin, or where birds paddling in the water have kept ice from forming in a certain spot, he said.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes open for funny little anomalies like that,” Westervelt said. “For the most part, it’s pretty safe. Once you’re in the boat and moving, you’re not putting pressure on the ice for very long on those patches, so you can zip over what would normally be a dangerous spot on the ice without any problem.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t have to always be careful. The sailors carry ropes and ice axes and have learned techniques to get themselves back onto the ice if they fall through or to rescue another sailor. They don’t sail alone, and they keep track of each other on the lake.

Westervelt went through the ice a couple of years ago on a 10-degree day. His cotton pants were frozen solid by the time he got back in his boat, sailed to the shore and got to his car.

He wears a snowmobile helmet -- more for safety than for warmth -- as well as goggles and ice grippers on his shoes.

“It’s fun and exhilarating, but you need to be really, really careful, because it can kill you,” Westervelt said. “We’re extremely well-prepared and use a lot of caution.”

All the logistics are worth it to him.

“This makes winter so much fun,” he said.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at www.news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.

 Photos: Top: Trent Johnson of Champaign sails an ice boat on Jan. 7 at Clinton Lake. Photo by Heather Johnson; Middle: From left, Ken Moyer, Rachael Pierson, Jim Westervelt, Andy Pierson and Perry Biddle pose for a photo while ice boating at Clinton Lake on Jan. 7. Photo by Perry Biddle; Bottom: Ice boats on Clinton Lake. Photo by Perry Biddle 

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