Recently, Runner Tracks caught up with Mike O’Brien to ask him some questions about his extremely successful iceboating career. Mike was North American Champion in 1987 and has won three World Championship titles; 1987, 1988 and 1989.

RT: What was the funniest / most exciting / most outrageous time you have had in iceboating?

MO: It is really hard to pick one story out of so many that occurred while on the way to or at an iceboating event. We always seem to have a great time no matter where we end up.

Two particular occasions really stand out in my mind. The first is when we switched to the bendy rigs. The old stiff rigs required a lot of work to go up wind. The sails were cut flat and therefore, we could not go as fast downwind either. When we made the switch, most sailors had a grin from ear to ear because of the speed and ease of sailing. Even if you were behind, it was still a great thrill to experience the speed.

Second, the night before the 1989 Worlds, while staying at Peter/Julie Hills house, we had two of the up and coming German team members come over to sharpen runners. Peter and I let them take their pick of sanding machines. All of our runners and a straight edge were left in plain sight. We got a pair of the most perplexing looks when we left to go out to dinner. It was as if we have just left them the keys to the candy store! We are not sure of our contribution to their development, but the look of astonishment was reward enough for information possibly rendered.

RT: What do you think of iceboating becoming an even at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah?

MO: I think iceboating would make an excellent Winter Olympic sport. The chances of having ice in Salt Lake City really depends on how soon the next Ice Age occurs. If the Olympic committee is serious, they will have to be willing to move the event to a location that will have the capability of hosting this type of race; i.e., good clear ice, etc.

For the best interests of the class, perhaps a boat should be used other than a DN. That is to say, it meets the DN specifications but with much tighter tolerances. The boat could be sailed in DN events, but it’s technical developments would be very restricted. This would serve to spare the class members discouragement from a technological race they do not want to participate in.

RT: What was the key to your winning the World Championships in 1987, 1988 and 1989?

MO: 1987--- Winning the World’s was a big surprise! I really thought I was more prepared for the 1985 World's than for 1987.

In the 1985 World's, I failed to adjust the rig from the heavy winds of the practices to the light winds we raced in. Jan Gougeon (US 1183) was able to point higher than me in a race and pass me with ease. I never quite recovered from that but managed to finish second.

By contrast, the 1987 World's were a surprise. We had little practice that year. I built a wood / carbon mast and had little time to test with it. After the first time sailing, I added wood and carbon because it bent so much! So it was untried prior to the World's. The first day was light air on a very small course. My start in the first race was good but I lost positions on every leg of the course. The second race was much the same. When the day ended with a disappointing 4th and 9th place finish, I thought Henry Bosset (US 2936) was going to win another World's. The next day I went out and practiced in heavier wind. I began to smile as the boat felt great and no one had better speed. My start was not great but I was able to grind everyone down except two boats in that third race. The fourth race was a textbook (Buddy Melges) race ---- "Start first and increase your lead!" I won by a big margin. I congratulated Henry Bosset before the race, because mathematically (I thought) it was impossible to win. Henry started on the bad side of the course and was deep in the pack. I won again with a good margin and Henry never recovered.

1988 -- Russia was a big place and I basically felt very much alone. None of the other top Americans were there. The first day of practice, I was slow, wet and did not have much hope for even making the gold fleet! My slush runners needed work so I spent much of the afternoon and evening on them. The next day was the Euro-Cup. After switching to my aluminum mast, I had good speed up wind. Down wind was bad news. The runners were digging in and I had to get out and push in moderate air! So I dropped out of the races, went in to move the pivot pins back, and put more (drastic) lead in the slush runners. The next day was fleet splitting and surprisingly I was fast and won all four of my races. The last day I had a bad start and finished a deep 13th in the fifth race. The last race, I basically had to win or Piotr Burczynski had to finish deep. Once again, I was deep but was able to pass boats on every leg. I was 5th around the leeward mark with no chance, it seemed, to pass four boats. They all sailed too low, and too slow, and I was able to power through the junk to finish 1st and win the regatta.

1989 -- The pressure was on to win in 1989. Every one thought I had a "cake walk" in Russia and a trick mast in 1987! Peter Hill (US 4230) was much faster in all the practices prior to the regatta. The day before the World’s all of the good sailors with the new wood masts were much faster. I ranked my speed with a stiff aluminum mast at about 15th and I was shaking in my boots! I could not keep any breakfast in me the morning of the first day of racing. The snow had stiffened up and the wind moderated. The first race I was deep but never got anxious. I rounded about 10th after a good tactical leg. I passed boats on every leg with speed and tactics. This was the first race I sailed that I remember vividly, but don’t ever remember making decisions. One of those out-of-body experiences, I guess. I am not sure who was sailing my boat, but he sure sailed a great race. Tiit Haagma (C 10) was way out in front and seemingly unbeatable, yet we beat him! I was passed in the next race in stronger wind. The winds lightened during the balance of the regatta and that was definitely to my benefit.

RT: What does it take to win these days as compared to in years past?

MO: This is very hard to answer. When you think you have it all figured out, a mast that bends differently begins to dominate. Then the sails need to change. I still believe you can get away with one set of maximum inserts (moderately flat) 90% of the time. You still need the extreme runners ready to go for the different kinds of junky ice. These include the following sets of runners: long thick inserts, medium length thin inserts, slush runners (angle irons), and minimum length inserts. You still need two steering runners: a short Sarns plate and a medium length insert.

The boat needs to fit you. The plank needs to bend well but not bottom out. The mast and sail combination needs to bend out, but not to the extreme. That does not mean your mast should not be bendy. You have to set up your rig so that you can get leech tension without over trimming. The overall boat rigged needs to be light to allow for good starts and a responsive feel.

RT: What do you think about the change in the mast specification?

MO: The class has made a great decision! The wood in the mast only made it 100 times harder and more expensive to build. The wood element made the mast unreliable. The aluminum mast was good at bringing the class back to one-design racing. This change should do much the same.

RT: What do you think about the current direction of the class?

MO: The class is once again showing signs of unity, in respect to the best interests of the class. The mast issue and talk of eliminating the extreme runners will go a long way to help the class remain a strong and fun organization. To be competitive, at present, the time spent in the basement is a big part of your performance. A lot of great sailors either don’t have the time or ability to take on the projects.

RT: What would you like to see for the class in the future?

MO: The DN class is a great class. It has survived where many soft water fleets have vanished. This is due, in part, to the fact that DN’s are the only game in town. The Skeeter is a great boat but it is expensive and limited to where it can sail. I am very happy that designers have not come in with variations that have diluted the iceboaters into a number of different classes.

RT: What do you think would be a good direction for the class to go with respect to runners?

MO: We had a very positive dialogue at the last annual meeting. I was surprised, of all people, to hear Jan Gougeon say he wanted to put his runners in the scrap pile! Somebody always thinks they have an advantage with their special runners. Well, if you do, someone else will come up with something better. The point is that the person who has the time in the cockpit and works the hardest is going to have an advantage. I think it is in everyone’s best interest to limit the amount of work that needs to be done. I personally would like to sail against sailors and not "dungeon dwellers!"

Runner Tracks would like to thank Mike for taking the time to answer these questions. We hope you have gotten a little insight into the man, myth and legend!

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