James “T” Thieler has spent his whole life chasing thrills in sailboats. He first got his feet wet near Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he commanded his parents’ beat-up Hobie 16 catamaran through choppy water under the blistering sun. The most rousing part was “torturing” the boat, he says, trying to jump massive waves and drive the bucking thing high up on the shore.
Thieler planned to spend adulthood floating around the Caribbean and working on boats, but by 1998, he found himself in Maine, instead. Up there, winters had sharp teeth, but sailors were undeterred. When there was little open water (also known as “soft water”) to be found, a cohort of them took to rivers and ponds in light, sleek, sail-driven crafts that could coast across the ice with runners or skates affixed to their hulls.
It was extreme—fast, cold, and odd—and that piqued his interest. “I thought, ‘Boy, that looks really next-level,’” he says.
Thieler was hooked the instant he got out on the ice. “I picked up an old, cheap iceboat, sailed it 50 feet, and that was the end of that,” he says. Now he is a champion racer and the commodore emeritus for the New England Ice Yacht Association (NEIYA).
The speed of iceboating is what really drew Thieler in. Most monohull sailboats typically top out around 8 to 12 knots. “It’s about as fast as you go in a traffic jam on I-95,” Thieler says. Though some sophisticated (and expensive) multi-hulled vessels can push 30 knots, Thieler adds, iceboating is something else entirely: An iceboat can easily exceed 80 miles an hour, and often goes much, much faster.
“A hundred miles an hour is not unreasonable under perfect conditions,” says John Stanton, commodore of the NEIYA. Like bobsledders—kindred cold-weather spirits—iceboat racers often start from a standstill and then sprint across the frozen water. When the wind catches the sail, they launch themselves in, and then, depending on the type of boat, may lie flat on their backs, contorting themselves into the most aerodynamic shape they can manage.