Our Ice Yachting President

Ice yachting was a family tradition

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.

Hawk ice yachting
Ice yachting started as a utilitarian mode of transport before its recreational potential attacted Hudson Valley residents. Image of FDR's Hawk on the Hudson River courtesy of Archives NPS FDR National Historic Site, Hyde Park

Records at the FDR National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY, tell the story of the active ice boating scene in the late 19th century. 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.

If you wanted your cargo transported the fastest, the choice was ice delivery and the vehicle was the Hudson River ice yacht. The incentive to go fast was driven by economics. The iceboat captains, like the skippers of the Chesapeake Log Canoes, wanted speed to get their catch to market. At some point, Chesapeake captains decided to take their work boats, refine them, and race them. It was the same with Hudson ice boats.

The recreational potential for sailing on ice yachts quickly attracted Hudson Valley residents who redesigned them with lightweight frames, gaff rigs, and cast-iron runners. 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 them, the Icicle and 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 1000 square feet of sail; she travelled to competitions on a railroad flat car.

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 Hudson River Ice Yachting Club (HRIYC), electing FDR’s uncle John A. Roosevelt as the first commodore. The club book of 1908 lists 52 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 ice yachting, especially when home from Harvard during his school days. His Hawk was built by George Buckhout, the most famous Hudson River designer. Hawk was presented to him at age 18 as a gift by his mother Sara on Christmas Day, 1901. Today, Hawk is in the museum collection at the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site at Hyde Park.

Source: National Park Service: “Ice Yachting on the Hudson. FDR National Historic Site.”

by Tom Darling

Find Tom Darling's Conversations With Classic Boats here.