Ice yachts in Athens

Photo by Jonathan PalmerThe ice yacht Vixen “beating to windward” over five inches of ice in the Athens channel on Feb. 12.

I had hoped to follow up on last week’s article concerning Bethel AME this week, but scheduling prevented me from making it down to the County Clerk’s office to examine several volumes on file there. History gets better with age, so a week’s delay shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Instead, this week features a photo (neither old nor dusty) I happened to snap on Feb. 12 when five inches of ice in the Athens channel allowed several ice yachts from the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club [http://www.hriyc.org/] and one of their partner clubs from New Jersey to set up and sail for the weekend in some of the sport’s oldest stomping grounds. Folks came from far and wide over the course of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the Athens State Boat Launch to park their cars, haul out cameras if they had them, and walk out onto the ice to witness this fascinating wintertime sport.

The lateen-rigged behemoth seen zipping around was none other than John Roosevelt’s Vixen, built in 1886 and the first of its kind to sport this unique triangular sail plan. A lateen rig allows for sailing “closer to the wind” and greater speeds, which was the name of the game among the daredevil gentry involved in the sport of ice yachts in the years following the Civil War.

A tradition that comes to us from the Netherlands, ice yachting entered a period of considerable innovation around the time of the Civil War, as local owners in the Athens/Hudson area began to experiment with new and sleek designs all in the name of being fastest on the River. The Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and many others joined in the fun by buying up winning boats and taking them downriver to race. Sometimes clocked in excess of one hundred miles an hour, these vessels were once the fastest man-made conveyances on the planet. Amazingly, a number of these historic vessels have been restored and can still be viewed on lakes and frozen stretches of the river during the Winter months when conditions allow. This was Vixen’s 135th season.

Questions and comments can be directed to Jon at archivist@gchistory.org.

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