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Iceboating - A long tradition of speed that can top over 100mph

November 10, 2020

Here we are, sliding into winter. Most pleasure boats are being pulled and winterized. It was a real relief to be in boating this year with Covid 19 wreaking havoc. At least you were on the water with a fresh breeze in your face while social distancing with those fish on the end of your line. Now, as we move into fall and winter, we are looking at about five months of staring at the wall while wearing masks and slathering up with Purell. There must be something else to do involving water, even if it’s frozen. How about iceboating?

Iceboating was invented in 17th century Europe when the world was in a “Little ice age”. Winters were colder and longer. Rivers and canals in countries like Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden froze solid and became unusable.  I can imagine it now! A Dutch trader, Peter Van Peter, standing in his fur-lined wooden shoes, deciding he can’t wait till spring to ship his valuable stock of tulip bulbs.  He sees some blue Dutch boys skating and offers them 20 guilders each for their skates. He couldn’t have been that great a businessman since the skates were going for half a guilder a pair only a cobblestone block away at Maria Van Wankle’s Skate and Skateboard Shop! What a sucker Peter Van Peter was!
He shouted to his helper, Hans Van Dull, to attach some long boards under his sailboat’s hull with the skates attached. The boxes were piled on, skate rudder attached and the sail unfurled and before Master Van Peter could say “Give me a light for my Dutch Masters Cigar” –SWOOSH, off Hans sped down the frozen canal to the ice-free port of Antwerp and back the same day.
Iceboating was born !!!!!
 As time went on, iceboats got the attention of sport-minded Europeans. By early 19th Century the function of iceboats extended beyond commercial use. Soon canals, rivers, lakes and ponds had speed hungry ice boaters racing through the slower ice skaters.  Adjustments kept being made by stripping off unneeded weight and reducing the shape to bare elements in the pursuit of hair-raising rides across the ice.
Many types of goods, such as pottery, Delft china, and fine cloth lace were imported from Holland by the new, quick talking, savvy captain merchants of America. What they also brought back to Long Island, Connecticut, Manhattan and Albany were tales and drawings of this new exciting European winter rage. By mid-century, clubs formed from Massachusetts to New Jersey. Towns had their own club crews to compete with each other when the weather was freezing cold and the ice was “Right”.
 Along rivers and bays, rich folks like the Vanderbilt’s, Clintons, and the Roosevelt’s, competed with each other and with local farmers, fisherman and boat builders to win fame as the fastest as their wives stood on the shores next to bonfires while covered in warm woolens and furs.
A legend is told that at a race in Bellport L.I., the first “Smore” was invented when Sadie Smith, who only ate Graham crackers and Annie Ketchum, who only would eat chocolate and Danielle O’Deegan, who only treated herself to marshmallows, got tired of their boring sweets and so combined and toasted them over the roaring barn fire. The first “Smore” had two bars of chocolate, one the top and one on the bottom outsides with one piece of graham cracker and marshmallow on the inside. It was a mess but tasted great. Later, these hardy women revised the recipe to Graham crackers on the outside!
As the number of clubs grew, so did the competitiveness of iceboat designs. New sizes, shapes of sails, types of skates and hulls were experimented with. Much of this was done in warmer off-seasons and could not be tested until “the ice was right”. When the waters finally froze, there were many a disappointed crew who found out their grand designs for speed and agility ended up an embarrassing failure.
Some of the richer families built large iceboats for family pleasure and not for racing. It must be quite a sight to see an entire blue blood family in the comfortable leather appointed cockpit of their ice yacht, barreling across the frozen Hudson River, past the beautiful, snow covered estates, of their neighbors.
Iceboating reached a crest in the late 1930s. World War I and II had a big effect on leisure time. The young men were away fighting. Between and after those wars, time began to be eaten up by work, the automobile and then TV. Weather also changed. The hardy winters of yesteryear slowly gave way to milder winters but with some occasional ‘Hard Ice” ones in between. If you really think about it, how often do ponds freeze thick enough to skate on any more?  Rarely.
The sport not only survives but is growing in the Northern states, Canada and Europe.  It is called by many names such as ice yachting, skeeting and “Hard water sailing”. It’s devoted following know when freshwater lakes and ponds freeze hard enough long before the bays and rivers do. That’s where you’ll locate those dedicated to this unique sport. First, you’ll find them on Lake Ronkonkoma on Long Island and other lakes locally and upstate New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, etc.  Then, when river and bay water freezes hard, you’ll find them on the Shrewsbury and Navesink Rivers or out on the broad stretches of frozen water in Bellport. But look quickly because these babies can clock 5X the speed of the wind in their sails. They have been clocked at over 120 MPH!  Try to feel that kind of excitement when you’re gaming on your computer!

C. 2020 by Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved

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