Photo: Gretchen Dorian. See full 2021 U.S. Nationals Photo Gallery here.
Iceboaters must adapt to quickly changing conditions, be it close racing around a weather mark or switching regatta sites at the last minute because there’s a better piece of ice a few hours drive away.

It became clear that the pandemic would cause the cancellation of the 2021 International DN Ice Yacht Racing Association World Championship scheduled for North America. DN class officials led by Vice Commodore Jody Kjoller organized an alternate non-ranking regatta event for U.S. sailors during the same week as what would have been the World Championship. Fittingly, the regatta returned to its roots and took place in Michigan, the DN iceboat’s birthplace, January 23 – 30, 2021. Experienced ice scout Dick Wollam US4882 knew to search beyond the half-mile of boat-breaking ice at the shore and found 10,000 acres suitable for racing on Black Lake, near Cheboygan, Michigan.

Iceboating is the original socially distanced sport. Competitors have always worn masks and gloves, and 8′ DN runner planks encourage plenty of distance. The Race Committee kept competitors informed throughout the event via text messaging. The scorers sent line-up positions after each race to the skipper’s phones. Texting the results helped maintain social distancing when competitors were out of the boats rather than drawing a crowd gathering to view the usual paper line-up sheets.

Two fleets raced for three days in cold conditions. The 52 registered sailors competed in either a Gold or Silver fleet, based upon their international ranking.

Almost all of the top American sailors were there and various conditions made for a competitive field and close racing. Michigan’s Ron Sherry US44, a five-time DN world champion and 14 time North American champion, who is known for turning it on in a big breeze, won the first Gold fleet race and set the rest of the regatta’s pace to win six of the nine races.

Sherry explained he used long, flat 100 degree runners suited for the frozen-popcorn textured ice. With help from Chris Clark US4789 and 3rd place Gold fleet winner Eric Smith US2500, Sherry designed a new mast and plank during the summer. “Sailing with the new mast and plank was different because both were on the softer side than what I’ve used before. Usually, I lean on the boat pretty hard to keep from hiking (going up on two runners) and put a lot of pressure on the boat. The new softer plank and mast meant sailing at a higher angle. The boat was talking to me in a much more subtle way, and I had to feel for the boat’s speed and height. Powering through the snowdrifts and bumpy ice made the tacking and jibing angles much wider.”

Other Gold fleet race winners were Chris Berger US5166 of Chicago, IL, Eric Smith of Lapeer, Michigan, and 2020 North American champion James Thieler US5224 of Newport, Rhode Island.

Indiana’s Andy Allen US5451 consistent top results put him at the front of the Silver fleet. Another Michigander, Matt Koch US111, won 3 Silver fleet races, but an equipment failure kept him off the ice for three races resulting in costly DNFs. Rick Gordon US5498 of New York won the other two Silver fleet races and placed second.

Racing a DN for the first time, University of Wisconsin collegiate sailor Samuel Bartel US5652 placed an impressive 4th in the Silver fleet in a boat loaned by Madison, Wisconsin’s Daniel Hearn US5352. Bartel said, “One of the best parts of the event was meeting so many new people that love the sport of iceboating. Everyone was kind and always available to help me out! In many other fleets, the top sailors often keep their secrets to themselves, but everyone in the DN fleet was eager to share their knowledge with me. That makes the DN class unique. I think that iceboating is going to help improve my soft water sailing a lot. I’ll enter into the soft water sailing seasons with quicker reaction times, faster thought processing, and the ability to make good decisions wicked fast.”

After the regatta, Sherry noted, “I’m proud that Eric Smith US2500, who has been DN racing only three years, won a Nationals level race. Eric took advantage of every possible sailing day leading up to the Nationals. I sailed 17 days so far this season. It’s a huge advantage to get out there and sail the boat; you only get better whatever level you are.”