Thinking Ice For Fun, by Lloyd Roberts


I have been sailing ice boats for more than 30 years. The first 20 years or so was racing DN class boats, very exciting, wonderful camaraderie, great fun, and with building and designing ice boats and writing about them, a year round sport. Winter can be the best time of year.
Then I began having stamina problems, the gradual onset of coronary problems. I stopped racing and became more aware of the sublime moments and kinesthetic pleasure of ice sailing. I switched from sailing for excitement to sailing for fun with less excitement. I explored parameters of comfort, ease of sailing and handling, economy of time and money, and choice of ice boat type.
In the following pages I hope to pass on what I have learned in the past few years. Instead of focusing on pushing the DN to its and my limits I have broadened my interests to include designing the Gambit two seater, modifying the DN for pleasure sailing (“touring”), rebuilding a small skeeter (Northeaster), restoring a small stern steerer, and working on and sailing briefly a larger classic stern steerer.
This has all been fun, interesting, and I hope I can catch and help your interest in non competitive “touring” ice boat sailing.
Racing is unquestionably the quickest way to learn how to sail ice boats in varied conditions and especially the art of sailing down wind in light air. Try it if you have a chance, you might get addicted, but if not you are not a second class citizen. Welcome to sailing for fun.

We wrote the original “Think Ice” back in the 1970’s with DN racing as the focus. Thirty years later, DN racing is alive and well and there has been a great deal of refinement of both the boat and the way it is sailed. The racing DN is much faster now and much more expensive. With super flexible “rubber” composite masts and sails cut to suit and proper tuning the DN can handle a remarkable range of wind and skipper weight. But you can’t build the high tech mast out of lumber yard wood and it will cost more than an complete older DN. New sails are pushing $1000 and competitive runners are $1000 a pair. The serious racer often has several sets of runners, hundreds of pounds of them. Henry Bossett won the North American’s with one set of plate runners, likely the only ones he had.
The competitive skipper wears skin tight clothes to reduce drag, wears light weight uninsulated track shoes for running speed at start, and lies down on his back in the boat with the boom on his neck trying to see. Is this the way to enjoy a day of sailing? If going as fast as possible and getting around the buoys first then it is. Racing is exciting.
There is another way to sail ice boats besides racing. Sailing just for the fun of it rather than glory and excitement is called “touring” whether you actually go any where or not. The pleasure of sailing does not have to be directly proportional to speed. Speed is indeed fun but if we are not racing then other aspects contributing to the pleasure of sailing may be indulged in.


The supine DN racing position is not comfortable because we have to hold our head up to see well. The neck tires quickly, even if exercised year round, gaining an inch of collar size. The light weight skiing helmets (eg. “Jofa”) often used do not offer the protection of a Snell approved motor cycle helmet and we do travel at motorcycle speeds. Sitting up like a civilized human or somewhat slouched like the rest of us leaves the head free to turn as we look around which is important for safety, and our neck is more or less vertical which it is used to. Vision under a boom is much better than through a wrinkly scratched sail window because the racing boom is worn on the shoulder. DN’s before the speed mods did have the skipper sitting up and the boom high. The Gambit is designed that way on purpose. Most larger “skeeter” boats are sat in and score high in creature comforts. The only type of ice boat I have sailed that approaches the racing DN for discomfort is the older stern steerer where the skipper often lies down on one elbow facing forward trying to look forward with a crick in his neck and wrestle the tiller with free hand while holding the sheet with the hand he is lying on. If you sit up so you have better purchase on the tiller and sheet you have nothing to lean against and are likely to get thrown out if the boat spins out, which they like to do.
If you have a race DN, just detune it a bit by standing the mast up enough to raise the boom enough to see under, improve the back rest, possibly pad it, put in a foot rest to push yourself back and up and enjoy the view. You may hike more quickly. In the old days we softened the hike by loosening side stays. We also had stiff wood or aluminum masts and depended on limber planks to absorb wind gusts instead of a bendy mast and stiff plank in vogue today. Something has to give.
Comfort includes staying warm. We are likely not working as hard sailing for fun as racing. In the DN, Gambit, and other open boats there is a high wind chill factor. Since we are not obsessed with parasite drag we can bulk up on the clothes, good old snow mobile suit, puffy jackets, warm boots, etc. If the front zipper is drafty a section of newspaper over the chest (poor man’s down vest) works wonders. In a bigger sit in boat like a Nite, Whizz, or any of the skeeters, you can get by with one less layer on the legs.
Cold feet are no fun. Track shoes give great traction with their spikes but they are cold. The various traction things that can be stretched over boots do not have the spiky grip of track shoes. One of the better stretch ones is the “Stabilicer”, you can buy replacement heat treated sharpened sheet metal screws for the Stabilicer that you can then just screw into boot soles and replace when they get dull. The stingy skippers just use hardware store sheet metal screw but they dull quickly. These do not penetrate snow as well as track shoes. My best choice is to buy the track shoes with long spikes, cut off the front sole of the track shoe with its spikes and contact cement it to the bottom of your comfy insulated boots. (Grind the boot sole flat for good glue binding). LL Bean “Snowsneaks” are nice and warm and light but the soles tend to come unglued from dragging the feet to stop as done in DN’s. A leather insulated boot may last longer.
The catalytic toe warmer work really well, giving off heat all day. They are “green”, consisting of iron powder and salt: non toxic. LL Bean sells them, and hand warmers, in bulk bags. At about $3 a day for both they are a bargain. The best hand covering I have found is “choppers mitts” (Cabela’s) made of deer hide with some kind of insulation, XL size with some kind of light glove, such as sold for XC skiing, inside. The mitts and gloves sold for snowmobiling aren’t that warm and don’t stand up to sheeting stress (with one exception, a pair of moose hide mitts from Canada that lasted for many years). Then you can pull off the mitt for finer work and not expose the fingers to cold steel and the heat envelop stays in the mitt waiting to warm up your pinkies again.
The comfiest ice boats are single seater skeeters with upholstered seat, back, and sides of cockpit, like riding in a sleeping bag with everything but head and shoulders in out of the weather. The two seaters are a bit drafty with one person, they are made for a cozy passenger.

Ice boating is inherently dangerous, like most winter sports. You are separated from ice water by a temporary thermoplastic of varying strength and appearance that often has thin spots or holes in it, guaranteed on larger lakes. Your ice boat is highly stressed, travels at high speed, is somewhat fragile, and is prone to mechanical failures. When least expected you may need help to get home or even stay alive. DON’T SAIL ALONE. Sailing alone on known ice is foolish, on unexplored ice it is suicidal, really.
Iceboating safety is a comprehensive subject and is addressed in detail in “Think Ice Safely”.


The race tuned DN can be “easy” to sail when it is set up properly so the rubber mast bends with puffs and depowers the upper sail, the boat accelerates instead of hiking. However, setting the boat up correctly to do this is not easy nor is handling the boat to get it into “warp speed” where the rubber mast really works.
The non racer, often inexperienced, needs a boat that is not tuning critical or handling critical. But the laws of physics are the same, and some attention to detail is at least helpful and may be essential.
The ice boat simply will not work if the runners are “out of line” and not parallel. The tolerance of being parallel is not a visible fraction of an inch but on the order of a few thousandths of an inch. This not tape measure work. This is best done in the workshop and the chocks epoxied into place so alignment is permanent. There are various quick measuring schemes for alignment on the ice, the best being a rifle telescope sight fitted to the edge of the runner and aimed at a distant point and repeated with the other runner. This is most useful to check alignment when in doubt. If the chocks can be loosened for adjustment on the ice they are likely to adjust themselves out of alignment while sailing in heavy air or sliding around buoys or simply spinning out. Before doing the definitive alignment the runner edges should be checked to see if they are straight. Plate runners can get bent, even on DNs, probably during a high speed spin out. They are quite springy and surprisingly hard to straighten. It can be done with a sledge hammer or large “C” clamps. A hydraulic press is easier. Go to for papers on runner alignment. Rusty runners simply won’t work. Runners are not truly flat, there is a gentle curve or “profile” to the edge. This is best judged on a flat hard surface such as the top of a table saw, or ideally a machinist’s straight edge, with a light behind the runner. A good all purpose profile is about 14 inches between where an 8 Thou. Feeler gauge stops when slid under the runner from either end, pressing the runner down at the pivot bolt. Runners that have been sharpened with a hand held belt sander or files tend to grow a hollow near the pivot bolt from repeated wear on the ice and resharpening the visibly dull area. These hollow runners are inexplicably slow. Consult with a competent racer.
You only need one set of runners for 98% of your sailing, usually plate steel. Racers have more than one set with varying profiles and blade widths. You might enjoy a set of angle iron “slush” runners for soft ice spring sailing. See the Appendix for instructions for home buildable slush runners and “Skunners” which are the tips of junk skis fitted to plate runners so they ride on top of slush. Sailing in slush on a warm March day is a blast.
Back to the “Ease” of sailing. After we have stood the mast up a bit by shortening the forestay and or moving the mast base backward we will likely find the side stays too short. Additional spacers can be made from stainless strapping which is sold already drilled with holes every inch at marine hardware stores. For the cheapskate, flattened lawn chair tubing works although the holes stretch after a while. The next easy fix is adding two more blocks to the sheet to decrease pulling effort. This may make the sheet too short. It also decreases responsiveness of sheeting so there is a trade off. This is especially effective for DNs and Gambits. If this keeps the sheet from flowing out easily you may need larger sheaves on the blocks (expensive) or smaller sheet diameter or two diameter sheet where smaller stuff runs in the pulleys and the holding end is larger. The racers use these “tapered sheets” so they can have smaller sheaves and get the boom lower. Do NOT go to any kind of “jam cleat” to hold the sheet, you absolutely need to be able to let out sheet right now. The usual ratchet block is just fine. Plain, cheaper, twisted Dacron line is fine for a sheet, it is easy to grip and the ratchet block is effective, it is not as classy as colored braided stuff. Do not use el cheapo poly.
We have used lots of different sails over the years; there is a big choice out there, especially in DN sails due to race skippers feeling they have to have the latest sail or that their problem is that their sail has “blown out” and lost its winning shape. There are sail fads and there are a lot of used sails. I favor a full sail for touring over a flatter “speed” sail. The fuller sail is less critical to sail (less likely to stall) and will get you home better in fading afternoon zephyrs. The fuller sail may not be quite as fast as a flat “speed” sail nor point quite as high. It may well go faster and easier down wind and certainly will on slow ice or in snow. If you are going to indulge in two sails, get a “storm sail”, either a made to purpose smaller sail or a cut down full size sail (18 inches off the bottom). You will find yourself using the storm sail quite a bit. The full size DN sail is larger than it needs to be much of the time. Reef points are very nice, the Gambit sail is designed for two sets of reefs. They can be put into a DN sail by any sail maker. Very old DN sails may already have them. You need a halyard extension, a length of wire to attach to the halyard. A storm sail should have the extension attached to the head of the sail. Both storm sail and full sail should have tell tale ribbons, best with small windows so you can better to see the off side ribbon, the one that counts. Some prefer trailing edge ribbons, easy to install. Ordinary kitting yarn works OK, you can pull it through sail cloth with a darning needle. It also makes fine forestay tell tales, something else you really need at no cost.
In heavy air, attaching the halyard to the head of the sail as close to the mast as possible (if there are several choices in the head board) allows the sail to twist open and spill some wind. Slacking the side stays also spills wind and reduces hiking. This works in any size boat.
The next step in civilizing the DN is to add a “springboard” forward to extend the steering runner 2 or 3 feet. This improves the ride immensely and reduces hiking tendency. An old plank, especially a too flexible one, can be planed down to make a nice spring board. There is a tendency to make skinny spring boards (less wood, lighter weight) but it is better to err on the robust side: look at the ones on skeeters, they look like diving boards. There are high torsion loads and bending loads at times. A broken spring board causes total loss of control. A DN with a springboard is a “Super DN”. Usually a longer plank 9-10 feet long is used too. This really brings hiking under control. A “Super DN” might be somewhat faster on a reach due to increased stability. It is less nervous at high speed. My experience is that it is slower racing, I think due to increased turning radius and speed loss in tacking. There is also more parasite drag from the extra structure.
The super DN fuselage is a good deal heavier due to the spring board, 60 -70 ponds instead of around 40 pounds. You put it on the car one end at a time. No worse than an old style Sarns plans DN built of ¾ inch boards and ¼ ply. The longer plank is heavier and it needs to be a couple of inches wider at the center than the 8 foot DN plank or it will be too flexible. The ride is worth it.
The side by side two seat Gambit is based on the super DN, just widened and lengthened. It uses DN hardware and runners. Originally it was sailed with a DN sail but did not have enough power for 2 people. The mast is lengthened to 19 feet. In heavier air a single reef makes the sail DN size, very useful, and a double reef DN storm sail size, rarely used with 2 people but nice solo in heavy air. The Gambit is easily car topped, one end at a time. Anything larger needs a trailer.


The Lockley Skimmer 45 is the hands down economy winner. They only cost a few hundred dollars complete some 30 years ago and can still be bought used for about the same. New ones, made in USA, are $1475 in the box. Spare parts are available. The Skimmer comes apart quickly for the back of the soccer Mom van or can be carried in the back of a pick up all in one piece. They sail surprisingly well. The only maintenance is taking off the runners and sharpening and greasing them. Hang the boat from a couple of nails, indoors or out. Paint the steel tube frame if it rusts too much. Oil the joints yearly. Used Skimmers are usually for sale because they don’t work any more: their runners are rusty.
The runner up is of course the ubiquitous DN from $1000 and up, way up for race ready. Maintenance can be as little as runner care and the occasional coat of paint or varnish, to hours in the shop for each hour of sailing for the compulsive fuss pot racer. Other than some depreciation for a new boat a used DN nicely cared for will not decrease in dollar value ( the dollar itself will decrease in value). Buy DN’s as an inflation hedge.
For setting up a used DN consult “Think Ice” (buy from The book was written in the ‘80’s and is good for the older DN. The later supplement chapters are pertinent to newer race tuned DN’s. The big difference between older and newer DN’s is stiff wood or aluminum masts vs. newer super flexible masts. The stiff masts are used with flexible planks and the flexible masts are used with stiff planks. The stiff masts often come with quite flat sails for speed. The newer and much older sails tend to be fuller, the latter from age. The newer fuller sails are flattened by the bendy masts. Rigging varies considerably depending on whether the boat was set up with a lot of back rake to the mast, modern, or antique straight up and down. DN fuselages are often owner built with the cockpit sized to fit, check that out especially if you are tall or wide.
Once beyond the DN and its relatives, the cost in everything goes up exponentially, just like water boats. Trailers, storage, size and weight of parts. Often custom or owner built parts, etc. add to time and expense.
After the DN are a variety of slightly larger boats, some open like the D14 and Arrow, some enclosed like the popular Nite and various other designs which were built in small numbers years ago and new designs called generically “Pocket Skeeters” that are appearing from home workshops. The pocket skeeters are trying to fit together comfort, speed, and portability with some success.
The Nite is a cozy two seater or roomy single seater. Most are factory built and are still in production. Spare parts and accessories are available and there is a good class support organization. They are supposedly car topple, but that is pushing the envelope. It is heavy enough that two people are needed to move the fuselage and to put the up mast unless you are very strong and clever. Because of their popularity and class support they are 2-3 times as expensive as the DN. They are raced in the mid-west.
The Arrow is a big open two seater with a heavy fiberglass indestructible fuselage. It was popular years ago but has been nudged into the background by the Nite, which is far more comfortable and better boat.
There is an anomaly, at least in the Northeast, that often older big boats can be bought for prices similar to good DNs, the market being soft due to the inconveniences of ownership. On the other hand, new big boats can run well into five figures. Speed, comfort, ego, pride of ownership, etc. all have their costs.
Then there are the real “Big Boats” generically called “Skeeters”. These designs started to appear in the late’30’s as alternatives to the large 20-40 foot stern steerers of turn of the century origin that got bigger and bigger. The defining designs are the Renegade and Yankee, both bow steerers intended to be “Small Boats” for the same reason “Pocket Skeeters” are emerging 70 years later: size, cost, transportability, performance. The Renegade and Yankee are defined class boats still very much with us today and popular on bigger ice. There are many other big boat designs of similar purpose. These are most popular in the mid-west and in New Jersey where the country’s first boat club, North Shrewsbury Ice Yacht Club, was established at Red Bank. History and nostalgia are strong down there, and the club house is charming, but global warming has made NJ ice inconsistent. There are also historic stern steerers kept and lovingly restored for sailing on the Hudson, Lake Champlain, and Lake Winnipesauke.
Stern steerers are wonderful to look at, the larger ones majestic. My limited experience is that they are often hard to sail, uncomfortable, cumbersome to set up and transport. They do have mystique, make lovely rumbling noises and are totally different from the bow steerers. You might get bitten by the bug if you are susceptible to the lure of antiques and are bored by usual ice boats. As a second or third ice boat to provide challenge and amusement, why not. As a useful all around touring boat, maybe not.
Used boats of any size usually need some attention. Runners are often rusty with hollow profiles from careless sharpening. Runner chocks should be assumed to be out of line. Halyards are often frayed or have pulley problems, consider replacement if in doubt. Steering gear should be carefully vetted, losing control is dangerous. Fresh paint/varnish will protect from weather. Trailers always have bad lights and often bad tires. Scraping and painting will slow down road salt rust. Sails have often been used as squirrel condos becoming horribly stained with squirrel dung and urine. This can be mostly removed by scrubbing and soaking overnight in straight Clorox. Rinse well. Surprisingly the sail cloth and stitching survives this treatment. Battens often need replacing. Changing from old stiff warped wood battens to modern tapered fiber glass/carbon battens can make an amazing difference in sail shape and performance. Replacing old high friction sheet blocks with modern blocks all the same size and appropriate line of correct size makes sailing much nicer. Seat upholstery of the big boat may need redoing for optimal creature comfort.
Big boats are not for the novice. They are faster than DNs and weighing several times as much require space to stop. A capsize, a non event in a DN, often results in a broken expensive mast and may result in a broken skipper if a several hundred pound boat ends up on top.

I have had more fun over a longer period of my life iceboating than any of several other hobbies and sports I have indulged in. Our fellow ice boaters are wonderfully varied people who are always good company. My wife of many years is used to my peculiar priorities during ice season. Winter has become my favorite season. I look forward to seeing you on the ice.

Lloyd Roberts, DN3314 February 2011

About Lloyd Roberts

Long time ice boater. Creator of the Gambit and Cheapskate boats. Author of the first definitive book on ice boating "Think Ice"One of the original members of the Chickawaukie ice boat club in Maine. Lloyd also lives on Chickawaukie and has played launch host to countless ice boaters over the years.
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