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Ice sailors - those who love a big freeze

by Des Ryan on 17 Feb 2014
ice sailing - oops .. .
Not everyone is unhappy when the weather is freezing and the wind is high. While most of North America is rueing the cold weather and Britain is fighting the worst seas for hundreds of years, one group of people revels in horrible weather - ice sailors on the hard ice of the Navesink River in New Jersey, USA.

That's when ice boaters gather in Red Bank for winter sailing in vessels that glide across the hard surface. Wearing helmets, goggles and snowsuits, they ride the river at speeds topping 50 mph.



Ice boating is a sport that requires endurance, dexterity and most of all, patience. Last February, there was no sailing on the Navesink. It simply didn’t get cold enough for the ice to solidify into a sturdy plate. Large boats have masts that tower 25 feet in the air. They seat one or two, with sharpened steel blades on the bottom called runners.

The past two winters have been bleak for Navesink ice men and women. The last time they had a good frozen foundation for sailing was February 2011, said Jeff Smith, skipper of the Emily M, a Yankee class ice boat named after his wife.

So, while many Jerseyans have been gritting their teeth through weeks of plunging temperatures, winter sailors are reveling in the extended cold snap.

The Navesink is right now capped with several inches of ice, enabling boaters to put their vessels on the river for the first time in three years. However, it still wasn't perfect. Last weekend the wind wasn’t strong enough to propel the crafts.

'Ice boating is very unpredictable,' said Smith, 70, of Atlantic Highlands, a professional photographer. 'You need good, solid, thick, relatively smooth ice with no snow or very little snow on it. You need wind and access to the ice. You have guys going out scouting and chopping holes in the ice to figure out how much ice we’ve got.'

Smith is a member of the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club, a Red Bank group founded in 1880.

The ice boaters unwind in a clubhouse lined with photos of vintage vessels. Red Bank has a long legacy of cold sailing; the borough’s seal is an illustration of an ice boat.

Smith said that there are more than 100 members of the club. It was an all male club until last year. Smith’s wife, Emily, said female skippers have been sailing the frozen Navesink for decades even though they were excluded from the club.

'There’s not a lot of role modeling for women in this sport but you’ll find some women out there,' said Emily. 'When Jeff got interested, I got interested too. I already knew how to sail so it wasn’t too much of a leap.'

But ice sailors are an optimistic bunch who find it hard to give in. When the Navesink doesn’t freeze over, some sailors embark on pilgrimages seeking perfect ice.



'Last year, we took our antique stern-steerers to Lake Wallenpaupack in Pennsylvania,' said Nels Lybeck, 46, of Red Bank. 'It’s a tradition and it’s an exhilarating sport. You’re 6 inches off the surface of the ice and you can be doing over 100 miles an hour in the bigger boats on just wind power. With the exception of downhill bobsled and luge, it’s the fastest wind-propelled sport on the face of the earth.'

When the ice isn't thick it can be tricky. Boaters mark areas of thin ice with old Christmas trees. They wear ice picks around their necks in case they take a tumble and fall through a crack.

'People go in the water,' said Smith. 'Most of the time, your boat goes in the water but you don’t, but it does happen where you can be completely submerged. We say, ‘There’s no such thing as safe ice.’?'

Hardy folk indeed! Here's a sample from last weekend:

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