Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

Frozen cheeks, high speeds: iceboating might become YK’s coolest winter pastime

It’s 11:00 p.m. and I’m pressed flat on my back in the cockpit of a giant toothpick skimming across Yellowknife Bay at 70 km/hr. It’s pitch black, and the only sounds are the rattle of the iceboat’s skates and the electric ping of the lake freezing.

An hour earlier, I’d read about the Whitehorse man who died several days ago after skating into open water. Every dark patch seems like a hole waiting to swallow me up, but I’m going far too fast to avoid anything. My cheeks feel anesthetized. My hands are frozen into claws. Yet I honestly can’t remember the last time I had this much fun.

I’ve been a sailor my whole life. To understand what a revelation iceboating is, you have to remember us sailors are the only people capable of being scared shitless at 20 km/hr. On a gusty day, racing a dinghy can feel like driving a Ferrari when you’re really moving at a jogger’s pace. Now compare that to actually sailing across a bay at 80 km/hr powered by wind alone.

In some ways iceboats feel similar to high performance dinghies like 49ers. Both are light, touchy and absurdly fast. However iceboating is far more two-dimensional: you’re skimming across a flat surface like a bobsled rather than bucking around in waves.

For the past week, I’ve been out sailing several times with Julian Yates, who owns “Ice Cube,” Yellowknife’s only working iceboat. Rumour has it there are two other iceboats in Yellowknife, but the sport has never really taken off due to the brevity of the season – by the time the ice is thick enough there’s usually too much snow for the iceboat’s skates.

This year was different. The snap freeze followed by two relatively dry weeks turned the big lake into an ice sailor’s paradise.

We started sailing on Remembrance Day, darting in between the houseboats and testing our luck on the five-day-old ice on the far side of Dog Island. Since then, we’ve ventured out across Yellowknife Bay.

Low and sleek with the mast raked back like the lanteen sail on a Nile River boat, Ice Cube is a Formula One of the iceboating world. With a mere 10-12 knots of wind, she can get up to 80 km/hr.

She’s part of the International DN class: a 12-foot, single-handed design dreamed up by employees of Detroit News – hence DN –1938. The class is still popular and raced across Canada, Europe and the U.S.

For all her speed, Ice Cube feels surprisingly sturdy. However, Julian did manage to flip on a breezy day last week, and I got her up on two blades during my last nighttime cruise.

I was rocketing towards the tip of Latham Island, pinching into the wind to try to get around the point. It was so dark I didn’t see the low-lying island off the tip of Latham until it appeared less than 50 metres in front of me. I cranked the tiller hard over, skidding Ice Cube through the tack like a hockey stop.

Other than that, it’s been pretty safe.

VIDEO: Julian Yates takes Ice Cube for a light wind cruise around Yellowknife Bay. | Mark Rendell