Only softies need water to go sailing

When the temperature plummets, Red Bankers break out the boats for a day on the river.

At 10 a.m. the wind is already up in pitch as it whips across the frozen Navesink River. While most people are trying to get out of the cold, Jim Hadley has taken his only week of vacation so he can hop on the winter version of a sailboat and whoosh past the landscape at 50 miles per hour.

"This is a big deal - the river doesn't freeze over that often," says Mr. Hadley as he tries to keep his sails into the freshening wind.

Yes, while most residents of the Northeast are tired of the numbing cold, America's iceboat community is reveling in some of the best conditions in years. After several weeks of below-freezing temperatures, lakes and rivers have a thick layer of frozen water.

The slick surface attracts a hardy bunch who look down on "soft water" sailors and prefer a mode of transportation that hasn't changed much since the late 18th century, when the first iceboat appeared on the Hudson River.

In fact, iceboating is yet another example of how America - despite its shift to high technology - is still fascinated by its own history.

Nowhere - well OK, maybe Minnesota - is this more apparent than on the Navesink, where all those long cold days and nights have resulted in a solid foot of ice.

The view, from the center of the river, looks like something you might see if you were an Eskimo.

The frozen scene is a source of some civic pride for a town that includes an iceboat, which is basically a crossbow with blades, on its municipal insignia. Members of the North Shrewsbury Iceboat & Yacht Club, established 1880, call Red Bank the iceboat capital of the east.

While most people refer to a shoreline as "waterfront," members of the club talk about their "icefront" property.

Perhaps it's not surprising that iceboats have a special place in the town.

John English, a member of the club, says that in the late 1800s, iceboats transported produce from Red Bank to New York City, a distance of about 20 miles.

He says the club often sailed its fastest boats to the Hudson River to compete against iceboats owned by J.P. Morgan and other tycoons.

Well-heeled merchants and sea captains hired muscular clam diggers to help pilot some of the larger craft, which could blast along at over 100 m.p.h.

"When I was a kid, there was no basketball, no hockey league, and the newspapers used to send their sports reporters down here from New York to report on the races in the winter," recalls Borden "Brub" Hance, whose family tree includes a founder of the North Shrewsbury club.

Earlier this month, in a tableau that could have come from the late 1800s, hundreds of local residents crowded into a waterfront park to watch as 70 iceboats - some from other parts of the United States - streaked across the river.

One of the sport's attractions is the speed. Because of their design, they can quickly accelerate to four times the speed of the wind.

The "tourism" aspect of the sport came in handy recently when the members of the club learned that a local contractor was considering hiring a tug to pick up some barges further upriver.

Alarmed that the tug would break up the ice, they put out an Internet SOS message ("Save our Ice"). Phone numbers for local politicians were supplied. The barges are still stuck in the ice.

One of the reasons why members reacted so quickly is the rarity of getting near-perfect conditions. Sailing can't take place when there are two to three inches of snow on the ice, too much wind, not enough wind, or ice that will only support a sea gull. "It's tough to get Mother Nature to cooperate," says Mr. Hance, as he walks around the clubhouse, which is practically a museum to iceboating.

Some of the wooden boats have been handed down from grandfather to father to son or daughter. That's the case with Dominique DeLorenzo, whose father is the vice commodore of the club.

"Dad had me doing this from when I was nine or 10 years old," says Ms. DeLorenzo, who says she likes iceboating because not many girls do it.

Another member, Dan Clapp, a world champion, traces iceboating back to his grandfather.

Because the ice conditions are so good, they have provided many men with an excuse to forgo work - an aquatic form of hunting season.

That's the case for Brian Rice, a financial planner from Fair Haven.

As he gets ready to sail on "Vanguard," his craft, he says, "When the conditions are like this you have to forget work, forget the wife, and do what you can to get on the ice."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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