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Shivers and timbers, ice yachts set sail

Sharp winds lashed up the Hudson River as sailors launched boats onto the ice. Sails whipped furiously as the long blades slid across a white sheet that spread for miles.

Finally, a frigid winter has created excellent conditions for ice sailing on the river.

"In the blink of an eye you can get up to 30 miles an hour ... you can just feel the power of the wind filling the sails," Michael Soldati said after a bracing run across the ice. "It's just awesome. It's just you and the wind."

More than a dozen boats hit the ice last weekend on a wide stretch of river with a view of the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles north of New York City.

Many were one-person craft that skittered over the ice like so many puppies around two big dogs — the Rocket and Jack Frost. The two larger craft — each about 50 feet long — are reconditioned 19th-century ice yachts, made of heavy lumber and fitted with tall sails.

The term ice yacht is misleading — the older craft are neither luxurious nor spacious. Rides are bumpy and cold. Wooden backbones are fitted with a platform "cockpit" and a rear tiller for steering. Once sails are raised by the river bank, boats are given a push start until they catch the wind.

On the Jack Frost, which had not been out on the river for 11 years, Richard Lawrence sat low in the cushioned cockpit to operate the tiller, while his son Kevin urgently pulled in rope to trim the sails. Riding the ice at speeds of around 40 mph, father and son had to shout over the rushing wind and slicing blades.

In the early 1970s, Lawrence helped his father and other men recondition Jack Frost in nearby Newburgh. Now he shares the unique experience of local history and fast speeds with his son.

"The boats stay the same, the skippers get older, pass them down as they go," Lawrence said between runs. "It's just an exhilarating feel of harnessing the wind."

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