Go Ice Sailing Without the Boat

There's something to be said for old-fashioned fun, the way kids enjoyed themselves in the old days. Of course, we tell ourselves, kids have it better today. Take skating, for example. Over the past hundred years ice skates have been refined and improved. Today we have indoor rinks with the ice surface smoothed to perfection by Zamboni machines, modern synthetics to wear, and all the advantages of our advanced era.

But taking a look through some old books from a century ago that offer fun ideas for the boys and girls of that long-ago time to try reveals pastimes that have fallen through the cracks as the years have turned and been forgotten. Might they not possess something worth reviving and trying now? After all, old-fashioned doesn't necessarily mean outdated as much as it means "not currently in use."

A century ago was a time when winter meant the arrival of iceboats on local lakes. These were fast, sail-driven vessels on sharp runners that set speed records of over 100 miles an hour, incredible in the days before air travel. Kids in those days admired them, but, alas, they were far too expensive to be within the reach of children.

Ingenuity offered an inexpensive solution, one described in an article by Charles Norton in "Saint Nicholas Magazine" entitled, "Every Boy His Own Ice-Boat." He meant exactly what the title states, not that each lad could procure an iceboat, but that each could become an iceboat.

Why not, he suggested, do away with the boat, and instead carry a sail while gliding along on ice skates? The skates are the boat's runners, the child's body and arms the hull and mast. The sails could be almost anything: an old bed sheet, scraps of cloth sewn together, mounted on spars made of bamboo or slender tree branches. An old engraving shows a boy who had his mother sew triangles of cloth along the outer seams of his pants and the lower seams of his sleeves so that when he spread his arms he would catch the breeze.

And it works. You can get an inkling of the effect when skating on a breezy day by holding wide your unbuttoned coat, but you really need more sail area to adequately propel you. The simplest sail to make is triangular, with spars (long mop handles will work) running along two sides of the triangle and meeting at one corner. Grasp the spars halfway down their length with the point where the spars meet in front of you and hold the triangle open to catch the wind. If you want to stop or slow down, simply bring the spars together to reduce your sail area. In an emergency, just drop the whole rig to the ice.

The simplest and most obvious way to skate is downwind. Once you get some practice in, though, you can try sailing across the wind by holding the sail at an angle. When you get even better at it, you can even tack upwind just like sailboats do. This "close-reaching" (as it is known in nautical terms) can deliver the fastest speeds. And like a sailboat, turning directly into the wind will bring you to a halt.

The old books show any number of more elaborate rigs, with names such as the "Cape Vincent," the "Danish Rig" (which contains a mainmast, a topmast, and a banner flying at the top, making the skater resemble a square-rigged sailing ship!), and the "Batwing." Some are designed for two skaters to use in tandem. For more instructions on how to make and use different rigs, ask your librarian to get "The American Boy's Handy Book," by Daniel Beard, originally published in 1882 but recently re-released in paperback.

Ice sailing is a sport for wide-open and uncrowded places, of course, and all of the safety rules that apply to regular skating still hold: be sure of the ice's thickness, stay away from cracks, spots where water flows in, or under bridges. Lakes that support ice fishing shanties and snowmobilers are probably the best bets?Lake Winnipesaukee springs to mind as an ideal spot?just use common sense.

Why did ice sailing just about disappear from public knowledge? Who knows? Maybe these things move in phases, and succeeding generations discover their own thrills, abandoning those that were popular just a short time before.

Yet that doesn't mean we can't rediscover these pleasures, mining the past for a mother lode of fun. Ice sailing is one recreation that anyone with a pair of skates can try, and once you try it, you'll never stop!

Article provided by Homesteader

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