In the Spotlight

News & Features
It's not too cold to sail
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
January 7, 2002
Click for audio RealAudio

Skiers and snowmobilers are grumbling. There's not much snow in Minnesota this winter. But that's good news for some winter sports fans - like ice boaters. This is one of the best winters for ice boating in decades, and a couple of guys in Duluth are getting out on their boats as often as they can.

Ice boating
Tom Mackay and Bob Hom zip across the Superior Bay on their homemade ice boats. See an ice boating slideshow.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

It's easy to understand why Tom Mackay took up ice boating if you just stand in his backyard. Mackay grew up - and still lives - on Park Point in Duluth. The point is a thin strip of land nine miles long, more or less a sand bar that separates Superior Bay from Lake Superior.

On the lake side of the point, the water of Lake Superior is still open. But on the bay side, just off MacKay's backyard, the water's frozen. Miles of ice stretch away from his dock.

On a January afternoon, Tom Mackay shuffles out onto the ice behind his house. He's decked out in a fur parka, like a character in a Jack London story. Mackay's buddy Bob Hom shows up, and together they set to rigging the sails on a couple of ice boats.

These aren't like your usual sailboats. Imagine a sail attached to a motorcycle sidecar that's on skates.

Tom Mackay says he and Bob Hom started ice boating together in the 1950s.

"After school us kids used to go out there and rig them up," he says. "It was great entertainment, especially for a young kid of 14 or 15 years old. I had my own boat, and to be able to go that fast, it was pretty exciting."

Ice boating
Tom Mackay gets a push from Amy Hom. Mackay and friends built this "skimmer" style ice boat by welding together steel tubing. Skimmers are fast, but they work best on snow-free ice, which is hard to come by most years.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

There were maybe 30 ice boats on Superior Bay in those days. Bob Hom says there are about six these days. He and Tom Mackay own half of them. They built the boats themselves from kits, or from scratch.

"Anybody can build one," Hom says with a laugh. "It's not like a real boat. It doesn't have to float, so anybody can build an ice boat. You can build a high-tech ice boat, or a low-tech ice boat. My first ice boat was two 2x8's nailed together in the form of a cross, laid down with three runners on it, and it worked fine."

The design hasn't changed much. Three steel runners rest on the ice. One's out front, and there's one on the bottom of an arm that reaches out to each side. The overall effect is something like a sprawling, three-legged water bug. The sail sticks up from the middle of the frame. That's where the skipper sits.

Tom Mackay says the world record speed for one of these craft is about 150 miles an hour. But these boats don't go that fast.

"We probably run in the range of 30 to 50 mph, maybe even sometimes 60," Mackay says. "But there's always the fear factor. On an ice boat, you're always so close to the ice, and the ice is going by it seems so fast. Whatever speed you're going, it just seems two or three times faster."

Ice boating
Ice boating has been a popular activity on Superior Bay for many years. The Duluth Boat Club organized outings, including this one circa 1930.
(Photo courtesy of Duluth Public Library)

"It's a feeling like nothing else," Hom says. "The speed, the sound, getting a free ride off the wind."

Bob Hom and Tom Mackay sit on their ice boats and pull the sails tight. They creak away over the ice. It's slow going at first. But by the time they get a city block away they zip along at about 30 mph, and they race into the distance.

On the far side of the bay, a mile away, the water is still open, and two huge ships load cargo. The sun is setting - smoking orange behind the ships. The ice boat sails catch the orange glow as the two friends come clattering back across the ice. A group of skaters stops to watch.

Bob Hom says it's a great day for ice boating.

"It's warm, the wind's blowing, the ice is smooth," he says. "What more do you need? It's the old days. I did it when I was a kid, and I'm still doing it. It keeps me young."

Bob Hom and Tom Mackay have been ice boating together for 40 years. They say kids don't go ice boating on Superior Bay any more. Except for them.