Iceboating on Irondequoit Bay

Iceboating was a natural extension of sailing at Irondequoit Bay Clubs after the sport arrived in New York in 1861 with the formation of the Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club on the Hudson River. Early Bay Clubs with conventional sailboats included Point Lookout (1868), Old Star (1872), Dodge (1871), Rochester Canoe (1881/1884 on Bay), Irondequoit Canoe (1895), Sawennishat (1903), located around Newport Point, where Newport House owner William Sours was a RCC member and sailing sponsor on both soft and hard water. A news article in January 1894 found the Bay alive with skaters, and RCC out with its fleet of six ice yachts, the largest 27 Ft. overall, 15 Ft. 8 In. beam, and 460 SF sail area, called the Flying Dutchman. Members were out to almost midnight, and stayed overnight in the clubhouse. The next morning brought more arrivals, with hundreds of skaters on the Bay by noon.

Early ice yachts were simple, crude, home-made combinations of two wood planks, three runners ( stern steered), a mast, boom, and sail, usually arranged as a gaff-rigged sloop. On one version, the jib was the only means of steering. Some ice skaters used a hand-held kite to propel them, and at the other extreme a propeller driven ice vehicle with an engine appeared that reputedly could reach 140 MPH. Of course, with only 4 miles available on the Bay, that distance would be covered in 1.7 minutes, and where are the brakes? Ice sailboats could reach 60 MPH, although 40 MPH was more typical.

Iceboats require unique skills because they can go much faster without the hydrodynamic drag of water on the hull and its well-known speed limitation related to immersed boat length. Thus, iceboats can go faster than the true wind, and what starts downwind becomes upwind as the apparent wind shifts forward relative to the boat’s sail. The state of the early art is well described in “Ice Boating” by Herbert L. Stone (1922), now available in the public domain online through Google. Thanks, Google!

According to Maude West, a respected past Irondequoit Town Historian who wrote “Irondequoit Story ” (1957), the first iceboat on the Bay was built in the 1880′s by George Payne whose home was on Culver Road near Sea Breeze. He was followed by John and Jacob Aman, William Sours, and members of the Rochester Canoe Club. One of the largest and fastest iceboats, carrying up to six passengers, was built by Orlo Walzer and Daniel Forman about 1890.

The glory years of the sport on the Bay extended to the 1920′s, then faded away until a rejuvenation in 1963 with the incorporation of the Irondequoit Bay Ice Boat Club, following the Sodus Bay Ice Boat Club in 1962. The IBIBC is an informal, itinerant group that currently meets during the winter at Newport YC. None of their boats are kept there. There is a hotline phone, but no website. Activity can be anywhere within a day’s travel, but is very infrequent. A recent news story (Rochester D&C – Jan. 16, 2011) stated that “around here we probably get a perfect day once every five years now”.

Over the last two winters, since December 2009, this author has toured various locations around the Bay several times a week, walking the ice and visiting ice fishermen, motorcycle racers, firemen practicing rescue operations, and even some skaters. But I never saw an iceboat until Feb. 23, 2011, when a lonely DN (Detroit News) Class boat sat parked on the ice near Newport YC, left there for days by it’s owner, a local Bay resident. A photo of that historic appearance is attached.

Local iceboat activity in its early days was recorded by the notable Rochester Herald photographer Albert R. Stone, and his wonderful quality glass plate negatives were preserved by RMSC. They are available online at the Museum, and through Rochester Images at the Local History Division of the Central Library. A few examples of his work on the ice are attached, including the iceboats, Howie, Whistler, and the motorized ice vehicle Elbridge Go-Devil.

Times change, sports and equipment evolve, but wind and water will always be on the Bay, until, of course, climate changes catch up with us. Then, Beware the Ides of March!

Leo Balandis, Sailing on the Bay since 1970. March 4, 2011
Past Historian, Rochester Canoe Club
Member, Rochester Canoe and Newport Yacht Clubs


One thought on “Iceboating on Irondequoit Bay”

  1. Hello

    I am part of a staff of scout leaders that are going to hold a training course called Powder Horn the weekend of September 10 through 13.

    Powder Horn can be described as a skills resource course for Venturing, Boy Scouting, Cub Scouting and Varsity Scouting leaders of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Powder Horn is also described as a hands-on resource management course designed to give Scouting leaders the contacts and tools necessary to conduct an awesome program in their scouting unit.

    Would you be interested in presenting your Ice Boating program to our scout leaders? It would be a ‘round robin” of presenters at our Babcock-Hovey scout camp which is in Ovid, NY on the shore of Seneca Lake on September 12 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.

    Thank You


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