Cutting no Ice
Speeding across the frozen waters of a Lithuanian lagoon in a tiny ice yacht is not for the faint-hearted as Nick Haslam discovers to his cost
Through a fine mist of ice crystals on my goggles I see the marker flag flapping in the wind. Pushing hard on the tiller, my tiny ice yacht slides in a smart racing gybe and I cut through on the inside of the fleet gaining three valuable metres, speeding now towards the finishing line 100m downwind. Hurtling along at 32km/h (17 knots), headlines race through my feverish mind: “Brilliant success of newcomer in European championships – telegram arrives from Buckingham Palace.”
But pride comes before the fall. A sudden gust lifts my windward skate high and my “Blokart” flips over so fast I catapult onto the ice. The other competitors speed past inches from my face as, cursing, I leap to my feet, right my stricken craft and come in last.
It’s February in one of the most stunning locations in Europe, the vast frozen lagoon of the Nemunas river in Lithuania. Separated from the Baltic Sea by the Curonian Spit, a narrow peninsula that runs along the Lithuanian coast to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, most winters the fresh water lagoon freezes hard into a 40km-long, mirror-smooth expanse of ice.
Walking here the summer before, I’d met Matas Mizgiris, sailing his Blokart – a nippy low-slung craft with a windsurfer sail – on the endless sandy beaches. He runs an adventure centre in Nida, the principal village of the spit, and offered me a chance to try the small, collapsible New Zealand-designed land yacht, which can be carried in a backpack. In half an hour I was hooked on its speed and manoeuvrability. “We put skates on it in the winter – you should try ice sailing, it’s much faster,” he told me as we parted.
Six months later and I’m back, as a participant in the European championships. Six nations are represented, as I discover on the first evening when 25 participants gather around the fire in a cosy bar in Nida. Burly Raul Nappa has come from Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Addicted to speed, he’s made many attempts to break the Blokart ice speed record, which currently stands at 80km/h. “Never strap yourself in,” he says, describing a recent record attempt when his Blokart crashed through thin ice. “I was lucky not to go down with my ship!”
The next day at the clubhouse, beside the lake, the flags of the competing nations hang still. No wind, no race. But Blokarters are an optimistic lot. “That mackerel sky means wind soon,” says Dutchman Frank van Wijt, cheerfully, as he adjusts his Blokart. Meanwhile, Raul offers me a steaming cup of tea laced with a spirit that brings tears to my eyes.
Yet four hours pass and still the wind fails to appear – meaning the day’s racing has to be abandoned. Next morning, clouds speed past over the snow-covered dunes. “Plenty of wind today!” says Matas, as we assemble the Blokarts and weigh in for the first heats. I’m classified as a lightweight, but that’s no surprise! Kitted out in scarf and goggles I ease myself into my kart for the first race. The crimson flag drops, I pull hard on the black rope controlling the sail, and the line of Blokarts speed away to the first mark.
The great thing about this nascent sport is that almost anyone can do it, with minimal training – even a middle-aged bloke like me.
The acceleration is extraordinary; the light frame of the kart, its mast bending under the strain, meets little resistance on the snow-covered ice. Bunching at the markers, ice splinters flying, we skim past each other with millimetres to spare. Using dimly remembered sailing techniques, I cut through the fleet, arriving second in the first race. To everyone’s amazement, I survive the eliminating heats and make it to the finals that afternoon.
This time we race around a longer, triangular course, the furthest mark barely invisible in the snow. The heavyweights go first, speeding into the murk, and in the distance we see Frank capsize, before leaping up to right his craft. Suddenly, screaming out of the snow comes Raul, a manic grin flashing beneath his helmet as he speeds to a triumphant finish.
The lightweights are next, and in a gusting squall of snow my Blokart shoots forward. Distances are difficult to judge in the near whiteout, and I miss one of the marks completely, coming in minutes behind the fleet. With the weather closing in it all depends on the final race. The flag drops and the skates of my kart lift as I lean out to keep balance on the first leg. Careering round the marks, snow clogging my goggles, I feel every inch the veteran, easing past the stragglers and inching into the lead in a crackle of sail.
The distant shoreline is practically invisible as I accelerate, the craft skittering on the ice. We slue around the final mark but my leeward skate catches a patch of sticky snow and I cartwheel hard onto the ice. Winded yet unbowed, all hope of victory gone, I right my craft and, nursing a bruised knee, sail the last 100m to the finish.
At the clubhouse the prizes are handed out, the Estonians cleaning up in the heavyweights and a dentist from Vilnius taking home the lightweight trophy. I am awarded a runner-up prize, and to applause I smile my thanks through slightly gritted teeth. “Next year,” I think, “a bit more practice and it will be a very different story.”
THE WORLD ICE-BLOKART CHAMPIONSHIPS TAKE PLACE AT LAKE REKYVA ON 19–21 FEBRUARY, 2010. FOR MORE DETAILS AND FOR BLOKART INSTRUCTION, VISIT WWW.IRKLAKOJIS.LT. FOR MORE ON THE CURONIAN SPIT, VISIT WWW.VISITNERINGA.COM. VISIT THE LITHUANIAN TOURIST BOARD AT WWW.LITHUANIATOURISM.CO.UK