The fast and the frosted
Speed demons determined to break records on ice
By DAN EGAN
Many believe that in February 1947, Nevitt set a record as the world's fastest naturally powered human during a remarkable iceboat sail across the flat, black ice of Lake Winnebago.
Stopwatch-clutching spectators gazed slack-jawed as the Coast Guard veteran piloted his 42-foot Flying Dutchmen between two buoys set two miles apart. It took 53 seconds, and that included a tack he made in the middle of the course that added about a quarter-mile to the distance.
"They figured somewhere in there I was doing 150 mph. Maybe 155," Nevitt said.
Nevitt doesn't care about the precise number because he wasn't trying to break a speed record. He was trying to win a race. In fact, the Oshkosh-area resident, who used to run an insurance agency, insists he doesn't care whether he broke the widely accepted record of 143 mph, set by his late friend John D. Buckstaff in the late 1930s on the same lake.
"It doesn't make a damn bit of difference to me," he said.
It sure does to 55-year-old Daniel Kampo, an Oskhosh-area resident who has retired from his family's construction business and dedicated much of the past 15 years to capturing the iceboating speed record.
And it does to Richard Jenkins, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer from England who arrived in North America a couple of weeks ago to begin top-secret testing of his Windjet ice yacht at a place called Ghost Lake outside of Calgary.
The dueling speed demons hope to square off in race later this winter, likely on Lake Winnebago. At stake, both men hope, will be the new speed record for iceboats.
"We're gonna whup him," said Kampo, an accomplished auto racer with a spinnaker-sized confidence in his ability to go fast. He tows his boat around in a customized Suburban boasting the words, "The world's fastest sailing yacht."
Jenkins is eager to race, but for him, the event is more of a sideshow.
"The primary goal is to set the record, and we will go where the best conditions are to do this," Jenkins said over a crackling cell phone somewhere in Alberta. "Whether we do it here or in Wisconsin is not relevant."
Some wonder whether there is anything relevant about their pursuit.
Iceboating has been around for centuries, and today, there are thousands of avid recreational racers plying the frozen lakes of North America and Europe. While there seems to be an official world record for almost everything, including the fastest towing of a mobile home (128.86 mph, but please don't tell Kampo), there currently is no official world speed record for iceboats, according to the Guinness World Records Web site.
"It's not a big deal at all to anybody who is involved in the sport of racing iceboats," said Greg Whitehorse, historian for Madison-based Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club.
Whitehorse likens iceboat competitions to auto racing. How many Indianapolis 500 racers are obsessed about the jet-powered cars shooting for the record books on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats?
Another factor is that most of today's iceboats are much smaller and more fragile at high speeds than the big, costly rigs sailed by guys such as Nevitt in the first half of the last century. The smaller craft are cheaper and easier to maintain and tow. That makes the sport more accessible to weekend enthusiasts.
Those boats don't impress Kampo.
"They just don't balls-out sail anymore," he says as he pulls the tarp off his cherry red iceboat that is shaped like a drag-racing car. "They make their boats so light that when the wind really comes out, they put them away."
Kampo's Miss Wisconsin is arguably more airplane than boat. It doesn't rely on a sail to reach top speeds. Instead, it sucks velocity from the wind with a hard wing that juts vertically from its hull. The hull is built out of steel tubes and covered by a skin of light-weight aviation fabric.
An airplane pilot and a member of the Oshkosh-headquartered Experimental Aircraft Association, Kampo said he has worked with a team of EAA members to achieve a design that he says could theoretically top 200 mph.
"I thought I could knock this (record) out in three or four years and go on to my next thing," he said.
That was in 1988.
Since then, Kampo has run into a raft of problems, including design flaws as well as crashes and other mechanical mishaps in heavy winds. Time has also been a factor. The iceboating season, even in Wisconsin, is aggravatingly short because boats depend on a smooth, thick sheet of largely snow-free ice. Some winters, that never happens.
"Iceboating is 11 months planning, two weeks fixing and two weeks waiting for decent ice. Somewhere in there, you might get to sail," jokes Nevitt, who recently took up an invitation to see Kampo's Miss Wisconsin.
To log more time at the helm, each spring Kampo trailers his boat to the Nevada desert, where he replaces his ice runners with rubber tires. It's not the same as gliding on ice, but it's close enough to test the boat and improve his piloting skills.
He said with only moderate winds, he has reached land speeds approaching 120 miles per hour. That, he said, would translate into about 140 mph on a slick slab of ice. Iceboats, which float virtually frictionless across a frozen lake, can reach velocities about six times faster than the wind speed.
Kampo said all he needs now is a blustery day on Lake Winnebago and a fat, smooth swath of ice, something that has yet to materialize this winter.
Kampo figures he can smash the 143 mph mark in winds no stronger than 30 mph.
Jon Soyka, a Canadian iceboat historian, says Guinness has in the past recognized the 143 mph set by Buckstaff. While Buckstaff's mark is not currently published as a record by Guinness, Soyka said that speed is considered to be the sport's official record. Jenkins and Kampo each hope to sail past that mark some day and hit 200 mph.
Jenkins, however, confesses he is still learning the ropes of the sport.
His first day on ice was Jan. 1.
"It's been a massive learning experience for us," said the man who hopes to set sailing speed records on ice, water and land. "As we have never been on ice before, all of our systems were speculative, to say the least. However, 98 percent of them are working fairly well."
Within a week of hitting the ice, Jenkins said his spaceship-style boat has nailed speeds approaching 100 mph and expects to shoot for the record by the end of the month.
"We're confident the craft can do it. It's just a matter of getting the right combination of wind and ice," he said.
"His boat, it's beautiful," said Kampo, who also hopes to use his craft to set a land speed record. "But I think it's a lot of fluff."
Jesuit missionary Claude Allouez is credited as the first documented iceboater in North America, Soyka said.
Frustrated with the slow going on foot around Green Bay back in the 1670s, he rigged a canoe with a sail and zoomed off.
"He was trying to get to Chicago," said Soyka, who found an account of the event in a translation of the Jesuit's diary. There was no word on how far the boat got him.
Iceboating became popular in the United States as a sport for the Eastern elite in the late 1800s.
Spectators would cluster on the banks of the Hudson River to watch families such as the Roosevelts outpace locomotives racing down tracks along the water. The boats were the fastest things on earth at the time.
Eventually, the sport drifted west to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Lake Winnebago became one of the sport's hot spots because it is big and relatively shallow, which makes for more consistently thick ice. Lakes dotting southern Wisconsin have been popular for boaters.
But iceboating in Wisconsin wasn't always just for fun.
Old-timer Nevitt says there was a time when massive iceboats shipped things such as hay and chickens across Lake Winnebago, and he speculates that design evolved into the big boats that dominated the sport in the first half of the last century.
Those boats were able to withstand heavier winds, and that allowed them to go faster than many of today's boats, which are often less than half the size.
The big boats were not only faster but also more difficult to control because they steered from the rear.
"Driving these old stern steerers is like driving a forklift at 85 mph. They get pretty squirrelly," said Fond du Lac's Dave Lallier, a friend of Nevitt's who has worked for the last three years to restore The Flying Dutchmen, the boat in which Nevitt set his unofficial speed record.
The Dutchmen sits on a trailer outside Lallier's home on Lake Winnebago and is ready to sail as soon as the ice gets thick enough.
Lallier said the Dutchmen is one of about a half-dozen from the early 20th century - including the craft which set the 143 mph mark - that have recently been refurbished and made ice-worthy.
Nobody is expecting any of the grand-old vessels to challenge for the speed title.
"These are museum pieces, and we're going to sail them a little easier than Chuck (Nevitt) used to," Lallier said.
For all his bluster, Kampo remains in awe of the speed Nevitt and others were able to hit with their 19th century-style wooden hulls and cotton sails. Now, he said, it's time to honor their derring-do by putting 21st century technology to the test on ice.
"Everyone talks about it, but no one has said, 'Let's really find out how fast we can go,' " Kampo said. "The days of the guys with guts are coming to an end."