The Ultimate Winter Sport: Hard Water Windsurfing

Ice sailing is an ultimate sport, fast and cold. The thrills it offers ar visceral, plentiful and unbelievably fun. For several months a year, it’s a winter’s worth of adventure, yet it’s probably safer than driving.

Ice sailing has a long and quirky history, but until we came along, it was always done in boats. “Hard water windsurfers” is what the ice boaters call us. They sit in boats, we stand on boards. Our version of ice sailing is windsurfing’s winter sister: a small windsurfing rig is mounted on a board that rides on blades. A remarkably simple invention for the amount of bliss it delivers. (Some of my sailing buddies say it’s better than sex.) The perfect thrill of an ordinary off-the-wind speed run on a huge expanse of mirror glass ice alone keeps people coming back for more. But, the most delicious sensation comes with perfectly carved turns. On ice, tacks and jibes are beautiful, artful arcs. Friends sailing together often glide for miles in graceful formation, whirling through turns like a flock of birds. Ice sailing makes it easy to forget you’re attached to the planet.

In the culture of ice sailing, we are the youngsters, the new kids on the block. The first time Leo Healy saw us on the ice about ten years ago, he bristled. A dedicated ice boat sailor for thirty years, Leo’s not keen on dodging innocents or fools when he’s got his ice boat all cranked up, easily going 50 mph on a big piece of ice.

The first time Leo saw people sailing ice boards with windsurfing rigs, actually standing up and traveling at the speed of light, he got worried. He noticed the boards turned pretty well, with a much tighter turning radius than any ice boat. Still, Leo thought, you’ve got to know what you’re doing out here, you gotta know the ice. What do windsurfers know about ice?

In late March of 1992, New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee was “all locked up,” frozen thickly from end to end. The ice boat hotline buzzed with the word that conditions were right for The Hard Way, an ice sailing odyssey with Outward Bound dimensions. Since 1974, only nine Winnipesaukee Hard Way attempts have been successful. Until 1992, nobody had ever done it standing up.


The goal is to sail the length of Winnipesaukee and back again. The fleet starts up in Wolfeboro, NH at the south-east end of the lake, sails to Centre Harbor at the northwest tip, where everybody touches the shore, turns around and sails the 26 miles (as the crow flies) back to Wolfeboro. The round trip must be completed within 24 hours. With luck, nobody will get wet. Although the fleet consists of individual sailors, The Hard Way is a team effort, not a race. According to the rules, the leaders are required “to regroup all participants periodically, particularly at pressure ridge crossings and other hazards. Intentional separation from the fleet is strongly discouraged.”

Leo Healy is a Hard Way veteran, having sailed it in 1974 and many times since. In 1992, it was Leo who knew what we hard-water windsurfers were up to. He knew about sailmaker Jeffrey Brown’s 60 mph speed runs on a nice board and a 3.4 meter sail. He knew that our equipment- boards, sails, blades- had improved rapidly in recent years. He knew this largely from talking with Alex Wadson, an ice board sailor he met when his machine shop did some work for Alex. Leo told Alex stories about past Hard Ways, about pressure ridge crossings where compressed walls of ice were five feet high. Leo wondered whether hard water windsurfers could manage it. Alex had no doubt.

Unwittingly, Jeffrey Brown and Alex Wadson had been practicing The Hard Way for years. On Valentine’s Day in 1988, they led an impromptu long distance of the Long Pond in Lakeville, Massachusetts. It was the first real distance sail for most of the sailors, who had blazed around lots of small New England lakes and ponds, but had yet to taste big ice adventure. Brown’s first big experience occurred several years earlier, when New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay froze, an occurrence happening maybe once every ten years. Jeffrey and I, and a dozen other iceboard sailors had sailed Winnipesaukee before, venturing only a few miles from the bay where we launched. None of us had ever sailed the whole lake.

So, when ice hotline, operated by the New England Ice Yacht Association, announced a Hard Way skippers meeting the following Saturday, March 21, Jeffrey and Alex knew they would be there.

Wolfeboro Bay that morning looked like Marblehead Harbor in July, except the sailing craft moored there weren’t bobbing. Dozens of parked ice boats dotted the inner bay, tended by people wearing helmets, layers of warm clothing and thickly insulated boots. Jeffrey and Alex rigged quickly; unlike ice boats which must be assembled, ice boards are highly portable. You simply carry the board from the car to the ice, rig a small windsurfing sail, carry that to the board and you’re ready to go (assuming that your blades are properly sharpened, but that’s another story).

Hal Chamberlain, then the NEIYA commodore, ran the skippers’ meeting. He appeared not to be alarmed by the presence of the ice board sailors, perhaps forewarned by Leo. The commodore emphasized the importance of safety and teamwork, both hallmarks of successful Hard Ways. If any single sailor lagged behind, the whole fleet would wait for the slowpoke at the next pressure ridge. “It’s all a part of it,” said Leo.

As the fleet sailed out to Wolfeboro Bay, the wind began to lighten. In ten knots of wind, even an antique ice yacht can travel at twice the wind speed. In fifteen knots, a nice board can cruise at 30 mph with very little effort. But when the wind dies and the air is still, nobody goes anywhere. At noon on March 21, the Hard Way fleet drifted to a halt, becalmed just north of the first big pressure ridge they crossed. Jeffrey and Alex sat on their boards and talked. The sun was warm, and they were overheated from pumping their sails. Helmets and layers of clothes came off. Options were discussed. About half of the Hard Way starters, including Commodore Chamberlain, local ice legend Leigh Turner, and this reporter, decided to bail. There was still plenty of time to inch our way back to Wolfeboro before dark. We of little faith…


Sometime after 2 p.m., a light north-west breeze ghosted down the lake. Jeffrey and Alex had noticed that some of the ice boats parked nearby had started to move. The breeze freshened. They put their helmets back on, took a few running steps, jumped on their boards and took off after the boats.

The fleet worked to windward, stopping only at pressure ridges. Ridges, or reefs caused by expanding ice, are what make the Hard Way hard. On small lakes, you can often sail right over them. On big lakes, like Winnipesaukee, where thousands of acres of ice are expanding, faults open up between large sections of ice. The fault walls push up against each other like continental plates. In between the walls, there is a river of open water. Most faults cut across the full width of the lake. Finding a safe place to cross requires sailing the length of ridge, looking for a section with minimal open water, minimal wall height, and the least amount of thin ice.

It didn’t take long for the ice boat skippers to notice that the ice boards were not only keeping up the pace, they were also ideal pressure ridge scouts.

From their stand-up perspective, Jeffrey and Alex could see a lot more than the sit-down sailors. Without having to climb out of the boat and walk up to inspect the ridge, they could cruise alongside it, looking for a place to get the fleet safely over. “On the windward leg,” recalls Jeffrey, “they started to respect us. By the return leg, they trusted us.”

The fleet of ten boats and two boards visited Centre Harbor just long enough to set foot on land. Darkness was two hours away, and it was still a long way back. Everyone knew it would be tricky finding new places to cross the ridges. They had ruined the good spots on the way up. Runners had broken through the ice, and the sheer weight of bodies, boats, and boards crossing a chasm had trashed the edges. The scouts had their work cut out for them.

About halfway back, one major ridge had become completely impassible. “There was no way they were going to get anything over that,” recalls Jeffrey. He took off on a hunch that there might me a safer rout on the far side of an island, requiring a detour of a mile or two. Alex and Leo followed him there, where there was no ridge at all. One suspects it was a fine moment of male bonding. The rest of the fleet soon followed.

Shortly after sunset, Alex and Jeffrey were seen in the day’s last light, blazing into Wolfeboro Bay on a high speed reach, carving turns and making the most of the final Hard Way moments. “The glory run,” Alex calls it.

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Since that day, the ice boats and ice boards in New England have become one community. We constantly share information about ice conditions. We talk equipment. Some of us are members of the New England Ice Yacht Association. The umbrella organization for ice boards is the Freeskate Association. In 1993, Freeskate commodore Jeffrey Brown teamed up with NEIYA commodore Duncan Brown in search for safe, sailable ice.

Duncan also graciously offered to officiate at our North American championships last winter, so that our starting line included former pro windsurfer Nevin Sayre, whose sail number U.S. 9, and skill on the race course are legendary. Duncan Brown wasn’t impressed. All he knew was that the tall guy with the Neil Pryde sails didn’t have a sail number on his sails, and couldn’t be identified at the finish line. “But that’s Nevin Sayre,” someone whispered to Duncan. “His sail is kinda pink,” said Duncan. “I’ll have to call him Pink.”

by Kay Robberson

Kay Robberson is a Hard Water windsurfing enthusiast and a highly-regarded contributor to the pages of our magazine.