Iceboating: Fly Like a Bird

“An ice-yacht flits about like a swallow, skimming over the river with the speed and grace of a bird. She is better than a bird, for she takes you along in her flight and gives you the triumph of the wing, as she sweeps, and swings, and trembles on through space. Mount this wayward flyer as she is launched upon the wind. Your course is down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and, as your sail begins at a moderate speed, you can observe the scene.” So starts an article on ice-yachting from Scribner’s Monthly August 1881 publication.

In the mid-1600s, the Dutch started using the ice by fitting sailboats with runners to move cargo around the bays and canals adjacent to the North Sea. Iceboating, as an organized sport, was begun in the United States before the start of the Civil War by the Dutch descendants along the Hudson River north of New York. Poughkeepsie Ice-Yacht Club was formed in 1861 and in 1885 members who resigned (disagreement in a claim of foul) formed a new club called the Hudson River Corinthian Ice Yacht Club. Eventually, the sport spread to lakes and rivers of the northern Atlantic seaboard and then to the mid-west.

The early ice-yachts on the Hudson River were coffin-like structures with big jibs, short gaffs and long booms. In the quest for more speed, a sleeker design was created with a solid backbone and bowsprit with wishbone shaped side rails that extended from stern to cross plank that enclosed the crew platform. The hulls of these iceboats ranged from 30 to almost 70 feet as was the case of iceboat Icicle, owned by Commodore John A. Roosevelt (uncle to F.D.R.). Icicle carried more than 1,000 square feet of sail and won the Challenge Pennant of America (America’s Cup of ice-yachting) over and over again.

When not racing each other, oftentimes the yachts would challenge the trains on the railroads paralleling the frozen Hudson River, making speeds of up to 60 mph. Other improvements were made in 1879 when Robert Scott was built. The mast was stepped forward of the runner plank and a hollowed-out spar was used as the back bone. These and other improvements boosted speeds for iceboats up to 100 mph.

Iceboating enjoyed growth in the decades that followed the turn of the century and interest also grew in smaller boats. “Always check the ice before sailing.” States Jack Andersen in his book Sailing on Ice. Black ice, that newly frozen transparent ice is the strongest requiring a minimum of 2.5 inches compared to 6 or 7 inches required for gray or white ice formed by melting-down, refrozen snow on top.

Pictured here is Trudle II, in a tall hike on the black ice of Lake Hopatcong, January 30, 1938.

-Carol Mowrey