Editor's Note: This article was by Raymond A. Ruge and originally published in the February 10, 1945 issue of "The Saturday Evening Post". The language, spelling and grammar of the article reflects the time period when it was written. For information about current ice boating on the Hudson River go to White Wings and Black Ice here.
Once a rich man's game, iceboating today is a sport for anyone who has seventy-five dollars, a craving for speed—and plenty of ice.
ICE on the Shrewsbury! After half a dozen mild winters, the freeze-up of 1940 had clamped a ten- inch layer of glassy ice over the shallow, brackish river. As if by magic, iceboats appeared from barns, garages, cellars and woodsheds, for this is real ice-boating country, where the sport's traditions run back nearly 100 years. And now the Eastern Ice Yachting Association had voted to hold its annual championship regatta on the famous New Jersey course.
Two week ends of hard racing had all but completed the program. The pick of the fleets of twelve member clubs had fought for five class championships—an iceboat's class is based on sail area alone—from the tiny Class E Skeeters, with their pocket-handkerchief sails of only seventy-five square feet, to the big, powerful Class A racers, prides of the Shrewsbury, spreading 350 feet of creamy canvas. Between these came the champions of Class D, Class C and Class B, at 125, 175 and 200 square feet. There was just one race to go, the Open Championship, in which all these class champions fight it out without handicap to pick the year's undisputed king of the Eastern ice ways.
Since early morning, the northwest gale had roared, driving the furred and helmeted skippers to shelter round the clubhouse stove. At the rear of the long room steamed a huge chowder bowl, brimful of tangy, salty brew, concocted from good home-grown Jersey clams by the master hand of the old salt who now pridefully dispensed it. For chowder's "on the house" at Red Bank when the ice is right.
Around the crackling stove, half a dozen younger skippers were tangled in argument with the veterans.
"Why, I can remember the Rocket—eight hunderd an' fifty foot of sail, she had! And you call those little things iceboats!"
"Okay, okay! Just wait till this race gets started—if it ever does!"
Down the long side of the room was a workbench, where a pair of grimy characters filed away at long v-edged runners held in special blocks at just the proper angle. After filing the blades, they dressed them with light emery cloth and oil until they shone like polished silver.
"There. That ought to hold 'em," grunted one of the workers, as he straightened up and tossed aside his black oily gloves. "Only dirty job in this sport, but you can't get far without doing it, and you sure can't hire anybody to do it for you. How's for some chowder?"
"I'm your man," said his companion. "By the way, who's got a five-sixteenths drill?"
"Look in my box—that green one under the bench," volunteered one of the men around the stove. 'Clearly, here was a gang who knew and respected one another. They swapped ideas, tools and equipment like sailors swapping telephone numbers after a six months' cruise—apparently with perfect confidence that all favors would be returned in kind whenever possible. The iceboaters are like that. Most of them build their own boats. They have a mutual love for a fast, hard sport—one which automatically weeds out all but the regular guys by the sheer discomfort and disappointments that are part of the game.
Outside, halyards slapped a tattoo against shivering spars, taut rigging whistled and moaned, and canvas covers whipped viciously, as the fleet stood by, five champions waiting eagerly for the first lull that would permit starting of the Open. Finally, it came.
"Start at 3:15!" flashed the committee. Chowder was forgotten, the stove abandoned, as flying suits were pulled on and helmets buckled down. Shouldering runners, which are always removed at nightfall to prevent rusting, and toting sail bags, the crews lunged out into the gale. Canvas covers were stripped from gleaming mahogany and spruce. Lead weights were strapped to runner planks, runners and rigging given a last check-over before sails were hoisted for the jolting, grinding punishment to come.
"Course shortened to ten miles! Leave all marks to starboard! Skippers and crews ready! Spectators keep back!"
And there were plenty of spectators, for this was the race that Red Bank had been waiting for. The Class A yachts of time-honored stern-steering design had been undisputed speed kings of the ice for a quarter of a century. Then in the early 1930's, in Wisconsin, where iceboating flourishes under the sponsorship of the Northwestern Ice Yachting Association, a few daring pioneers tried a boat that reversed the usual arrangement, and steered from a single runner up front, something like Sister Susie's tricycle. They gave it a boxlike fuselage for a hull, so the pilot could sit upright and see where he was going—surely desirable at seventy miles an hour. He also was seated down inside the hull, so he could stay aboard without having to be an acrobat as well as a sailor. The traditional jib-and-mainsail rig gave way to the simpler cat, with its single sail. And, surprisingly, the new reverse-English jobs began trimming the pants off the older-style boats. By 1940, several had been brought East, and here they were at Red Bank, daring to tackle the old-style boats of nearly five times their sail area. Even the boldest of the young folks had to admit that the little eighteen-foot Western-built Skeeter, with its one-man crew, looked like a toy out there beside the thirty-five-foot Class A entry boast-ing both a skipper and a sheet tender.
The roar of the cannon sent them away. As the boats leaped away down-river, the big A left the others far behind. Turning the lower mark, she started across the lower river on the outer leg of the triangular course and was nearly a quarter mile ahead.
The old-timers chuckled. "See what we told you? Those little mahogany cracker boxes can't stay with a real ice-boat. Look where they are already!"
Up the river now, they crisscrossed as they tacked their way into the teeth of the gale toward the home stake. Three of the five starters were already far behind, but the little boat was moving up! This was going to be a race, after all. As the mighty Goliath of the river roared up and around the mark to start the second lap, right on her heels, not 100 yards behind, was that pesky little cracker box, the smallest boat in the race. Down the river again, lost in the flying snow. Across the outer leg and back up that wicked zigzag leg to windward. This time the Skeeter was even closer—a hornet chasing an eagle.
At the end of the third lap, they were even. One to go, and it was anybody's race. Downstream they went, down and across the outer leg, the eagle still ahead, but the hornet right on her tail. The last leg would tell the story. Up they came tacking, turning, fighting for every inch. Then the tiny Skeeter slipped past the big boat not a quarter mile from the finish, and went on to win by fifteen seconds.
The victory emphasized the fact that iceboating had switched from a rich man's game, with an outlay of $2500 or more for a top-flight racer, to a sport for the average man. The Skeeter that won the 1940 Open cost $350, complete—about as much as a single set of runners for the big yacht she had so neatly trimmed. Annual maintenance on a Skeeter runs in the neighborhood of a ten-dollar bill. By building their own boats, many fans cut the initial cost be-low the $200 mark. For transportation, a car-top carrier or a small two-wheeled trailer does the trick.
Iceboating had found a level where al-most anyone who wanted to could enjoy it. New clubs sprang up wherever there was ice enough to sail the boats. Be-tween 1931 and 1941, the number of ice-boats in active use was just about quadrupled. Allowing the usual quota of one owner—the skipper—and at least two or three enthusiastic pals per boat, the number of iceboaters was multiplied by twelve to sixteen. More accurate figures are impossible to get. Although organized iceboating was discontinued for the duration, after the regattas of 1942, informal sailing is today going on as usual.
Whenever the conversation gets around to iceboating, there are certain questions that always turn up. The first one, of course, goes: "Well, all kidding aside, how fast do they really go?" And right off the bat we run into the mystery of "faster than the wind." Actually, ice-boats do sail faster than the wind—a whole lot faster, in fact—but only when they're sailing across the wind, not running along with it. An iceboat moves so easily on her polished metal runners that a half-ton boat, once under way, can be pushed along by any ten-year-old, and there's practically no increase in ice friction as the speed increases. At the same time, the sharp V edges of the runners completely eliminate sideslip, so that every ounce of power developed by the sail goes into forward motion. As a result, when the boat is sailed directly across the wind stream, so the wind tries to push her sideways, her runners say "Nothing doing," and she has to slip ahead out of this squeeze play like a watermelon seed popping out from between your fingers.
Furthermore, the forward movement of the boat immediately brings into action a second air flow, equal to the speed of the boat, and coming from dead ahead. Her sails don't feel it, but they don't feel the same breeze as a person standing still, either. What they get and what actually drives the boat is a combination of the true wind and the air current caused by the boat's motion. This combined breeze is known as the "apparent wind," and because iceboats move so easily, they soon build up their apparent wind to a velocity far higher than that of the real wind. They can keep on working the squeeze play and the wind build-up until they get up to about four times the original wind speed. Then the apparent wind is coming from so nearly dead ahead that they can't build it up any more. But four times the speed of the wind is enough for anybody.
Now you can begin to understand how Long Branch's famous Commodore Price broke every speed record on the books by sailing the Clarel 140 miles an hour one winter day in 1908. He didn't have a hurricane—just a typical winter westerly, with puffs hitting forty or forty-five, and he got the old girl going at just the right angle. Debutante III, of Oshkosh, claims 119 in a race on Gull Lake, Michigan. Flying Dutchman, of the same club, is credited with 124. Both these records are to the credit of the famous skipper, John Buckstaff, of Oshkosh.
Iceboats, however, don't always go tearing around four times as fast as the wind. Most of the time their speed is closer to twice the wind speed, and because they have to tack to get to wind-ward, they cover a greater distance than the measured course in every race. The real test of a boat's ability is what she can do around a course from a standing start. A comparison of old records with new will show what streamlining and modern rigs have done for speed. In 1892, the famous Jack Frost-720 square feet—set a record by sailing a twenty-mile race on the Hudson River at an average speed of 38.3 miles per hour. Actual distance: 31.4 miles; time: 49 minutes, 30 seconds. Almost a half century later, Charette II, carrying 125 square feet of sail, covered a ten-mile course in 11 minutes, 33 seconds at an average speed of 51.9 miles an hour to win the Eastern Open Championship for 1941.
Having been convinced that iceboats really do make time, our questioner in-variably follows up with this one: "At speeds like that, how do you ever stop the darned things?" Stopping is actually a cinch, provided the skipper hasn't made that basic error known to the trade as "running out of ice." Iceboats will stop in a surprisingly short distance, if they are headed straight into the wind.
"Isn't it dangerous?" In the hands of a fool or a show-off, yes. But properly handled—and it's easy—iceboats are a lot safer than automobiles. For one thing, there's no lurking ditch, nor is there a line of fence posts and a stream of opposing traffic. There's plenty of room; collisions are practically unheard of. Furthermore, with her sharp runners, an iceboat can be steered within a fraction of an inch of where her skipper wants to send her, with one exception. The older type of boat, with stern rudder, some-times will take matters into her own hands, kick up her heels and do a whirling dervish, spinning around two or three times as if trying to shake off both skipper and crew. And sometimes she succeeds.
In 1931, Starke Meyer, of Milwaukee, did some experimenting with models he hoped would lick the spin problem. He decided to reverse the traditional design and give the bow steerer a try. In the next few seasons he built several, all named Paula. The bow steerer turned out to be tremendously fast. Even more encouraging, she proved to be spin-proof. Paula's offspring can be numbered in the thousands. Most numerous are the ubiquitous Skeeters.
In fairness, however, it should be pointed out that, while the bow steerer won't spin and toss you off, she's a dangerous lady in a capsize. She lifts her crew high in the air as she rears, and if she goes over, they may be tossed out from a height of eight or ten feet or, even worse, have the whole works fall with them, in case the mast breaks. A few bad spills of this type occurred when bow steerers were younger and not so well understood. In recent years, skippers have learned always to carry the main sheet—the rope that controls the sail—so that it can be slipped a bit if the boat tries to hike more than a few inches. They have found that the boat makes better speed if she is kept down on the ice than when one runner is reaching for the sky, the way you see them in the newsreels. Since there is no profit and there is real danger in carrying a hike too far, capsizes these days are rare indeed. When they do occur, you may be sure that they are the result of just plain bad driving.
We can just about ignore the old question, "Isn't it terribly cold?" 'Sure it's cold. But everybody gets outdoors in the winter nowadays, and all you have to do is dress for it. For coldest days, ice-boaters smear their faces with camphor ice, petroleum jelly or cold cream, and their lips with pomade—don't laugh, brother; a split lip is no joke—as do skiers, fliers, mountain climbers and lots of other outdoor sportsmen.
And so we get to the key questions: "Isn't it expensive?" and "How do I get started?" The Skeeter, professionally built at $350, home-built for $75 to $200, has pretty well settled the financial matter, for a good Skeeter is just as fast as anything else, and a lot less trouble. In the old days, when speed was more or less proportional to size, enormous yachts were built, at costs running into the thousands. Largest of all was the Icicle, owned by President Roosevelt's uncle, Commodore John E. Roosevelt, of the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club at Hyde Park. Originally built in 1869, she was enlarged and remodeled until she reached the amazing length of sixty-nine feet and lugged a thousand-square-foot spread of canvas.
She has been carefully preserved, and now rests in the Roosevelt museum at Hyde Park. By 1890, she was being consistently beaten by much smaller but more efficient craft, and the big boats gradually dropped into the discard.
The largest yacht still sailing is the Debutante III, owned by Douglas and Camp van Dyke, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Carrying 618 square feet of sail in a towering rig that completely dwarfs every other boat in sight, she has seen both the Hearst and the Stuart cups, iceboating's premier trophies, lifted from her by smaller boats. The Hearst Cup now rests at Madison, jealously guarded by the 350-square-footer Fritz, owned by Fritz Jungbluth and sailed by Carl Bernard. The Stuart Cup is in Detroit, won and held by Rex Jacobs' fine 350-square-footer Ferdinand, under the able handling of George Hendrie. And even these super-racers have now and again been beaten by little bow steerers carrying 175 square feet or less, which means that a $350 Skeeter will put you right up there with the best of them.
Of real importance is the ease with which these little boats can be transported. In the East, for example, the Skeeter crowd has actually stretched the season from a former average of two months to the present one of nearer four. Opening the season on the earliest ice, up in the hills around Kent, Connecticut, they move down into Southern New York to Orange and Greenwood lakes, or into Northern Jersey to Lakes Hopatcong and Musconetcong. If it's a really hard winter, like that of 1940, the lakes will be snowed under. But there's bound to be ice on the Shrewsbury. So south-ward they go, for a Skeeter can be knocked down ready for the road in half an hour. As the winter wears along, the trek is reversed, until the last days of March find them back in Connecticut, winding up the season in glorious spring sunshine. In Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, most of the large lakes sport a few boats, and there are several clubs of considerable size. If you're a Midwesterner, Lake St. Clair, at Detroit, Gull Lake, near Kalamazoo, Fox Lake, northwest of Chicago, Lakes Geneva, Mendota, Pewaukee and Winnebago in Wisconsin, or White Bear and Minnetonka in Minnesota, are the hot spots. There are lots of others, and it's a safe bet you live within an hour's drive of iceboating if you're in those latitudes.
And don't think it's all racing. Not by a long shot. Many an enthusiastic ice-boater never races. He probably likes to use tools, and he likes to get outdoors in the wintertime with a group of con-genial spirits. He gets a tremendous kick out of iceboating, even though race day finds him serving on the committee instead of clipping buoys.
The best way to get started is to go where the boats are and get talking to the people who sail them. You'll find them more than friendly, glad to give you a ride, and ready to welcome you heartily if you really get the bug and decide to acquire a boat. Even if you are a fine craftsman and are pretty sure you know just what you want to build, it is far wiser to buy your first iceboat, preferably secondhand. You'll learn a lot about what makes a good one good after you've sailed, rigged and played with one for a couple of seasons. Then is the time to build that superboat for yourself. And many's the fellow who's done it. Fritz, the boat we met a few lines back, winner in 1934 of the Hearst Cup, Stuart Cup, Northwestern Class A and Free-for-All Championships; Elizabeth R., owned and sailed by Rube White, of Red Bank, holder of the North American Class A Pennant; Scout, last winner-1922—of the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America, sailed by Capt. Frank Drake, of New Hamburg, who still sails every winter, though shading seventy; my own, Charette II, four times Eastern Class C Champion and twice winner of the Eastern Open—all are home-built boats.
Iceboating flourished in Northeastern Europe for many years. Stockholm, Riga and Berlin boasted many clubs and active fleets of yachts. Just before the war, the nations around the Baltic Sea banded together into the Europiiischen Eissegel Union, and sailed annual inter-national championships in several sail-area classes. It may well be that the next winter Olympics will see the inauguration of truly international ice yachting. Steps toward this end were under way when war broke out. Once it's over, you can look for more and faster iceboating wherever Jack Frost hangs his hat.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.