This last week I’ve been on a sporty adventure with my good buddy and semi-professional tory Peter.
We drove 2,550 miles from London to lake Balaton, Hungary, and back in order to try a sport which has been on my radar for a decade. Ice sailing is roughly what it sounds like. A wooden platform is placed on three ice skids and with a mounted mast and sail, very high speeds are possible. The most popular design by a long chalk is the Detroit News or DN design (below), named after the newspaper sponsored the manufacture of the first units.
I first tried to go ice sailing in 2000 when I went to Sweden in the school holidays with a friend. We spent three days on overnight trains packed with friendly though drunken Scandinavian students and arrived in Stockholm utterly exhausted, where we met my father who had flown in to meet us. Although the trip was enjoyable, the beautiful snow I had seen falling for my Wagon-lit window had covered the ice to such a depth that it was impossible for the ice boats to move, so although I had a good look at all the kit and saw an ice boat for the first time, I went home disappointed.
There was better luck this time around. After stopping for Wurst in the medieval city of Nurnberg, Peter and I drove down to Balaton and contacted professional skipper and Hungarian sailing champion Laszlo Munka, who was able to sweet talk a local boatowner into renting us his traditional DN ice yacht with a wooden mast and boom, dovetail jointed wooden hull and sail number Hungary 002.
It was an interesting sailing experience. The main difference, obviously, is the speed. I had always been doubtful of sailor’s tales of 100km/h ice sailing, but once you lie down in the aerodynamic helm position you can easily imagine how that’s possible. With good ice there is almost no resistance under the skids so the boat seems to never stop accelerating, giving a very odd apparent wind. This results in being almost constantly close hauled, even on a broad reach. It makes gybing easier due to the limited space for the boom to cause problems, but tacking and gybing require a lot more room on ice than on the water, as unlike a boat with a centreboard or keel there is no pivoting point. The ice boat has the wide turning circle of a very long reliant robin, which makes for careful steering near obstacles and other boats.
The most tricky thing to deal with was the cold. We were taking it in turns and sailing for 10 minutes at a time in order to warm our faces from the freezing wind, and the immobile, lying back position of the helm generates no body heat. Even wearing three times the amount of clothing required for even a cold day’s skiing we needed to jump out every so often to stamp our feet and try to get some feeling back in the face, but the feeling of gliding along at high speed across Europe’s largest freshwater lake made for an exhilarating time.