ZENDA, Wis. -- "Have you got yourself oriented yet?" Buddy Melges shouted over the roar of the wind and the growl of the runners against the ice.

We were careening along at 50 miles per hour on Lake Como, which froze last week to glassy perfection for the first time this winter. A pale sun glowed in the southern sky and ice particles skittered along the surface, borne along on a southwesterly breeze.

"I think so," I shouted back.

"What?" Melges pointed to his hard hat, which hampered hearing.

"I said I think so!"

"Good," he said, nosing the 28-foot ice boat into the breeze until the sail flapped and the steel runners ground slowly to a halt. "Now, you can try for yourself."

Before I could bellow a protest, he'd popped out of the cockpit and was shoving the boat into motion again as he rattled off bewildering instructions.

"To speed up, pull in the sheet {the line controlling the mainsail}. To slow down, ease the sheet and steer upwind. The wind is coming out of the sun. That's easy enough to remember. To go fast, sail toward the barn over there and then turn around and sail back toward the boats.

"If you get in trouble, just go upwind or downwind and ease the sheet and you'll slow down. You couldn't ask for a better day. You'll figure it out. Nothing to it."

"But, Buddy, how do you steer this thing?"

"With your feet," he said as the boat pulled away.

I stretched my legs to find the pedals, half scared they wouldn't be there. They were, praise God, and when I looked up again I was alone, accelerating. The three, knife-sharp runners had resumed their menacing rumbling as the beast gathered speed and Melges was a tiny figure astern, hands cupped to his lips.

"Ease the sheet," he howled. "Ease the sheet!"

Whoosh! Gone!

I figured I was the first person in history to learn ice-boating by being turned loose in a $7,000 borrowed racing rig in a stiff breeze on a foreign lake without a clue how to run it.

But that night, as we attacked duck dinner in Melges' cozy house overlooking Lake Geneva, his wife Gloria said it sounded familiar.

"He did the same thing to me the first time I went," she said. "I couldn't believe it, either."

So it goes when you put yourself in the hands of sailing's Wizard of Zenda. Melges loves a challenge and, if you run with him, you'd better, too.

Americans remember the 57-year-old Melges best as the quotable, ebullient skipper of the 12-meter Heart of America during the 1987 America's Cup series in Australia.

He buzzed around the Indian Ocean for four months with a U.S. flag flying from a pitchfork, winning the hearts of Australians, who saw him as the quintessential, corn-fed American hayseed.

He's a great sailor, too, of course; perhaps the nation's best, with two Olympic medals and countless national and international titles.

But the first sailing Melges did was not on water. "I was 5 years old when my father put me out alone in a boat the first time," he said. "And it was an ice boat."

Ice boats were on his mind even in the heat of Australian summer last January, when he suggested I stop by in a year for an ice boat ride.

"Come ahead," he said when pre-Christmas travel brought me to Milwaukee, 90 minutes away. "We should have ice."

Hospitably, Lake Como froze on schedule and we were among the first of the season to enjoy hard-water sailing.

Around Lake Geneva, different lakes freeze at different times, depending largely on depth. Como, the shallowest, locks up first and the ice-boat fleet is waiting. But as soon as it snows hard, boating is shot. By then, deeper Lake Delavan is likely to freeze and the fleet moves on. After Delavan is snowed out, Lake Geneva, deepest of all, freezes, and when snow finally ruins Geneva, everyone waits for spring thaw and a refreeze.

But nothing is as sweet as the first day on the first lake. "If iceboating was always like this," said Melges, pondering a cloudless sky, near flawless ice, 30-degree temperatures and steady breeze, "you'd go every day."

For courage, we downed a couple of Old Style drafts at the Scenic Mars Resort, a beer-and- burger spot overlooking the lake.

Then Melges donned his "brain bucket" and we were off, crammed into the tiny cockpit of his friend Burley Brellenthin's frail craft, On the Rocks V.

Briefly, he eased upwind, feeling his way in the borrowed boat. Satisfied it was ice-worthy, he punched a pedal down, canting the steering runner up front to the right. The bow cracked off the wind by about 10 degrees, Melges hauled on the mainsheet to bring the sail in snug and the boat just shot ahead, like no other sailboat in the world. It was breathtaking.

"Yee-haaaw!" I heard myself shouting as chips of ice splintered off the front runner and showered our goggled mugs. At 30 mph, it was pure, exciting pleasure; at 50 the growl of the runners carving tracks in the ice and the howl of the wind grew deafening as the boat chattered along.

At 70, shooting inches off the surface with a shrieking wind clawing your face, you gained an appreciation of one simple fact:

Until the advent of internal combustion engines, this was the fastest mode of transport known to man.

Just the wind, the ice, the Wizard of Zenda and you, going like fury.