Iceboating on the Toms River: A Wintertime Playground
January 18th, 2011
by Erik Weber
ON THE TOMS RIVER – Watching the weather. Checking and rechecking the shores. Calling friends to ask what they’ve heard, what they’ve seen.
With the exception of the common tides report, avid iceboaters follow similar habits of their surfing cousins, except that when the call comes or a gathering of their fellow sportsmen is seen already out on the water, it’s goggles and gloves, helmet and heavy coat that they adorn, not board shorts, wetsuits, and a tan.
Such was the case earlier this month when the call raced across the state – the Toms River, for the first time in years, was ready to go. Before long, caravans of vehicles made their way from the north, south and west to join their local counterparts, carrying odd-looking wooden or synthetic beings on top of roofs, out back windows, and tied down to trailers. Anticipation for the rush of the wind above and thunder of the blades below coursed through the veins of these dedicated enthusiasts, so much so that any concept of prior duties or obligations evaporated on first sight of the ice.
Beginning on the morning of Saturday, January 15th and running through all of the next day, bands of iceboaters assembled and lined up their “hardwater” craft on the cove between the Toms River Yacht Club and the western edge of Island Heights while a handful of Pine Beach and Beachwood natives rigged their own ice vessels at Station Avenue Beach in Pine Beach.
Island Heights resident Bill Murphey and Bayville resident Ted Wiedeke were two such sportsmen on the north shore, each stating that the tradition had been passed down to them from their grandfather and father, respectively.
“It’s an amazing rush,” said Mr. Murphey. “Iceboats used to be the fastest thing on the planet because you can’t get a railroad to go over 90 [mph] and they didn’t have cars.”
“The big key is finding ice with no snow on it - the snow makes the surface too slow and then the boats want to tip over rather than going fast, and the whole reason they go so fast is because there’s no friction,” Mr. Wiedeke stated, further commenting on the quality of the ice of the day, which while thick enough held a somewhat slushy surface layer. “It’s not great but it’s the first ice we’ve had in two years, so that ice is much better than no ice.”
While speaking with the Riverside Signal, Mr. Wiedeke assembled his Detroit News, or DN, class iceboat, which has been reported to be the most popular model in the world. Its origins lie in a design contest held by that newspaper in the mid-1930s that produced a craft small and affordable enough yet fast enough to be built and raced by citizens then living under the dark cloud of the Great Depression.
A number of successive models and classes have come out in years since the birth of the “DN”, such as the Arrow, the Renegade and the Nite, but none have attained the widespread popularity of the newspaper-backed model, as witnessed firsthand by its prevalence on the Toms River that weekend.
Mr. Murphey noted that many of the hardwater sailors command softwater craft in the warmer months.
“Most of these guys, Ted and I, sail boats all summer,” he said, jokingly adding that if it wasn’t 70 degrees and sunny or 20 degrees and a frozen river, “you’re wasting my time.”
“It’s like a treat – if you could have chocolate cake every day, would you really care?” the Island Heights resident continued. “Every couple years or once a year for about a month, you get your iceboating and just the speed is such a rush that it’s just something special if you get the time to do it.”
It didn’t matter if the river froze during a workday instead of on a weekend, he noted.
“I’ll work on a Saturday when it’s melted in February,” said Mr. Murphey.
Asked how interested non-iceboat sailors could join the sport, he said to “just come on down and get a ride.”
“Just come down and see someone who’s got a two-seater, and just get the feel for it,” Mr. Murphy stated. “The easiest thing is to get into [softwater] boat sailing first to get the process down, then from there this is like boat sailing but 10 times faster, literally.”
Lifelong Beachwood resident and softwater sailor Al Tutko reported that he got his DN model iceboat from his uncle, who built it about 40 years earlier.
“During the winter months, I can’t be sailing with my regular boats, so I’ll be iceboating out here and having fun,” he said, recalling that the last time the Toms River froze sufficiently for the sport was in the middle of the last decade. “It was like a sheet of glass – [today] it’s a little soft, but the wind is really great and we’re hitting some really high speeds, and it looks like everybody and their brother all came out of the woodwork.”
Mr. Tutko guessed that his boat was topping out at around 40 mph that day. In smoother conditions, Detroit News model iceboats are known to reach speeds between 60 and 70 mph.
Pine Beach residents and friends Russell W. Whitman, Jr. and Gene Jardel assembled another DN model iceboat while recalling deep freeze winters of their youth.
“We used to bring our cars out here when we were kids,” said Mr. Whitman. “We all had woods buggies, which were like old Fords that we’d drive on the firetrails in the woods, and when it would freeze up we’d come right here at the end of Tudor Avenue and drive the cars right onto the ice and go race around, slide around.”
“It was great fun,” he added.
Mr. Jardel said that at one time, his brother went through the ice in a car near Station Avenue Beach.
Mr. Whitman, who is also an avid softwater sailor and windsurfer, stated his favorite aspect of iceboating to be their ability to easily turn downwind, or jibe.
“In sailboats, jibing can be a pretty violent thing,” he said, noting that the technique was also challenging while windsurfing. “On this thing, because it goes so fast in relation to the speed of the wind, it jibes like butter and it’s just the most amazing feeling.”
The two borough residents noted that while a deep freeze in the late 1970s and another in 1984 created ice thick enough to allow multiple days of iceboating, conditions in recent years have scarcely permitted the sport on the Toms River.
“It’s hard to get two years in a row,” said Mr. Jardel.
Back on the north shore, Paul Sobon, a Bloomfield resident and relative newcomer to sport, was busy assembling his hand-crafted DN model iceboat while beaming at the present conditions.
“I’ve been doing it about a year, wanted to do it my whole life, it’s a bucket list item, so I finally put it all together,” he said. “Most of the guys here built their own boats.”
The North Jersey resident, who sails softwater craft on locations as varied as the Barnegat Bay, Long Island Sound and the Hudson River in warmer months, said his favorite part about iceboating was the anticipation.
“When you’re actually doing it, then it kinda settles down, but it’s actually thinking about it beforehand and reliving it afterwards,” he said.
Holmdel resident and North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club member Tony Mancini, who stated that he got his start on the ice from his father, said that he travels across North America every winter and to Europe every other year for international competitions and world championships, but stressed the importance of safety on the ice.
“We have safety equipment to basically be prepared to save your own butt out there,” he said. “I have ice picks that if you get in trouble you can hopefully get out of your situation.”
The veteran iceboater also said that safety lines and sailing in a buddy system with people you know were important as well.
“The technology is quite fascinating – guys know exactly how much the mast should bend, how much the planks should bend to different sailors’ weight and conditions and so forth, the different runners, the different types of steel,” he said. “It’s also how to rig your boat that’s somewhat challenging – you could have all the right equipment but you still have to be able to put it all together and decide which equipment to use on a given day.”
Delving back into iceboating’s history further than all of the other enthusiasts seen that weekend, Toms River’s Will Demand said he began purchasing early 20th century iceboats, commonly referred to as ice yachts due to their larger “backbone” sizes and sail areas, about 20 years ago after testing the sport out on a friend’s model.
He noted that while he sails e-scows in the warmer months, the definite attraction of iceboating for him was “the speed, without a doubt.”
Two of his personal craft were present on the river that weekend, one a 1936 model built by Robert Wilcox of Long Branch that he restored a decade ago, and another a turn of the 20th century “stern steerer.”
Peeter Must, a 27-year-old Toms River resident, Olympic sailing hopeful and friend to Mr. Demand, said that while it was only about his fifth time on the ice, he helped assemble the large ice crafts and also took them out on the river.
“It’s just fun – I like speed,” he said, noting that he has sailed “all my life.”
Mr. Must personally sailed Mr. Demand’s 1936 model iceboat back and forth on the river as this reporter sat in the front cockpit. A short account of that trip can be found in an adjacent column on page X, and full videos of the experience can be seen on the Riverside Signal website.