In 1882 Hipe Relyea, a steamboat captain, sailed down from the town of Catskill, N.Y., in his smaller craft, Robert Scott, with a sail half the size of Icicle's, and easily bested the big boat. Relyea proved that a smaller mast stepped three feet forward produced a balanced rig that maintained control at high speeds. Roosevelt promptly shortened his boat by 21 feet and eliminated one third of her sail.
One couldn't ask for a better person to restore Icicle to her former glory than the resourceful Bielenberg, who has rebuilt World War I biplanes and renovated lighthouses. The hardest part will be raising the $8,000 or so needed for a new set of historically faithful cotton sails. "I think the boat deserves authentic sails," Bielenberg says.
If Icicle is relaunched next winter, she can resume her rivalry with Jack Frost, a yacht of comparable dimensions that has undergone its own remarkable recovery. By the time a 12-man team began rebuilding Jack Frost in 1971, there wasn't much left—just spars, runners and assorted hardware. Club members made a new 50-foot backbone and 29-foot runner plank from Sitka spruce shipped from Washington state. They relaunched Jack Frost in 1973 with her 1902 sails hoisted. "She has the fastest acceleration I've ever experienced," says Bob Wills, an architect in Rhinecliff, N.Y. "She's just pure power. It's like having a rocket attached to your back. You're propelled. It's actually frightening to see her go."
Bielenberg looks forward to the day when Icicle and Jack Frost can resume racing for the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America, the iceboating equivalent of the America's Cup. The original silk pennant, a slender 30-foot streamer with gold lettering, was made by Tiffany and displayed both in its Fifth Avenue window and at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It is now at the FDR Library.
" Franklin Roosevelt's generation maintained the ice yachts," says Bielenberg, "but the Victorian era was ending. The world turned its attention to flying machines and World War I."
Five consecutive warm winters grounded the fleet after what turned out to be the last race, in 1902. Jack Frost had won the contest five times, Icicle four. The HRIYC would like to commission a replica of the faded pennant and give Icicle a chance to even the series. "So what if the yachts are 100 years past their prime," says Wills. "They're like two old locomotives racing out of the past."
The slide lecture Bielenberg delivers to interested groups includes a photograph of John Roosevelt's slate-roofed boathouse, now owned by a commercial marina and used for outboard engine repairs. Bielenberg dreams of reclaiming and restoring the building so the reborn Icicle can return to her original berth, a project that will require even more money. Bielenberg is already planning fund-raising banquets on the ice with a bonfire, cauldrons of steamed mussels, stew pots and champagne.
"There's a certain element in our group that prides itself on its ability to throw parties," he says, savoring the image. "We'll put them to the test."