A cluster of iceboating enthusiasts gathered in chairs in a square formed by several tables inside the Fond du Lac Yacht Club on a snowy, windswept January night a few weeks ago along the Lake Winnebago shoreline near the harbor lighthouse.
The Fond du Lac Ice Yachters organization, with a core of 20 members or so, has been meeting there since the organization formed in 1975. Its first annual meeting was held in 1977. Actually, they met as a group and sailed together long before that. Many of them appear in club scrapbooks as young men and women. White hair and weathered faces are in vogue today.
With the drone of the meeting stirring in the distance, the quiet page-turning of club scrapbooks six inches thick unfolds iceboat stories intertwining local personalities; Wisconsin lakes like Winnebago, Geneva, Pewaukee, Mendota, Monona, Big Green and others; historic boats including stern-steerers, DNs, Nites and Skeeters; and connections with the Hudson River and even the Netherlands, where iceboating began 500 years ago.
The Icy Otters
Some of the members jokingly refer to themselves as the Icy Otters, an allusion to a local newspaper meeting notice that stemmed from a phone conversation between a member of the club and a reporter in the newspaper office 20 or more years ago. The club member said “Ice Yachters,” when she called in the meeting notice. The reporter heard “Icy Otters” and that’s the way it appeared in print. And that’s the name members often use, always with a wry smile like they’re sharing an inside secret.
It’s understandable to a certain degree. After all, the Fond du Lac Ice Yachters organization is not a group that’s universally known, not even in its hometown.
However, its members comprise a local club that carries on a remarkable history far greater than the club itself.
Well, it’s not just history. That might be interpreted as boring by the unknowing.
It’s so much more about breathtaking speed, the roar of metal runners on seemingly frictionless black see-through ice or maybe a snow-infused corduroy surface that rattles the teeth like a never-ending shiver, creaking century-old stern-steerers made of Sitka spruce, exhilaration, acres of sails shaped like airplane wings transforming wind into a race in a rare regatta, fascinating stories, friendships, endless delays and disappointments, danger with a capital D, and events that are canceled not because of bad weather, but because of what most people would welcome as good.
Dave Lallier, who has spent virtually all his 61 years on earth captivated by iceboats, is labeled by local residents as the “guru” of “this crazy sport” in the Badger State. “That’s one of the nice things people say about me,” Lallier said with a laugh. “I’ve been called a lot of other things.”
You’ve got to be a little nuts to be an iceboater,” Lallier said. “I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t agree.”
One of Lallier’s favorite descriptions of his all-consuming hobby along Lake Winnebago’s West Shore, just north of Supple’s Marsh, is this: “99 percent anticipation; 1 percent participation.”
The late Chuck Nevitt of the Oshkosh area, who once piloted Dave Lallier’s Flying Dutchman III across two miles of perfect Lake Winnebago ice at an unofficial speed of 150 miles per hour, said in a news story in 2004 at the age of 83, “Iceboating is 11 months planning, two weeks fixing and two weeks waiting for decent ice. Somewhere in there, you might get a chance to sail.”
That tiny window of opportunity is worth it…worth all the delays and disappointments, any true iceboater would agree.
The Flying Dutchman
Lallier owns more iceboats than he cares to admit to. His most famous boat is the Flying Dutchman III — built in 1929 for Oshkosh businessman and acclaimed iceboater John Buckstaff; once owned by Chuck Nevitt when he steered it at breakneck speed on Lake Winnebago; 44 feet long; made of pristine spruce; runner plank 28 feet wide; a mast at least 50 feet tall; weight of nearly two tons; nearly 600 square feet of sail; deemed the third largest iceboat in the world.
<p.By the way, Buckstaff is the man who holds the official speed record on Winnebago of 143 mph, set in the late 1930s with one of his boats, The Debutante. Buckstaff won the William Randolph Hearst Cup, the top honor in world ice-sailing competition, twice in the late 1930s.
Return of the Dutchman
With the help of his friend Chuck Nevitt, Lallier located the Dutchman, waterlogged and badly weathered, about 15 years ago in Fox Lake, Ill. He brought it home to Fond du Lac and restored it. It may be Lallier’s most significant iceboating achievement.
If and when the conditions are favorable, the Dutchman is ready to fly on wind and ice near his West Shore shop, where some of the truly historic iceboats anywhere — the Jack Frost, built in 1889 and at one time a part of the Hyde Park Roosevelts’ iceboating fleet on the Hudson River, and the massive 54-foot Deuce, once sailed by the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and now owned by a family in Michigan — have grooved Winnebago ice with their runners. The Jack Frost, Deuce and the Dutchman still ride the wind despite their advanced years.
In some ways, they are museum pieces; in others, they are the fountain of youth. They thrill pilots and passengers today, just as they have for generations of iceboat racers, including many who have passed to their reward in the great beyond.
Speaking of museum pieces, Lallier has one that he rescued from oblivion a number of years ago. It’s a tarnished solid silver ornate teapot and on it is engraved his boat, the Flying Dutchman. The silver teapot, known as the Bowen Burnell Trophy for iceboating, dates to 1878, a half-century before the Dutchman even existed.
Ice, speed warm the heart
Iceboats hold a special place in the hearts and minds of the Lallier family. Carol (Lallier) Nichols, and her husband, the late David K. “Deke” Lallier, went iceboating on the Miss Julie on dates when Carol was a senior at Fond du Lac High School. “That was 70 years ago,” she smiled. The last time she sailed on ice was three years ago with her son David.
After Deke and Carol married, they carried on their love affair with iceboats and handed that heartfelt regard for wind, speed and ice along to their sons Dave and Jeff.
The sturdy wooden frame of the Miss Julie remained on display for many years attached to the ceiling of the former Oscar’s Sportsman Inn at 156 Western Ave.
Today, Miss Julie is stored near Lallier’s shop. “She’ll never sail again,” Carol Nichols predicted.
But who knows! Those old boats bear a resemblance to cats — nine lives, maybe more. Miss Julie appeared fit and trim in National Geographic magazine in 1957 in a lengthy presentation titled “Wisconsin: Land of the Good Life.” Maybe she could reprise the role.
Iceboating stories abound
It seems that everyone who ever experienced the thrill of iceboating has a story to tell. A sampling of the “Icy Otters” at their January meeting is ample proof.
Karin Whealon, the “lady in the green suit,” and her late husband Pat were inveterate sailors whether on water or ice. They were among a group of eight who purchased the Black Magic, an iceboat built long ago by the late Bob Candlish. They enjoyed that old boat long before they had a formal iceboating organization.
“There were eight of us who went together on Black Magic,” she recalled. “We were hooked. Then we all got our own boats.”
By the way, Karin’s “green suit” refers to the outfit she wore for years whenever she and Pat were on the ice. It became the easiest way to find the Whealons.
Tom Grebe, a charter member of the Fond du Lac Ice Yachters, smiles from the pages of the club’s old scrapbooks. Today, the smile is much the same in a much older face, and his eyes sparkle when he shares what he finds special about iceboating: “The exhilaration!”
He added, “With iceboating, you’re either hooked immediately…or scared to death.”
Carol Nichols interjected, “The camaraderie with iceboaters is unreal.”
Dan Tess of Beaver Dam, commodore of the Fond du Lac Ice Yachters, admits he was hooked the minute he took an iceboat ride with his friend Bob Gross. That was in 1970 when they were in college. Forty-five years later, they’re still friends and members of the Ice Yachters.
Other officers of the club are Ann Gratton of Oshkosh, vice commodore; Andy Gratton of Oshkosh, secretary; and Mark Wiener of North Fond du Lac, treasurer.
The Yellow Submarine
When contacted for comments about iceboating, former Fond du Lac County Sheriff Jim Gilmore said with a laugh, “Well, I’m not really in iceboating mode at the moment. I’m in Florida doing a lot of golfing.”
But he noted that he truly relished the sport and the speed. A friend of Gilmore’s said to be sure and ask him about his yellow submarine. In fact, the question relates to the time Gilmore’s yellow DN iceboat shot into open water before he could turn it.
“I knew I might be in a little trouble when all of a sudden I saw ducks and geese ahead,” Gilmore said, adding that he and fellow iceboaters always wore flotation devices in their boats if there was a possibility of encountering open water.
A friend threw Gilmore a line and pulled him out. Together they pulled the boat onto the ice and each sailed home, though Gilmore was wearing ice as well as skimming across it by the time they headed off the lake.
Bill Casper, whose interest for eight decades always seemed directed to what was under the ice rather that what was on top of it, confessed to a lifelong affair with iceboating that began when he was a teenager. He recalls finding his first iceboating love — a 28-foot beauty — stored in a barn near Stockbridge. Like other old-timers, he remembers a time when massive stern-steerers were used to transport wheat on Winnebago to a mill in Oshkosh and return to the East Shore with bags of flour.
Bill Casper has a vintage Winnebago iceboating story that is scheduled to appear soon in Our Wisconsin magazine.
The stories are plentiful among members of the Fond du Lac Ice Yachters. They recall regattas on Winnegabo and elsewhere; “chasing” the ice in other locales because they couldn’t rely on Winnebago’s fickle conditions; the Hoodat, a classic stern-steerer the club purchased in Michigan and transported to Fond du Lac (a detailed account of the “adventure” is featured in a club scrapbook); a revered iceboat called Mr. Dass II; the always affable and interesting Langdon Divers; and friends and family who have long since passed.
History abounds as well
Dutch settlers brought ice sailing with them to America in the 1800s, and the practice and the sport eventually thrived on the Hudson River with huge stern-steerer boats. Today, iceboats come in a variety of sizes and classes.
Before bi-planes claimed the honor, iceboats were acknowledged as the fastest vehicles known to man. In fact, iceboats were acclaimed the fastest vehicles on earth at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
By the 1900s, iceboating reached lakes in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the region where iceboating is extremely popular today.
The classic sport carries on. And so do the stories. Iceboats harvest the wind and ice, and create a history that literally speeds across the years.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a personal column or an in-depth article monthly for Scene.