With ice conditions on Lake Winnipesaukee exceptionally good for ice boating, a Gilford man recently took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail from Meredith Bay to Alton Bay. He made the 20-mile journey on February 1, and spent about four hours doing it. However, the fact that he made the trip by himself has concerned many in the ice boating community.
John Rogers was born in Gilford and graduated from Laconia High School in 1966. After living in the state's Seacoast region and then in the North Country, he came back to his home town in 1999 and moved into the house he grew up in.
It was his return to the Lakes Region that introduced Rogers to the sport of ice boating. He went to Lake Waukewan to go ice skating and soon was sharing the lake with ice boats — small vessels with a sail, three metal skates and just enough room for an adult to lie down inches above the ice.
"I had never seen them before, I had never seen anything like them before," Rogers said.
Most ice boaters use a style of boat called a "DN," a wooden boat that can be purchased in kit form for about $3,000. Rogers, though, found a boat at a yard sale for a "couple hundred bucks... That's an unusual way to find an ice boat," he said.
The boat was a Lockley Skimmer, and Rogers added some cinder blocks and weights as ballast and has been sailing it since, including his adventure from Meredith to Alton.
It was an unusual way to acquire and rig an ice boat and Rogers is an unusual man. He admits to being "eccentric" and his practice of often sailing alone is controversial among the ice boating community.
"I tend to go out on my own quite a bit," said Rogers.
Early in the ice boating season, the smaller ponds will freeze over thick enough for sailing. Then the bays of Winnipesaukee will freeze, and usually by this point in the year the open lake is covered, mostly, with several inches of ice, enough to support the weight of cars and trucks.
However, as ice boaters, snowmobilers and fishermen know, Lake Winnipesaukee is never covered in a solid, contiguous sheet of thick ice. There are natural springs or areas of moving water that weaken ice, and then there are the pressure ridges, formed by neighboring sheets of ice that push against or pull away from one another. "As temperatures change, sheets of ice will move around," Rogers said.
Ice sailers know that an opportunity to sail on the ice of Lake Winnipesaukee is rare and often fleeting. Usually, the ice will be spoiled by the prodigious snowfalls of January and February. However, this winter has seen little snow since ice-in on the big lake, and any that did fall was either washed away by a three-inch rainfall or swept away by strong winds.
"It's very unusual for the lake to be this clear for so long," Rogers said. It's the best sailing that he has seen in his experience, and he wasn't sure if he'd ever see similar conditions in his lifetime. So, at the end of January, after sailing a lot on the lake and getting what he considered a good sense of the general ice conditions, he began planning to sail from the tip of Meredith Bay to the tip of Alton Bay. After several days of planning, February 1 arrived. The forecast was for fair weather with temperatures in the 20s and good wind. "I said, yes, it's a good time to do this trip."
Rogers set out from Meredith Bay at around 12:30 p.m. The wind in the bay was frustratingly weak, and Rogers became worried that he would run out of daylight before reaching his destination. However, once he got out into open lake he had enough wind to reach speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour — about half what a DN boat can handle, but a comfortable maximum speed for Rogers's vessel.
Despite the wind, Rogers had another challenge that would slow him down considerably: pressure ridges.
The pressure ridges present a great hazard to ice boaters. There's no way to avoid them, boaters have to find a safe way to cross, despite the fact that the ice is weak at best and at worst, there's as much as six feet of open water. Navigating around the ridges took the bulk of Rogers's time and attention. At one ridge, which ended at Governor's Island, Rogers had to dismantle his boat and carry it across part of the island to reach solid ice on the far side of the ridge.
About a half hour after sundown, while there was still dusky light to sail by, Rogers arrived at Alton Bay where his son-in-law was waiting to pick him up.
Rogers acknowledges that sailing alone is not a safe practice. However, he considers it a calculated risk instead of a reckless act. He kept in touch with his daughter via cell phone as she shadowed his route from a car. He carried maps and emergency gear, a hockey stick to test ice with and he felt confident with his assessment of the ice on a lake he'd sailed several times already this season.
"There is risk in any sport. There's things you can do to make your experience safer," he said
"I'm single, I've done quite a few things on my own," said Rogers. "I guess that makes me a bit of a risk taker." His attitude is unpopular with fellow ice boaters, many of whom he knows on a first name basis. When the subject of sailing solo comes up, he reported that they tell him, "You're a nice guy, but you're not very smart."
Leo Healy, a resident of Canton, Mass., knows well the challenges that Rogers faced on his adventure. Healy holds the distinction of earning the "Winnipesaukee the Hard Way" award, given out by the New England Ice Yacht Association, six times, more than any other person.
To earn the "Winnipesaukee the Hard Way" award, a skipper must participate in a voyage from Wolfeboro to Center Harbor and then back to Wolfeboro, all within a 24-hour period. The route is 27 miles one-way, and sailers might cover as much as 100 miles as they navigate around ice ridges and other obstacles.
To be recognized by the association, the voyage must be made with a fleet of no fewer than five skippers. Healy participated in the first official circumnavigation of Lake Winnipesaukee in 1974 and he was part of the most recent effort in 2004.
Sailing alone, without a buddy, said Healy, "is one of the most frowned upon and dangerous activities you can do." The ice sailing association has a mantra which he repeated: "Never sail alone — there's always thin ice somewhere."
That rule isn't without cause, said Healy. Less than two months ago, an ice boater died in Chickawaukie Pond in Rockland, Maine when his boat went through thin ice. The man was sailing alone.
Even so, Rogers thinks he took prudent steps to mitigate his risks and he has lived to say he's done something few others have. "I saw the scenic beauty of the lake, beautiful colors, gliding along in the ice and seeing the scenery move along, seeing the cloud formations, looking at the mountains, being in nature... it was an experience."