The Seduction of Speed: Iceboating on Lake Geneva

By Holly Leitner

On a frosty Friday morning in February, the temperature has climbed to a near-balmy 18 degrees on Geneva Lake. Skates scrape, laughter echoes across the ice, campfire and cigar smoke cling to the cold air, and adrenaline is as thick as the ice on the frozen lake.

“Today is perfect,” says Dan Clapp, an iceboater from New Jersey. “You wait years to run into this kind of weather; a thin wind pulling from the east, clean ice, sun… all the ingredients for a good ride,” he says.  Clapp is in town for the annual Northwest Ice Yachting Association Regatta. Known as the iceboating capital of the world, Lake Geneva sits in the Ice Belt – a band that wraps around the earth between the 40th and 50th parallels. Temperatures along the belt are cold enough to freeze bodies of water, but temperate enough not to produce piles of snow. Lakes within the Ice Belt often freeze and thaw throughout winter creating a Zamboni-smooth, clear, hard ice.

Entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature – the conditions for a regatta have to be just right – the races can run any weekend in January or February. Competitors are essentially on-call. Clapp gets the call on Wednesday to be in Lake Geneva on Friday. He gathers his crew and loads his prized handmade boats.  A fourth-generation iceboater, Clapp says his father missed his son’s birth because he was iceboating.

Clapp wears a hat that says “Insanity,” which is how he describes the addiction to the frigid cold while hurling oneself across the ice. “Nothing about this sport makes sense. It’s way too fast. For every hour on the ice, there are another 40 of prepping and driving across the country to races.” As with other extreme sports, the “why” doesn’t have a logical answer. Why do people hop off bridges or fly down mountains?  They are chasing the magic of speed.

In Lake Geneva, Clapp and his crew join the other racers at Chuck’s tavern on the west end of the lake, where a sign reminds them, “No Creepers” – the spiky shoes they wear on the ice. As they do often, the racers discuss the weather. Too warm and the ice gets slushy, slowing down the boats. Too much wind creates a turbo boost that can be dangerous, sending boats upward of 100 miles per hour. Too cold and it’s well… just too cold.

The first race day, the wind is gusting at 24 mph, and the ice is crystal-clear and hard. Perfect, Clapp says. He is favored to win this weekend, but he’s got some stiff competition, including Harry C. “Buddy” Melges, Jr., an Olympic gold and bronze medalist in sailing, 1992 America’s Cup winner and seven-time Skeeter Iceboat World Champion.  Longtime circuit fixture, Birdell “Burly” Brellenthin is a hometown favorite, as is Jane Pegel, two-time national women’s sailing champion, who races with her daughter Susie. There are genuine rivalries here, but they are all bound by their love of the sport and speed.

With a crack of the starting gun, the boats blast off, ripping across the ice like jet engines as they pick up speed. In the cockpit, sweat freezes to the sailors’ faces as they orchestrate the symphony of the sport – pulling lines, shifting sails, pushing pedals.The boats round the cones, lifting up onto one runner and then gently touching down again in a delicate dance.

Earning one point for first place, two points for second, three for third, and so on, the winner at the end of the weekend is the one with the lowest score. This weekend, it’s Dan Clapp who is also celebrating his birthday – just as his own father was out iceboating so many years ago on this day.

As the iceboaters toast the regatta winners, the talk turns to finding the sport’s next generation. “There’s not a lot of new blood,” says Brellenthin. With enough gadgets to get them from Thanksgiving to Easter, kids don’t have to get outside, he says.

Earlier that weekend, on the first – and coldest – day of the races, Melges takes his grandson out on the lake in the boat that he, himself, learned to sail in. Doing what Dan Clapp’s father did for Dan and his grandfather for his father, Melges hopes to pass along his passion for speed and for the coldness that keeps the soul warm until spring.

Where The Ice Boaters Go

Here are destinations with lakes known for ice boating, including links for active Yacht Ice Clubs.  Rentals are not available but you can bring your own or enjoy watching others.

Madison- Lakes: Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa, Waubesa

Watch ice boaters from the Memorial Union, Paisan’s Italian Restaurant, Sardine, Mariner’s Inn, Captain Bill’s, Nau-Ti-Gal or Christy’s Landing on Lake Waubesa in McFarland and check out the Madison CVB and the Four Lakes Yacht Ice Club for more information.

Green Lake

Swing by the Green Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and look into the Green Lake Yacht Ice Club.

Oshkosh – Lake Winnebago

Get information from the Oshkosh CVB and look to the South Side Ice Yacht Club for more boating fun!

Kite Skiing

Kite Riders LLC offer lessons and equipment use and sales for kite boarding. They have a message board that offers local tips on conditions and where people are seeing ice boats and kite boarders on the lakes in the Madison area. Wind Power Windsurfing and Kiting Center open for winter lessons and fun.