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Blade Runners

Ice Sailing in the April 2012 Red Bulletin magazine Oskar Kihlborg/Red Bulletin Magazine


What kind of sport doesn’t have a venue for its World Championships five days before they’re due to be held? Not because of a contractual fight, nor disagreements over conditions. No, because the country in which they’ll be held has yet to be decided. Welcome to the icy, fast, and above all, unpredictable world of ice sailing -- one that’s extremely susceptible to changes in weather and demands that wind and ice conditions be perfect before competitions can be held.

This year, finding that perfect mix is proving harder than usual: Lake Müritz in Germany hasn’t frozen over, while the preferred alternative, Hapsalu in Estonia, is completely snowed in. That leaves Poland or Sweden, and 185 ice sailors from 18 countries waiting anxiously on “where to go” info. Poland is ruled out as winter has been too harsh, so participants from across Europe and beyond head, as a last resort, for the small town of Örebro in Sweden.

“You never know with this sport,” says Ron Sherry, a five-time world ice sailing champ and genial Detroit native who journeyed over for another shot at the title. “There are many things that can stop it from working. Too much wind, too little wind, too much snow, too much ice, not enough ice… but when it’s right, there’s nothing like it. It’s absolutely the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

Sailors race without a seat belt, protective panel, or brakes. Not that they care much.

The single-seater ice boats measure 12 feet and travel at speeds of up to 80 mph in temperatures well below freezing. Sailors race without a seat belt, protective panel, or brakes. Not that they care much.

“When you’re flying almost silently over the ice, all alone, you feel a deep sense of happiness,” explains Austrian Niklas Müller-Hartburg. “And it’s a battle: a battle with yourself, with nature, with your opponents. And it’s not that cold. Adrenaline makes sure of that.”

Müller-Hartburg works as a project manager and has been an ice sailor for 26 years; he’s one of the 185 World Championship participants who have set up camp in a small bay by Lake Hjälmaren near Örebro, where the campers and trailers are packed tight, where masts are being put up, runners attached, and sails hoisted everywhere. And where, every now and again, hikers emerge, to be dumbfounded at the baffling blur of sails on view amid the whiteness. There’s little other color.

“No spectators, no sponsors, and no prize money in our sport,” says Müller-Hartburg. “And that’s just fine. This is a sport for freaks, for idealists. Not for showoffs.”

They are, indeed, all freaks and idealists here. Almost all spend the whole time fiddling with their homemade boats, filing the runners, or talking shop. The wrong choice of runner can send racers from hero to (sub-) zero.

On dry land, the sailors use so-called pig runners to keep their boats upright. The sensitive racing blades only come into play once they’re way out on the ice. Every participant has the racing blades stored safely in boxes, bags, or cases. There are wider ones good for gliding on ice and sharply filed ones, better for cutting through snow. Each participant can use nine runners, but no more.



Check out the April 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands March 13) for more of the article. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.


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