Only Softies Need Water to Go Sailing ; When the Temperature Plummets, Red Bankers Break out the Boats for a Day on the River

Article excerpt

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. …