Madison history lesson: Skimming the surface

Two class A skeeter ice boats race across the lake in a 1965 regatta.
Black and white photo of two class A skeeter ice boats racing across Lake Mendota in front of the state Capitol and Madison's skyline
Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society Archives Image ID 118054

Madison’s ice boating history is legendary and long, predating even this January 1965 Richard Sroda photo by nearly 100 years. Sometimes that history seems as quiet as metal blades carving a crystalline winter lake. Many locals know next to nothing about ice boating despite its generations of devoted skippers.

Part of the reason it might be easy to miss such a unique and popular sport is that it requires near-perfect conditions, so good days are unpredictable. The ice must be at least 6 to 8 inches thick, clear of snow, unrippled and flat as glass. It must be windy but not too strong, warm enough that you won’t freeze your eyelashes shut when you go whizzing across the ice. There are only a handful of truly good ice boating days per year, making it a rarefied pleasure.

Luckily, this photo of Jack Ripp and Bob Brockel racing two class A skeeter ice boats in a Wisconsin regatta is far from the only documented evidence. The Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club has amassed a treasure trove

of photos and records on their website, including a Harper’s Weekly illustration depicting Madison’s ice boating community in 1878, with an earlier version of our Capitol dome sketched against the skyline. Member Donald Sanford’s 2015 book “On Fourth Lake: A Social History of Lake Mendota” also offers a glimpse of the legendary ice boaters who have long put Madison on the sport’s international map.

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