Ice Sailing on the Baltic Sea – an exciting activity for brave sea scouts

Ice Sailing on the Baltic Sea – an exciting activity for brave sea scouts

Text by Jan-Erik Engren, Pictures and video by Mikael De Meulder

It’s the most fun one can have, it’s something that should be on everyone’s bucket list!” That’s how ice sailing was described to me just seconds before I first jumped into a DN iceboat. Moments after that remark I was gliding into a darkening evening of ice-bound sea off the coast of Rauma – with speed that was both exciting and terrifying for a first-timer.

Here in Rauma, Finland the Baltic sea usually freezes over for a period of time during winter. On some winters we get good sea ice for a few months, but some times we get it for a few weeks or not at all. Evidently, this means that sailing and other activities that require floating are suspended during that time. This problem has been solved (to some extent) in our sea scout troop Myrskypojat with two DN-iceboats.

Our troop’s DN-iceboats ready for sailing

DN is a one-design class of iceboats. The type was created in 1936-1937 in the United States for an iceboat design competition organised by a local newspaper called the Detroit News (hence the abbreviation ”DN”). The design competition called for an affordable and simple-to-build iceboat. Additionally, the design was required to be easily taken apart for transport on top of a Ford model T. From these specifications, the design of DN was born. Described in brief, the boat consists of a long and narrow cockpit to which a wide runner plank is attached crosswise. When put together, the hull is 3,7 metres long and 2,4 metres wide. Under the hull it has three sizeable steel blades in a tricycle-style arrangement, upon which it glides along. Mast of the boat, made of either aluminium or carbon fibre, is 4,9 metres long and carries a single sail with an area of 5,57 square metres. The whole contraption weighs around 45 kg.

According to our scout troop’s lore, our DNs were made in the 1980s from timbers left over from the construction of our troop’s main training vessel S/Y Meripurakk. Due to the relative simplicity of the build, the boats were built ”in-house” by a few older scouts in our troop who had some basic know-how of woodworking. Thanks to them, we now have two DNs built of heavy but durable iroko hardwood.

So, how does DN-sailing work in practice? Before jumping into an iceboat, one needs proper equipment. Basically this means a helmet, ski goggles and plenty of warm clothing. Helmet is extremely essential due to high speeds which can (and usually will) be attained. Goggles and ample clothing are highly recommended to cope with the extremely chilling wind coming your way. In a DN, you basically have two things to take care of: steering the boat and adjusting the sail with a sheet. To get going, you first position the boat so that you are about sideways to the wind i.e. beam reaching. Then you step on the runner plank, take hold of the steering rod and give a few (or few dozen, if the wind is weak) determined kicks to get the boat moving – it’s like riding a kick scooter. When your sail catches the wind and you notice that the boat gets going, one should rapidly get oneself into the cockpit of the yacht. The DN is sailed in a half-lying position with the steering rod in one hand and the sheet in the other. You should try to keep your head as low as possible, as the boom of the sail is positioned quite low over the cockpit. If one has been nice to one’s scout friends, they might do the kick scooter part for you, so that one can just lie ready in the cockpit.

Taking off for a sail

Now the iceboat should be moving forward propelled by the wind. Once the DN is moving, it’s quite similar to normal dinghy sailing; you trim the sail in relation to the wind to obtain the highest possible speed while avoiding a capsize. Yes, a DN can unfortunately capsize, and that’s why a helmet is absolutely required at all times. At the speeds normally achieved, a capsize can be quite a dramatic incident. Fortunately, it’s easily avoided and hence happens very rarely. With a dinghy, you avoid a capsize by steering the boat up towards the wind, but with a DN you steer away from the wind to lessen the heel. It’s normal to sail a DN with the windward blade moderately up in the air, but one must not overdo it as the risk of a capsize increases. The biggest differences to normal sailing are caused by the high speeds quite easily achieved. With our DNs, the top speed I have achieved is 70 km/h, but normal cruising speed is usually around 50 km/h. Depending heavily on the wind and ice conditions, of course. Old-timers in our troop love to remind everybody that supposedly their all-time top speed on a DN is around 120 km/h according to a gps. I’d take that with a pinch of salt, as even at my personal top speeds the boat vibrates aggressively and is a bear to handle.

As previously mentioned, these high speeds make sailing on ice a bit different from normal sailing. For example, sailing even near straight downwind is almost impossible because you are travelling as fast or faster than the wind. Tacking also requires a good deal of speed as the boat loses speed very fast when you are pointing to the wind. And of course one needs to be quite attentive to steering the boat, as collisions will be quite nasty at those speeds.

However, if you have some previous sailing experience you’ll get the hang of it quite fast. And after that, it’s basically the most fun you’ll ever have. Period. One glides around the frozen plains with awe-inspiring speed, while all you hear is the wind and whistling of the ice under your iceboat’s blades. Once you reach top speeds and your boat lifts its windward blade up into the air, it’s a thrill – just pure adrenaline rushing through one’s veins. After a while your face is usually frozen nearly numb and you quite certainly won’t feel your fingers, but that doesn’t matter because it’s so very exciting and fun!

It’s a shame that the season for ice sailing is usually quite short. You need a relatively smooth ice and basically no snow on top of it – if you have more than about one centimetre of snow on the ice, a DN will not move forward. Because of this, on a good winter one might have a sailing season of two weeks or so, but usually it’s only a few days or some times not at all.

Summa summarum, ice sailing is extremely fun and very very exciting. Even though it can be quite risky, with proper precautions and training it’s a safe pastime. If you ever have the chance to try ice sailing, just go for it! Once you’ve had a taste of it, you’ll always long for more.

Sailing footage of our iceboats a few winters back:

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