The Early History of Ice Sailing

To say it right at the beginning: I don’t do it. My very own sailing adventures are concerned with liquid water, the sunshine in my face and ideally little clothing. Alas, there is a growing group of boat enthusiasts, who dare the unthinkable and sail on ice.

Ice sailing, sometimes also called ice yachting, is a sport done in normally small racing vessels. The high-risk nature of ice sailing and the image of most ice sailors – rather young, sportive and adventurous type of people, compared to their “Water” Sailing counterparts – gave rise to a common misunderstanding.

Many people consider ice sailing to be a recent development and a young trend sport much like bungee jumping or kite surfing. This is not the case. In fact, the origin of ice sailing dates back to the 18th century.

Trendy sport with a longstanding tradition

Detailed record for the actual “invention” of ice sailing is sparse – however, it doesn’t seem like the step from using sailing vessels with steel runners in winter was too challenging. By the 18th century, small and flexible boats in the Dutch style spread via the United Kingdom all over Europe (see “History of Sailing”) and transformed yachting into a leisure time activity.

One can also assume that around the same time, the advent of smaller vessels made sailing skills more accessible to a wider part of the population. Remember that on a large ship the tasks of operating it are much more specialized. Small sailing boats were more commonly used by fishermen, not so much by wealthy people like nobility or marine merchants who used ships for transportation and warfare.

Therefore, it is not surprising that ice sailing was done in very basic vessels that gradually developed sort of in parallel to their water sailing counterparts over a course of several decades. By 1790, ice sailing was introduced in the Hudson River area in New York with a center in Poughkeepsie. It was most likely "imported" from the Netherlands, where ice boating was commonly done since the 17th century.

Original designs developing with “classic” sailing

The primitive vessels 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. Some more sophisticated constructions had a tiller attached to the rudder. The sail used for these vehicles was a flatheaded sprit.

This style of ice yachts – though not quite yachts yet – remained pretty much like this until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853, a more sophisticated design was introduced. This included triangular frames with boxes for the sailor and a decent jib as well as a mainsail rig.

Keep an eye on the development on “water” yachting around the same time: more sophisticated designs, establishment of clubs, sharper lines between “useful” and “recreational” sailing. Very much like ice sailing, which suddenly turned from a joyful game into an actual sport.

Improvements and more security in newer boats

The ice yacht from 1853 was not terribly safe, though. Their mast was stepped directly over the runner plank (see "parts of a boat" for further details). That brought the center of effort and the sail-balance so far aft that the vessels were apt to sail ahead. Since the yachts usually used sails too big for their size, they often lacked stability, causing the windward runner to get lifted up into the air.

The largest vessel of this type was the “Icicle”. It was designed by J. A. Roosevelt, the uncle of FDR, and was considered to be the fastest ice yacht of its time. The first icicle was 69 feet long and canvassed with 1,070 sq ft of sail. The basic design was used for similar yachts until 1879, when H. Relyea built the “Robert Scott”. This yacht had a single backbone and guy wires. Its design was revolutionary for the Hudson River ice sailors and had a huge impact on the yachts used for the sport.

Compared to previous models, the mast was moved aft, jibs and the boom became shorter and the hull elliptical; these newer constructions had the center of effort higher and more central, causing the boats to run more smoothly.

Standardizing the story: Ice boating goes professional

Two years later, in 1881, the first face for the American Challenge Pennant was done on the Hudson River. The participating clubs included Hudson River, North Shrewsbury, Orange Lake, Newburgh and Carthage Ice Yacht Clubs. Around that time, racing standards rapidly developed into their modern shape.

An ice sailing race is most commonly done in a triangular course with all three legs of the same length of one mile. This course is sailed five times. Two of the legs should be windward.

The following decades brought continuous refinement of the shapes and style of ice yachts. The most dramatic changes – once again a parallel development to “water” sailing – occurred in the second half of the 20th century with the spread of glass fibers, epoxy resins and other modern materials.

Current state: Boat types and ice yachting vacation hubs

Contemporary designs come in two types: the Dutch and the Russian Ice Yacht. The Dutch one has a flat hull and it is approximately three feet in width and sixteen long. It slides on four steel runners: one on the bow, one on the stern, and one on both sides of the planking. The Dutch type is mostly used for recreational ice sailing, because it considered to be safer than its counterpart.

The Russian Ice Yacht is more popular for racing. It is built with a V-shaped frame and with one, heavy plank running between bow and stern. They are run with a sail that is a large lug. The travelers sit on planks or rope netting.

Ice sailing has also become more commercial and thus more professional – there can be money involved in big races. It is still mostly a hobby and not quite as competitive as normal sailing, but it is heading into a similar direction.

Centers of competitive ice sailing are still the US and Canada, mostly in New England and the Great Lakes. In Europe, ice sailing is popular in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland, although generally recreational and less formalized than in the US.

Further Reading

How to Winterize your Yacht

An Introduction to Land Sailing

Wikipedia on Ice Yachting

DMOZ on Ice Boating

History of Ice Sailing in North America


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