BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont sailing team usually has to wait for the ice to thaw on Lake Champlain in March before getting their boats into the water, cutting into an already tight window for practice.
That's not the case this year. An unusual winter, on pace to be the warmest one on record in Burlington, has prevented the open lake from freezing, giving the team of men and woman more practice time before competition, which also starts in March.
The sailing coach decided to take advantage of the mild season with some early practices on the chilly lake.
"As long as the water's not freezing on the deck and you're sliding off the boat, it's fine," said coach Caroline Patten, adding that ropes used to control the sails also mustn't be frozen.
Although the weather is considered mild, it's still cold. On Wednesday afternoon teams of two set sail during snow squalls.
Donning dry suits with multiple layers underneath and booties to keep water out, team members scooped snow and ice out of the boats' hulls and brushed it off the rudders. They attached the sails and then pulled their boats on trailers down to the boat launch.
"It's not any colder than skiing to be honest," said Vince Yannelli, 19, of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
Once they start doing drills they warm up, said Patten, who stayed close in a motor boat.
The team needs to get in as much time on the water as possible to be a contender at the national level in the Intercollegiate Sailing Association, she said.
"A lot of the teams that we sail against are starting this early," she said. "The mid-Atlantic district, they've been practicing. ... And you know some of the southern schools, schools out west, they're able to start going."
Feb. 2 was their first sail, following the warmest December on record in Burlington and a January that was above the normal average temperature for the month over the last 30 years, according to the National Weather Service. The lake has frozen during the last two winters.
The team won't go out if the temperature is less than 30 and winds are above 20 knots, Patten said.
But colder temperatures are moving in, with the forecast calling for single digits and below-freezing wind chills this weekend.
On Wednesday, the team spent more than an hour on the lake. The cheery group stepped off their boats onto the dock, with snow and frost clinging to beards and clothing. Some shook and blew warm air into their cold hands. Together they pulled the boats out of the water onto trailers and pushed and pulled them up the slippery snow-covered boat launch.
"It's not as fun as summer, but it's still sailing," said Lindsay Doyle, 19 of Easton, Connecticut.