ORONO, Maine — Gliding along on flat, dark ice at speeds exceeding 50 mph, ice boaters say the sounds of the outside world are drowned out by the rush of wind.
“It feels like soaring,” said Bill Buchholz of Camden, president of the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club.
On Friday morning, about a dozen ice boaters set their runners — the three “skates” that the boats ride on — on Pushaw Lake at Gould’s Landing in Orono.
There are two ways to participate in ice sailing. One is to find a lake close to home, leave your boat there and hope that the ice freezes smooth and clear, and that snow doesn’t fall. Using that method, there’s a chance your lake might never have the right conditions to put the boat on the ice. The second option is to hit the road with boat in tow.
“It’s a lot like surfing, you have to follow the conditions,” Buchholz said.
Paul Zucco, 59, of Willington, Connecticut, did just that. He’s been spending the week in Maine after the ice club sent out notice that ice conditions on Pushaw Lake were ideal. Many other club members followed, from Massachusetts, Maryland and beyond. The club’s “home ice” is Chickawaukee Lake in Rockland, but the club draws members from across the region.
Zucco, who has been ice boating for 30 years, celebrated his anniversary on Thursday.
“So I absolutely had to be on the ice,” he said as he rolled up his sail and struggled to prevent his two-seat Gambit ice boat from blowing away in wind gusts that exceeded 30 mph.
For the past week, Pushaw Lake has been bustling, with dozens of ice boats streaking along the surface, threading between small islands and exploring coves. That’s because the conditions are right. The warm weather and rain of late December left behind a layer of slush and water on the lake, which froze over into a clean sheet of ice. There’s been a steady, strong wind, and the snow has stayed away.
On Dec. 31, the New England Ice Yacht Association had its 2014 regatta on Pushaw, bringing about 50 ice boaters to the Bangor area, according to Buchholz. At the time, it was the only lake in the northeast with suitable conditions, Buchholz said, but with the return of cold weather, more bodies of water will be frozen over for ice sailing to start 2015.
Zucco said ideal conditions are “flat, black ice” with steady “cruising” winds around 10 mph.
“You can sail your brains out in that,” Zucco said.
Ice boats range in price from about $1,000 to $2,500, depending on quality and whether it’s been used. Some high-end racing boats can run 10 times that price. Many members of the club built their own or purchased a boat someone else built in a home workshop.
Most boats are in the “International DN” class, with a mast height of about 16 feet and a length of about 12 feet.
The sport has its dangers. Ice boats are fast, the club offers patches and prizes to any member able to prove they exceeded 60 mph — covering a mile of ice in under a minute.
Where there’s ice, there are ice fishermen, and many club members have had run-ins with ice fishing holes. Buchholz said it’s helpful if an ice boater also is something of a craftsman, because many of these boats are wooden and things break frequently.
Then there’s the risk of running onto thin ice. Some members carry lines of rope with weights at one end, which they can throw to a friend if their boat breaks through.
How do you stop an ice boat? With three sharp skates on glare ice, friction can be hard to find. The only reliable way is steering into the wind to slow down, sliding halfway out of the boat and putting your foot on the ice, slowing to a stop.
Buchholz said that Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club has friends on lakes across the Northeast, who tip the group off to the condition of their ice. The group also sends out scouts, forming an “ice spy” network to find the best possible sailing locations for the coming weekend.
This weekend’s projected snowfall could limit their options.
“This is a sport of persistence and patience,” Buchholz said.
Chris Gordon, a plumber from Nantucket, Massachusetts, said he drove to Maine on Thursday to enjoy what he called some of the best ice he’s ever seen.
“My dad always told me, ‘Whenever there’s good ice, drop what you’re doing and go sail,’” Gordon said. “‘It might not be there tomorrow.’”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.