“I pray that each year, as I age, I’ll have the rare opportunity to once more glide with the wind, be part of the ice and the winter breeze. It’s a crazy thing to dream of, pray for, or depend on…..ICE; black crystal clear ice. Wind, a whish of the skates, and off I go once more.” Peter White, dedicated skate-sailor, 2009
Rarely practiced today, skate-sailing was quite popular from the late 1800s through the 1940s. Eskill Berg, of Schenectady, a Swedish engineer at General Electric, introduced this wind-driven sport to the Lake George area in 1895.
While it disappeared for a long stretch in the early 1900s, the sport enjoyed a comeback in the 1980s under the leadership of, among others, William M. White, a well-known skater and conservationist. An active member of the Skate-Sailing Association of America, he thought nothing of sailing some twenty-five miles on Lake George, racing along on his personal set of wings while relishing the silence and freedom of the sport.
Most of the early skate-sails were made of two tapered spruce spars attached in a cross formation with a sail made of cotton. By the 1980s, Dacron and nylon were used with spars of aluminum and fiberglass, reducing the sail’s total weight from some eighteen pounds to eight. Sails were either rectangular or kite shaped with the longer spar resting on the skater’s shoulder, the shorter one pointing skyward. Later models had the added safety feature of small plastic or celluloid windows which allowed the skater to navigate with better visibility, increasing his ability to avoid treacherous cracks, pressure ridges and open water.
In 1916, another engineer named John S. Apperson, an outdoorsman and dedicated conservationist who also promoted this stylish riding-the-wind sport at Lake George and elsewhere, designed an innovative and faster sail. It had a trapezoidal rather than traditional kite shape, carried sixty to sixty-five square feet of sail, stays to keep it taught and it featured a detachable jib. Known as the Apperson or Schenectady sail, it became quite popular and widely used. Today, Peter White, a zealous Lake George skate-sailor and the son of William M. White, carries on the tradition of his predecessors, often still using his own antique Apperson sail.
A skate-sail is easily and quickly assembled. Resting it on the shoulder, twisting one’s hips into the right position, and nestling into the sail, the skater skims over the ice at speeds of 40 to 50 mph if the wind is good and the ice clear. As with iceboating, only certain special conditions favor this sport: smooth, strong, snow-free ice and a good 25 to 30 mph wind. It is a happy moment when the Gods favor the skate-sailor with such a perfect day.
Like so many of the best things in life, one must be on location and ready to grab the opportunity when ice and wind conditions are favorable. What a joy to swoop across a lake with the lightness of air and carefree as a bird.
According to Apperson, “ice bound people can find no other sport that can surpass skate-sailing for the exhilarating sense of freedom and action; the stimulation of flinging one’s self at the wind.”
Caperton Tissot is the author of Adirondack Ice, a Cultural and Natural History, published by Snowy Owl Press.