Hard Water Sailing on Lake George
By Hallie Bond
Monday, February 22, 2016
Why can’t we revive iceboating on Lake George as a low carbon winter sport? On “the fastest free ride on earth” you use the power of the wind and the friction-free surface of the ice to whiz across the lake at speeds well over 100 mph.
An iceboat is the pared down essential of a sailboat. There’s no need to keep the water out (you hope), so the “hull” is just a place to sit mounted on a lengthwise center plank crossed by a thwartships “runner plank.” Steel blades (“runners”) are what you run on, and there is one at each end of the runner plank and, in modern bow-steerers, one at the bow which is rigged to a steering wheel.
As the name implies, stern-steerers had the rudder at the stern, just like a “soft water” sailboat. This was the design used by the Dutch down in New Amsterdam when they first started sailing on ice in the eighteenth century, and was the type of boat sailed by moneyed folk of the Hudson Valley in the late nineteenth century. As early as 1900, Lee Putnam of Hague had a stern-steering iceboat. The sport didn’t catch on locally, though, until the bow steerers appeared.
The heyday of “hard water sailing” on Lake George was the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Adirondack Ice Yachting Association had nine boats on its roster. Hardy souls like “Scrubby” Beals from Assembly Point, Merle and Elisabeth Smith from Cotton Point, Bill Busch of Canoe Island Lodge and Glens Falls traffic superintendent Chan Rowan met whenever they could to race—which, however, was usually only a dozen days each year. Beals remembered that the very best season was 1960, when there was a whole month when the lake was covered with ice like a pane of glass.
With ice like glass, ice yachts regularly hit 140 mph. Because of the airfoil effect on their sails and the negligible friction on their runners, they actually sail faster than the wind. The NOAA website’s wind chill calculator won’t take speeds greater than 110 mph. Perhaps there are some things you are better off not knowing. It feels about like seventeen below on your face going 110 at the fairly balmy temperature of 15F, so bundling up to the eyeballs (and covering those with goggles) is essential. The Smiths started iceboating when they married in 1955, just after the Korean War. They bought full suits of army surplus gear: lined, canvas knee length coats, gauntlets that pulled up to the elbows, goggles, hats for the head and felt pacs for the feet.
Today, iceboaters wear helmets. The dangers of iceboating go beyond frostbite. Assuming you could avoid open water, you need to watch for pressure ridges. A stern-steerer can safely jump these hazards, but a bow steerer will nose dive and be smashed to splinters. We know that there are plenty of thrill seekers out there, and we now have much improved cold-weather gear; what happened to the Lake George iceboat fleet? Since the 1960s, snowmobiles have dominated the winter scene on the lake, and they not only pack down the snow on their trails over the ice, but pose a significant risk for high-speed collisions. The ice along the shore is compromised in places by bubblers installed to keep ice from damaging docks and boathouses. Even if iceboaters could find a place on the lake with sound, smooth ice, they face the prospect of shorter, warmer winters with less reliable weather patterns in a world where the climate is changing so rapidly. We will probably never again see a fleet of sailboats flying across the ice of the Queen of American Lakes.
Hallie E. Bond is currently the Director of the Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College. She also served as Education Director and Curator of the Adirondack Museum from 1983 until 2012. She is the author of “Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks,” among many other works.
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