The Secret World of Iceboating

 

January 18th, 2011

by Erik Weber

 

ON THE TOMS RIVER – Earlier this month, residents among our riverside communities out along the waterfront on a particular few days during a particular few hours were treated with a sight rare enough to stop traffic and gather crowds to mumble and gawk: iceboats had invaded the Toms River.

 

On Saturday and Sunday, January 15th & 16th, conditions were just right for 20 to 30 of these skeletal crafts to slice and soar below full sails and deep blue skies at speeds sometimes faster than 55 mph, the limit currently held down on the nearby stretch of the Garden State Parkway.

 

Keeping to the frozen mass located roughly between the western edge of Island Heights and Money Island on the north shore, and Station Avenue Beach and the old Admiral Farragut Academy docks on the south, iceboat enthusiasts from at least around the state converged to bring the river to life with a tradition whose roots can be traced to early 17th century depictions of Dutch countrymen traveling above frozen “hardwater” canals in “softwater” craft modified for wintertime transport and leisure.

 

From these early European beginnings, modern-day American iceboaters can claim a lineage, starting with the settlement of New Amsterdam on a seasonally frozen river named after its first European explorer, the Hudson. It appears the practice was picked up sporadically between the two continents through 1768, when the first known plans for an iceboat were published in Swedish shipbuilder and naval architect Fredrik Henrik af Chapman’s Architectura Navalis Mercatoria. Twenty-two years later, in 1790, the world saw its first known vessel built solely for hardwater sailing in Poughkeepsie-on-the-Hudson by Oliver A. Booth.

 

Compared with today’s sleek and Spartan models that can, under good conditions, travel at speeds exceeding 100 mph, Mr. Booth’s design was described by early iceboat chronicler and designer H. Percy Ashley as being a crude wooden box and sail with blades, or runners, nailed to the side.

 

Experimentation continued by iceboat hobbyists through the first half of the 19th century with little variation to this boxy hull design until the 1850s, when the first skeletal craft, featuring today’s common triangular body and three runners, was built by Red Bank enthusiasts for use on the adjacent North Shrewsbury River. For the first time, the potential for top speed and maneuverability through improved design was realized, and interest in the iceboat as a racing sport grew.

 

In close succession, progress arrived as the first ice “yacht” racing club was organized in Poughkeepsie in 1861, the same year that Chambers’s Journal printed a dynamic account of an iceboat excursion on Lake Huron that nearly ended in death for the curious author and his companion [Editor’s note – this account has been reprinted in full for our readers on page X]. February 1866 saw an iceboat expedition take place on the Hudson from Poughkeepsie to Albany and back, a distance of roughly 65 miles one way, with the New York Times noting in its report of the event that “iceboats have of late years become numerous, there being over one hundred of them on the Hudson River at the present time.” In 1869, John A. Roosevelt, uncle to the future Great Depression and World War II-era president, commissioned the Icicle, which was eventually constructed to have a “backbone” length of 68 feet 11 inches and 1,070 square feet of sail, the largest ice craft ever assembled. Following a tradition started by other ice “yachts” of the previous decade, it regularly raced the trains that traveled along the Hudson and in 1871 beat one of the fastest in the country, the Chicago Express, as it traveled between Poughkeepsie and Ossining, NY.

 

Practice of the sport and improvement of its design further continued in the realm of these wealthy “ice yacht” owners from the Hudson and back down to the North Shrewsbury River through 1880, when the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club was formed, operating to this day. Following a rift among members of the Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club in 1885, the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club was established and ever since the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club has fueled a rivalry with the successor club, self-proclaiming it to be “the longest standing active iceboat club in the world that has its own club house.”

 

In the ensuing decades, the sport grew even as the size of the crafts shrank, and the naming convention of “ice yacht” slowly melted back down to the earlier “iceboat” in the era of Popular Mechanics, Boys’ Life Magazine and the accompanying home-built instructions. These culminated in a 1937 design contest sponsored by the Detroit News that saw the creation of the most widely used and popular model of iceboat, originally called the “Blue Streak 60” but now known simply as the DN.

 

From hand-carved wood to molded synthetics, the popularity of the sport of iceboating shows little sign of ebbing, and rumors abound that it will be tested out as an Olympic sport within the decade.

 

Shortly after that weekend, temperatures rose and chased away the ice and its gliding sailcraft from the river, and despite the constant barrage of winter storm events, temperatures have refused to linger deep enough below the freezing mark for their return. With many of the iceboaters that weekend reporting it had been a number of years since they last had the opportunity to practice their sport on our local body of water, it is unknown how much longer area residents will have to wait to again see sails raised to the winter skies. One thing remains certain, however – anyone who caught sight of them on those particular days, during those particular hours won’t soon forget it.