Sailing on Lake St. Clair's icy winter winds

When sailing “on the wind,” the iceboater may find himself “hiking,” with the boat skimming across the ice on two runners. Skillful handling is required to prevent harm to the boater and the boat.

When snow blankets the Michigan landscape and the temperature dips well below freezing, ordinary sailors huddle before a roaring fire while ice sailors head for the frozen waters of Lake St. Clair. Ice boaters spirits soar as the mercury plunges.

Ice boating or ice yachting, which is known as the fastest of all winter sports, originated more than 4,000 years ago in northern Europe. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, houses relics indicating that the first ice boat runners may have been made from bones. Up until the middle of the 18th century, sail-carrying boxes mounted on skates transported cargo and passengers along the frozen canals of Holland. During the American Revolution, European-style ice boats appeared on the Hudson River. And in Michigan lumber camps at the turn of the century, ice boat races entertained lumberjacks cutting the boredom of harsh Michigan winters.

Arroll at work in the Detroit News hobby shop in 1937.

During the winter of 1936-37, in the sawdust covered hobby shop of the Detroit News, master craftsman Archie Arroll along with ice boaters Joseph Lodge and Norman Jarrait designed a racing ice boat they called the Blue Streak 60. Later the craft would come to be called the DN 60, the DN standing for the Detroit News, and the 60 referring to the size of the sail. Howard Boston, whose family remains in the sailing business, helped construct the first sails.

Archie Arroll came to the Detroit area in 1923 from Scotland as a master ship builder. He got a job at Motor Boat Lane near Waterworks Park where he helped build racing boats for Horace E. Dodge and other prominent Detroiters. He leter accepted a position from W. E. Scripps, president and publisher of The Detroit News. Scripps wanted Arroll to build a model yacht as a Christmas present for one of his children. The model that Arroll built was a craftsman’s dream, polished to perfection. In 1934 Arroll became head of the News Hobby Shop, which occupied the seventh floor in the News’ garage at Third and Lafayette. There craftsmen, young and old, gathered to learn and to work under him. Model yacht clubs became popular across the city and model yacht-making even became part of the vocational training classes in the city school system.

The ice boat became a way to provide economical fun for Detroiters during the Depression. Those first DN runners, planks, spars and sails were built in the Hobby Shop for $32, including a $13 sail, and wieghed about 75 pounds.

The original Blue-Streak 60 ice boat, which became known as the DN 60.

      “It was Lodge’s idea to make the DN a front steerer,” Arroll said. “He (Lodge) undoubtedly knew more about ice boating than anyone. Norm was very clever working out the details.” The News welcomed everyone to use the News’ facility and tools.

Arroll recalled the debut of the first DN ice boat in the winter of 1936. “Nothing was moving that day”, he said. “The big (ice) boats like Deuce, Bernida, Flying Dutchman and those small skeeters couldn’t get going, the wind was so light. All of the ice boat gang watched the DN race across the ice. That little DN really surprised them the way she sailed with hardly any wind.”

Ice-boat racing caught on in Detroit where many auto industry leaders became staunch fans. Races on Lake St. Clair, with the famous Bingham’s Inn as headquarters, brought nationwide attention. Thousands journeyed to lakeshore each weekend aboard special Detroit Urban Railway cars. It is reported that bets up to four figures were wagered on the contests. Afterward the skippers, crews and spectators resailed the day’s events far into the night while sitting around the bar at Bingham’s. The Dodge brothers donated one of the most highly prized trophies — a $1,500 sterling silver bowl.

Essentially the DN-60 retains the same design as the early model with some refinements in sails and gear. It is a minimum-sized (12-foot) hull, which some say the skipper wears rather than rides in. It has a runner plank about eight feet long and carries a 60-square-foot sail which is very large for such a small hull. The DN is economical to build or buy and can be transported on a car roof.

Ice boaters preparing for a race on Lake St. Clair.

      The DN has become the most popular ice boat in the world, with about 1,000 registered sailors in the United States and more than 1,000 in Europe. Each winter the North American Racing Championship race is held, with location depending on the winter ice conditions.

Winter sailors zip along frozen waters at speeds of 50 to 100 miles per hour, a feat made possible by aerodynamics that accelerate the craft to three times the speed of the wind force. Though sailed like a boat in water, ice boats are trickier to handle when it comes to turning and stopping because of the speed and the lack of friction of steel blades on ice. In heavy winds, they often hang on the edge of becoming airborne. One hearty sailor put it this way: “An ice boat is a beast once it gets going. The closing rates between ice boats and other objects are so fast that if you have to think about what to do, it’s probably too late.”

Sailing expertise, cold weather, speed and a sense of danger are all part of the appeal. Enthusiasts come from all walks of life, bound together by the sense that the rugged Viking-like sport has purpose in a world filled with creature comforts.

Elmer Millenbach of Detroit sails across the finish line in Renegade III as winner of the 1954 Gold Cup Regatta.

By Pat Zacharias / The Detroit News