With racing blades glistening, the skater moves gracefully onto the ice. A kite-like sail is held firmly in hand and is deftly maneuvered to catch the wind. Then: Silently, splendidly, sail and skater are propelled across the ice.
Hans Brinker would have loved it.
First popularized by the Dutch as a form of transporation, skate sailing came to America as the 19th century melted into the 20th. Skate-crazed, thrill-seekig Americans took a quick fancy to the dead-of-winter sport, but the 1920s came roaring in with a sexier sort of reaction that knocked the wind right out of its sails.
To muster support for the sport, the Skate Sailing Association of America (SSAA) was formed in 1923 and, little by little, interest has returned. Today the SSAA sponsors races and continues to draw outsiders in, though it may take decades to persuade the ski fanatics to trade their equipment for skates and sails.
"There's a tight nucleus of enthusiasts," says Al Goldberg, a Stamford, Connecticut, research engineer and a dedicated skate sailor. "They sail anywhere they can find a large expanse of ice without a heavy snow cover." For the most part, that means lakes and rivers and other bodies of water no farther south than Washington and as far north as parts of Canada. Too far south and there's not enough ice; too far north and there's too much snow.
Discounting the sail (and the pads and helment that street skaters often wear), skate sailors dress like ice skaters. For the seasoned sailor, those who can reach speeds exceeding 50mph, the pads and helment are de rigeur . And because of the added stability offered by long racing blades, figure skates aren't recommended.
The sail is employed by resting the boom on one shoulder and grasping the mast with both hands. The sail is the only means of propulsion; skate sailors do not move their legs. Instead, Goldberg days, they "raise their sails, lay into the winds and tear off."
When a group of skate sailors gathers, it's probably for racing. A large triangle is marked off, usually with at least a mile on each side. The object of the race is to be the first participant to navigate the course.
As their sails fill with wind, the skaters lean against them and are carried along at increasing speeds. To slow their acceleration, the skaters lift the sails above their heads. To change direction, the sail is lowered to the opposite shoulder. Because their feet don't move off the ice and because the sailors are moving very fast, "when a bump or a crack is encountered, they usually just jump over it," Goldberg says. "Even with long distances between the markers, the races are usually pretty short."
Of course, not everbody races, and a good time can be had at slower speeds. But whether you're racing for glory or just sailing for pleasure, this isn't a sport for loners; it works best in groups of two or three. First, the ice must be scrupulously checked for thin spots before it can be sailed. Yet despite such precautions, dunkings are not unheared of; it's prudent to have a friend along to pull you out (or to run for help).
Industrious, hard-core sailors often make their own sails with sturdy but light-weight poles and fabric (sailmaking plans and detailed instructions are available from the SSAA). There are limted sources for store-bought sails; one is Waterfun, Inc., owned and operated by skate-sailor Goldberg and his wife, Katie.
When he's not engineering for CBS (his full-time occupation), Goldberg makes sails from aluminum and fiberglass and a durable fabric he orders from Hong Kong. "I realized that the sport couldn't really go anywhere without a way to get equipment." So he started making and selling sails in 1970, and through word-of-mouth his mail-order sideline evolved and has survived. But: "I lose money every year," Goldberg says. "I do it as a labor of love."
"The engineering design is a good one in that it's rugged and light," says Goldberg of his Icicle brand sail, which comes in three sizes and sells for about $120. It's a version of home-made "Hopatcong" sail, a make-it-from-scratch variety named for a lake in New Jersey where it first became popular.
Because skate sailing requires more dexterity than strength, the sport has a broad appeal. "Some great sailors are quite old. We often have 80-year-olds on the ice," Goldberg says.
"It's not as chic as skiing, but you don't have to go off to the ski country to enjoy it." Also, it's good for the ecology: "No noise, no pollution at all," he says. "And out on the ice, we're sure beautiful to look at."