ICEBOATS The Small Modern Racer is Faster Than the Huge Old-Timers of the Hudson River Type. Why is This? by Ray Ruge. "Yachting" magazine, November 1942
I would like to open this discussion in true amateur fashion by stating flatly that the ice boat is a ridiculously simple affair, and that, in nine races out of ten, the only significant difference between the first boat and the last is either better runners, better sails, better controls or, most common of all, a better skipper.
I would add that excellence in all these four essentials is relatively easy to attain — with the possible exception of excellence in the matter of sails. Sailmaking is a fine art, and ice boat sailmaking is a specialty within that art. Nevertheless, an understanding of what a sail really is, and of how it works, will enable you to do wonders for the sail you have without having to dent the budget for a new one. One of the grand things about any kind of sailing is that the ability to write fat checks never made a sailor, and the wise old ‘horny-handed’s boys who build their own and patch their sails can still bring ’em home in front — because they know what makes ’em tick.
To start with the broadest of generalities, every ice boat is essentially a framework mounted on runners and propelled by sails. Her speed, unhampered by any appreciable resistance, is more like that of a small airplane than that of a sail boat. Hence, it is reasonable to suspect that there is more food for thought in the airplane field than in that of the sail boat when we get into matters of design.
By and large, the general conclusion ran pretty close to the most obvious one: that, somehow or other, the reversed hull, with rudder forward and runner plank aft, was the key to the situation. Pinned down to paper and pencil, some of these theories were a bit weird. Here and there amid the tumult and the shouting was heard a still, small voice saying: ‘Forget about the d—- bow rudder for a while and take a good, long look at the rig.” … The Europeans insisted that the secret of the new boats’ amazing speed lay in their modern, efficient and powerful rigs. They pointed out that tiny little sails of only 75 square feet area on these boats were generating enough power to carry two men as well as the boat at speeds far above those of the older and far bigger boats. They also pointed out that heretofore no boat with less than 125 square feet of sail had ever been more than an impractical toy, with no performance rating whatsoever. That this raised a storm of dissension is putting it mildly, for not only did these newcomers run rings around us and make us feel distinctly old-fashioned and helpless, but they all sported that shameless and unscientific cat rig!
Let us here continue to delve into the problem of designing a proper rig for our ice boat in the light of the fast, off-the-bow, air current that seems to be what she normally has to work with. On the ice, courses are seldom held for more than a few seconds; wind direction and velocity are constantly shifting. There is no time for delicate sheet trimming. With a one-sail rig, it is possible, by hard work and a quick hand, to keep all the canvas constantly drawing. But with a sloop rig, the wind in the jib is going to do just one of three possible things: (a) help to drive the boat; (b) backwind the mainsail because trimmed too flat (killing the drive in the big sail); (c) luff because not trimmed flat enough, upsetting the air flow to the mainsail and surely doing nothing to increase progress.
It is interesting to note here that the generally unsatisfactory behavior of ice boat jibs was well known to the pioneers of the sport along the Hudson River in the seventies and eighties of the last century. They tried the cat rig, complete with enormous mast and heavy gaff, all stepped on the backbone, well forward of the runner plank so as to bring the C.E. (Center of Effort) up by the main runners and away from the rudder. The results are not hard to imagine: One after another of these juggernauts took a quick run to windward, all very fine, turned gracefully around the weather mark, caught the breeze from the quarter, lifted her rear end off the ice and went berserk. The final wind-up was sometimes a quick spin in mid-river, with the crew sliding off gaily over the ice. But more often than not it was a sickening crash as the whole works tried vainly to rearrange the solid rock ballast of the Hudson River Railroad.
In the early 1880’s, Charles and William Merritt, of the little village of Chelsea, on the Hudson River, designed and built the first successful lateen-rigged ice boat. Her single sail, triangular in shape, was bent to two long slender spars, called “boom” and “gaff,” respectively, from their relative positions when hoisted.
The C.E. was well forward, away from the rudder, and yet there was no heavy mast out on the nose of the boat to overbalance her and lift the rudder off the ice — the bugbear of the cat rigs of that day. Results were as they should have been — highly successful. After one season of scaring the daylights out of far bigger sloop-rigged boats, she was bought by Commodore John E. Roosevelt, uncle of President Roosevelt, and one of the greatest of all ice boat fans. He named her Eugene and for many years she sailed with the Hyde Park fleet. Later, she was sold and renamed Vixen, under which rakish title she still races regularly as the flagship of the Orange Lake Ice Yacht Club.
Other lateens followed immediately but the sloop rig was still in favor with the famous builder and designer, Jacob Buckhout, of Poughkeepsie, who, with his son George, built most of this country’s successful ice yachts until quite recent years. The Buckhouts turned the ice boat into the ice yacht, refined and perfected their basic sloop-rigged design until their products completely swept the field. In so doing, they swept the lateen rig, which had benefited from no such refinement, into the discard. Had the Buckhouts worked on either the cat or the lateen with similar persistence, they would, without a doubt, have arrived at the highly successful cat-rigged type now almost universal in Europe; an extremely light, hollow mast and Marconi rig to cut down nose-weight, and an exceptionally long backbone, extending several feet abaft the main boom, to keep the rudder on the ice and minimize spinning. But they stuck to the sloop, which thereafter remained the accepted rig until that fatal day when some “crazy Westerner" stuck a cat rig onto a reverse-English hull that steered from the front like Sister Susie’s tricycle — and, zowie! the apple cart was not only upside down — it was demolished.
When the wind is light, the larger boats carry enough sail to get them going, and speeds are not so great that skin friction and form resistance on hull and spars are major retarding factors. Hence, the big ones should — and do — win the races when the breeze is light. But, when it breezes up, the smallest racing class of all can — and does — show a clean pair of heels (and a taut, unflapping sail) to her bigger sisters handicapped by too much canvas. Even if they don smaller sails, they cannot hide their larger and bulkier hulls, or their taller masts, with resultant greater resistance, and the little ones gaily zip around and pass them with maddening consistency.
A most interesting case in point was this year’s Open Championship of the Eastern Ice Yachting Association. (This race is a contest between the winning boats from each of six sail area classes, ranging from the 75-square feet “Skeeters” up to the 350-square feet Class A boats.) It started in a medium light breeze, which turned out to be only a temporary lull in a howling northwester. The big boat skippers started off in fine style, the three largest boats immediately walking away from the little fellows. And then the gale came back! All the boats started to go faster but the big ones were immediately in trouble; too much canvas. The only recourse was to luff, which they did, with a will, and managed to stay right side up. But what of the “BE” boat? No luffing there! She started out after the leaders like a shot out of a gun. She caught and passed all but one — and the skipper of that one can speak with feeling when he says that it was a steadily losing fight.
And so we come to the end of this first powwow on ice boats, with a picture of the ice boat of the future gradually forming in our minds:
Rig: Cat (until someone works out a narrow, rigid jib that can be controlled by a mechanical device like a greenhouse window rig).
Type: Bow-steering (until the built-in contradictory forces of the stern-steerer can be eliminated by improved design or until the four-runner boat comes into her own).
Backbone: Long and relatively heavy.
Size: As small as possible, for strong winds — probably not over 175 square feet (Class C) in any case.
Shape of sail: Tall, narrow (2 to 1), and as smooth of surface texture as can possibly be obtained. Also, rigidly and stiffly arched into the proper airfoil curvature, either by full length battens in cloth sails, or by properties of the sail itself if we can get to metal or plywood sails.
(To Be Continued) Ray Ruge
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