One Saturday afternoon in February 1982, John Sperr of Rhinebeck was skiing with friends in Barrytown and saw a sight that changed his life. “I skied down to the river, where there was a fleet of old boats sailing on a glorious, 20-mile sheet of ice,” he says. “The boats looked so beautiful as they did their graceful dance across the ice. I felt compelled to come back.” He did come back the next day, and took his first ride on an ice yacht. “I was hooked,” Sperr says of that experience; soon he was introduced to the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club, a group that had formed nearly a century earlier — in 1885 — to organize a sport that had actually been a Hudson Valley institution for a century before that.
Ice yachting started in Europe, but by 1790 it had become quite popular in these parts, especially around Poughkeepsie, which by the mid-1800s had become the ice yachting center of the country. The term “yacht” is somewhat misleading: In the early days, this was a sport of the masses, not the wealthy. By the 18th century, smaller boats had opened up sailing to the general public, who used them both for work — fishing, transportation — and for leisure. One historian on SailingAhead.com called early ice boats “primitive vessels” that were “more or less square boxes with three runners attached. Two of these were directly mounted to the box, the third one was flexible and could act as a rudder.” This particular type of boat, Sperr says, was first built in 1790 by Oliver Booth of Poughkeepsie. “It is generally credited with starting the recreational iceboat movement in the United States,” he says.
By the 1850s the boats became more sophisticated, with the now-familiar triangular frame, jib, and mainsail. Around this time ice yacht clubs formed in Newburgh, New Hamburg, Poughkeepsie, and Hyde Park. The members of these various groups vied against each other to win awards such as the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America and the Captain William Drake Flag. They also liked to race against the trains that had just started running alongside the river; in 1871 a famous boat called the Icicle beat the Chicago Express on its run from Poughkeepsie to Ossining.
It wasn’t long before the money started coming in. In 1869, Commodore John E. Roosevelt — FDR’s uncle — built the Icicle, the largest and fastest ice yacht to date. Ten years later, H. Relyea of Catskill built an even faster vessel, which he christened the Robert Scott. According to a history written by the Chelsea Yacht Club, “[Relyea] replaced the heavy framework of timbers and wooden side-rails with a single long center timber, and steel guy wires to keep it square with the runner-plank. He also reduced the size of the jib and brought the sail’s center of effort further forward, where it was resisted by the main runners, instead of partially by the rudder as before. The reduction in weight and improvement in control was a real breakthrough, and with very few exceptions, all iceboats built along the Hudson were ‘Scott’ boats or ‘wire boats,’ as distinguished from the earlier ‘side-rail’ or ‘wishbone’ type.” After Relyea emerged victorious over Roosevelt in a race, the Commodore commissioned a new Icicle built in the same manner as the Robert Scott.
In 1892, one of the era’s biggest races, the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America, was inaugurated by the Orange Lake Ice Yacht Club of New Hamburg. Commodore Roosevelt’s neighbor, a man named Archibald Rogers, had a boat called Jack Frost; this vessel became a friendly competitor against the Icicle, the Robert Scott, and other boats until 1902. This period was the high-water mark of Hudson River ice yachting. The 1890 Chelsea Yacht Club had 42 members and 14 yachts registered; by 1903, the club listed 69 members and 19 boats. But Valley interest in the ice yachting waned during and after World War I, while the sport grew quickly in the upper Midwest.
It came back in vogue around here in the 1960s, thanks in large part to Raymond Ruge, a Cornwall architect and member of the Chelsea Yacht Club. According to the club, Ruge was responsible for making the sport once again popular among the masses, not just the wealthy.
Bay watch: Ice-boaters ready themselves for a sail on the Hudson’s Tivoli Bay
Though popularity has again waned over the last 50 years, some stalwart sailors do still hit the ice nowadays. “Sailing on ice is much different than sailing on water,” Sperr says. “The elements of wind and temperature are much more demanding.” Ice creates far less friction and resistance on the boat’s runners than water does on a hull, and as a result the wind works more efficiently to power movement. “The speed is much greater, so the decisions about when to tack or how to steer clear of other boats come quickly and have larger consequences,” he says. And changing winds present unpredictable challenges. Hit a sudden gust, and a docile ride “can quickly become a real beast to control,” says Sperr, “demanding considerable physical strength, as well as skill and experience, to get safely home.”
As for the temperature, well, it’s winter. “You have to prepare for the cold,” Sperr says. “Many people do not enjoy being outdoors in 20-degree temperatures for 10 hours.” For those who do, though, the heat of competition keeps them warm. Most iceboat races are conducted with two marks: the upwind and downwind mark, Sperr says. “On the Hudson River, a surveyor would be hired to accurately stake out a course, with the marks five miles apart on the north and south reaches of the river.”
Sadly, the ice sailing season has always been short, and the warm winters we have experienced recently have made it shorter still. “Ice seems to be forming up later in the season and with less regularity,” Sperr notes.
“We also seem to be having less snow. Lots of snow helps the formation of ice on the river. The ice also goes out sooner. South Tivoli Bay is filling with sediment and has had a very difficult time making a decent sheet of ice in recent years.”
Certain winters are near-total busts. In 2011/2012, there was no sailing at all on the Hudson or in Tivoli Bay due to lack of ice. That winter offered periods of thin ice, gale winds, rain, and snow. “People who put boats on were only able to experience about four hours of actual sailing,” Sperr laments. “The season is so short that many people do not find the investment of time and energy worthwhile.”
The most passionate sailors, however, find it more than worthwhile. They buy smaller boats, which can be transported on the roof of a car to track down ice wherever it may form, from Pennsylvania to Maine. Or they just wait here for that elusive but transcendent perfect winter day. “There is something incredibly seductive,” Sperr says, “about gliding across the ice of Tivoli Bay with just the soft rush of the wind in your face, the creak of the rigging, and the clatter of the runners on the ice.”
“In the old days it was custom to race over a long course, the most popular being from Poughkeepsie to New-Hamburg and back, nine miles each way. Of recent years, the custom has been changed, and the yachts now keep in sight of a given point. It is an inspiring sight to see a fleet of twenty or more ice yachts, with their white sails sparkling in the frosty air, circling around each other with the speed of the wind. No railroad train can keep up with an ice yacht when the conditions are favorable.” The New York Times, March 7, 1896
If you are interested in learning more about ice yachting or how to try it, visit the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club Web site, www.hriyc.org.