Are iceboats safe?
Iceboaters, those seemingly crazy folks who tear around on frozen lakes at breakneck speeds in little sailboats with razor-sharp runners, know that there is no such thing as safe ice. We do not guess at ice thickness, we measure it. We never assume anything, and we know that no amount of fun is worth risking a tragedy.
We never step on the ice without some type of traction device on our feet. Ice skates and contraptions that slip over boots such as Yaktrax or Stabilicers work fine; also metal-spiked golf shoes; or even hex-head screws in the soles of old boots. You need traction so you don’t slip and fall, but also you may need to assist someone who has fallen through. Someone in a panic could unintentionally pull you into the water.
Ice-claw safety is must
Always have “ice claws” and a whistle on a lanyard around your neck; we do. Buy ice claws at tackle shops or make them yourself with dowels, glue, and nails. They are sort of like a pair of screwdrivers with the shafts cut down to an inch and sharpened, tied on the ends of a long cord. When you fall in, you drive them into the ice and pull yourself out.
Ice is never 100% safe. Whether 4 inches, 8 inches, or 18 inches where you measure, there will be less elsewhere. Lakes rarely freeze entirely at the same time so thicknesses will always vary. Also, rain and melt water can “pond” and seep through cracks, opening them up into “drain holes.” Winds widen out the holes and as they skim over they become thin-ice traps. Rain might activate underwater springs to erode ice from below, and moving water near outlets or dock bubblers creates invisible thin spots.
Ice is more dangerous as Winter turns to Spring
With longer days and sun high in the sky, once-solid ice can quickly percolate and crystallize so that you will drop right through it. Rescue on this type of “rotten” ice is difficult and dangerous.
What happens when you fall in?
Because you never go on the ice alone or without a cell phone, your companions immediately separate to distribute their weight and then they call 911. For your first few seconds in the icy water, you will concentrate only on catching your breath and on staying afloat. As you recover from the cold-water shock, you can use your ice claws to pull yourself up onto the ice surface. Without ice claws, you can try to put your forearms flat on the ice, get near horizontal in the water, then use a very strong frog kick, pushing straight UP with your arms, and fall forward onto solid ice. Never stand up right away. Stay flat to distribute your weight, and slide or roll to thicker ice before getting up and moving to warmth and safety.
Most iceboaters carry safety gear and know how to use it
If you cannot get yourself out, hold yourself quietly on the edge of the ice with your forearms, and maybe your friends can wave down a passing iceboat. They can also transport you quickly to shelter or to meet the rescue squad on shore. Your friends might look towards shore, where many lakefront homeowners will leave rescue gear at the shoreline.
Ice is great fun for the entire family on crisp winter days. Just respect it, and never assume that any ice is ever safe.