By Clifford Hart
Photographed by Samantha Sapienza
The age-old French expression “òu sont les neiges d’antan?” roughly translates to “where are the snows of yesteryear?” While the phrase, from a 15th-century poem by Francois Villon, was written to suggest a general melancholy about days gone by, in our present-day period of warmer weather it might suggest a nostalgia for winter itself.
It’s hard not to reflect on that expression when one considers just how much things have changed in the Hudson Valley in the past couple of hundred years. Certainly, the landscape has changed as farmland has overgrown and returned to woodland, but perhaps even more remarkable is the change in weather.
Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Hudson River was known to freeze over completely every winter, prompting a thriving ice-harvesting business up and down its shores before the days of refrigeration, and meaning that getting from one side to the other could be as easy as strapping on your skates.
But for those in search of a bigger adventure, and certainly bigger speed, they needed look no further than an ice boat. These sailing vessels, most of them equipped with two or three runners stretching under the hull from bow to stern, were initially used for transporting goods and people and date back many centuries in Europe.
The first American ice boat is attributed to Oliver Booth, who set out from Poughkeepsie onto the Hudson River in 1790 and thereby ushered in a storied period of sailing and racing ice boats in the region that lasted well over a century. Indeed, it wasn’t long before the wealthy landowners in the region began to jump into the act, and by the mid to late 19th century there were ice boats of all shapes and sizes hurtling across the ice.
Perhaps what is most remarkable about ice boats is that for a time they were considered to be the fastest modes of transportation on Earth, their great sails and sleek runners moving vessels along at speeds close to 60 miles per hour. Given that, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Livingstons, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts (yes, even the young FDR had an ice boat given to him by his mother) and their peers were so entranced with the sport.
And in the true spirit of the Hudson Valley aristocracy, the ice boats they raced grew substantially bigger and sleeker over time, the finest of them ultimately resembling giant wooden rockets carved for minimal wind resistance and supporting giant sails designed for maximum wind harnessing.
While the past 50 years have brought steadily advancing temperatures that have made ice boating impossible on the Hudson, an opportunity fortunately arose just four years ago in 2014, when the ice on the Hudson north of Rhinecliff became strong enough to support several days of ice-boat racing. Before that, the last winter cold enough to support the sport had been a full generation earlier—in 1994.
Seeing the great vessels gliding over the river ice, many of them the same exact boats raced by the aristocracy over a century ago, was like conjuring up a long-forgotten dream. So, while we await another winter in the Hudson Valley, whether we are longing for a prolonged cold snap or dreading one, consider the few ice-boat sailors who still race on the river today. If the ice gets thick enough, they will be ready with their streamlined boats, hoping to truly enjoy the thrill of a lifetime. █