Racing is on ice, champagne in a cup

SPRINTING ON RUNNERS: Once upon a time sailboats that skated on ice were the fastest vessels on earth. Nowadays, ice-yachts run an occasional race in the US


Mon, Feb 03, 2003 - Page 11

As the rest of the nation huddled indoors last week around Super Bowl pregame programming, a group of men dressed like Arctic explorers gathered on a frozen river for a much older and colder form of combat.

They were racing ice yachts -- sailboats on steel blades with the skippers lying on slim wooden frames just inches above the ice.

And they were competing in what may be the oldest and longest-deferred grudge match in sports history.

The Van Nostrand Challenge Cup had been raced only twice since 1889, when a wealthy Hudson Valley ice yachtsman, Gardiner Van Nostrand, donated a Tiffany silver cup to be kept by the winning team of each year's race.

At that time, ice boats were the fastest vessels on earth, reaching more than 161kmh in a strong wind.

One and only

But the first and only winner of the cup, the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club here, had been loath to risk it after winning in 1891. After defending it successfully only once, in 1978, the club kept the cup locked away in a jeweler's safe.

The commodore of the New Jersey club recently shocked many by accepting a challenge from the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club. The Hudson boatmen had long resented the New Jersey team's refusal to risk the cup. They were eager for their chance to win it back.

Anticipation was high as the Hudson River boatmen wheeled their lovingly restored antique yachts onto the Navesink River at downtown Red Bank the previous Saturday.

Conditions were almost ideal: several centimeters of clear ice on the river, a clearing sky, a temperature of 20?C, and a rising breeze of 10kmh to 13kmh.

"There's been a change of the guard here," said John Vargo, a tall Hudson River boatman wearing an entire coyote skin on his head, the forepaws tied under his chin. "Until now, they just didn't want anyone else to have the cup."

Like many other boatmen, Vargo has an encyclopedic knowledge of his sport's aristocratic origins and faded grandeur. Walking across the ice, he pointed out two boats once owned by the family of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Inside the North Shrewsbury clubhouse, a cluttered repository of old sails and yellowing photographs, the atmosphere was apprehensive. "I didn't get much sleep last night," said Mark Petersen, the commodore of the club. "I don't want to be the commodore who lost the cup."

The two teams had agreed to race only the old-fashioned wooden boats known as gaff rigs, some of them a century old. From a distance, the rigs resemble 19th-century schooners, with dark spruce masts and tall parchment-colored sails.

Up close, they are more like gigantic wooden crossbows, with a long main beam and a transverse spar running across it for stability.

After a running start and a leap into the cockpit, the boats accelerate at panic-inducing speed. They can go up to six times the speed of the wind -- any ice boater can explain the physics to you.

And at just 48kmh, the cold cuts exposed skin like a knife and the runners clatter like skipped stones across the water.

By midmorning, six boats -- three for each of the two clubs -- were on the starting line, about 1.5km south of the clubhouse. In each race, the boats would run three circles around two markers placed a mile apart. The winning team would be the first to win three of five races.

At 10:45, a boom from a miniature cannon set the boatmen off. The Hudson boats tacked eastward, the others west, to keep from colliding.

The New Jersey boats quickly took the lead, reaching the red upwind marker first.

They're off

"It's a light wind -- that's good for the Jersey boats, because they're lighter," Vargo said.

As the boats slalomed back around the starting line, several of them rose up on one runner in the wind, like motorcycles leaning inward on a turn.

Ice boaters call this hiking, and it can be dangerous.

If the rear runner rises off the ice, the entire boat can turn into the wind and begin spinning wildly, sending the driver flying across the ice. Among ice boaters, this wipeout is called a flicker.

New Jersey took the first race, and then the second. The heavier Hudson boats were lovely, but they seemed unable to match their competitors.

Bob Wills, the commodore of the Hudson River club, winced as his teammate, Reid Bielenberg, fell far behind the rest of the pack in his lovely 1885 rig, the Vixen.

"Reid looks like he's stopping for shellfish," he moaned.

The wind picked up as the third race began and for a moment it looked as though Rick Lawrence, the lead Hudson boat, might win. But the New Jersey boats overtook him.

It was over: New Jersey had maintained its hold on the cup. On the sidelines, shouts and cheers erupted, and big men dressed in snowsuits began bearhugging each other.

Despite their loss, the Hudson Valley team members did not seem unhappy.

"The main thing is, we got the race run," Lawrence said. "It was a long time coming."