Coordinating and planning a competitive race dependent on the weather isn’t always an easy task.
Just ask Deb Whitehorse, who moved the U.S. Nationals DN Ice Yacht Races from Madison, Wis. to Putnam, Ill. on four days notice.
“We took a gamble and there was beautiful ice in Madison, but we knew that there was snow coming,” Whitehorse said. “We thought it was going to be 1 to 3 inches and we took a gamble that it would be on the low side.”
Competitors began arriving in Madison and were able to check out the ice Jan. 22 to prepare for this week’s planned event.
“Then it snowed overnight going into Sunday,” Whitehorse said. “We got on the high end and may have even gotten more than 3 inches.”
That left the organization searching for a backup plan. After exploring past locations and speaking with competitors, the group found itself narrowing in on Senachwine Lake in Putnam to host the national competition.
Competitor Pete Johns of Decatur helped bring the organization’s attention to the lake where he spends some time in the winter.
“This freeze’s early because it’s shallow, but it had a bunch of snow on it this year so I haven’t sailed it yet,” Johns said. “I had a guy drive up here on Sunday and it was perfect.”
The organization also sent a group to Putnam on Jan. 23 to inspect the ice and see if it would be possible to hold the races at this secluded location. The group saw the ice on the lake and gave the event a green light. Racers were notified the competition would be in Central Illinois, and the races were scheduled to take place through Friday with an extra day Saturday if further weather delays were needed.
“To go through all this drama of ‘Oh, no it snowed, what are we going to do?’ and then figuring it out and moving to the next place can be stressful,” Whitehorse said.
Despite the location change, Senachwine Lake was set to host about 70 ice yacht racers in three to four days of competition. Although the change might have been last-minute, the site isn’t completely unfamiliar to longtime competitors. Lake Senachwine played host to the U.S. National Races in 2011 and was the planned site of another competition a few years prior that was snowed out.
“We’re really delighted to be here and we feel really lucky,” Whitehorse said. “We were pushing through to make this happen. If people get to go sailing and be outside then everyone’s happy.”
Participants traveled from all over the continent, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and even from Canada. The event was scheduled to kick off with the first qualifier at 1 p.m. Thursday but the lack of wind caused a delay in the race’s start in one last twist.
The ideal conditions the sport hopes for is clear black ice, 10 to 15 mph winds and minimal snow, something regulars call “Hollywood” conditions. The sport requires a good amount of preparation for the racers – many use handmade boats with specific skates underneath that helps many of them reach speeds of up to 90 mph.
The handmade boats have to fit tight class specifications in order to be able to compete in the races. A number of racing participants also take part in building boats for themselves or other competitors.
The boats are not motor propelled and function more like a sailboat that is able to glide over top of the ice. The course is set up in a circle around the lake with a starting line off to the side, and each race takes about 15 minutes to complete a full run.
The No. 1 ranked racer, Ron Sherry, was in attendance to enjoy the lake. Sherry has been participating in ice yacht racing since his childhood and builds many of the boats in use today.
Sherry is a multi-time world champion, multi-time North American champion, multi-time European champion and has been involved in the sport since he was 9 years old.
“The speed and the camaraderie is kind of what it’s all about for me,” Sherry said. “It’s the speed and acceleration that gets you. I mean going 90 mph in a boat that weighs 46 pounds is pretty exciting.”
For Sherry and many others who take part in the competitions, it also is about the time they get to spend with others around the world who share a similar interest.
“The people that are involved in the sport are a lot of fun to be around,” Sherry said. “Whether they race or not.”
Camaraderie is a common theme for many in the competitions; whenever someone needs help, another often is willing to stop and offer it.
Group organizers expressed thanks to local conservation teams for being helpful and understanding in reforming the event on short notice.