Our Hardwater Sailing President
By Tom Darling, Conversations with Classic Boats
Who would have thought that the 32nd President of the United States, a known yachtsman, honed his skills in hardwater sailing on the Hudson River. In fact, Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed in a long family tradition of ice yachting.
Records at the FDR National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York tell the story of the active ice yachting scene on the Hudson in the late 19th century. Today, tourists flock to towns like Hudson in search of hip fashion and farm-to-table food. But the towns’ names all speak to their Dutch watery origins, be they soft or hard.
Sailing on ice started as a utilitarian mode of transport for the Dutch, who attached metal and wood runners to the bottoms of hulled working boats. Dutch settlers in America moved sheep and people on a Hudson River that often froze the 80 miles from Albany south to Poughkeepsie.
In the early 19th century, if you wanted your cargo transported the fastest, your choice was ice delivery. From early December until iceout, often in April, your vehicle was the Hudson River ice yacht. The incentive to go fast was driven by economics. The iceboat captains were like the skippers of the Chesapeake Log Canoes who wanted speed to get their fish or mollusk catch to market. At some point, Chesapeake captains decided to take their work boats, refine them, and race them.
It was the same on the ice. The blue collar and the starched white collar worked hand in hand. The recreational potential for sailing on ice yachts quickly attracted Hudson Valley residents who redesigned these craft with lightweight frames, gaff rigs and cast iron runners. Wealthy property owners along the Hudson had the resources to build iceboats, construct buildings to house, them and hire crews to maintain them.
John Aspinwall Roosevelt and his neighbor Archibald Rogers were two of the most competitive captains, successfully building many boats, two of which, the Icicle and the Jack Frost, went on to win the biggest prize in ice yacht racing, the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America. Roosevelt’s Icicle was the largest classic ice yacht, at 70 feet, with 1,000 square feet of sail; she travelled to competition on a railroad flat car.
As with our other favorite form of cold water sailing, frostbiting, racing and social activity were closely linked. According to iceboat.org, America’s first iceboating bar and clubhouse was the Vassar Brewery on the Poughkeepsie waterfront. The Vassar served as the think tank of early American ice sailing, as well as the start and finish line for Hudson River regattas.
According to The Eagles History of Poughkeepsie by Edmund Platt, “the Vassar Brewery office was the clubhouse where all the river sportsmen gathered to discuss matters and partake of Mr. Booth’s specially brewed ale. About 1858 the possibilities of the development of the skate-boats were under consideration among the brewery coterie, and experiments of various kinds were tried with steel runners, heavy and light centre timbers and various cuts of sails…”
Thanks to Archie Call and Henry Bossett for unearthering such early iceboat history.
According to the National Park Service brochure, “Ice Yachting on the Hudson River,” the Hudson River Ice Yachting Club grew out of the Poughkeepsie Ice Yacht Club, which was founded in 1861 as the first ice yacht club in America. Members of that club formed the HRIYC, electing FDR’s uncle John A. Roosevelt as the first commodore. The club book of 1908 lists fifty-two ice yachts in its roster, including the commodore’s Icicle, Vixen and Kriss, as well as FDR’s Hawk.
From his family home in Hyde Park on the east side of the Hudson, FDR ventured down weekly to compete in the ice yachting, especially when home from Harvard during his school days. His Hawk, seen in the photo, was built by George Buckhout, the most famous Hudson River designer. Buckhout was the Herreshoff of ice yachting, turning out dozens of craft up to 100 feet in length from his facility on the banks of the hardwater Hudson throughout the year.
Hawk was presented to FDR as a Christmas gift at age 18 by his mother Sara on Christmas Day, 1901. Today the boat, slightly larger than today’s one-man DN iceboat, is in the.museum collection at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site at Hyde Park. Visitors have access to a wide variety of vintage photographs and drawings of the Hudson hardwater scene.
Sources: National Park Service: “Ice Yachting on the Hudson,” FDR National Historic Site
Tom Darling is the host of Conversations with Classic Boats, “the podcast that talks to boats.” Tune in via Apple Podcast, Google Podcast or Spotify, or online at conversationswithclassicboats.com.