JEFFERSON, Maine — Shining in the morning sun, the frozen surface of Damariscotta Lake was like glass, reflecting the blue sky and fluffy white clouds overhead. The ice, polished smooth by recent rains, was an ice boater’s paradise.

A niche sport, ice boating is simply sailing on ice. While ice boats come in many shapes and sizes, today’s most popular racing ice boat essentially looks like a boxcar on three large, metal skates called “runners,” powered by a vertical, triangular sail.

“This year has been absolutely amazing for ice boating because of the lack of snow,” said Bill Buchholz of Camden, president of the Maine-based Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club. “And then, when it does snow, we’ve had rain afterward, which then wets out the snow and levels out the ice. We’ve had that happen time and time again since before Christmas.”

A dozen ice boaters gathered on the north shore of the lake on Monday, Jan. 30, at the public boat launch in Jefferson. Raising their white sails, they rode a gentle southwest wind out onto the ice.

“We go where the ice is,” said Henry Capotosto, an ice boater from Rhode Island. “You have to, especially these days. You know, there’s not a lot of ice down in southern New England. A couple of smaller ponds, but nothing big and great to sail on like Damariscotta Lake. This is great.”

Powered by the wind alone, the ice boats sped over the glassy surface of the lake. Sitting or lying in the tiny hull of their boats, the boaters steered with tillers, attached to steering runners, and adjusted their sails, chasing and passing each other. Just playing.

They were a spectacle to behold, but the group was small compared to the one that had shown up over the weekend. Saturday and Sunday had seen about 40 ice boaters on the lake, racing and touring. And the weekend prior, it had been a similar scene — dozens of boats skating over the near-perfect ice. Across the road from the boat launch, Damariscotta Lake Farm inn and restaurant had been packed with ice boaters both weekends, and other local inns and hotels had housed the overflow.

“We had boats racing down one part of the lake, and on the other part of the lake, people were just cruising around,” said Jim Gagnon of Southport, currently treasurer of the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club.

The dozen or so iceboaters cruising the lake on Monday were the vestiges of the festivities, the boaters who wanted to remain on the rare ice as long as possible, snatching up a few more days of smooth sailing.

A need for speed

Hurtling over ice in an open compartment at 50 miles per hour doesn’t appeal to everyone. That’s one reason ice boating is a niche sport, one enjoyed by a handful of devoted sailors.

“The boats are powerful, and you can feel that power,” Buchholz said. “And that’s kind of intoxicating.”

Ice boats come in all shapes and sizes. But essentially, the boats are small, simple vessels balancing on three metal skates called “runners” and powered by a vertical sail. Designed to carry one to two people, the vessel is powered by the momentum of its sailor pushing it over the ice, combined with the force of the wind.

“You can go three to five times the speed of the wind,” said Capotosto, a retired supply chain executive from Rhode Island, “because the faster you go, the faster you go.”

Surprisingly, most ice boats are not outfitted with any kind of brake. Draping his legs over the sides of his boat, Capotosto demonstrated how most ice boaters slow to a stop — by dragging their boots, clad in ice cleats, on the ice.

“Like Fred Flintstone,” he said with a grin.

Capotosto’s little orange ice boat, outfitted with a carbon fiber mast that is designed for speed, tops off at about 60 miles per hour. At that point, he explained, the resistance of his weight on the ice prevents him from going much faster.

There’s also a limit to the speed of the wind you want for ice boating. Capotosto said that any wind gusting above 25 miles per hour is “beyond exciting,” and he personally wants nothing to do with it. An especially strong wind can tip an ice boat or break its mast, which is usually the most expensive component on the boat.

“Saturday we had strong winds out here,” said Gagnon. “It was blowing 15 to 25 knots. In fact, it was the first time I ever knocked my boat over. I went for a little ride down the ice.”

Gagnon was fine, and so was his boat. For safety, he — like many ice boaters — wears a full helmet and goggles — as is expected of all ice boaters — and he carries ice picks, rope, a safety flare and a first aid kit. And if he had been injured during the crash, there were many fellow ice boaters around to offer help.

“Our motto is never sail alone, and that’s our number one safety rule,” Gagnon said.

“If we go on a tour, we usually go with at least four boats,” Buchholz said. “If someone gets hurt or a boat is broken, one person stays with them and stabilizes the situation, and two boats sail back together to get whatever is needed — dry clothes or spare parts.”

Because of rules of the road taught and enforced by the club, ice boaters rarely crash into each other, Buchholz said. The most common cause of injury is when an ice boat breaks through the ice. That’s when survival gear such as ice picks and rope become crucial to get an ice boater out of the frigid water.

“But if you look at ice boating compared to downhill skiing or even horseback riding, I’d say it’s safer,” Buchholz said.

Scoping out ice

When it comes to planning, ice boaters fly by the seat of their snowpants. They have to. So many aspects of weather — wind, temperature, rain and snow — affect their ability to sail.

In Maine, Damariscotta Lake has been the prime spot for ice boaters recently, but that’s not always the case. Last winter, a lack of snowfall inland opened up Moosehead Lake for prime sailing for several weeks. Ice boaters packed Greenville lodges and were sailing to the north end of the lake and back.

The club also keeps an eye on Plymouth Pond, Lake Megunticook, St. George Lake, Alford Lake, Pemaquid Pond, Unity Pond, Clary Lake, Walker Pond, Sebago Lake, Great Pond and South Twin Pond.

“We go out and thoroughly inspect the ice prior to sailing,” Gagnon said. “And a lot of times we’ll do that on skates, and we’ll go out and skate for the day before we’re going to sail.”

Ice boaters grade ice on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best ice for sailing.

“It takes patience and tolerance because there might be a beautiful plate of ice on Friday, and then it snows on Friday night and the weekend is shot,” Buchholz said. “So you have to be able to roll with those sort of punches.”

A dying tradition

Originating in Europe, ice boating came to America in the late 1700s, when ice boats were raced on the Hudson River. Since then, the sport has evolved as ice boaters have developed new boat designs and experimented with different materials. Most ice boaters either build their own boat, acquire a secondhand boat (often passed down from a family member) or find a skilled boatbuilder to make a boat. Even today, ice boats are not commercially made on a large scale.

This is one of the reasons that Buchholz thinks that ice boating isn’t as popular as it was in its heyday, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Maine-based Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club was founded.

“People don’t tinker and make stuff as much anymore,” said Buchholz, who estimates he has built about a dozen ice boats over the years at his shop in Camden. “It requires time. People are often strapped for time … It’s pretty much a dying sport.”

Today, the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club has about 110 members, about half of which are from Maine and the rest scattered throughout New England.

“In Maine, we have a pretty high per capita participation rate,” Buchholz said.

But it’s really more of a regional community. This winter, ice boaters from throughout the northeast have been traveling to Maine for good ice. Most of them belong to the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club, as well as other ice boating organizations such as the New England Ice Yacht Association.

“Those just are from Long Island, from the Lake Ronkonkoma Ice Boat and Yacht Club,” said Capotosto, pointing to two ice boats on Damariscotta Lake on Jan. 30. “They drove a long way to get here, but this is good ice, so they’re willing to make the trip.”

Building boats and racing was the original focus of the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club, but over the years, the organization has evolved. While the club still organizes a few regattas (or races) each season, cruising and touring have become more popular activities among club members. The club offers prizes when a member sails 100 miles in a day, and for exceeding 60 miles per hour.

“There are not many clubs in the country that do what we do as far as scouting big, wild lakes and exploring them,” Buchholz said.

A lack of public awareness about the sport is a big barrier to entry, Buchholz said. Often, people assume it’s an expensive sport, but compared to other water sports, that’s not the case. Ice boats range greatly in cost, from a couple hundred dollars for an older-model, used boat to north of $20,000 for a modern racing boat.

In fact, on the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club website are three plans for making your own boat, including a boat called the “Cheapskate,” a design that can be built for $200 to $300 using “hardware store materials with a little help from the local dump and scrap piles.” The design was developed by Lloyd Roberts, an ice boating legend from Rockport, who is also the co-author of “Think Ice,” the definitive book on ice boat racing.

“I think a lot of people would like to get into ice boating and somehow they’re intimidated, and I don’t know if it’s because of our costumes or what,” said Bill Bunting, an ice boater, historian and author from Whitefield. “A lot of people, when they finally get the courage to come out and sail, say they’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.”

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...