In areas of the U.S. and Europe it’s common to see sailors gliding across frozen lakes on the equivalent of a hang glider on ice skates. In fact, there’s an entire sport dedicated to it. Groups like the racing league for Detroit News (DN) Iceboats that competes globally during the winter months. This unique group utilizes wood and composites throughout the design to increase speed, strength and safety.
In the 19th century, locals used iceboats to deliver goods over frozen lakes. In 1936, Detroit News sponsored an iceboat design contest that inadvertently led to the creation of the DN Iceboat, now one of the most popular classes of iceboats and the largest iceboat fleet in the world. Now 9,000 people in North America and Europe are members of the International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association.
Composites can be used in many of the iceboat structure, including the hulls, spars, planks and runner bodies. Most competitors make their own boats and the designs must be prior approved by the association to ensure the boats meet the right length, material properties and other specifications. Typical DN boats travel at an average speed of approximately 60 to 70 mph in 18 mph wind. In order to increase reliability under harsh conditions—and competition—some boats started reinforcing the wooden hulls and spars with FRP in the 1970s.
This material swap has resulted in increased speed and decreased broken parts, effectively changing the game. When boat manufacturers started adopting composites, the association outlawed the use of Kevlar in the designs but never specified carbon fiber. “There’s no difference between the two, it was a one-off rule made by the association when they didn’t understand the material. Since people have already designed with carbon fiber, they just accepted that it was a good material to use and never removed the old law,” says Jeffrey Kent, owner of Composite Solution, a composite marine manufacturer in Hingham, Mass., and DN Champion. Now most of the designs try to implement composites, either GFRP or CFRP to help reduce weight.
Kent is one of the few manufacturers that specialize in composite components for iceboats. “I’ve been sailing my whole life,” says Kent. “I started building small composite fittings for Tornado catamarans and around that same time I started racing iceboats, which are much faster than traditional boats. Building with composites in the ‘80s was a small in-your-garage operation and the largest part to manufacture was the mast. I built hundreds of masts on my own and then, through an iceboating friend, I became involved in the commercial manufacturing of composite masts at an aluminum mast company Hall Spar in Bristol, R.I.” Kent worked with Hall Spar for 7 years and helped develop the composite division of the company. Today it is one of the premier mast builders in the world.