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Ice Boaters Rescued from Sebago Lake

March 26, 2006

On Sunday, two ice boaters on Sebago Lake nearly came to grief when their ice boat encountered weak ice and capsized, stranding them on the ice far from shore. Water rescue personnel from several local fire departments were able to save them and bring them back to shore safely.

Tom Childs from Standish and George Froehlich from Portland were aware that they were taking a risk when they launched their Skeeter-class ice boat from the Sebago Station Boat Ramp. The ice was 7" thick in the south end of the lake where they checked it but there was open water at the shore, and a line of open water was visible to the north. They were wearing life jackets and carried ice picks in case they went in, but were confident that the ice was thick enough for one last outing of the season.

The Skeeter class ice boat is
capable of top speeds of 140 mph.
Photo by Leonard Burz

Childs and Froehlich were sailing a Skeeter class ice boat, a fast and graceful design that dates from the mid-1930's. This class carries a single 75 square foot sail and can be up to 30 feet long, but there is much variation within the class. Ice boating is generally considered to have begun in the mid-1600's when sailing ships were fitted with ice runners to move cargo around the bays and canals in Holland. Ice boating has been a winter sport in Maine for at least 100 years. The first known ice boats in Maine were small gaff rigs from Vinalhaven lobster boats set on runners for sport sailing on tidal ponds there.

"The ice was good and the ice boat was sailing perfectly," said Childs. "I changed course to get a little more speed and we hit some rough, undulating ice. I think we caught a runner in some weak ice and the next thing you know we were over."

Luckily the ice held and they didn't go in the water. They were able to stay mostly dry, "except that I got my butt a little wet," said Froehlich. However, they didn't trust that the ice would hold them to get their ice boat back up and running again, and were stranded on the ice more than mile from shore, unable to move.

Rescuers from Standish, Gorham and
Sebago Fire Departments bring two stranded
ice boaters to safety from Sebago Lake
Photo by Allen Crabtree

They called 911 on their cell phone and were connected first to the State Police and then to the dispatch operator at Standish Fire/EMS at 2:35 p.m. Within minutes Standish rolled their Engine 1, Squad 6, and Rescue to the scene with their water rescue team. Not sure how complex the rescue effort was going to be, or the condition of the two sailors; Standish requested mutual aid assistance from Sebago, Gorham and Bridgton Fire Departments. Sebago responded with Engines 3 and 4, two water rescue specialists and their inflatable water rescue craft. Gorham sent their Marine 4 with a water rescue team, and Bridgton sent their rescue boat. Maine Game Wardens responded with two air boats.

Rescuers stretched life lines to the two stranded sailors and were able to walk out to them without falling through the ice. The two sailors were put aboard Standish's inflatable "banana" rescue craft and brought back to shore where Rescue personnel checked them out. They were in good shape, but a little embarrassed at all the attention they were getting.

Rescuers form a life line to
bring two stranded ice boaters
to safety from Sebago Lake
Photo by Allen Crabtree

They were lucky. The incident could have been much worse had they fallen through the ice. Even though they were prepared with life jackets, ice picks and a phone, Sebago Lake is still very cold. A person immersed without a cold water suit such as the rescuers were wearing can become hypothermic in minutes and can die if not rescued quickly.

The ice has turned dark and is rapidly going out of our ponds and lakes as spring comes again to the Lakes Region. Wide gaps of open water are appearing as the ice melts, and only the smaller ponds and bays of the larger lakes have ice thick enough to support the few die-hards who still venture out on it for one last ice fishing trip, or to go ice boating. Maine Game Wardens are warning people to stay off the ice.

Spring is always a critical time and there have been a rash of accidents with ice fishermen and snowmobiles going through the ice in the last few days. Now the Wardens can add two ice boat sailors to the list as well.

Last updated March 16, 2006

Copyright © 2006, Allen Crabtree