The Frozen Chosen

The Frozen Chosen

Some of this actually happened….

Four guys are sitting in the Black Diamond Hotel bar (est. 1929) in rural Alberta, eating steak and drinking beer. It’s the fall of 2013 and we’ve just finished scouting out locations in southwestern Alberta for future sailing venues. We’re on a high. Our sailing season ended well, with a great turnout of people and some real quality racing. Our club Facebook page is getting a lot of attention and the “big boat” sailors at the Glenmore Reservoir are showing a keen interest in what we’re doing. “How would you like to do 12 races in an evening, guys?”

Despite our optimism, there’s still some underlying concerns. Although 2012 finished well for us, participation in the 2013 season was down until late in the year. We don’t want to see the club’s momentum dissipate but we’re now staring in the face of the monster – our infamous prairie winter. All water in the province freezes over, like drive-your-SUV-onto-the-ice frozen. How can we use winter to our club’s advantage? By the second round of drinks we’d figured it out – sail on the ice!

“Let’s build r/c ice yachts!”

“How hard can it be, they’re a hull with a beam and a mast?”

“We can use our tx/rx from our boats, and our servos and our B rigs, so it would hardly cost anything!”

“Let’s make it a $50.00 max spending challenge, and you have to buy everything at Home Depot only!”

In true Canadian prairie style, in a bar, surrounded by seared red meat and barley-based beverages, four friends had hatched A Great Idea. We would put our creations on the ice at Ghost Lake, just west of Calgary, over the February Family Day long weekend. We christened the Great Idea the Ghost Cup Challenge.

Next stop – the internet! There we all learned a few things. Like maybe we needed to modify our Great Idea a bit. We discovered an organization called the International Radio Controlled Surface Sailing Association ( and, like the r/c sailing world, there’s different classes and categories of land and ice yachts. After (not) much discussion, we settled on the Class 2 box rule, which limits the dimensions of your craft but allows you to do anything you want within those dimensions. It helped that the maximum length of your ice yacht can only be 1 metre, which meant we all had a hope of fitting our creations into our vehicles once they were completed. The “built a boat in his basement and now he can’t get it out” disaster was thereby avoided. These things are important.

More compromises and more meddling with the Great Idea: using our IOM servos in an ice yacht would be akin to stuffing a Ferrari V12 into a golf cart; yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as too much power. “Wait a minute! These things tip over! I’m not going to wreck my B rig on the ice!” “How are you supposed to buy smaller servos and rigging at Home Depot?” “I’ll have to buy $400.00 worth of tools to build a $50.00 boat!” “No fair, he’s got a small machine shop in his garage!” “He’s got a garage!” “I started a Class 3 boat years ago that’s already 70% finished!” We are a measured, erudite bunch at the CMSA, slow to anger and quick to forgive. The Great Idea was modified thus, “Everyone build to Class 2, except you, who already has a Class 3. Spend whatever you want, buy wherever you want. Run whatcha’ brung!” The angels wept.

From the four masterminds of the Great Idea were added two more participants, giving us an even half-dozen. We hit our club Facebook page hard to let the whole wide world know what we were up to; we received lots of “likes” and encouragement, though our friends from Texas thought us a bit strange. They only see ice when the Dallas Stars play, I guess? And so, plans were made and discarded, ideas were bandied about, web info was freely shared, good discussion was happening.

Then it all got a little weird.

Let’s face it, our world of r/c sailing will never have the same popularity in Canada as lawn bowling, chuckwagon racing, or roller derby, so a certain level of support and camaraderie is necessary and welcome. A new adventure like r/c ice boating, the fringiest of the fringe, requires a whole new level of cooperation, frank discussion and positive encouragement.

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Calgary had a very cold, very nasty winter. Maybe the cabin fever did it, maybe it was a lack of sunlight, perhaps we shovelled the sidewalks once too often. Whatever the true reason – and the debate still rages – the noble and virtuous members of the CMSA turned to the Dark Side. Drawing from the recent America’s Cup campaign, our spirits of openness and love were debased into a cesspit of secrecy, misinformation, outright lies, leading photographs, trash-talk and mendacious performance data. Was it now about building your best r/c ice boat? Of course it was, but it was also about messing with your best friends. Fake photos would be posted on Facebook, along with mis-truths about certain people claiming to be testing out at Ghost Lake (Facebook allows you to check in at a location, even when you aren’t actually at that location). Any legitimate questions were met with scorn, derision and misleading answers. Whole flame wars erupted over our social media pages, and one member even confided in me that he was losing his mind to the constant texting cyber attacks from yet another member. (“Don’t respond to his texts, idiot…”) Members started getting delusions of grandeur and started actually naming themselves or their projects like they were America’s Cup challengers – Team Tuscany High Performance and Team Coventry Racing and Team Downtown Beltline. Other members weighed in and thought the names should really be Team Bouncy Castle, Team High School and Team Hello Kitty. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle.

The winter months crashed into one another and soon February loomed. On the Saturday morning of Alberta’s Family Day long weekend, six of us met for The Great Reveal. One by one, our creations were cloaked in towels or blankets and brought into the not-quite-the-living-room-not-quite-the-family-room-off-the-kitchen and unveiled for the first time to all of the assembled CMSA members, as well as the country and the world at large via live Facebook updates. After everyone’s labours were on full display, one question stood out strongly in the minds of those gathered, “Dude, is the coffee ready yet?”

Andrew created his hull and plank from cut-down carbon-fibre cross-country ski poles and had also made both a soft sail and a wing for his boat. His labours definitely exuded the whole Steve-Jobs-working-in-his-garage vibe.

andrew ice boat

Steve made everyone look bad by creating the winged wonder – an Art Deco-inspired hull shape with a wing sail and active anti-capsize foils, finished off blue and red monokote. His team name (Coventry) was emblazoned along the leading edge of his wing, borrowing heavily from Team Oracle USA. His vibe was along the lines of, “I’m single and cool and you’re not.”

Winter Ghost Cup

Ken had already begun work on a Class 3 boat before the Great Idea even started, and showed off a K1-inspired boat painted in the oh-so-cool yellow and blue livery of that most famous furniture store, Ikea.

Hans, who ceased all communications with the CMSA over the winter, hadn’t quite completed his boat but brought what he had to show off. There was some drivel about having to redo the floors in his basement over the winter or some such nonsense. His lack of completion was wholly unacceptable.

(Editors note: Hans has since completed his ice yacht and even though he hasn’t yet competed head-to-head with any others, most CMSA members agree that his is the one to beat for next year. Plus, as  you can see below, has been practicing even after the hard water turned wet again.)

hans ice boat w wheels

Chris went the America’s Cup route and bought the most expensive r/c land yacht he could find and then added ice runners to it. While taking some hassle from the other members for not building his boat from scratch, he posited a brilliant riposte by saying, “It would’ve cost me $500.00 in tools to build something. It was cheaper to buy it.” Heads may have exploded when the erudition of that comment sunk in. Or, maybe not. Chris has a strange and active imagination.

Finally, Mark proved to everybody that he is fact a machinist by trade. Alone amongst the entrants, Mark created his boat by using aluminium and carbon-fibre, with several one-off machined bits sprinkled throughout his creation. It was finished off in a menacing matte black. Mark’s boat had the whole Star Wars Imperial Forces vibe coming off of it in waves.

Our friend Stefan Dalberg, a lifelong racer of real ice boats, was also on hand to marvel at our creations. Stefan was everyone’s go-to guy on arcane subject matter like ice runner shapes and edge cuts. I think we amused him. Stefan later showed us a full-sized ice runner he built for his prototype ice yacht that he is going to finish by 2015 in the hopes of setting the new ice yacht world speed record. We felt like we were making soap box derby racers next to someone’s Formula One car….

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for – Race Day!

After the Great Reveal we all piled into our vehicles and made the short drive to Ghost Lake, just west of Calgary. Ghost Lake is renowned within the full-size ice boating community as one of the finest ice boating sites in Canada. It lies in an east-west axis, is very long, and the whole river and lake valley act as a natural funnel for the winds roaring off the Canadian Rockies. Upon arrival we discovered a full blown autocross race in progress, several ice fishing shacks, a few quads buzzing around and a number of dirt bikes with studded tires doing wheelies and jumps. We even found three full-size DN-class ice boats parked off to the side. It was the White Trash Circus brought to life.

We also discovered our new found nemesis – snow. On the ice. Which pretty much makes it impossible for r/c ice boats to go anywhere with ice runners. Maybe with skis, but not with sharp metal blades. A bit discouraged but secretly glad to get out of the cold, we drove back home. A discussion with Stefan showed the great frustration in any form of ice boating, whether full-size or r/c – conditions must be Just Right to be able to go ice boating at all. First of all, your ice surface needs to be clear of snow. That can only be accomplished in one of three ways – you get a very dry winter with little snowfall, you get some hurricane-force winds that blow the snow away, or you wait for the warm Chinook winds to melt the snow and hope it gets cold enough again over the evening to re-freeze everything. Then, on the day when your ice conditions are good you also have to hope that there’s some really strong, steady winds blowing. All of this has to happen, of course, on your day off. It’s hard enough as Canadians to put up with all the winter jokes made at our expense, but also requiring a certain kind of winter to go ice boating seems needlessly cruel.

A week later we tried again. It hadn’t snowed in some time and the weather forecast called for some heavy winds. With anticipation of smooth ice in our hearts we set off to Ghost Lake and drove our vehicles onto the ice. Parking next to the stationary DN ice boats we quickly discovered yet another issue with r/c ice boating – too much wind. Like way too much wind. Like standing still in the face of it required real effort. Like watching your car door slam like it’s been hit by a linebacker. Like watching everyone’s r/c ice boat tumble end-over-end down the lake.

Over the next few weeks various members went out to Ghost Lake in ones and twos and kept searching for good ice and to improve their ice boat handling skills and tuning. On one occasion, Stefan brought out his full size DN machine. He graciously allowed Steve and Chris to try it out. Both guys now have blabber-itis and can’t shut up about how extremely cool real ice boating is, and how the speed and acceleration have to be experienced to be believed. We could be persuaded to go out and buy our own DN’s next winter. Finally, as Ghost Lake started receiving warm Chinook winds and the surface snow started melting Sunday, March 16th was set aside for the inaugural Ghost Cup Challenge. Five people in the whole world cared.

Conditions on March 16th were as good as it gets. While not glass-smooth, the ice was predominantly snow-free and the temperature was rather decent. The Chinook winds were doing their part to give consistent winds and we even found a mark frozen to the ice that we could use to as part of the course. The first part of the morning was used for practice and tuning, and that was when things started to take a turn for the worse. Chris discovered that his land-sailor-converted-to-an-ice-boat was simply too light and was either easily blown over or there wasn’t enough weight to allow his ice runners to bite into the snow on turns. As an experiment, he removed his ice runners and installed a set of wheels, but the wheels didn’t have enough grip and turned his boat into a wind-powered drift machine. He then retired before the competition started and anointed himself Chief Photographer, fuming all the while on the money spent on a boat that didn’t work. Andrew, Mark and Steve then lined up and started their first race.

It’s been said that racing is the crucible of all ideas and theories. You can endlessly talk and speculate about what you think will work, about what will give you the edge you need to win, about what is needed and what is superfluous. Racing doesn’t lie and racing doesn’t care. Racing then proceeded to show our intrepid r/c ice boaters Who Was Boss. The start was good and turn one did not result in any carnage. Steve’s winged machine was the slowest, the wing being undersized compared to the soft sails of the other two. The three boats proceeded downwind towards the far mark, rounded it, and started back upwind towards the start/finish line. And then the wind refused to cooperate. And everyone’s boat stalled. Steve sprinted towards his winged wonder and gave it a gentle kick in the right direction to get it started again. Andrew and Mark’s boats had both capsized, and they had to run a fair distance across the ice to stand them up again. Despite having the slowest boat, Steve finished first. Andrew and Mark eventually made it over the line in second and third, respectively.

It was decided that race two would be held over two laps. The wind had returned again, this time with a bit of vengeance. The start went off without a hitch, and in turn one Steve called Mark out on starboard – some things never change – and downwind everyone went. Only Mark kept going downwind. And downwind. And downwind. To the farthest side of the lake shore. It seems the race gods decided to play not one, but two practical jokes on Mr. Mark Verrey – his forestay snapped, causing his mast to flop to one side which then turned his ice boat into an out-of-control ice rocket ship, and his ice boat then went out of receiver range so he couldn’t turn it around. Mark then set off in his new found sport of frozen lake hiking to retrieve his boat. While the rest of us showed genuine concern for Mark by laughing our asses off, the race continued. Steve and Andrew rounded the downwind mark and proceeded to make their way to the upwind mark in preparation for the second lap. Steve decided on a new way of rounding the mark by hitting it. From what we could determine, this mark was placed on the ice by the studded tire dirt bike crowd for their races. It was an orange-painted round mark made out of a tire of some sort and filled with concrete. Steve hit the mark with his boat and the boat immediately stalled. Steve ran over to his rig to start his soccer-style method of getting his boat going again. And then stopped, peered quizzically at his creation, then slumped his shoulders in defeat. The rear plank had torn out of its attachment points within the hull and was skewed over to one side. The winged wonder was now resting in pieces. Some time between Mark retrieving his boat and Steve destroying his, Andrew completed his second lap to no fanfare or attention whatsoever. Steve’s day was done and Mark didn’t have a strong enough line to replace his snapped forestay, so our day was rapidly drawing to a close. Andrew continued piloting his ice boat around the course when one of his snap rings attached to his hull, well, snapped and ended his day.

Andrew: 2nd, 1st – 3 points
Steve: 1st, DNF – 5 points
Mark: 3rd, DNF – 7 points

Congratulations to Andrew Baak, winner of the inaugural Ghost Cup Challenge.

For our first ice event, the CMSA managed a 100% failure rate. Can your club say the same?

Our hoped-for success story had turned into a learning experience. Humbled and chastened by this strange new world we had entered, we packed up and headed back to Calgary. Amazingly, we all ended up in one of those faux-Irish suburban pubs. Over brunch and beer we hashed out our thoughts and came to some conclusions: 1. Weight is your friend. Sailboats need to be light, ice boats need to be heavy. 2. Overbuild everything. If you think it might break then it will break. Period. 3. Ensure that all tuning and adjustments can be made easily while wearing gloves outside with the wind howling all around you. Playing with set screws and cotter pins doesn’t work in the Real World, only in your heated basement workshop. 4. This is fun!

Did you notice we started this whole thing in a bar and ended it in the same kind of place?

We’re going to do it again next winter. Everyone already has ideas for improvements to their existing boat or plans for an all-new creation. The kibitzing and BS we inflicted upon one another over the course of our builds was at times profoundly hilarious. More importantly, it kept us in constant contact with one another over the winter and continued to strengthen friendships between our members. Some of us have already been in contact with Smart People from Minnesota who are keen to share their r/c ice boating knowledge.

Our first planning meeting for the soft water part of our season was on March 24th . Our ice boating season ended with little ceremony, but instead discussions about IOM sailing and especially the organization of our third annual September Blender regatta. We have grown the scope of this regatta for 2014 and hope to attract some out-of-town competitors.

If you live in Calgary or the surrounding area and you’d like to be a part of the insanity we call the CMSA, you can get more info on our Facebook page at Who knows what adventures we might do next?

Chris Hunt
Iceboat CAN 7
Calgary AB