Ice surfing

When the temperature drops and lakes freeze over, what is a dedicated wind surfer to do? In many places, enthusiasts turn to ice surfing. All one needs is a large, wind-swept lake and a surfboard with a sail and a rig combining skis and blades to enjoy a winter sport that is still fairly new to the United States. Naturally, when two or more ice surfers get together on the same lake, it isn't long before a challenge will be offered -- and accepted.

When the excitment of such friendly contests pales, you may find yourself at Wolfeboro, N.H., with other enthusiasts from as far away as Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Sweden, joined in high-spirited world-championship competition.

Unfortunately for some 60 self-styled sailors who converged on the appointed stretch of Lake Winnipesaukee Feb. 22, the elements did not cooperate. Just imagine, 22 miles of frozen lake, primed for winter-board competition, and not enough breeze to challenge a loosely worn beret.

What is it that draws people out to such sporting events, far from the fireplace and the well-stocked refrigerator? On the lake there were no restrooms, and the closest thing to food was a truck full of hot dogs and ice-cold soda.

Sailor after sailor testified to the joyous feeling of cutting cleanly, at high speed, across the lake. They were attracted by the freedom, enticed by the adventure, and inspired when pushing themselves and their skills to the limit.

Betsy McKenzie, a wind-surfing instructor from Wolfeboro, sees the sport as ``pretty irresistible'':

``You get on an ice board and it's just a scream to get out there. You'd think it'd be cold, like iceboating, but you get on the ice board and you're working hard, and you don't know that it's cold. Your hands get a little nip holding onto the metal boom, but it's a lot of fun!''

Ken Pugh of Newton Highlands, Mass., a lanky competitor clad in snowsuit and ice-encrusted whiskers, said the competition, so far the only one of its kind in the United States, involved two groups. ``Though it's all one race, you've the pros who've come over from Europe to really race, and a bunch of us who are just kind of winter-board people that've bought a board and just want to race and have a good time.''

Well, what exactly makes up an ice-surfing contest?

There are two separate events:

A closed-course run on a snow-covered portion of the lake (requiring the same combination of sailing skills familiar to yacht racers).

In an event reminiscent of the Bonneville Salt Flats, an effort to reach the highest straightaway speed (conducted in an area of the ice from which the snow has been swept).

Racers estimate the best speed they can expect to attain by using a ``rule of thumb,'' the wind speed in knots (nautical miles per hour) multiplied by 3. In the right wind conditions, ice surfers reach speeds of more than 50 knots (roughly 60 miles an hour).

Betsy McKenzie adds, ``It's not strength so much as being able to use your body weight, agility, reflexes. If you have a sense of the wind and you know how to use your body weight, then you don't have to be a marathon man to enjoy the sport.''

As proof of this, Jeff Leupold of Hampton Beach, N.H., came out to compete in the world championships at Lake Winnipesaukee after only four months of training. ``Think about it, . . . you could have gone into your basement last night and banged something together.''

A enthusiastic fan, Jeff points out the variety of equipment in use and observes that ``nothing is standardized. I mean look, I think someone out there is wearing hockey equipment. . . .''

Right he was. Sailors were clad in everything from corduroys and timberland boots to wet suits and cowboy hats. Ice surfing is not (yet) a stylish, state-of-the-art sport.

As for the spectators, their fashion parade resembled a Michelin Man look-alike contest. The raw cold and utter devotion required of those who watch ice-surfing competition rule out concerns over style.

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