Chill Out: Winter Sports in the Valley
Baby, it’s cold outside! But no matter what season it is, Valley dwellers love to get outdoors and play. Whether you’re a skier or a skater; an ice fisher or boater; we’ve got the lowdown on cool places to stay active this winter
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If you’ve ever found yourself down in the Tivoli Bays in mid-January you may have beheld a strange and breathtaking sight — majestic white sails speeding across the ice. Most people wouldn’t know that ice boating was born here in the Hudson Valley or that the region remains the mainstay of authentic ice boating in the country. The Hudson River Ice Yacht Club (HRIYC) — which was organized by FDR’s cousin, John A. Roosevelt, in 1885 — keeps the rich tradition of ice boating alive here by sailing traditional wooden yachts, some as old as the sport itself.
A man named Oliver Booth of Poughkeepsie reportedly built the first recreational ice boat in 1790. Similar boats were used by the Dutch in Holland for transportation purposes, but Booth’s crude ice box outfitted with a sail and runners was made for speed and fun. It wasn’t until about 1860 that the sport gained widespread popularity. Considered a rich man’s hobby, men like Roosevelt would hire skippers to captain their boats as they engaged in friendly rivalry racing on the Hudson. The exception to that rule was Archibald Rogers who sailed his own boat, the Jack Frost. At 50 feet long and 2,000 pounds, with 700 square feet of sail, the Jack Frost was the Valley’s largest ice yacht, and today is still maintained and sailed by the HRIYC.
By the turn of the 20th century the design of ice boats had been greatly refined. Today the sport’s most popular model is the DN boat — a lightweight, one-person rig named for the Detroit News-sponsored competition that introduced the design. “You can really chase the ice with a DN,” says John Sperr, an ice yachting enthusiast and member of the HRIYC. “We don’t get ice like we used to [on the Hudson] because of the big barges, climate change, and the warm water discharge from all the power plants.” With the requisite ice — six inches in a bay or 12 out on the river — harder and harder to come by, the appeal of easily portable boats like the DN has won out in many places over the bigger, old-fashioned rigs.
Yacht clubs like the HRIYC exclusively run the old style, gaff rigged boats: Four-sided sails are rigged high off a mast that sits atop a long timber backbone on two runners. There is a small cockpit for the driver, and a steering runner on the stern end. “We’re like a living history museum,” says Sperr. “You see a lot of Kevlar sails and carbon fiber out West these days, but we try to keep it authentic. We try to discourage people from making repairs to their boats with stainless steel, try to get them to use old wrought-iron hardware, stay with old galvanized wire rope, to use the original materials.” Though many members own their own boats (there are about 30 working yachts in the Valley), the club retains ownership of two historic boats: Archie Rogers’ Jack Frost, and the Whiff, an opulent show boat that once boasted lily-white linen sails and red velvet cushions. Commodore Irving Grinnell — a millionaire from New Hamburg — commissioned it in 1875 to be displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.
Despite requiring upwards of 10 people to get it off the trailer and onto the ice, the Jack Frost can move at about 100 miles per hour. This winter, the HRIYC will race Jack Frost against Rocket, a long-awaited new boat built by the Red Bank Yacht Club of New Jersey (another enclave of ice boating on the East Coast). At stake is the historic Van Nostrand Cup, a silver trophy manufactured by Tiffany’s, put up in 1888 by a member of Newburgh’s Orange Lake Ice Yacht Club. The cup has been held in New Jersey by the Red Bank club for several decades, and the HRIYC is eager to bring it home. “They think they own it,” Sperr jokes.
The ice boating season is short, beginning on January first and peaking around Valentine’s Day. Because the ice boats must be run on snowless ice of a certain thickness, enthusiasts usually get only a week’s worth of good days all year long. When the river is good, they can be found off Barrytown, or sometimes near Athens in Greene County. Otherwise they use Tivoli Bays, though the ice there is increasingly variable. The HRIYC offers free rides to the public on appropriate days; to find out when and where, check the Current Conditions page at www.hryic.org.
The Wreck of the Galatea
John Sperr fell in love with ice boating on Valentine’s Day in 1982, after a friend gave him a ride off Barrytown. “I came back every day, and have been there ever since,” he states. Sometime after that, he and fellow boater Reid Bielenberg began acquiring the various parts to rebuild the historic Galatea. The two men set out to restore the old backbone, putting a lot of new wood into it, making parts. “Eventually we got distracted, moved onto other things,” Sperr admits. And so the boat languished in Bielenberg’s workshop for nearly 30 years — until last fall, when he decided to finish the iron- and woodworking and bring it down to Tivoli Bays for its first ride since 1914.
As Sperr remembers, it was a beautiful day. He had the Galatea out on the ice, and was giving a woman from New York City a ride. “All of a sudden it started dragging. The running plank just snapped in half and over we went onto the ice. The mast came down, the cockpit rolled 90 degrees, there were boots flying.” Thankfully neither Sperr nor his passenger were hurt, so the pair secured the sails and waited for the rescue party. “Within five to 10 minutes there were 25-plus people gathered around to help,” Sperr recalls. “The sail makes a lot of noise coming down, it’s quite dramatic, but it’s not a particularly dangerous thing.”
It was discovered that a knot in the runner plank had been hidden from view, and the flaw — under stress from use — just broke. The boat was lashed together and pushed home. It had been almost 100 years since the Galatea had last been on the ice.
The Northern Light turns the stake in the race for the Ice-Yacht Challenge Pennant of America, held on Feb. 14, 1887 in Poughkeepsie