At the start of the new year, we await the “hard water” season. Members of the Hudson River Ice Yacht Club set up a sample of their historic sailing fleet at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park for a temporary exhibit, which ends on Jan. 3. The ice yacht expo featured FDR’s own ice boat, the HAWK, which he received as a Christmas gift in 1901 and proudly sailed during his college years. When stationary and on display, the ice boats evoke a gentility with their varnished wooden spars and velvety cockpit cushions, belying the breathtaking thrill and danger when these antique vessels are under sail. The ice boats are equipped with long blades like giant ice skates. Gliding atop the ice, the boats ride the wind at break-neck speeds. In their heyday of the late 19th century, ice boating was the fastest form of human travel, outrunning trains along the Hudson River shoreline.
The ice yacht expo served as a dry-run for the “hard water” sailing season. The river is still too “soft” to support this seasonal sport. So far, this year’s winter has been unconvincing in the promise of ice forming on the river. The water temperature is hovering in the mid-30s. On cold nights when the mercury drops into the 20s, ice crystals form along the shoreline as the tide ebbs, but the newly formed ice rarely survives daytime temperatures or the next tide cycle. Will the river freeze over again this year? It’s too early to tell. Last winter was the heaviest and harshest ice season in a decade in terms of the thickness and expanse of ice. Five out of the last ten winters did not produce enough ice to support ice boating on the Hudson. Sailable ice becomes more elusive with each passing year.
Meanwhile, despite the absence of ice, the Coast Guard officially kicked off their winter icebreaking season as of Dec. 15, so as to be ready if the river does freeze. The Coast Guard is tasked with keeping the channel open for commercial traffic. Known as Operation Reliable Energy for NorthEast Winters (op renew), the Coast Guard icebreaking efforts are vital for the shipment of home heating oil by barge along the Hudson River. According to the Coast Guard, an average of 300 shipments traverse the river during the winter months, delivering over 10 million barrels of petroleum products to Northeast communities.
Fuel barges pass by the Lighthouse daily during the winter. Without the work of Coast Guard cutters, barges could get trapped by ice, causing heating oil shortages to homes in the Hudson Valley. Many storage facilities hold only a few days’ supply on hand. An interruption in barge deliveries of heating oil would cause supplies to quickly dwindle. Thanks to the Coast Guard, we are saved from the nightmare of running out of heating oil in the dead of winter.
Although river ice is not yet forming in earnest, the Coast Guard has been going through the motions and making preparations. The buoy tenders swapped out the regular buoys with ones designed to ride underneath ice floes. Icebreaking vessels stand at the ready. Saugerties is home to the Wire, a 65-foot harbor tug used for icebreaking. When icebreaking is underway, the Wire is often joined by one of its compatriots — the Line or the Hawser — from Bayonne, New Jersey. These three tugs are part of a regional Coast Guard fleet, which also includes two 140-foot icebreakers, the Penobscot Bay and the Sturgeon Bay. The tugs can break ice 18 inches thick while the larger icebreakers can plow through 30-inch ice. During a heavy ice season, they work together to keep the shipping channel open from New York Harbor to Troy.
Historically, before icebreaking started in the late 1930s, shipping ceased in the winter. The river closed, shut up by solid ice from shore to shore. Iceboaters had the run of the river and could sail for miles on top of continuous spans of ice. With riverboat traffic at a halt, the Lighthouse was seasonally unnecessary as an aid to navigation. The keeper had a temporary reprieve from maintaining the beacon night after night. The keeper could then attend to other chores, such as working the ice harvest to earn some extra pocket money. Until modern mechanical refrigeration replaced natural ice, the ice harvesting on the Hudson River was a wintertime boon to idle farmers and other seasonal workers.
If the records of the ice harvest are any indication, the Hudson River froze more consistently a century ago. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, one-in-three to one-in-four years were “open winters” when the river failed to yield a sufficient ice crop. By comparison, in recent years, one out of every two have been open winters. These are just back-of-the-envelope calculations, but they are yet another example of rising global temperatures; as if we need more evidence that the climate is changing. Even so, global warming does not deter ice boaters from watching the winter weather report for dips in the thermometer and looking forward to any prospect of river ice.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthousekeeper. His column appears monthly.