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Andy Sajor out in the middle of Lake Champlain. Photos: Sarah Harris
Andy Sajor out in the middle of Lake Champlain. Photos: Sarah Harris

Winter sailors chase ice and wind on Lake Champlain

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Imagine racing over a frozen lake on a wind-powered sled, hitting speeds that top 40 miles an hour. Ice sailing is a big sport in winter and the north end of Lake Champlain has a growing reputation as one of the best venues in the northeast. Our Champlain Valley correspondent Sarah Harris headed out on the ice to give it a try.

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Andy zooms across the lake.

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Sarah Harris
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Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t think the words 'ice' and 'sailing' went together.

It’s a bright and cold Sunday morning at Mallets Bay, just north of Burlington. We’re on the northeast side of Lake Champlain, where the ice is thick. Seven of eight guys are gathered at this tiny boat club you can barely see from the road. They’ve parked their cars right at the edge of the lake and are unloading masts and big white sails. Everybody’s dressed for the cold, with face masks and snow pants. They’re wearing crash helmets and ski goggles.

Claud Morin from Montreal has been out checking the ice. "Of course we always prefer like a very smooth ice," he tells me. "But today’s ice is a bit rough, there’s a rumble to it, but it’s perfectly acceptable."

The north end of Lake Champlain is something of a mecca for North American ice sailors. Andre Baby, also down from Montreal, say’s that because they need a lot of ice, but can’t have too much snow.

"The various bays of Lake Champlain freeze successively. So one week if one bay gets snowed out, well the following week another sheet of ice will form, usually further north, and you’ll have that available as a venue," he explains. 

These guys sail ice boats called DNs, single seater racing boats made out of wood. The DN is shaped like a T, with a long horizontal plank at the back. There are two runners on either end of the plank, and a runner at the bow, that allow the boat to skim across the ice.

The problem this morning is that it’s dead calm. There’s no wind.  Ice sailors live at the mercy of the weather. They need cold temperatures, a strong breeze, a thick sheet of ice.

Ice sailor Don Brush says they’ll sometimes caravan hundreds of miles to find that perfect chemistry.

"The way that works is on Wednesday night before the regatta there’s a telephone call into a hotline and it tells you where the regatta’s gonna be. And we all hop into cars, vans, and drive wherever it’s going to be."

So my first day out is a flop. There’s plenty of ice, but no wind. A few days later, though, it all comes together.

This time we meet up at Chazy Landing, on the New York side of the lake, about 12 miles from the Canadian border. I’m hitching a ride on a boat piloted by Andy Sajor, a retired high school science teacher and big-time adrenaline junkie. 

"I noticed that new plate of ice formed last night. It’s gonna be gorgeous if we don’t get any snow on it and it stays cold like this. Today with enough wind we’ll probably get up on one runner decently you’re going to feel a little bit of the harum scarum."

"How fast do you think we’ll go?" I ask.

"I don’t know I brought a GPS. But the ice is a little rough so I don’t want to take any chances," Andy answers.

"Should I be nervous?"

Andy pauses, then laughs. "I’m nervous!"

I laugh. "Good, that’s a good endorsement!"

It turns out that Andy has a ridiculously good sense of balance. While I sit in the boat, he perches on the runner. Listeners, you probably shouldn’t try that home.

We fly across the lake, runners rumbling. 

"Whaddya think?" Andy yells. 

"This is amazing," I reply. "What do you think?"

"It’s not too bad!" 

We stop in the middle of lake to look around. 

"Just a scratchy plate of ice—we could probably sail all the way to Vermont we wanted to, there’s some ice shantys over there," Andy notes. 

I'm pretty awestruck. "Well it’s absolutely gorgeous; you can see Vermont, new york, the Adirondacks, the greens, you can see the ice which is glorious and gleaming and sort of crusty, it’s like you’re flying a little bit." The boat starts to move. "I better lay down, huh?"

We’re off again. We do run after run.  Then Andy takes the biggest risk of the day. He tells me it's my turn to steer.

"So when we’re steering the boat, that means the tiller goes to the left," he explains. 

I steer the boat too fast and too forcefully. It jerks sharply to the right and my stomach flip flops. After a few minutes though, I figure out how to turn the boat more gradually.

We accelerate fast. 

"Here it goes!" Andy cries. "Here comes Star Wars, we’re going to accelerate right the heck out! Here we go!" 

Andy guesses we're doing around 45 miles an hour. And then— 

"We don’t want to hit that ice shanty right out there, woah, good, straighten it up!"

 Turns out, ice sailing happens just about anywhere water freezes. The sport started in the Netherlands and caught on in colonial America. Sailors would run up and down the Hudson River,  ferrying goods and maintaining trade routes during the winter. Racing got big in the 1880s, and ice sailing proved a popular sport around the Great Lakes, Minnesota, the St. Lawrence River, Long Island—anywhere with a long winter, deep freezes, and big bodies of water.

"How fast did we end up going?" I ask. 

"Just 41 miles an hour I’m sad to say. Oh wait, that’s knots! So that’s 1.2—so about 48 miles an hour," Andy says. "We were only out there for an hour, and we did about 10 miles."

We make it back it the launch without hitting anything or tipping over. My fingers are so cold I can’t feel them, and I’m a still shaking a little from the speed and the rattle of the ice against the runners.

But as we pack up, for the first time I can also understand why someone one would drive hundreds of miles for this sport.

It’s exhilarating, zooming across a plane of frozen water like that. And it’s pristine. All that’s overhead is the sky, all that’s driving you is wind and sail.

Here's some video from Sarah's ice sailing expedition:


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