In Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days, the main character Phileas Fogg misses his train in the American north and ends up hitching a ride on a curious invention, as described here:

There Mr. Fogg examined a curious vehicle, a kind of frame on two long beams, a little raised in front like the runners of a sledge, and upon which there was room for five or six persons. A high mast was fixed on the frame, held firmly by metallic lashings, to which was attached a large brigantine sail. This mast held an iron stay upon which to hoist a jib sail. Behind, a sort of rudder served to guide the vehicle. It was, in short, a sledge rigged like a sloop. During the winter, when the trains are blocked by the snow, these sledges make extremely rapid journeys across the frozen plains from one station to another. Provided with more sails than a cutter, and with the wind behind them, they slip over the surface of the prairies with a speed equal if not superior to that of the express trains.

(From Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days from Sterling Publishing, New York.) enter image description here

Picture from the Golden Picture Classic edition, Tom Gill illustrator.

Did this invention actually exist, or did Jules Verne make this vehicle up? I have read that authors from this era often invented strange contraptions to make the story more interesting, especially if the story took place in America.

  • Image Aug 28, 2017 at 20:03
  • @KeithMcClary - That is the same book but not the same publishing that I mentioned. This is the one I quoted from.
    – ezra
    Aug 28, 2017 at 21:02
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    "Sand yachts" with wheels rather than skids were also in use during Verne's lifetime. See britishlandsailing.co.uk/land-sailing-is-not-a-recent-discovery which claims they were first invented by the Chinese, c. 600 AD, and used in Europe and America from the 18th century onwards.
    – alephzero
    Aug 28, 2017 at 23:58
  • There is an active "ice-boating" club on Burlington Bay (aka Hamilton harbour) most winters. Aug 29, 2017 at 21:22

4 Answers 4


Yes, and this wikipedia article and this other one describe it. The first article talks about ice boats in America (invented in Poughkeepsie, etc), but the second makes it clear that the Dutch had this technology down cold a very long time ago. Verne, one suspects, read 19th century equivalents of Wikipedia for plot elements; maybe he read an equivalent of the first article I cite and was hooked by the American connection, and so put it in his novel.

Added: Of course, Verne's version travelled over land, and real ice-boats over frozen water. As Pieter Geerkens remarks, ice boats are very rapid, as (I suppose) the drag on the runners on ice is far less than the drag on the hull in the water.

  • 1
    You might want to note the speeds of ice-boats, far in excess of the wind-speed for most points of sail. Aug 28, 2017 at 2:47
  • 1
    And I thought Poughkeepsie was just an invention of the authors of Allie McBeal ... Aug 28, 2017 at 22:09
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    "...had this technology down cold..." - booooo. :-) Aug 29, 2017 at 2:40
  • 5
    The bad pun made me shiver....
    – nijineko
    Aug 29, 2017 at 3:04
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    It's instructive to consider where the "drag" force comes from; it's not just that water provides more friction than air and ice. An object moving through a fluid must move that fluid aside! A boat that displaces, say, 50 tons of water that moves its own length in one second is a device that moves 50 tons of water a second, every second; that's a lot of work compared to moving 50 cubic meters of air per second. Aug 29, 2017 at 14:50

Here's a reference to an attempt to use a "ski sledge" by Fridtjof Nansen during his crossing of Greenland in 1887. This is fourteen years after the book was published, so this obviously isn't the inspiration for the plot point. But at least someone tried it, though in a more ad hoc fashion than described in the book.

  • 1
    Thanks for the answer, Steven. Not exactly what I was looking for, but a good resource nonetheless!
    – ezra
    Aug 28, 2017 at 2:32

To add context to other answers, there's also Arthur Ransome's book "Winter Holiday", mentioning "ice yachts" sailing over a frozen lake in England. Though the book was published in 1933, its inspiration was the Great Frost of 1895, when there was even held a silver cup ice yacht competition on Windermere. (See Arthur Ransome wikia)

  • I'm glad you mentioned this: my wife wanted me to put it in my answer, but I wavered. That's the story where Flint says "I'll be a Dutchman!" isn't it? Aug 29, 2017 at 13:39

Actually, I'd say it's doubtful that a wind-powered sledge can be practical on snow. Other answers have linked to ice- and ground-based wind-powered craft. However, both of these have practical ways to counter lateral forces. Where a conventional boat has a keel, an ice boat has skate-like "runners" that resist lateral movement, and "ground boats" can use wheel traction to counter the lateral forces. A "snow keel" would, however, have orders of magnitude more drag. So one would have to conclude a wind-powered sledge can only efficiently travel downwind and cannot take an angle to the wind like a real boat can.

  • While lateral forced are an important consideration, a) I don't think your concern is pertinent, since e.g. slalom ski demonstrates that snow can actually resist such lateral forces very well without incurring much friction, b) the text says explicitly “with the wind behind them”, so even if this only worked properly downwind it wouldn't imply that these sledges wouldn't have been practical (e.g. in a region of mostly constant wind direction – drive a couple of one-way transports during winter, bring sleighs back empty – pulled by dogs or wait till summer, dismantled, via train). Aug 29, 2017 at 15:41
  • @leftaroundabout Regarding (a), while it's true that slalom skiing requires significant lateral forces, it also requires very skilled maneuvers that dig those skis into the snow at the right angle. Ice is still provides orders of magnitude more traction, just look at the stunts figure skaters are able to do on ice, the turns are much tighter there than in slalom. Regarding (b), well, while a limited downwind-only craft could work, it's not clear that it could be economical; i.e., pay for its construction and upwind hauling in ticket sales. If it can't do that why would anyone build it?
    – EnTaroAdun
    Aug 29, 2017 at 16:42
  • @EnTaroAdun Skaters are beyond competition sure. But a more interesting comparison is the turns made by snow skiers versus keeled water vessels (with comparable weight). I don't think there would be a huge difference. Since it looks like the latter rather easily sail a side wind, the former can do the same.
    – kubanczyk
    Aug 30, 2017 at 12:52
  • @kubanczyk Well there's probably no way to tell without building one - and that's my main point, you can't use the example of ice boats to justify that snow boats would necessarily work as well. Intuitively, I feel a snow keel might not work because snow is fluffy and would readily pack together rather than provide resistance. It's easier to push a shovel through snow than through water, for example (well, depending on the angle).
    – EnTaroAdun
    Aug 31, 2017 at 19:22

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