Ice Boat Racers: Meet the Frozen Lake Warriors

We brave the elements at the Ice Boat championship on Michigan’s Lake Charlevoix, where racers continue a tradition that’s been around since 1800s

Ice Boat Racers: Meet the Frozen Lake Warriors

It's Wednesday at 1:15 p.m., and we're frantically refreshing a web page for an event update, 15 minutes later than recently promised and four days later than originally planned. It's not details on a surprise concert or music festival – instead, we are looking for the location of this year's North American Ice Boat championship. Approximately 100 competitors are also anxious to find out the spot so they can lug their ice boats to a frozen lake for two days of non-stop racing. At last the details appear: We're heading to Charlevoix, Michigan.

Ice boats – miniature sailboats with three metal blades called runners – have been around since the 19th Century, and modern enthusiasts of the winter sport (officially called "ice yachting") gather at various frozen lakes around the U.S. every year when "hard water" sites are available.

Arriving at the launch site on Lake Charlevoix, competitors unload their ice boats off trucks and affix their runners. Meanwhile, ice inspectors drill into the frozen lake to ensure it's safe to race on; optimal race conditions are very specific, and wind is one of the most important factors.

After weeks of delays due to snow and extreme cold followed by unseasonable warmth, everyone is ready to get going. Surrounded by a mile of ice on all sides, a group of 50 racers – full of adrenaline, no doubt – cues up at the starting line. The temperature has dropped to 20 degrees.

Racers push off from a starting line on the ice, metal cleats beating into the ice as boats begin to split apart and weave back and forth to pick up speed. After gathering momentum, they lay flat on the boat and use the sails to guide them around a circular track. Participants do three laps, hitting speeds of 60 MPH, and the first one to cross the finish line wins. Crashes seem imminent as boats careen dangerously close – but each time, with a split-second correction, they miss each other. As racers hit top speeds, they sound like jet fighters flying overhead.

After our first race – there are usually no breaks between heats – competitors are stalled out due to no wind. As racers try to stay sharp and alert, the cold is taking its toll. An hour later, the race committee calls it for the day due to lack of breeze, and everyone packs up their gear and make the one-mile journey back to the launch site.

The next morning, after a disappointing first day, racers are anxious to get moving. Thankfully, winds and conditions are right for a marathon day of uninterrupted heats. Before things got into gear, two men who represent the legacy of this sport, 12-time champion Ron Sherry and his son Griffin Sherry, spoke to Rolling Stone.

For the Sherrys, ice yachting has been a family tradition: Ron was introduced to the sport by his father as a child and Griffin started racing when he was four years old. Hoping to win his first trophy, Griffin arrived at this year's championship with the boat he and his father built together. "I have that drive. I want to win," Griffin says.

With the wind finally picking up, competitors gather to begin the heats. As each fleet approaches the start line, Griffin mentally prepares himself. "I don't pay attention to anything but the boat, the boat speaks its own language," he explains. "It’s your own personal rollercoaster. You can go for as long as you want and don’t stop."

They're off, and Ron soon takes the lead in his heat. For him, close calls are part of the sport. "My theory is to err on the side of speed. If I am going to make a mistake, make a mistake that is going to make me go fast," the racing veteran says. As Ron crosses the finish line in first, son Griffin crosses in ninth place. Trophy or not, after an exhausting, adrenaline-fueled journey and a thrilling regatta, where every racer has a personal victory to celebrate, Griffin has secured his place in the next generation of ice yachting.