When Fletcher Driscoll was 12, his life flashed before his eyes as he headed for an ice heave on White Bear Lake. He was piloting an 18-foot Skeeter, a Formula One race car on blades.
The bank of ice loomed as the young boat driver rushed towards it. "I will never forget it," said the Dellwood sailor, now 86. "I was probably going about 75 mph. I didn't see this ice heave. I thought, 'I'm dead. I'm going to crash into this and not come out alive.' If you turn an ice boat upwind, you capsize. If you turn downwind, you accelerate; I would have hit it even harder. I barely missed it. God saved me."
The experience has never left Driscoll, who called ice boating a rite of passage for a boy growing up on the water.
That same boat, built post WWII at Johnson Boat Works, will be on display at the 14th Annual Manitou Days Boat Show. It almost wasn't.
Owned by Driscoll's late uncle, Bob Power, the vintage ice boat had long been abandoned in some woods near Amery, Wisconsin. Animals had their way with the boat, feasting on the wood until it was almost unrecognizable.
"My cousin called and asked if I wanted it," Driscoll said. "It was in hideous shape; completely rotten through and through. No one in their right mind would restore this. The only reason I did was because I have an emotional attachment to the boat."
When he brought the project home, fellow ice boaters urged him to burn it. "I said, 'no, we can't really do that,'" Driscoll recalled. Then three people "put up their hands" and agreed to help in the restoration: John Taylor, Steve Wiberg and Steve Johnson. Steve is the grandson of Johnson Boat Works founder J.O. Johnson, a Norwegian immigrant who built his business on the shore of White Bear Lake.
The Skeeter was built for Steve Johnson's uncle Iver Johnson, J.O.'s son, around 1945. Bob Power, a Birchwood resident, bought it from Iver shortly after. "The story goes that it scared Iver," according to Driscoll.
This year's Boat Show is featuring several antique ice boats built at Johnson Boat Works, which ceased operations in 1998. The property sold to the city a year later and the buildings were bulldozed in 2013 to make way for the Boatworks Commons apartments.
Show coordinator Pat Oven, also in his 14th year, wanted the focus to be on the rich history of White Bear's boat builders, both Johnson and Amundson Boat Works. A second boat in the show, a 90-year-old ice boat owned by John Stasieluk, was also built at Johnson Boat Works.
"Both owners have been involved with special projects related to their boats," Oven noted. "John just built a barn on his Bald Eagle property to house the 'Phantom,' one of the last ice boats built at the Boat Works. The Press did a nice article on that (see "Wright was right: form and function fuel design," Feb. 13, 2019). We always try to make the boat show as local as we can so we thought we'd showcase these ice boats. People in White Bear may see an ice boat but never get close to one. I think people would enjoy looking at them. They are unique."
There are two basic kinds of ice boat: stern steerer and forward steerer. The Skeeter is a forward steerer, which has better visibility. As Driscoll attests, the boat is built for speed. And they are easy to capsize. "You have to pay attention," said the seasoned sailor.
Another seasoned sailor hauling his massive ice boat to the show is Stasieluk, who has been skimming the ice for 30 years. Dubbed the "Phantom," his "hard water" sailboat was built in 1929. He owns the classic wood boat with two other men, which helps because it takes six people to rig it.
This is a return visit for Phantom, which appeared at the Boat Show nine years ago. The massive ice boat is an A class stern steerer that had a home on Lake Minnetonka for decades before Stasieluk bought it. These boats get passed around as their owners age out of the sport, he said.
With 350 square feet of sail, the 1,200-pound ice boat is not for beginners. "The power of the boat is both scary and inspiring," said Stasieluk, who also owns a 90-year-old Tudor on Bald Eagle Lake with wife Linda.
Stasieluk doesn't sail "soft water," preferring piloting hydroplane boats in the summer. Obviously, he has the proverbial "need for speed."
"Ice boating is like riding on the short tails of Mother Nature," Stasieluk replied when asked about the scariness factor. "I say that because you're in Her grip. You won't beat Her. She has complete control. You have to learn how to survive."
Driscoll concurs. "Ice boaters tend to be more aggressive," he observed. "They love speed and they like danger. There's a little of both in these boats. They are exhilarating."
If there is a downside for enthusiasts, it's that conditions have to be just right with little snow and hard, thick ice to race the boats. Stasieluk takes a philosophical approach to ownership: "If you're thinking about ice boating, it's not how often you get out; it's rides per lifetime."