flying on ice

A string of cold, calm nights creates the smooth ice craved by ice boaters.
02/13/2019
story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Ice, Wind and a bit of Ingenuity means Winter Fun!

If the saying fits, wear it. So the saying, “Where there’s a will there’s a way” seems perfect for summer sailors and water kiters who refuse to give up working the wind just because it’s coming from the North Pole.

For them, “the way” to keep working the wind is ice kites and ice boats.
An ice kite looks like a cockamamie contraption born from a candlelight collaboration between Inspector Gadget and Mary Poppins. In short, fanciful and fun. An ice boat, with its intersecting triangles of sail and frame, seems like the outcome of an eighth-grade geometry project or a giant Calder art mobile waiting to be hung in the atrium of a museum.

Looks aside, it’s more likely desperation-spurred imagination, resulting in the thought to marry sails to thin steel runners. The result? Speed. Joy. Delight.

As ice enthusiast Andy Kinsman likes to say, “It’s the only legal way in New York to go 100 mph on land.” But most ice boaters don’t go that fast, especially as they get older. They know the risks are too great. But with the right sail and the right sailor at the controls, they can easily triple the speed of the wind pushing them. Like hopping into a throbbing Corvette and heading to the thruway early on a Sunday morning, they can keep the inner daredevil smiling because they know there’s always the possibility
for more.

Andy prefers the freedom of ice kiting. Standing upright on the giant ice skates (runners, technically) he designed and built, he shoots across the lake as he clasps the two control bars connecting to a wind-filled, NASA-style, para-wing (NPW) kite.

I came across Andy and others gathered at the north end of Canandaigua Lake on a warm January day. Not everybody was ice sailing. A few folks simply edged out onto the ice and walked gingerly, staying close to the shore. One lone figure leisurely skated under the expansive blue sky while carrying an old, beat-up hockey stick. A high-school couple holding hands alternately skated and stopped to look at each other. The ice was heating up.

The warm day was no threat to foot-thick ice and no deterrence to ice boating addicts. With the departure of the snow covering the ice and the arrival of a steady 15 mph breeze, ice enthusiasts began assembling their crafts. For maneuvering at high speeds, ice sailors prefer to have a minimum of 1 square mile of ice, which is enough space to avoid each other and to recover from any sailing mistakes.

Among the ice boaters was David Perrin. He was offering rides on his two-seater – something he does much of the winter. I obliged him and hopped aboard. As we chased and videoed Andy kiting across the ice, I learned that David is the son of John and Pat, and nephew of Russ. Theirs is a family of national trophy winners for sailing both catamarans and ice boats. They are also well-known and much-appreciated for their efforts in promoting and supporting sailing on water and ice.

Andy explained why the Finger Lakes excel for ice lovers. “Obviously, you need water,” he says, “and we have lots of it.”

Also important is the location, latitudinally speaking. “We’re so fortunate to be in the geographic band where ice boating is really good – the area between 40- to 45-degrees latitude,” Andy explains.

South of 40 degrees (Pennsylvania’s southern border), the weather doesn’t stay cold long enough to give you good thick ice. Any further north than 45 degrees, you get so much snow on the ice that it doesn’t melt. “Here, we cycle between warm and cold days so the snow melts and hardens, melts and hardens and eventually turns into good ice again,” he adds.
Canandaigua’s location at 42.8875º N is perfect.

The bigger and deeper Finger Lakes resist significant ice cover. Their “warm” deep waters circulate, keeping the ice at bay. The shallow, swampy north end of Cayuga Lake often freezes over to the delight of ice fishermen. Seneca Lake usually produces only small patches of ice at the north and south ends. Most of the other lakes can produce enough ice coverage to offer a wide variety of icy entertainments, including the various forms of motor racing that commonly erupt and roar across the southern ends of Honeoye and Waneta Lakes. A couple of lakes, such as Honeoye and Hemlock, emit gas from the bottom that can open large holes in the ice, dangerous to ice sailors. Just ask John Perrin. One almost did him in years ago.

In extra-cold years, Canandaigua, Keuka, and Skaneateles Lakes can freeze in their entirety. Andy fondly remembers 2005. “We could sail all the way down to Naples and back to Canandaigua.” Only extraordinary cold spells ice over the big lakes. Cayuga Lake last froze-over in 1979, Seneca Lake in 1912.

The appearance of large expanses of ice where there was once sparkling, shimmering water may give you pause. Water is a peculiar substance; that it turns into ice we take for granted. But should we?

Water is the only common substance that can perform nature’s hat trick. What’s that you ask? Well, it’s when a substance simultaneously exists in its three possible states: as a solid (ice), as a liquid (rain, lakes, streams), and as a gas or vapor (humidity, clouds, steaming tea kettle). Only water can simultaneously freeze your toes, quench your thirst, and clear your sinuses.

For most of us, ice is a challenge. A risk to bones and fenders. A risk to be avoided. For the more adventurous, it is an opportunity to slide, glide, zip, skid, skip, and slip. The greater the speed, the greater the joy. This winter when the nights turn calm and the temperatures plummet, you can imagine the phones of ice boaters beginning to chime and blink as news on ice conditions is exchanged, plans are formulated, and anticipation builds of what tomorrow may bring.