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The 'Frostbite Fleets' of Lake Michigan - they just keep sailing

by Glenn McCarthy/Sail-World Cruising on 2 Oct 2013
Dinghies lined up - always at the ready to sail in Lake Michigan in winter .. .
Right across the Northern Hemisphere's sailing world, at about this time of year, sailing boats with engines and skin fittings start lifting and storing their boats for the winter to avoid a freeze cracking hoses or engines. But there's one category of sailing boat that just keeps sailing. They're called the 'Frostbite Fleets' sailing on Lake Michigan, as Glenn McCarthy here writes:

Some sailboats are not bothered by freezing.

They are smaller sailing dinghies commonly sailed with 1, 2 or 3 people. In the fall, winter and spring these 'Frostbite Fleets' just keep sailing. Some stop for the colder winter months, others keep sailing every weekend as long as there isn't ice on the harbor surface.

Dinghies use humans for ballast or stability, and do not have steel, lead or cast iron keels to keep them upright. A strong breeze can cause these boat to flip upside down, dumping the sailors into the harbor. The crews can flip the boats upright with ease without outside help. Can you picture it? It is always hilarious for those watching and spectating and character building for those who take a quick dip.

It's not so bad being the sailor dropped in the drink either, it only takes 5 to 30 seconds to upright it with practice and climb back onboard. Today many sailors wear a 'drysuit,' when immersed in water none gets any contact with your skin other than your hands, feet and head.

Spectators sitting inside commonly cheer and laugh heartily when someone splashed into the cold water, it is quite amusing to watch. Most of the time to keep a boat from flipping, you simply easy the sheets that trim the sails to let the air out of the sail to keep the boat upright. However, that sheet commonly is wet, commonly it is below freezing temperature. Commonly the sheet freezes, and going through blocks at 90-degrees, suddenly the sheets don't run out (the rope becomes like steel re-bar) and over the boat goes! To combat this, many sailors soak their sheets in salt water pails before going out for a sail - saved!

Are these people hard-core, diehards or fanatics? Not really, they just enjoy sailing and can't get enough of it. Sailing all year long continues the journey and joy.

Patrol powerboats are always monitoring the fleet able to grab anyone in trouble and bring them to shore quickly. But remember, most days do not have strong breeze and nobody goes in for a dip.

In some places you need to bring your own boat, other places you can sign up to borrow or rent a club's sailboat (commonly you need club member to sponsor you, but meeting people is easy if you come down a week earlier to show you have the experience, probably the best thing you can do is volunteer to help on a Patrol Boat for a morning or afternoon session). Watch it happening here:



Renting these boats are cheap, and owning any of these boats won't set you back a lot, most in the low thousands of dollars for a decent used one, and you'll get most of your money back later on when you go to sell it. This is one of those times that yacht clubs do welcome outsiders with open arms, with maybe a waiver to sign, and possibly registering your credit card to cover any food or beverage charges each weekend.

If you're anywhere within reach of the following clubs, the above description may have whetted your appetite. If you are anywhere else, try to find the Frostbite Fleet nearest you and give it a go!

Chicago Yacht Club
Belmont Station Chicago, IL


Sailing Vanguard 15s, Lasers, 420s, Sonars and Rhodes 19s. In the fall late September through mid-November on Sundays. Vanguard 15's (2 person) and Lasers (1 person) start at 10 AM. Sonars (3 person), 420's (2 person) and Rhodes 19s (2 or 3 person) start at 1:30. The Rhodes 19s, Vanguard 15's and Lasers must bring their own boat and are open to anyone. Club owned 420's can be used by non-members but members have priority. Sonars must be skippered by a member but can have non-member crew (membership refers to CYC membership). Fees vary depending on fleet and can be paid by race or deeply discounted for the whole series.

Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club
Chicago, IL


The Frostbite season begins after October 15 and ends May 15. They have four series and a long distance race called the Transoceanic. Weather permitting, there are races every Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 to 3:30 PM during Standard time and 1:30 to 4:00 PM during Daylight time. If the air and water temperatures are above 32 degrees they are probably sailing.

Johnson Slough Yacht Club
Hinsdale, IL


Sunfish (1 person) – Bring your own. They have their annual Great Pumpkin Regatta, this year October 28, 2013. Six races, one day, great food, liquid inspiration, lots of mark roundings, and fun. Bring your own boat.

Lake Bluff Yacht Club
Lake Bluff, IL


Sunfish (1 person) – Bring your own. They keep sailing into October with special late season series.

Skokie Lagoons
Glencoe, IL


Penguins (1-2 person) - Bring your own. Every Sunday in October-November, plus Thanksgiving.

Do you want a getaway weekend and compete against others?

Bayshore Yacht Club
Holland, MI


Regular club fleets. September 28, 2013 final race.

Macatawa Bay Yacht Club
Holland, MI


Melges 17 (2-3 person) - Bring your own. Through the end of October.

Want to know more about sailing on Lake Michigan from Glenn McCarthy? http://www.chicagonow.com/sail-lake-michigan/about/!Click_here_now!
Pacific Sailing School 660x82 1Lancer 40 yearsBeneteau SAIL Oceanis 35.1 37.1 41.1 660x82 1

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