A season on the ice

The sails fly once Kingston becomes a frozen wasteland

The Kingston Ice Boaters fleet was started about four years ago. The group of 20 ice boaters regularly take their boats to the ice for races and recreational use.
The Kingston Ice Boaters fleet was started about four years ago. The group of 20 ice boaters regularly take their boats to the ice for races and recreational use.
Photo: 
Jim Foster (left) and Peter Van Rossem (right) spent last Saturday sailing on Lake Ontario’s frozen surface.
Jim Foster (left) and Peter Van Rossem (right) spent last Saturday sailing on Lake Ontario’s frozen surface.
Photo: 

In below-freezing temperatures, Lake Ontario is silent except for the sounds of wind and blades.

When the lake ices over, a group of up to 20 Kingstonians gather to race their ice boats. If the forecast calls for wind, at a minimum of six knots or 11 km per hour, the brakes come off the boat skates, blades fixed to the boat’s bottom to help them coast on the ice, and racers head to their frozen wasteland.

Standing on the lake ice 500 feet away from the Kingston Yacht Club, located on Maitland St. off of King St. E., I watched as Peter Van Rossem and Jim Foster speed their boats across their frozen arena. They were over a kilometer away from shore.

I knew there were countless gallons of water churning beneath the foot of ice we stood on, but the landscape looked static as the two men’s sails caught the wind.

The two boats slowly curved around a bend in the distance, moving slowly towards myself and the Journal photographer that accompanied me.

“I think they’re coming towards us,” he said.

I quickly moved out of the way, even though it would be about a minute before the two boats were within our vicinity. Once they got to us, they were much larger than I pictured.

The DN class of iceboat, typically used for racing, is made of two intersecting planks and a main sail. At 12 feet long, the boats use three blades — two back skates and one steering skate — to coast along the ice.

If the wind is minimal, a boater will stand on the cross plank that holds the two back skates. Using one leg to push the boat forward, he or she gathers momentum as the blades coast on the ice.

Once the main sail begins to catch wind, the sailor lies in the boat, using one hand to steer the steering skate and the other to position the sail, using little strings attached to the sail called “telltales” to determine which way to best pose the sail.

Out of one boat steps Peter Van Rossem. He’s wearing a white helmet with goggles, used to protect his eyes from the wind and the sun’s glare off the snow and ice.

After removing one waterproof, insulated mitten, Van Rossem shakes my hand. His cheeks are red from the wind and cold, but he looks happy.

“You want to try?” he asks me.

I was hesitant. What if I fell in? Or hit a rock wall?

Van Rossem assured me I’d be okay, so I climbed in.

Van Rossem, who has been sailing since he was a kid, began ice boating in the late 1980s. His current boat, a DN class he uses for racing and recreational purposes, was just bought used from Ottawa the other week.

The cheapest boats are usually $1,000, he said.

“I heard of a guy who bought one for $25,000,” Van Rossem said.

It’s difficult to position myself in the boat at first. With Van Rossem standing beside me on the cross plank, he pushes forward. I think about how these boats can go up to 100 kilometers per hour on black ice with fast winds.

I later found out we were pushing 15 km per hour but, with the rumble of the frozen snow beneath us, it felt like much more.

Lying down in the boat, I was very aware of how little space was between my body and the ice. I kept my head down though, trying to keep track of where we were headed. It wasn’t like we were going to hit anything though — Van Rossem was steering us far away from shore.

I asked him if he had ever fallen in a break of ice.

“One year, when I was getting started, I fell into the ferry channel by accident,” he said. “I didn’t go swimming but I did get wet, so you have to be really careful.”

Van Rossem said the Kingston Yacht Club holds safety seminars most years, warning ice boaters how to handle themselves on the lake.

When docked near the Club, boats are lifted on cement blocks to protect their blades from water damage.

Once they get going, though, sailors are warned about staying far away from the shore because of the rock wall and frozen waves.

“When you’re coming in really really fast, there’s no place to get out,” Van Rossem said.

Most people wear floater suits that act as lifejackets, he said, gesturing to the red and yellow one he wore.

Sailors also scope the area before sailing as a group, surveying for cracks or other dangers.

“Once you know that the ice is good all around, then you stay in that area,” he said, pointing to the area between the shore and Wolfe Island that we sailed on just now.

“You don’t go exploring.” Before the competitive and recreational use popular today, Van Rossem said ice boats were typically used for transportation.

In the late 1880s, Kingstonians were drawn to ice boats for their speed in a time when automobiles weren’t as ubiquitous.

According to David Page, archivist for the Kingston Yacht Club, people built their own boats, larger than today’s DN class.

The Kingston Ice Yacht Club was created in 1895, a year before the Kingston Yacht Club was established.

In 1910, the Ice Yacht Club amalgamated with the Kingston Yacht Club as it’s known today.

“At the same time ice boating, like many fads ... faded a little a bit,” he said. “People fell through the ice and got drowned.”

Nowadays, he said, the sport’s been revived through the Kingston Ice Boaters fleet, started four years ago.

Van Rossem is part of this fleet, a group of 20 or so people who gather on the ice regularly.

Keeping track of ice and weather conditions via a Google group, Van Rossem said fleet members sometimes head out for a relaxing sail after work.

A recent post detailed how some boaters would be skipping work for a mid-day sail on the ice.

He said it’s for the adrenaline rush, after all.

“It’s all about courage and getting your speed up,” Van Rossem said.

Today’s not a day for fast winds, though. The wind is faltering, the ice too grainy for high speeds, Van Rossem said.

That’s why sailors must head out over a kilometer away from land. Buildings along the shoreline keep the wind from reaching optimal speed.

That wasn’t the case two weekends ago, however, when the Kingston Yacht Club held the DN Canadian Championship regatta.

With only 72 hours of notice, 17 sailors from Kingston and cities like Montreal and Toronto gathered for a day of races. With seven one-on-one races taking place on the lake in front of the Club, scores were tallied to determine the winner.

The sport, Van Rossem said, doesn’t depend on luck in this case. It’s a lot of the sailor’s skill, whether it’s from reading the wind well or calibrating their blades properly.

“You have to spend a lot of time making sure the blades are parallel and … sharp,” he said.

It’s something he plans to do for a long time, he said. After all, the oldest ice boater he knows is over 80 years old.

Our conversation ends with the wind slightly picking up. It’s a few hours from sunset at this point and Van Rossem, who’s been here since this morning, wants to get a few more runs in.

And even if the wind’s not so fast today, he tells me, he’ll be back on the ice tomorrow.

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