On the surface, the idea of racing a boat across frozen waters at up to 60 miles per hour in subzero temperatures sounds crazy. Dig a little deeper . . . and it still sounds pretty crazy. Check out the winter waters of White Bear Lake and, if the conditions are right, among the ice fisherman and snowmobilers, you will see what look like sailboats. Except these sailboats will be flying across the ice at speeds you didn’t know could be achieved by anything without a motor, and you’ll think, “That looks fun and crazy all at the same time.”
Iceboating is the sport, and it draws only fanatics. Get on an iceboat once, lifelong iceboater Mike Parenteau says, and you’ll spend the rest of your winter days doing one of three things: iceboating, talking about iceboating or working on your iceboat.
The boats themselves are fairly simple contraptions: a sail, rudders and the body—a cockpit of sorts—where, depending on size, one or more boaters will lie to navigate their vessel across the ice. Getting the boat going begins with a running start or a shove. The boaters jump in, and before long, the boat is gliding across the ice at speeds faster than the wind. The lack of friction gives you the feeling of gliding—like the ground was never there to begin with.
The faint of heart will likely shy away from the sport, but the thrill is what boaters love. There is no feeling like being on an iceboat. Wander out to the lake and any boater will have plenty of stories to tell about iceboating. We chose three boaters, and these are their stories.
“I was probably about 12 years old,” Parenteau says. “My dad made me a little iceboat, my mom gave me a push, and I’ve been sailing ever since.”
Once hooked, Parenteau never looked back, and years later he built his own boat. Then he built about a dozen more. Now he spends his winters iceboating or working on his boats, and getting others interested in the sport. He owns a two-seater, called a nite, which he sails on White Bear Lake so he can give others the experience that he loves. “I’ve given a lot of people rides,” Parenteau says. “If people are interested in iceboating, I would encourage them to go down to the lake and start talking to guys on boats. I’m sure you’ll get a ride in no time.”
Like so many others, Parenteau is entrenched in the iceboating community and enamored with the history of the lesser-known sport. He purchased the first iceboat owned by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame. Built in 1905, the Wrigley is a true piece of iceboating history that Parenteau refurbished and now co-owns with two partners.
This sailing across the frozen lake is part of who Parenteau is, and as much as he loves the history and camaraderie of it, iceboating, ultimately, is all about the experience. “Iceboating is unique. It’s fast. It’s fun,” Parenteau says. “I used to say it’s like sitting on the couch with all the windows open and feeling the wind flying past.”
Thompson learned to iceboat from Mike Parenteau. “I was new to the area in 1978 and saw all the activities on White Bear Lake, so I built an ice shanty,” he says. “Staring into a hole not catching any fish wasn’t very fun, and I saw all the iceboats racing around the lake. I loved sailing, so I got a ride from Mike and I was hooked.”
One of the first lessons Thompson learned is one that all the boaters echoed: You can’t choose when you iceboat; when you iceboat chooses you. Conditions need to be just right to make it possible, which can lead to very short (sometimes non-existent) iceboating seasons. “The best time to go out is when there is black ice,” Thompson says. “Really hard ice with no snow that’s so smooth it’s like glass.”
Because the sport is so dependent on the weather, and the season can vary with conditions, a lot of boaters will travel from city to city and state to state just to find a lake to boat on. Thompson mostly stays close to home on White Bear Lake, and as much as he loves the speed and excitement of boating, for him it’s as much about the camaraderie as anything. “It’s fun just to go out in the middle of the lake and share a beer with other boaters,” Thompson says.
Mark Sather got a lesson in just how flexible an iceboater needs to be the very first time he went out. He had expressed interest in the sport to a friend, and one day received a call. “Get down to the lake, he told me,” Sather says. “The ice is great. The wind is up. Take it or leave it.”
Sather dropped what he was doing, got his cold-weather gear and joined his buddy on the lake. He became an iceboater that day, and has plenty of tales to prove it—including going through the ice. He was gliding along when his boat hit a thin spot. The water almost immediately engulfed him and he was in over his head. Sather managed to pull himself from the life-threatening cold water, which he attributes to having a pair of homemade icepicks he learned to make from his scouting days; he was spotted by an ice fisherman who helped him get to safety.
Sather’s story is not uncommon for iceboaters, and after the accident, he received calls and emails from other boaters telling him of similar experiences and wishing him well. “Safety is very important,” Sather says. “Make sure you have the proper equipment and talk to other boaters—they can tell you spots to avoid. As long as you’re cautious, the sport is safe.”
Nothing could stop Sather from taking part in the sport he loves, and he’s proven it since the accident. He relishes being outdoors, and has found the perfect winter activity. “I love that it’s totally green.” Sather says. “You are using no fuel and leaving nothing behind but lines on the ice. You leave no carbon footprint, and Mother Nature provides the fuel.”
(Editor’s note: Weather conditions didn’t allow for actual sailing on this day, but many thanks to the guys for sharing their beautiful boats.)