Photo by Tammy Sawyer - www.tammysawyerphotography.com The 2006 DN Iceboat
North-American Championship Regatta

A Saga...

Geoff Sobering, US-5156

How crazy is this?

The International DN Ice Yacht Association's year-book allocates a prominent place for list of all past continental and world championship regattas. Each regatta has a short description of the circumstances and conditions of the event. Many of them are rather dry mentions of some dates, a lake, and the wind. A few are more involved. Perhaps the most epic is the 1985 Gold Cup (World Championship) where the fleet moved nearly 1000 miles during the week, and finally got the regatta in just under the wire at the end of the allotted time. The story of the 2006 North American Championship regatta misses the monumental proportions of '85, but it will enter the history as one of the more trying events for both competitors and race-committee alike.

Unlike "soft water" sailing events where the body of water at the regatta site is usually a known quantity and the wind is the only major variable, the number of elements that have to align correctly in order to hold an iceboat regatta is stupefying. In addition to the wind, the lake must be frozen, the ice thick enough, and there can't be any holes, too much snow, or too many bumps, cracks, heaves, or any other major defects. The temperature can't be too high (ice->water) or too cold (frostbite). In addition to setting the course and the other usual race management tasks, the race-committee must scout the sheet of ice to ensure there isn't anything like a hole hiding under a snowdrift. Imagine running a "summer-sailing" regatta if you had to got out before the racers and check the depth of the lake to make sure a new shoal hadn't suddenly appeared in the middle of the race course!

The best laid plans...

The DN class-association divides North America into three regions: east, central, and west. Every year the responsibility for running the championship regatta rotates among the three. In 2006 it was the eastern region's turn to host the North American Championship (aka the "NAs"). Organization of the regatta falls to the class' North American Commodore and the Eastern Region's rear-commodore, Andre Baby and Claude Morin, respectively. The date for the regatta is selected many months in advance to give competitors enough lead-time to arrange time-off; this year the dates were January 28th through February 4th. Usually, the host region will run the regatta in their local area. For the east, this is often Lake Champlain. In the winter of 2005/2006 the weather had conspired against iceboaters across the county. There were not many sailable lakes in North America large enough to hold the NAs. Luckily, in late January many of the sailable lakes were in the north-east. Early in the week before the regatta there were a number of possible venues in the Montreal area and on Lake Champlain. Prudently, the RC had selected a backup site, but it didn't look like it would be required with so many sailable primary sites. Things were looking good for the easterners.

A change of plans...

On Wednesday night (three days before the start of the regatta!) a storm moved across the north-east, dumping snow in a wide swath. Thursday morning Claude Morin posted a notice that the backup site had been chosen: the DN North American Championship regatta would be on Lake Winnebago in central Wisconsin, 1000 miles away from any of the primary venues! Eastern region sailors started preparing for the long drive "out west", and many mid-west DN'ers began planning to attend a regatta they hadn't expected to be able to sail in this year.

I was in the latter category. Originally, my tuning/travel partner and I were planning to head east for the NAs. We'd sailed in the World Championship the year before when it was in Wisconsin, and were hooked on the large regattas. However, a number of events conspired against us, and I had to face the harsh reality that I would miss the event. Is some respects it was a relaxing change; I shifted my focus to local sailing and regional regattas, and even started planning what to do with the travel money I was going to save... Something about counting stuff? Chickens and eggs? Nah... No worries...

That all changed when I absent-mindedly checked the DN regatta notices Thursday morning. I casually clicked the unassuming posting titled, "Final site for the NA & CDN Championships", expecting to see one of the eastern sites listed.

D'oh!

After I caught my breath, my first action was to send an e-mail to all the local DN sailors with the subject line, "Holy c--p! The NAs are going to be on Winnebago!" (yes, the actual e-mail had dashes instead of the two letters - I'm sooo lame sometimes...). Immediately I checked with my boss about changing my "Tentative" vacation time to "Out of the Office"; thankfully he said "ok" and I was off to the races (literally).

All of a sudden I had to switch from laid back club-sailing mode to full-out major regatta action. I registered in a hotel near the regatta HQ, started watching the weather forecasts for the regatta site, and began planning all the things I needed to do to get my boat ready. It was hard to keep focused at work, even worse because I had an important demo to give Friday afternoon. Luckily, the format for the DN NAs is very user-friendly. The regatta runs over a week from Sunday to Saturday, leaving the Saturday before and Sunday after for travel; registration is Saturday evening. Since I only had a two-hour drive from Madison to the launch site, there wasn't much pressure there. Normally Saturday is a day of practice and tuning with scrub races in the planned race course area. In this case, the weather forecast was for no wind until noon, so I planned a leisurely Saturday morning of packing, and expected to get to the launch-area around noon to setup and sail in the afternoon.

Friday...

The first hint that things might not go perfectly to plan was Friday when the large stern-steerers canceled their regatta, planned for the same section of the Lake Winnebago, after one boat euphemistically "found a hole" (translation: "crashed"). But hey, DNs are small and we have excellent race management with some very experienced locals who've been sailing Lake Winnebago for all their lives. We'll find a place to race, no problem...

Saturday: practice and registration

Saturday dawned with the weather stations near the regatta site reporting light wind or calm. There was some rain overnight and it was drizzling as I loaded the boat on top of the car. While I was driving north, some friends called to let me know that the launch site was being moved a couple of miles west to avoid drain holes in the ice near the original landing. They also reported it was raining, windless and very few people were even setting up, much less sailing. Later they called to say it had started to rain harder, it didn't look good for sailing that day, and they were heading back to the hotel; we agreed to meet there for lunch. So far, a nice relaxing start to the event. I got to the hotel before my friends, and found some of the Detroit Iceboating Club sailors had just arrived, and we hung out in the lobby for awhile, talking shop. Then we went out for a nice lunch at a restaurant nearby and ate with some other great friends from Traverse City. Registration in the evening was another great time to meet more old friends from around the country and talk about iceboating.

The next indication that this wasn't going to be the perfect regatta came when we heard that the class association's Vice Commodore, John Harper, had also "found a hole" that day and ripped the plank off his boat. While that may sound dramatic, it's a fairly common occurrence in the DN world, and John was able to repair his boat that evening in the well-equiped motor-home/shop of Jan and Meade Gougeon (of WEST System epoxy fame).

At the preliminary skippers meeting Saturday evening after registration, the RC announced that because no one had been able sail much due to the rain, and because of concerns brought up by Mr. Harper's adventure, the morning skippers meeting would be at the hotel (not on the ice, as usual) at 9:30. Great! I don't even have to get up early to scuttle down to the launch site and get setup. What a relaxing way to start the week. But no problems, as one of the organizers was overheard saying, "...we have all week".

Without the pressure to get up early or work on gear in the evening, I was able to enjoy dinner with some more friends, update my blog afterwards, and even relax with some TV in the hotel.

Wait.

Regattas aren't supposed to be relaxing...

Sunday: the official first day of the regatta.

At the 9:30am skippers meeting the RC announces that two teams are going out to scout the ice at locations on the north and south ends of the lake (Lake Winnebago is about 25 miles long north-south, so the conditions can be dramatically different at the two ends). I joined up with the southern scouting team. We checked a number of landings, but in every case, the ice over the shallow water near shore had melted to a dangerously thin layer and it was impossible to get out to the ice in the middle of the lake. A preliminary report cell-phoned from the northern team was favorable, so we grabbed a quick lunch and headed back to he hotel to hear the good news.

Well, the "better news". The northern landings were passable, but the rain had left a 1-2 inch layer of water on the ice with some pools as deep as six inches; iceboat runners are about 5 inches high, so sailing in those conditions would be miserably wet, not to mention how cold it would be standing around between races. Colder temperatures were forecast overnight, so the RC decided to check again in the morning and get started as soon as possible. Some people were going to stay out on the lake and continue checking the ice for problems, and monitor the rate water was draining. There'd be another skippers meeting at 6:00pm, after the years business meeting. A number of us headed out to the EAA Museum for an afternoon of sightseeing. The "annual argument" (aka: "meeting") was entertaining as usual, and we went out for another "dinner that couldn't be beat". While we were out it started raining, and then snowing. No worries, the water on the ice will absorb the snow and the cold will freeze the surface solid - yeah, that's the ticket... My blog-entry that night ended with "With some luck, we might even be able to start racing tomorrow afternoon."

Monday: Day two...

I woke up the next morning and looked out my window to see white everywhere. About an inch of snow had fallen. I got dressed and headed over to the hotel for the 9:30am skippers meeting. I honestly expected to hear that we would get back together at noon to hear when the ice would be ready for racing - iceboaters tend to the generously optimistic. The actual news was a bit different. A team had been out on the lake earlier in the morning, and reported things did not look good. Simultaneously, a group of sailors from Minneapolis had driven down to Lake Pepin (on the Mississippi River) and reported a great sheet of smooth ice with a light dusting of snow. The RC decided to shift the regatta to Lake Pepin (about 220 miles west). Everybody quickly checked out of their hotels and hit the road.

Weather is a funny thing. A uniform layer of light fluffy snow can be transformed into drifts and semi-frozen hummocks by just a little wind, humidity, and warm temperatures.

Guess what the weather was that Monday on Lake Pepin?

By the time I got to the launch site, it was late afternoon and the wind had died. A number of sailors were coming in from sailing the area. It was clear that the near ideal conditions of the early morning had changed. The ice was bumpy and the snow was now collected into scattered drifts, some quite deep. As a topper, there was a crack running across the river just off the launch area with some reportedly slushy, non-structural sections. How did they know that? Easy, a few folks had sailed into them and gotten a "bit wet". But, while not perfect, it looked doable, so everybody setup their boats and headed back to the hotel to re-register and grab some dinner. The morning skippers meeting and opening ceremonies would be on the ice at 9:30.

Tuesday: Racing?

Tuesday morning, the wind was light (as forecast). The opening ceremonies featured the national anthems and flags of all the countries represented at the regatta: Canada, Estonia, Germany, Poland, and the US. The wind picked up enough to flutter the flags, and soon enough we were headed out to the race-course (careful to cross the crack at the well-marked location!).

The wind held up, and at noon the course was set and the first race started. Unfortunately for me, light wind and sticky conditions aren't my forte, so My finishes were near the back of the fleet. But there was enough wind to keep moving, and the sailing was great fun, even if most of the boats were ahead of me. In all, we got sixes races in (three Silver Fleet and three Gold). Not bad. Current World Champion, Ron Sherry, current North American Champion Matt Struble, and 2004 NA champ John Dennis (aka "JD") were at the head of the Gold Fleet, making for exciting spectating for those of us in the Silver Fleet.

After sailing in, derigging, and covering the boats, most of us headed to "The Pickle Factory", a bar and grill right on the water at the landing in Pepin. Great food, good beer, and excellent company. A perfect end to a nearly perfect day. We were racing!

Wednesday: Racing!

Overnight, we got a bit of rain. This melted most of the snow drifts, leaving some mounds of slush, and a thin layer of water on the ice for Wednesday morning. Fast conditions. Even faster because the wind was up around 20 mph, gusting to 25. As a big-guy (a card-carrying member of the "100-Kilo Club"), these were my conditions - excellent, maybe I could improve my position... The RC sent the fleet out to prepare to race. The Gold Fleet started the rotation with their 4th race in an "up" phase of the wind - probably solidly over 20 mph. The carnage was immediate and dramatic. On the first upwind leg, I saw two masts fall down within 30 seconds. Another boat tore the Stainless Steel hound apart just after rounding the windward mark. I lost count of the number of boats that had to be towed back to the pits by the RC's ATV. It took awhile to clear the course for the Silver Fleet's first race. By then the wind was down a bit and we raced in near-perfect conditions for the rest of the day (well, OK, the ice was bumpy, and there were still some nasty snow/slush drifts, but we were racing!). The wind diminished slightly as the day wore on, but it was always windy enough to be exciting. The need to shift the course twice as the wind clocked around killed the chance for a seventh Silver Fleet race, but six races gave everybody a throwout.

The Results

Ron, Matt, and JD battled it out all day, but Ron was sailing better and finished ahead enough to join the Silver Fleet sailors watching the last race. Matt's string of 1st and 2nd place finishes netted him the next spot, and JD ended up in third place. On a personal note, due to a quirk in the scoring, my 19th place finish in the Silver Fleet scored me the second place trophy in the (virtual) Bronze Fleet!

Postscript

A number of people packed up and headed home Wednesday evening (I did), but many people stayed to continue sailing for the rest of the week. The Canadian Championship Regatta was scheduled for Thursday, with informal racing planned on Friday. As it turned out, there was no more sailing that week. Light wind, and ultimately snow, shut things down for the next two days.

Strangely enough, as I write this, a few weeks after the NAs, I'm again waiting to find out if or when another regatta will happen. This time it's the DN Central Region Championship, and a major storm is scheduled to cover most of northern Michigan (where the only sailable ice exists) with up to a foot of snow.

My boat's ready to go...