Feb 10, 2018


By: Doug Milas 

As I sit in my deer stand writing this article, I, like all ice boaters, are wondering in great anticipation what the ice boating season will be like this winter.  Just as deer hunters dream of the big buck walking out by their stand, or the musky fisher dreams of landing the monster, the ice boater dreams of smooth ice and favorable winds.  

The last few years have not been the greatest for ice boating in this area of Wisconsin.  Ice boating requires three things, smooth ice, hardly any snow, and steady-moderate winds.  When this trifecta comes together, ice boaters are in their glory.  

I, like a lot of other ice boating friends, rely on good local conditions.  My ice boating usually takes place on either Lake Winnebago or Green Lake.  There are many ice boaters who will travel great distances for good ice.  I have met ice boaters from Michigan, New York and Colorado on Lake Winnebago.  Some had traveled here for a regatta, others just for the chance to ice boat with good conditions. 


It is my experience that there are three times during the winter months when ice boating can be excellent in east central Wisconsin.  Those are:  


 1.) Early December.  If Lake Winnebago freezes prior to the first heavy snowfall, then conditions can be excellent.  Green Lake does not freeze over until the end of January most years because of its great depth.  If these conditions occur on Lake Winnebago, we can get 2 to 3 weeks of good ice boating.  One should be careful to check ice conditions with ice fishermen or do your own scouting.  I remember a few years back when two of my buddies and I went out on Lake Winnebago to check conditions.  I brought along an ice chipper and every few steps I’d hit the ice and check the depth.  After walking about 100 yards out from the South Side Ice Yacht Club (SSIYC) in Oshkosh, I hit the ice and immediately the chipper went through the ice and almost slipped through my grip.  We all looked at each other in amazement and terror.  We slowly spread out and walked back to shore.  No ice boating that day!  It was a good reminder why we always wear ice spikes around our necks and have ice grippers on our boots.  I have even taken to wearing an inflatable life vest under my jacket when ice boating just in case the worst would happen.   


2.)  Right after the January thaw.  If the thaw is extensive enough to melt all the snow, the ice smooths out, cold temperatures settle back in, and ice boating can be great.  Years ago, the thaw was so extensive we had to put our ice boats on saw horses that were set on the sand under the water.   When the ice froze again we had to leave the saw horses frozen in place until the spring thaw.   


3.)  After the spring thaw in early March.  If the ice is thick enough and all the snow melts, cold spring nights can produce great ice conditions.  We had late season conditions like this the last few years.  A couple of years ago we set our ice boats up on Green Lake.  The ice was so smooth we were able to run the entire lake with nary a crack or rough spot on the whole lake.  The ice eventually started melting so much that there was too much water on top of the ice to be able to ice boat, and that ended the season for us. 


Growing up in central Wisconsin I had never heard of ice boating.  I spent time with my Dad on local lakes at ice fisheries and also spent a lot of time ice skating but had never heard of or seen an ice boat until I moved to Oshkosh in the 70’s.  I stopped with friends at the SSIYC in Oshkosh for a beer and watched the ice boaters but did not know of anyone who actively ice boated. 


That changed about 15 years ago when some of my pilot buddies from the Oshkosh airport had gotten into ice boating.  The stories they told about their ice boating adventures intrigued me.  Stories of going out on moon lit nights and racing with the wind and trying to avoid ice shoves.  One of their friends was not so lucky one night as he hit an ice shove and was propelled out of his ice boat.  The ice boat kept going, driverless, and ended up all the way down in the Fond du Lac area.  These types of adventures seemed right up my ally, so I ended up buying an ice boat from a friend who had two and had wanted to down size. 


For the unfamiliar, ice boating is somewhat like sailing.  Ice boats have a main sail and some of the larger ice boats have a lead sail similar to a jib sail on a sail boat.  There is a mast, and a boom which is a good reason to always wear a helmet when you’re out ice boating!  The ice boater sits in the fuselage and steers by pushing pedals that are connected to the lead runner or skate located on the front of the springer board on the very front of the ice boat.  There is a plank running perpendicular to the fuselage which is a long straight board with runner skates on the far ends.  There are side stays and a fore stay that keep the mast up and in place.  There are also trip wires that run from the front of the ice boat to the ends of the plank.  They are called trip wires for obvious reasons as there are few if any ice boaters who have not forgotten about these wires, walked into them, and have fallen face first on to the ice banging their knees! 


Unlike sailing where most hull designs limit speeds to 5 to 7 knots, ice boating has very little friction on the ice.  There are only the three runners making contact with the ice so speeds can be tremendous.  Generally, an ice boat can reach speeds 7 times the wind speed.  Larger ice boats can hit speeds over 100 mph.  Speeds are controlled by pulling in or letting out the main sail with the main sheet.  Speed can also be controlled by heading into the wind to limit it’s affect on the main sail.  There are no brakes on an ice boat so if the ice boater wants to stop it takes a little prior planning.  One has to head into the wind and as the ice boat slows, jump out and stand on the plank and drag your ice cleats on the ice.  As a novice ice boater, I once dragged my foot in front of the plank.  My cleats stuck to the ice and I was thrown forward in front of the plank and run over by my own ice boat.  Ouch!  Needless to say I didn’t do that maneuver again! 


Personally, I have never reached speeds near 100 mph but I did take a GPS unit out once and hit speeds in excess of 60 mph.  When you’re inches from the ice and the runners sound like jet engines, traveling at 60+ mph is quite a thrill. 


So, as I sit in my tree stand waiting for the big buck to walk out of a thicket, I dream of those days with good friends plying the ice of Lake Winnebago or Green Lake.  The runners roaring across the ice like a jet and the wind whistling through the side stays.  Those times of navigating ice shoves, of stopping in the middle of the lake for a cold one and a shot of black berry brandy and reminiscing about the good times ice boating with smooth ice and moderate winds.   Let’s hope this is a good year for the trifecta.