By John Burton
RED BANK – Winter weather frequently doesn’t cooperate for the members of the North Shrewsbury Ice Boat and Yacht Club.
“We’re praying” for cold weather, said Mark Petersen, member of the 26 Union St. club.
There were high hopes among many of the club’s 170 members when the mercury dipped into the single digits recently. The frigid weather offered the hope that the temperature would remain cold enough to get the boats out on the Navesink River. Unfortunately, that hope was short-lived, as the temperature rose into the 50s and the precipitation was merely wet as the week progressed.
“So close and yet so far,” Petersen said.
But, when not content to rely on prayer when the weather remains too tepid for ice in the Two River area, some members will pack up and take their boats on the road.
“It may have to be Lake Champlain or in Pennsylvania or farther west to get our boats out,” club member John Gannon said.
Gannon prefaced his comments noting that a New York Times article some years back said that from 1905 to the mid-1990s, the average temperature rose about 1½ degrees. “A degree-and-a-half is a really big deal,” especially if you need weather to be cold enough to take iceboats out locally, Gannon said.
While freshwater freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the waters of the Navesink, being brackish, needs to be about 28 degrees to freeze, Gannon said. The temperature also needs to stay in that range for at least a few days to allow for the 3-to-6 inches of ice to form to make it safe for the boats and club members, Gannon said.
“As much as we like to be optimistic, I’m looking at the month of January and it’s not going to be that cold,” Gannon said.
It’s been two years since the weather has cooperated and it has been cold enough for iceboaters to get their crafts on the river.
“You hurry up and you wait,” said John Holian of Red Bank, who has been a club member since 1982.
Back in the early 20th century during the heyday of ice boating, the Two River area was referred to as the “thaw belt.” While it was colder than it is now, it was not as cold as other areas, such as upstate New York. The area had less snow and some rain giving way to smooth ice, which made it a favorable for the sport, Holian said. “You have to have all the right conditions.” Conditionals include being cold enough to have the appropriate ice thickness, so it’s safe to sail. Some snow is all right, but too much makes it difficult for the boats to skate across the ice. “You need sailable wind,” but not too strong and gusty, conditions that make it difficult and possibly dangerous, Holian said.
“Around here for the last few years it hasn’t been very conducive” for the sport, he said.
When area conditions don’t cooperate, that’s when “we go on the road.”
The favorite spots include Lake Wallenpaupack, a man-made freshwater reservoir in Pennsylvania, surrounded by mountains, which helps keep the area cold, Holian said. Another popular spot is Budd Lake in Morris County’s Mount Olive. When the weather in those locations is unsuitable, some will pack up their Detroit News or stern-steerer boats and travel to New York State’s Greenwood Lake, New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, or to the Midwest for the sport’s right stuff.
While the waiting game can be frustrating, when it’s right there’s nothing better, club members said.
“If you’re OK with the cold and you like speed,” Gannon said, “it’s a no-brainer.”
Holian has been fascinated by iceboating – or what some enthusiasts call hard-water sailing – since he was a kid in the Two River area and saw the boats gliding along.
“The best description is that it’s like sleigh riding, but the hill doesn’t end,”Holian said.
Or, like surfing or skiing, with its participants as passionate as they are for those other sports, Gannon said.
Lou Davidson of Fair Haven, a lifelong fan of iceboating, called it “a very frustrating sport,” that sometimes demands travel far from home to colder states, like Maine, Vermont or Massachusetts, for the possibility of being able to sail. “But the moment you get to sail, it’s all worth it,” he said.
“It really is being on the edge,” as the boat really moves – three-to-five times faster than the speed of the wind on the frictionless surface – when the wind is right, Holian said.
Davidson’s A-class skeeter boat has reached about 60 miles per hour on the Navesink River, and could probably go faster if the right wind was available, he said.
Members also enjoy sharing their enthusiasm with others and meeting weekly at the Union Street club overlooking the Navesink to work on their boats, watch TV, have a couple of beers or just talk with each other.
“It really is as much about the camaraderie as anything,” Petersen said.
The club has been around since the 1880s and requires its members to own an iceboat to become a member.
Boats range from the most prevalent model, the Detroit News, which can go for about $1,000, to larger styles, called stern steerers, which come in different classes, such as A, C, D and vary in size and sail area. There are also skeeters, which can cost as much as $35,000, that are constructed of carbon fiber with about 75 feet of sail area as opposed to the other models which are made of hard wood, Gannon said.
It’s mid-January and there is still plenty of winter left – though iceboaters favor January ice over February because it can be around a little longer and can be thicker if the weather cooperates.
By March the season is basically over, Davidson said.
“That’s why we have iceboats. We’re optimistic,” Holian said. “Otherwise, we’d have a sailboat and say ‘I wish this ice would go away.’ ”