For some iceboating enthusiasts, it’s about the adrenaline rush: the exhilaration of being propelled across a sheet of ice at up to five times the speed of the wind, cold air whipping at your face, the boat’s runners chattering on the ice. Speeds of 50 miles per hour are not unusual, and iceboats have been clocked at more than 100 miles per hour. “The boats can go quite fast, and there’s not a lot of resistance,” says Hudson River Ice Yacht Club member Brian Reid. “The wind picks up and fills the sails, and those things can accelerate.”
But it’s not speed that compels Reid. “It’s the historical aspects of iceboating that I find fascinating,” he says. “In our club, the members primarily maintain and sail the historic wooden ice yachts that are more than 100 years old. A lot of our passion lies with the beauty of the craftsmanship of the old boats.”
And sometimes when they’re out on the ice, it feels as if it could be a scene from a century earlier, he adds. “I guess there’s just something kind of magical about it; it hearkens back to a simpler time. It’s so simple: wind and sail and canvas and wood, and you’re being carried along… someone has a little potbellied stove fire going and there are all these people bundled up and you’re just enjoying the beautiful winter scenery together.”
That camaraderie with fellow sailors is something that all iceboaters share. “It’s really a fraternity of folks that share this passion,” Reid says. “And you can’t do it by yourself; you need a small community of people to help each other out, to bring boats onto the ice, to set up boats. And there’s also a safety aspect to that. You don’t want to be out there sailing on the ice by yourself.”
Reid maintains a blog about iceboating called “White Wings and Black Ice” at www.hudsonrivericeyachting.blogspot.com, where he posts historical photos and writes about every aspect of the centuries-old sport, including its origins in the Hudson Valley. He’ll bring that wealth of knowledge to the Olana State Historic Site in Hudson on Saturday, February 6 from 3 to 5 p.m. for a presentation, “Iceboating on the Hudson River: Then and Now.”
The event is part of Olana’s winter Armchair Travel Series held in the Wagon House Education Center there. “Iceboating on the Hudson River: Then and Now” will be a program satisfying on a number of levels, offering a taste of local iceboating history from Reid along with a screening of the documentary Against the Wind, a short film that follows the adventures of a handful of hardy ice yachters. Afterwards, filmmakers Tomasz Gubernat and Christopher Nostrand and producer Rahul Chadha will host a roundtable discussion. A question-and-answer session will close out the event, and tea and cake will be served.
Tickets cost $10 general admission or $5 for members of Olana. The program is suitable for all ages. Preregister by visiting www.olana.org/education or calling (518) 828-1872, extension 105. Walk-ins are welcome. The snow date for the program is Sunday, February 7. The event is sponsored by the Olana Partnership with the Friends of Clermont.
The iceboaters in the documentary Against the Wind were filmed during the cold winter of 2014 as they took advantage of one of the deepest, longest ice sheets on the Hudson River in recent years. The filmmakers address the role that global warming and changing environmental conditions play in the future of iceboating.
Perfect ice-sailing conditions call for frigid temperatures, a strong wind and a thick sheet of ice – six to 12 inches deep – but without recent snowfall. “You can get plenty of cold and get the ice, but then if you get a dumping of snow – even three, four inches – that’ll put you out of commission,” Reid says. “It’s just too much to push through with the boats. It also depends on how it freezes and what the tide’s doing: If it stays in place or you get this broken-up, choppy ice, you’re not going to get a nice smooth surface. You need enough nights of cold, but you don’t want a real windy night when it’s cold, because that’ll blow the ice around and make it harder for it to lock into place. The conditions have to be just right. It can be really tricky.”
And it can go away overnight. The unpredictability of weather conditions makes it hard to plan outings in advance, and iceboaters might have just a few days out on the ice in any given season. You pretty much have to be prepared and ready to drop everything when conditions line up. And just because we’ve had a mild winter in our region so far doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen this year, Reid says. “I was able to go out on the ice one year on the first day of spring. You just never know from year to year.”
Being from Red Hook, Reid tends to stay north when conditions allow, sailing on the Hudson River on a stretch that runs from Rhinecliff up to Germantown. Barrytown is another area for sailing; it all has to do with the lay of the river where it might “lock in and freeze up in a larger sheet of ice,” Reid explains. Tivoli Bay, off the river and north of Barrytown, is another place where sailing conditions can be ideal, the bay freezing before the river does.
Their “southern ice” is at Orange Lake in Newburgh, a historic spot for iceboating since the late 19th century. “They’ve been sailing the big old boats there and racing since the 1880s,” Reid says. Like Tivoli Bay, Orange Lake often freezes before the river, being shallower and at a slightly higher elevation. “Sometimes Orange Lake is the only place where there’s ice. We’re fortunate that one of our club members, the Lawrence family, has been iceboating for three, four generations and they have a house at the lake, so we can get access.”
Earlier iceboaters used to put in at O’Malley’s Restaurant and Hotel on Lakeside Road (today’s Lakeview House restaurant), because it offered easy and direct access to the lake.
Iceboats originated in Europe, where the Dutch used them for transportation of goods; but it wasn’t until 1790 when a Poughkeepsie man, Oliver Booth, built the first crude recreational iceboat outfitted with a sail and runners. By the 1860s, ice yachting clubs had formed in Newburgh, New Hamburg, Poughkeepsie and Hyde Park, their members competing against each other on the ice. Racing has always been an integral part of ice yachting, Reid says, and iceboats even raced against trains along the Hudson: The Icicle, built for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s uncle, John A. Roosevelt, beat the Chicago Express traveling from Poughkeepsie to Ossining.
The term “ice yachting,” used interchangeably with “iceboating,” has a privileged connotation to it, and to some extent that was true of the sport in its early days. According to Reid, Irving Grinnell, grandnephew of Washington Irving, was a wealthy “country gentleman” who settled in Wappingers Falls on a large estate. Grinnell’s passion for racing led to his creating the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America, the winter equivalent of the Americas Cup.
Wealthy families of the mid-19th century, including the Roosevelts, had staff and railroad cars to move the big boats to and from the ice. (One reason why many iceboaters today sail smaller, lighter boats is because they can be transported more easily by car.) The affluent also had the luxury of testing their boats’ limits. “Back in the day, when the winds got high, they’d say, ‘Let’s go race,’” says Reid. “They were competitive, and if they crashed and wrecked the boat, they just called the builder and built a new one.” But today, he and fellow members of the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club who maintain the historic old boats treat them more cautiously, conscious of their historic value. As he notes, “If something breaks, you can’t go out and just buy another part. You have to make it.”
Reid owns two stern-steering historic iceboats. One is called the Wizzard made sometime in the early 20th century in Newburgh. His primary vessel is the Cyclone, built in 1901 in Hyde Park for Herman Livingston Rogers, son of avid iceboater Archie Rogers, who sailed the Jack Frost. One of the largest and fastest boats of its day, the 1892 Jack Frost is still on the ice today. It was restored in the ‘70s in the Orange Lake basement of the late Bob Lawrence, one of the founding members of the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club.
There are more than 50 old stern-steerers tucked away in barns, garages and basements around the mid-Hudson Valley, Reid says. Some have been in the same family for more than a century, while others have been recently rediscovered. Weather permitting, Reid will bring one of his iceboats to Olana on Saturday and set it up in the parking lot for closer inspection.
“Iceboating on the Hudson River: Then & Now,” Saturday, February 6 (snow date Sunday, February 7), 3-5 p.m., $10/$5, Olana State Historic Site, 5720 Route 9G, Hudson; (518) 828-1872, extension 105, www.olana.org/education, www.hudsonrivericeyachting.blogspot.com.