Skating out into Bolton Bay, Ted Caldwell stops to lift a custom-made, kite-shaped canvas sail rigged to ash spars jointed where the mast and boom cross. He hoists it above his head, then brings it down so that the boom rests on his shoulder. Tilting the sail into the wind, he moves off with a steady glide. Within minutes, Caldwell himself is barely visible, a swiftly moving swatch of white canvas against Dome Island.
This is what we observed a few years ago, when a long, hard freeze and little snow produced 2 ½ weeks of black ice, the ideal conditions for skating, ice boating and skate sailing.
Caldwell is one of several skate sailors on Lake George, all of whom can trace their interest in the sport to one Eskill Berg, a General Electric engineer who brought the sport to upstate New York from his native Sweden in 1895.
From Berg, other GE men acquired an interest in the sport, including John Apperson and Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir, who together purchased Dome Island to protect it from development.
Apperson made his first sail from cotton muslin and bamboo poles in 1904. Within a few years, the GE men were purchasing spars and sail cloth in bulk and making as many as fifty sails a year in Apperson’s apartment.
The railways granted them permission to carry their sails on lines throughout New York, and soon they were coming to Lake George.
For Apperson and Langmuir, skate sailing was not just sport. They also used the sails to power sleds across the ice; the sleds bearing the rocks they needed to rip rap the islands.
Apperson introduced the sport to a younger GE engineer, Bill White, and White and Arthur Newkirk devised plans for skate sails adapted from those developed in Apperson’s apartment and modified by General Electric Test Men for maximum speed and efficiency.
Peter White, Bill White’s son, inherited his father’s love for skate sailing.
He told Caperton Tissot for her book Adirondack Ice, “I pray each year for the opportunity to glide with the wind, to be a part of the ice and the winter breeze.”
Ted Caldwell sent a set of the plans drafted by Newkirk and White to a sail maker, who produced his skate sail. He also passed them on the Bolton Central School teachers John and Deb Gaddy, who also commissioned a sail.
The Gabriels family relies upon its own traditions for their skate sails. They own two skate sails purchased from Abercrombie and Fitch in the 1930s. David Gabriels remembers an early attempt by him and his brother Chris to use them; they were unsuccessful until a skater from nearby Crown Island offered to give them some instruction.
The skater was Harry Summerhayes, Irving Langmuir’s son-in-law. Today, David’s nephews are the family’s avid skate sailors.
On one recent winter’s black ice, John Gaddy sailed from Bolton Landing to Sabbath Day Point and back in less than an hour and a half, traveling at a speed of 30 mph.
“On a good windy day, you can take 10 kids,” says Ted Caldwell, who has sailed the length of the lake himself several times. “You can go vast distances with little effort.”
“In mild winds, skate sailing is relaxing,” he says. “In stiff winds, it’s very fast, requiring strong legs and attention to cracks and pressure ridges that come upon you so quickly that you have little time to react. But when conditions are right, the 32 miles of Lake George are your quiet domain. You don’t hear or feel the wind; the only sound is the skates’ blades cutting the ice.”
Photos from above: John Apperson skate sailing near Dollar Island; and Skate sailors on Lake George, provided.
A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror Magazine.