Bemidji ice boat owner rarely can sail but holds out hope for a 'magic year'

When conditions are right, Blessing sails.
Jon Blessing's ice boat doesn't get a lot of use. But when the conditions are just right, it can reach speeds of more than 50 mph.
Courtesy Jon Blessing 2007

There is just one ice boat in Bemidji. At least, just one that I know of, and right now, it's on saw horses in Jon Blessing's snow packed driveway.

"It's designed kind of like a torpedo isn't it? It looks very stealthy," said Blessing.

The ice boat works like a conventional sailboat, except, instead of a keel and rudder, the whole thing rests on three large ice skates. It's driven by a single mainsail and holds just one medium-sized person, lying almost totally flat.

Blessing walked around tightening brass and stainless steel screws. He ran his hands over the narrow white oak and teak body. If the varnish is chipped, he'll sand it down and apply another coat. This year it's fine.

Blessing's boat is built of white oak and teak.
The boat is built of white oak and teak and can reach speeds of 50 mph on a good year. This year the snow came too early and he won't get to sail it.
John Enger | MPR News

"Look at the craftsmanship in this. You could make one out of pine or anything. But whoever made this boat, it's just a piece of art, in a way," he said.

Blessing bought the ice boat eight years ago from an old man on Lake Pokegama with two of his friends, Steve Young and Dan Houg.

It's a racing design developed in Detroit back in the 1930s. Now it spends most of the year hanging from Blessing's garage rafters.

Every time he parks his car, he said counts the months until he can take it out. He treats the boat like a prize race horse.

"It was clocked once by my buddy's son at 54 miles an hour," he said. "'What's the acceleration like?' It's like, well, everyone is watching 'Star Wars' these days. It's like warp speed."

Actually getting out there on the ice is rare. I heard about this ice boat last winter, and tried to get a ride then, but the snow came too early and there wasn't a season. In anything more than 2 inches of powder, the blades jam up and the boat won't move.

Blessing said you need at least 4 or 5 inches of clear snowless ice and enough wind to sail.

"The chances of that happening are, you know, very slim," he said.

Blessing and friends have only been able to sail about half the winters they've owned the boat. And this winter isn't looking good. The ice is finally thick enough for the boat, but there's already too much snow to sail.

Jon Blessing’s ice boat doesn’t get a lot of use.
When the conditions are just right, it can reach speeds of more than 50 mph, seen here on Jan. 26, 2007.
Courtesy of Jon Blessing 2007

Blessing isn't reaching warp speed this year, but he said the unpredictability of ice sailing is part of its charm.

"When the ice conditions are right, you know, people call and say 'Is the ice boat ready?' and they'll come over, they'll bring chili and we'll go ice boating from sunup to sundown," he said.

Most winters, they only get a few days of sailing. But Blessing recalled a winter three years ago when the lakes froze early. They got a little snow, then a quick thaw turned Grace Lake to a skating rink. And it stayed a skating rink for six full weeks.

That New Year's Eve, Blessing and his sons stayed up till three in the morning, criss-crossing the lake at 30 mph.

"It was the full moon. You could see where you were going, where the ice houses were, and, you know, sail around them," he said. "It was a beautiful night.

It snowed a few days later and he hasn't sailed since, but Blessing still refers to it as the magic year. It keeps his friends calling about the ice boat every night starting at the end of deer hunting season. And it keeps him hoping a spring thaw might clear the ice of snow for just a few hours before it goes out entirely.

"At this time of year, you always say how can you stand it if you can't get out on the lake?" he said. "We always say, well, maybe spring time, or, next year."

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.