by: Daniel Murphy

It has been so cold outside the last couple of days the only thing I want to wear out there is the car. As I came over the bridge this morning I noticed skim ice forming on the Navesink. My mind jumped into the memories of the river frozen from shore to shore with hundreds of people skating, eel fishing, wind sail skating and of course ice boating. 

As kids we would skate around these great ice sailing machines hoping to get a ride. At that time the majority of them were “C” class boats. Sculptured from wood these huge stern steering vessels would hold two to four people laying down, a massive main sail and jib in front would propel the captain and crew across the ice at speeds up to 100 miles an hour. There is one main beam 20′ long with a cross plank in the front. The boat rests on three huge steel blades the rear one turns to steer the boat hence “stern steered.” In the early 1900s the world land speed record was set at 114 mph by one of these boats on the Shrewsbury River. The wind was so strong one side of the boat would not stay down so they strapped two 14 year-old boys to the cross plank to hold the boat down and with them there set a new world record. I guess parents were easier going back then. Having viewed the behavior of a number of kids hanging out at night at the Red Bank WaWa I would not mind doing that to a number of them myself. 

One year we found an old roughly made ice boat of sorts on the ice without a sail and obviously abandoned. We got a blanket, pushed the damn thing clear across the river and with the wind behind us, one kid on each corner of the blanket, managed to get to about ten miles per hour as we crossed back to the Red Bank side. That was my introduction to ice boating as far as being a captain goes. 

Wooden boats are scarce today; fiberglass changed the shape and configuration of the ice boat. The big A class boats today can go to 140 mph in a matter of seconds. The smaller Arrow class and DN’s (single seat, high speed racer) are not as fast but still give you the feeling of being shot out of a dart gun. The sail acts as an air plane wing and with almost no friction from being on ice you can go 7 times the wind speed. Of course you can cruise at just about any speed by adjusting the sail and direction with the wind. I had a two seat Arrow and would spend hours crisscrossing the river at speeds of 10 to 80 mph. It was and is great therapy to be dressed like spacemen and spend all day on sailing. At 50 mph with the temperature being 30 degrees the wind chill is 20 below. With three layers of clothes, helmets, two sets of gloves and three pairs of socks we rarely felt the cold.

There is a lot more to this story. If you remember the pictures form the early 1900s of the same scenes, whenever you get a chance to skate on the river realize you are perpetuating history.

Contact Daniel Murphy, Jr.  – 

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