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150 years of ice sailing on Lake Balaton

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  • We Love Balaton

18/01/2022 1.48pm

When thick ice covers Lake Balaton and the weather is windy, intrepid Hungarians race ice sailboats in the sharp cold. Although suitable weather is now less common – the most recent example was in 2017 – people are still happy to set out given the opportunity. Take a look these archive photos to see how previous generations took to the ice.

The first ice sailboats probably sailed in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Merchants converted canal boats with skates so they could use them on the frozen waterways.


In the so-called Little Ice Age, between the 16th and 19th centuries, Dutch canals were covered with ice for up to five months a year, during which time goods still had to be delivered.

Balatonfüred, 1956

Photo: Fortepan / Kotnyek Antal

The first modern ice sails appeared on the Great Lakes in America in the early 19th century. The hulls were initially square, the vessels later triangular. From 1879, a ridge was added under the hull, skates at the front and back, and a rudder at the very end. Ice sailboats were used not only for sport but also for freight and ice fishing.

Balatonfüred, 1957

Photo: Fortepan / Ember Károly

Ice sailing was made fashionable in Hungary by John Harris, the later foreman of the Balatonfüred Shipyard, in the late 1880s. Nándor Gyapai, the director of the Stefánia Yacht Association, persuaded him to make an ice sailboat, and from then on, it became the winter sport on Lake Balaton.

The fact that Count Géza Andrássy covered the 14km distance between Balatonfüred and Siófok in 11 minutes reveals a lot about the speed of the sailboats. The last certified Hungarian speed record was set by Tibor Heinrich at 150 km/h – in 1935.

The first domestic race took place on 1 February 1937, on a triangular track five kilometres long.

In 1964, the Hungarian Sailing Association provided financial support for the development of ice sailing, allowing four new 12-square-metre ice vessels to be built at the Balatonfüred Shipyard.

Balatonfüred Yacht Club, 1966

Photo: Fortepan / Berkó Pál

In the picture above, ice sailboats glide in front of the Balatonfüred Yacht Club and the Vitorlás Restaurant in 1966.

1967

Photo: Fortepan / Bojár Sándor

The popular Skeeter class was created in the 1930s and the DN class in 1937. The name refers to the Detroit News, which had previously announced a competition for someone to build a single-person contraption for winter sports that could be made at home and transported by car.


The first representative of the type in Hungary was completed by Dr Pál Sándor at the Balatonfüred Shipyard in 1970. It was such a success that DN ice sailboats were being manufactured for export by the early 1970s.

Balatonföldvár bay, February 1970

Photo: Kácsor László - MTI Zrt. Fotóarchívum

In December 1976, ice-sailing fleets at Lake Balaton were established at Balatonfüred, although competitions took a while to get started. The renaissance of ice sailing was brought about by the Ice Sailing DN Class Association, formed in January 1999.

The right stuff

You can go out onto the ice when it’s 8-10cm thick, but it must be twice that for serious competition. The ideal ice is as thick, transparent and smooth as possible. This is called black ice. But this must also be paired with the right wind strength. If the surface of the ice is rougher or covered with snow, a stronger wind is needed. If it’s completely smooth, then races can start in lighter winds,” – István Attila István, president of the Hungarian DN Ice Sailing Class Association.

2017 was the last big winter for ice sailing on Balaton – and for other winter sports, as about 8,000 people crossed the lake on foot, on skates, by sledge and by bicycle. At one point towards the end of February 2017, Lake Balaton was the most suitable ice surface for ice sailing in Europe, and the IDNIYRA European Championships were held at Balatonfüred.


There is no prospect of similar weather conditions yet, but if they do occur, ice sailboats will appear in numbers.

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