By Brian E. Clark
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
For pretty much as far back as he can remember, 84-year-old Buddy Melges has been ice boating on Wisconsin's Geneva Lake.
"I think my dad took me out around age six,” says Melges, an Olympic gold medal winner and international sailing legend. "He made me my first ice boat and I still have it. In fact, the grandchildren have used it."
Melges, a 1992 America’s Cup winner and seven-time Skeeter Iceboat World Champion, says the main attraction of iceboating is the speed, with the slender craft topping out at more than 100 miles per hour. Some boats, he says, can go six times the speed of the wind.
"That makes it really exciting," he says. "Also, it’s silent except the sound of 'whoooosh' and a little rattle of the equipment. Theoretically, you could go 150 miles per hour. But boats perform at their optimum when the wind is around 20 mph. After that, the speed goes back down because of the drag of the wind and the shape of the sail. We could probably go faster if we used a hard wing for a sail, though."
Melges, whose family runs Melges Performance Sailboats in Zenda, says Geneva Lake is an ideal place for iceboating, as long as a storm doesn’t dump snow on the ice before a race. Temperatures in the so-called 'Ice Belt' between the 40th and 50th parallels are usually cold enough to freeze lakes, but often don’t produce much snow. Some years, the freeze-thaw cycle makes for smooth, clear and hard ice that’s perfect for iceboating.
Often the racing season starts on smaller Lake Como when the ice freezes, then moves to Lake Delavan before coming to the bigger and deeper Geneva Lake in early January. The season typically ends in mid-March.
"We're always fighting Mother Nature," he says, noting most iceboats are homemade. "If you get an inch of snow followed by a 20 mph wind, it’ll blow it into drifts and it’s impossible to sail. The best conditions are smooth frozen ice with no snow."
Melges says it's hard to compare iceboating with regular sailing.
"Iceboating is much more mechanical, while with sailing you’re battling Mother Nature," he says. "If we could sail iceboats as much as we can sail on soft water, it would be a hard choice to choose between the two sports. In any case, I love 'em both. And iceboating gets me out on the lakes in the winter."
For spectators, one of the best places to watch iceboating on Geneva Lake is the Pier 290 Restaurant on Williams Bay. In the summer, the setting – which has a white sand beach – is like something out of Miami’s South Beach, says owner Bill Gage.
But come winter, he says it’s the ideal spot to watch sleek iceboats fly across the lake, thanks to several outdoor firepits, an outdoor fireplace and an enclosed, outdoor bar with heaters in the ceiling.
"It’s the best of both worlds," says Gage, a veteran iceboat sailor.
He said it’s for good reason Williams Bay has been dubbed the iceboat capital of North America because of its easy access, good size and – most years – smooth ice ideal for racing.
"Ice boating is a really exciting sport because you are so close to the ice," he says. "It feels like you’re in a Formula 1 or Indy-style race car body. There’s barely any resistance, so the acceleration is off the charts."
"Most of the ice boats will top out at anywhere between 90 and 140 miles per hour. And there are no breaks," he adds with a chuckle.
"When first timers come back from a ride, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is ‘WOW,'" he says. "It’s a pretty cool sport."