Houghton Lake ‘fantastic venue’ for ice yacht racing
Houghton Lake hosted the 2012 Detroit News Central Lakes Regional Championship Regatta the weekend of December 27-30. The event was well attended by the top ice yacht racing personalities from as far away as Rhode Island and San Diego, CA.
This class of home-constructed, seatof your-pants ice boat racing was developed in 1937 when the Detroit News held a contest that drew 50 entries when the country was mired in the Great Depression and affordable recreation for the blue collar crowd was at a premium.
Today, the finely-honed vessels can reach 60 mph using only 60 square feet of sail and a 16-foot mast. They are built out of wood or composite materials, 12 feet in length with a 21-inch wide hull and ride on a trio of razor-sharp skates at 2-4 times the wind speed. Costs associated are $3,000 to $5,000 for a used racer to $9,000-$10,000 for a new, toplevel craft.
Despite being the largest of Michigan’s inland lakes, Houghton Lake was chosen at the last minute as the site for the venerable event when the ice conditions improved in the few days after Christmas and the race was declared on by Central Lakes officials.
Upon arrival, the racers were treated to a surface rated at 8-plus with only 10% snow coverage, clear ice with the black waters of Muddy Bay and the Middle Grounds visible underneath. During the competitive weekend two fleets consisting of 27 Gold and 16 Silver class boats sailed under moderate winds with temperatures hovering in the mid-twenties, ideal conditions for ice racing.
“It went really well,” said Kent Baker, who served not only as a Central Lakes official, but as a competitor too, finishing in ninth place in the Gold Fleet. “We got this lake right at the right time. There were a few rough spots, but there was nice hard ice and some areas were very smooth. The snow covering was just enough to make it challenging.”
With the Comfort Suites Hotel and the DNR West Access site serving as the base camp for the event, a prime lakefront location was appreciated by the racers who sometimes have to trailer 30- 45 minutes from their lodging to the race venue.
Much like their soft-water brethren, ice boat captains sail a mile-long course, set up with windward and leeward marks in a crosswind orientation to best capture the prevailing breeze. The captains’ skill levels are tested with three white-knuckle, laps per race with seven races making up a full regatta. Three Gold Fleet level races must be run before a full event is declared. Fleets run alternately to give each competitor equal opportunity at the best sailing winds.
When two days of local race results were tallied, Gold Fleet racer Ron Sherry in boat #44 of Clinton Township was declared the winner in the low point system with just seven points, Matt Struble of San Diego in second place with 11 points and James Thieler of Rhode Island in third place with 22 points.
In the Silver Fleet, Hal Bowman of Carry, North Carolina captured the top spot with 10 points followed by Tom Dawson of Grosse Pointe in second place with 16 points and Craig Koschalk of Kansas City, MO with 17 points.
The repeat win came in as bittersweet for Sherry, a multiple championship winner in the 41 of his 50 years of sailing, when a close friend and mentor, four-time World Champion and 8-time National Champion, Jan Gougeon died less than one week prior to the race. Gougeon was a pioneer in the sport and in the adhesive technology used to keep the vessels and the people who sail in them from delaminating under tremendous stresses.
“A fantastic venue to sail” Sherry said of Houghton Lake in a post-race interview surrounded by friends and fans alike. “I loved it, it is a big lake and it was chippy in some spots, but I had an angel on my shoulder. Jan taught me more about life, people and sailing than anyone I know. I love the sport and the people in it.”
With the World Championships and competitors from Scandinavia, Germany, Poland and Russia being hosted by the Central Lakes Region in early 2013, at a location yet to be determined, Houghton Lake is unlikely to be chosen as the host site for that event because of snow covering the ice -- contrary to the opinion of the Central Lakes racers.
“Can’t we plow the lake and come back here!” said one purely in jest.
The success of the regatta and the current conditions on Houghton Lake have drawn more ice sailors to the area. Randy Rogoski of Muskegon, who is the Past Commodore of the West Michigan Ice Yacht Club, said a group of sailors, including some from Rhode Island and Connecticut, stayed after the regatta to race on Houghton Lake.
Rogoski said the conditions on Houghton Lake led to some of the “most fabulous sailing I’ve had in years.” He reported sailors from West Michigan were planning to be at Houghton Lake on Wednesday and more planned to come today (Thursday) and Friday.
Anyone interested in the sport is encouraged by Rogoski to visit www.wmiyc.org or contact Dean Runk, Current Commodore of the West Michigan Yacht Club Dean Runk, at (616) 901-9838.