High-Speed Thrills on Ice

By Anne Morrissy

On any given winter Wednesday, a dedicated group of passionate weather-watchers might be spotted lunching in a local establishment (Chuck’s Lakeshore Inn in Fontana is a favorite) and animatedly discussing that day’s conditions for the sport that brings them all together: iceboating. Since 1933, members of the Skeeter Ice Boat Club have devoted themselves to the organized racing of some of the fastest, non-motorized vehicles on the planet. Given the right conditions, iceboats — sleek, aerodynamic sailboats on raised blades called “runners” — can reach speeds of almost 100 mph. “At those speeds, the sensation is awesome, because you’re down within inches of the surface of the ice. No other vehicle is quite like it,” explains club member Birdell “Burleigh” Brellenthin. And Brellenthin would know — he took up competitive iceboating after returning from two tours as the navigator of a B-29 bomber in both World War II and Korea.

However, the perfect conditions to achieve such speeds in an iceboat are often elusive. “It’s such a fluky sport,” explains longtime Skeeter Ice Boat Club member Fritz Button, going on to list the many conditions that must be met in order for iceboats to race. First, of course, there must be ice. Button says most of the iceboats racing today need a consistent thickness of around 4 inches at minimum for safe conditions. “We have what we call ice checkers,” Button continues. “They go out and walk the lake and look for seams and thin spots in the ice and holes and anything that might be a danger to an iceboat. It takes an experienced group quite a while to check it out.”

Ice formation depends both on the weather and on a lake’s overall size and depth. On smaller, shallower lakes, ice may form early in the winter, while large, deep lakes like Geneva Lake can take a long time to freeze. Because of their size, Lake Como and Delavan Lake usually freeze earlier in the season, but this leaves them vulnerable to “getting snowed out,” in iceboat parlance. The sharp runners on an iceboat can only clear a light dusting of snow, and Button says snow can easily blow and drift into frozen piles, which are very dangerous to iceboaters. Additionally, air temperature is always a concern — even at lower speeds of 30 to 40 mph, windchills can quickly lead to frostbite. “It’s an unwritten rule to not sail if it’s below 10 degrees,”

Button explains. “You can freeze your face very quickly.” And always, no matter what, iceboaters are at the mercy of wind conditions: 7 to 8 mph at minimum but no more than 25 mph or it’s too dangerous.

Due to these limitations, there are relatively few places on earth suited to a competitive iceboating season. Scandinavia is one of them, New England is another; so are parts of Canada. But historically, the sport has been particularly active right here in the Upper Midwest, and for much of the past nine decades, the Geneva Lake area has served as an epicenter of the sport, thanks in no small part to the Skeeter Ice Boat Club.

BUILD A BETTER ICEBOAT

The earliest known iceboats were invented in the Netherlands in the 17th century for use as work boats along the frozen canals. By the late 1700s, iceboats began appearing on the Hudson River in upstate New York as a hobby sport for wealthy farmers to pass the time during the long, cold winters. In the 19th century, iceboating spread to the Midwest — their earliest mention in The Lake Geneva Herald dates to the 1870s.

At that time, all iceboats were “stern- steerers,” large boats with the steering mechanism located at the back of the boat, similar to a traditional sailboat. However, due to the design and the extreme speeds these iceboats achieved, stern-steerers proved difficult to control. So around 1930, a Fontana boatbuilder named Walter Beauvais set out to build a better iceboat. To create more stability, he moved the steering mechanism to the bow, and simplified the boat’s design in order to use a single, 75-square-foot sail. He named his new model the “Beau-Skeeter.”

According to Harry “Buddy” Melges Jr., a multi-decade iceboat racing champion and two-time Olympic sailor whose father, Harry Melges, worked with Beauvais on the front- steering design, the invention of the Beau-Skeeter revolutionized the sport of iceboating by offering racers a relatively standardized, affordable and more stable boat. “The front-steering boats are under much better control than the stern-steering,” he explains.

Not long after inventing the Beau- Skeeter, Beauvais bought a boat company in Williams Bay, where he produced his new model amid increasing competition from a handful of other boat companies who recognized the new design’s benefits and began producing their own Skeeter versions.

THE SKEETER ICE BOAT CLUB

In March 1933, a group of iceboating enthusiasts, including Beauvais and Melges’s father, met at the home of F. Arthur Andersen in Williams Bay and formed the Beau-Skeeter Ice Boat Club. According to the bylaws devised that day, they formed the club to “encourage ice yachting, to promote the social interest and good fellowship of all persons interested in ice yachting and to stimulate and promote races under reasonable and uniform rules.”

The group adopted the racing rules of the larger, regional Northwest Ice Yachting Association. Five years later, as members of the group purchased iceboats from a variety of boatbuilders, the club voted to change its name simply to the Skeeter Ice Boat Club.

According to Jane Pegel, racing champion and a past commodore of the Skeeter Ice Boat Club, the original members of the club worked hard to make the sport accessible to all, keeping the dues low and implementing both men’s and women’s racing. Pegel took up the sport as a high school student in the late 1940s and says that joining the club helped her learn how to translate her skills as a “soft-water sailor” to the ice. “The people who were members of the Ice Boat Club at that time — many of them original club founders —were very generous and helped me become accustomed to what the differences are between the sailboat and the iceboat,” she says.

THE ICEBOAT CENTER OF THE WORLD

Thanks to the work of Walter Beauvais’ Williams Bay shop and other local boat companies like the Palmer Boat Company in Fontana, the Geneva Lake area had already earned a reputation as a hub of commercial iceboat building dating back to the 1930s. Although Beauvais’ shop closed in the 1940s, a boatbuilder named Bill Boehmke joined the cottage industry in the 1950s and began building Skeeters, eventually moving his operation to Fontana and extending the iceboat-building tradition here.

By the 1970s, many people involved in the sport began sailing vintage Skeeters that they worked to keep competitive on the ice through extensive upkeep and maintenance, even disassembling and rebuilding the boats when necessary. “Over the years, there have been very few professional builders of iceboats,” explains current Fleet Captain Steve Schalk. “Since most of those builders went away [in the 1970s], you can’t just go order an iceboat anymore. You virtually have to build your own. The large majority of people who get involved in iceboating now will buy a vintage boat and fix it up.”

For more than three decades, Pegel and her late husband, Bob (another avid iceboater and member of the Skeeter Ice Boat Club), ran a full-service shop in Williams Bay called Sailing Specialists Inc., which excelled at the optimization of vintage iceboats. “We would repair boats or rebuild boats that people sailed all over the area,” she says, explaining that many iceboaters will travel from Minnesota to northeastern Wisconsin to Madison to Geneva Lake to Michigan and beyond, chasing regattas and the right ice conditions on any given weekend.

Pegel says that the combination of these elements — weather conditions, the area’s lakes of various sizes and depths, the presence of so many boatbuilders and repair specialists, the active iceboating community — earned the Geneva Lake area, and more specifically Williams Bay itself, the nickname “Iceboat Center of the World.” It is a moniker that dates back at least as far as January 1966, when the camera crew from the nationally televised “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” arrived in the area to film the Northwest Ice Yachting Association’s annual regatta, bringing national attention to the sport. In the 1990s, village signs designed by Williams Bay artist and Skeeter Ice Boat Club member LaMarr “Sparky” Lundberg proudly included the phrase as well.

ICEBOATING TODAY

Today, 87 years after its founding, the Skeeter Ice Boat Club remains an active racing group in the Geneva Lakes area. However, as with many cold-weather sports, warming winters have taken a toll. “With the climate warming, it seems to be getting harder,” Button says. “When I was a kid, some years we used to be able to get out on Lake Como even before Thanksgiving. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”

Schalk agrees. “People who believe that climate change isn’t real aren’t iceboaters,” he says.

In order to complete a regulation racing season and award trophies, including the humorous “Oh No” trophy for the club member who has “gotten the wettest,” according to Brellenthin, the club requires a minimum of five races for each series, and in recent years they have only just cleared the minimum. “Some of the older members will tell you that they remember years when we got in more than 30 races in a season,” Schalk adds.

Despite the challenges, optimism prevails for those who love the sport. “We’re not giving up yet,” Schalk says.

Brellenthin, now 95, no longer races competitively, though he was able to get out for a ride last winter and hopes to do so again this year. When asked what keeps him coming back winter after winter, he says, “The competition, the thrill, the camaraderie. I would never leave in the winter to go to Florida or anywhere else because of the iceboating. It’s been a tremendous part of my life.”

Button agrees: “They say it’s the closest thing to flying.”

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Phyllis Janda with the Williams Bay Historical Society and Steve Schalk with the Skeeter Ice Boat Club for supplying photos. Also, many thanks to Steve for assistance with photo identification.

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