The Making of an Iceboater
It is a quiet, cold evening in December 1918. Spread-eagled on the extreme end of our dock, I am fascinated by watching the lake start to freeze. First the surface stops moving, becomes smooth and still - then, suddenly, it wrinkles up into sheets of frozen surface-film, with long crystals spreading out all over. In a few minutes, the frozen film is actually thick enough to lift - very carefully - but of course it is delicate and fragile.
Suddenly my mother's voice calls down from the house, and I have to abandon my scientific research into how ice really forms - but I had seen enough so I have never forgotten it. The entire experience of growing up by the side of a beautiful lake which provided swimming, fishing, sailing, skating and eventually iceboating colored my life from then on - I was eight when we moved there, and twenty-seven when we were forced to abandon the place by the implacable march of the Great Depression.
Of all the activities that Lake Mahopac offered, those I loved the most were those of Winter. Both my parents were excellent skaters - I recall at the age of five I was equipped with a proper pair of single-runner skates firmly attached to shoes, taken to a rink in New York, given a little push and told to "Skate!"
Of course it took a few minutes to get the hang of it - but by mid-afternoon I was waddling around the rink on my own - no holding of parental hands. The folks knew, of course, that double-runner skates are an abomination, and that holding someone's hand is really no help either until after one reaches puberty! Then the motivation is quite another story.
So here is a ten-year-old, excited about winter and all it has I to offer up there in the country, and also an avid reader. I found a book by Ralph Henry Barbour entitled Iceboat Number One in the school library. Clearly this was my undoing - or doing, which ever way you look at it. The story was a typical boy's book - the hero built his own boat, and finally beat the rich boy who had a fancy professionally-built boat, but didn't know how to sail it very well. It didn't take me long to identify with the local hero - but how to begin?
Right here is where my father's support became what made it all happen. First he bought us a litte book - as it turned out, one of the best books on the subject that existed at that time - about 1920. The title was simply “Ice Boating”, but the contents included articles by most of the leading sportsmen of the time, including the famous Archibald Rogers, owner of “Jack Frost”, last winner of the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America. Mr. Rogers' reminiscences of sailing and racing on the Hudson opened our eyes to a really terrific sport - plagued by the vagaries of weather, as always, but truly terrific when it could be done.
Our immediate problem, now that our appetite was whetted, was what sort of boat could we build, with our limited resources and complete lack of facilities to enable us to even dream of a craft like “Jack Frost”, or even a miniature of her. We did have the rig of my father's sailing canoe - strictly Old Town, vintage 1913. We decided to put together something to carry that rig, and see what we could do.
This had to be built of material at hand - planks, framing lumber remaining from the building of our house a year or two earlier. What emerged was a triangular platform with 2x8 planks on edge surrounding it - to keep us from falling out The mast was stepped in a wooden block, and stayed with odd pieces of wire - probably wire clothes line. Three little turnbuckles served to keep this in some sort of order, and the sail hung well enough exactly as it had on the canoe.
Of course, here we were ready to set forth, but on what? What do we do for runners? We had learned enough from our little book to understand that runners had to be sharpened to a V-edge, must have some slight rocker rather than be dead straight on the bottom, and so forth. It was clearly time for Dad to step in again. After all, he was an engineer, he understood the problem, and as it turned out, he knew where to go for help - Naylor's Foundry, in Peekskill. He made some sketches and after a few days, the word came that our runners were ready. They were cut from 313" steel plate, sharpened to a V on the bottom, and hung between pairs of angle irons on a single bolt, so they could rock. The rudder-post and tiller were a little more complex, but they worked OK, which was the main purpose.
It was easy enough to mount these steel parts on our little platform - we were ready to launch! Imagine the excitement by all hands - Mother included (after all, she had learned to skate on the Hudson River and had often hooked a ride behind the local iceboats). To our delight, the little rig sailed fine. As it turned out, the real beneficiaries of this craft were my folks, who sailed it by daylight and by moonlight, while I was away at school playing hockey and getting myself ready for college.
During my college years - 1925-1931 - a fellow-sailor from the Lake who had some remains of a big Hudson River iceboat that had been allowed to lie outdoors in the summer time (the "kiss of death" for any wooden boat not properly covered) - decided to use the rig of his one-design sailboat and build a simple 24-foot boat to carry it. He was lucky to have those fine Hudson River runners - with the good spars and sails he also had, from the summer-sailing class on the Lake, the rest was easy enough. His boat sailed very well - so well that I resolved to go and do likewise - since I too had a sailing rig from the summer boat.
The obvious gap in my equipment was runners, rudder-post and tiller. I resolved to go to New Jersey - Red Bank and Long Branch - where there were lots of iceboats. I finally salvaged a set of runners from a marsh where they had been thrown when the shed where the boat was stored had burned down. This meant the owner no longer had a boat, and had about given up on iceboating. He sold me the lot for a ten-dollar bill. I had my work cut out for me - the shoes were terribly rusty and pitted, and even the oak tops had started to rot. But persistence and plenty of sweat resulted in a fine set of runners, when they were finally finished. The iron was excellent, which I surely did not realize when I found them. Admittedly, I was lucky (and persistent).
This boat sailed very well - in fact, with her good runners and sails, she had a head start on most of the others that were around at that time.
By now, I was an avid iceboater, and the Depression provided me with opportunities for working on boats and sailing them which would never have existed in more prosperous times. At that time (1935-6-7) I was running a small resort hotel, and in the winter, there wasn't much going on during the week. So I tinkered with boats and sailed them whenever possible.
In the January 1935 issue of “The Sportsman” magazine, there appeared an article about the great mid-western breakthrough in iceboat design - the advent of the front-steering boat, in Wisconsin. These first bow-steerers were large, like their stern-steering predecessors in the more successful racing classes. But a series of very serious capsizes nearly caused the whole idea of bow-steering to be abandoned while yet really untried. The problem was not with bow-steering per se, but with lack of understanding of the proper size, weight and design of a successful boat that steered from the bow.
The way to go turned out to be small, rather than large. A man named Walter Beauvais built what he called the “Beau-Skeeter”, only about twelve feet long with an eight-foot cross-plank. Because it was small and light, it could be sailed on the ragged edge of a capsize without fear or danger - if it went over, the pilot fell only a few feet, and by "starting" the sheet, he often kept it right-side-up anyway. The fact that the driver always went up when a bow-steerer "hiked", carried with it the message of possible trouble, and resulted in many improvements in the “Beau-Skeeter” design.
The Palmer Boat Company of Fontana, Wisconsin on Lake Geneva, brought out some very fast single-and-two-seater skeeters that opened my eyes rudely the first time I encountered them on Greenwood Lake. I had won a race the day before with the boat that carried my Lake Mahopac one-design sloop rig, and I thought she was at the least, a pretty good iceboat for the time. We set up a little scrub race between my boat and two of these Palmer skeeters, and they sailed three laps to my two. That was convincing enough -clearly the bow-steerer was the faster type, regardless of size or sail area.
This had continued to be true - the only interest that today exists among the older stern-steerers is confined to racing within their own classes in the Eastern Ice Yachting Association, and competing for certain trophies that are restricted to the classic type. They are entirely different in action and in speed, but they require enough skill to present a challenge -as long as you don't have to be the fastest boat out there.
In the meantime, over the past half-century, the so-called “Skeeter”, which started at 12 ft. long x 8 ft wide, has grown to 24 to 26 ft long and 16 to 18 ft wide, still carrying (theoretically) the original 75 square feet of sail. By taking full advantage of a loophole in the sail-area rule which permits a 12-inch "roach" or projection outside of the straight chord of the sail's leech, with 24 to 26-foot masts, giving a long leech, the actual sail area now being carried is closer to 90 sq. ft. Speeds have jumped into the unbelievable regions - there is even a story from Wisconsin (the hotbed of the big Skeeters) of a boat reputed to have been "clocked" by a State Policeman's radar at over 150 miles per hour.
There are many reasons why this is possible - suffice it to say here that the big, long, "lean and mean" skeeter is the fastest thing on the ice today.
Back in the 1936-1937 days, I got involved in building the very best boat I could, following the overall setup of the big Palmer boat that looked to be unreachable. Surely as to finish and fittings she was far out of my reach - but it turned out some of the basic design decisions I had made were correct, and I beat her on every occasion we raced. That is another story - suffice it to say that my 1937 boat, named “Charette II” reposes today in the New York State Museum in Albany, contemplating her medals and past trophies. It has been a nice wind-up to a lengthy career. Ray Ruge.
This article was written by Ray Ruge and originally published in the 1984 Winter Update issue of Hudson River Maritime Museum's publication Focs'le News.
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