Labor Day is gone, another Adirondack sailing season is done and the Idems are all hauled out, snug under their tarps waiting through the long winter for the next season to begin. There is no reason to suppose that most of the fleet will not be there, heading for the starting line when the warning guns sound next spring, for these boats—not just the class, but these very same boats—have been racing on New York's Upper St. Regis Lake ever since the first one was built in 1900 for New York Financier Anson Phelps Stokes.
At one point in his active life, Stokes lost a leg when he was thrown from a horse, but according to his obituary, "He used to sit on the floor in the cockpit of his boat and swing the tiller over his head with one of his sons or daughters on the weather rail to tell him the position of the marks."
One of those daughters was sailing that same boat on the same lake recently with her daughter, her granddaughter and her great-granddaughter as fellow crewmen. All named Mildred, they had crew shirts with Milly One, Milly Two, Milly Three and Milly Four printed on them. "It was a nice mild day," said Milly Two, the skipper, "but as soon as the race began, a thunderstorm developed, and the lake was covered with whitecaps. I'll admit I was worried about how Milly Four would take it. She's only 5 years old. But when I looked, she was curled up on the windward rail, sound asleep. We gave Milly One an easy job, releasing the running backstay, since she was not only 82 years old but had had a couple of broken hips."
A dozen Idems were produced in 1900 and the next few seasons. One of them is now under a transparent bubble at the Adirondack Museum. One has been sold to a man on another Adirondack lake. Some are resting in their boathouses dry and disused, because at some time during the past 66 summers a family has run out of skippers or money or strength. But for each race at least five or six of the original Idems appear. They are the ancestors of every one-design racing sailboat in this country, the oldest class still campaigning its original boats.
They look like dowagers in plumed picture hats, these gaff-rigged sloops with their huge overhangs—32 feet overall, they are only 19 feet on the waterline. They carry a staggering—quite literally staggering—600 square feet of sail, not counting spinnakers, and they move as fast and as unwaveringly as a virtuous woman.
Few modern skippers are accustomed to dealing with such vast spreads of canvas, and by the time a man used to a Marconi rig has piloted an Idem through his first blast of mountain air, he discovers that sailing has gotten to be a weak and wobbly thing since the days when grandma hiked up her skirts to keep them out of the bilge.
The Idem will be gliding along through a calm spot when suddenly a gust strikes and the boat heels. On these boats the mainsheet is tended by a man who sits on the afterdeck behind the skipper, bracing his feet on a little strip of wood. The sheet man lets out the sail to right her, but the boat continues to go over, heeling beyond any angle that a modern sailor believes possible. At this point, the rudder is practically powerless. On this 32-foot boat, it is scarcely bigger than a child's sand shovel. The gust strengthens. The huge gaff mainsail flaps violently, but the boat continues to heel, her mast closer and closer to the horizontal, the crew trying to climb straight up the now nearly vertical deck. A third of the boom is in the water. The mainsail is lying flat on the lake, like an enormous bedspread, with the leeward shroud and running backstay slicing under a full two feet. It is ridiculous to think that any boat can right herself from this angle—but the Idem does, and the moment she does, the water begins to drain out of the self-bailing cockpit through the centerboard trunk. She continues calmly toward the next puff.
In a sense, sailing history designed the Idem, and the Idem, and others like her, gave us the one-design races we hold today. There were probably informal small-boat races before history was written, but official small-boat racing as we know it began in 1895, when an Englishman challenged American yachtsmen for a shrunken version of the America's Cup. His challenge was taken up by the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club on Long Island, and a group of small yachts were designed for the occasion, the best of which was supposed to trounce the invader. It did. During the next few seasons, the most successful designer of the American boats was a young man named Clinton Crane. Since the property owners at St. Regis were men accustomed to the best of everything, it was natural for them to invite Crane to spend a month at the lake and to design a boat especially suited to it. They missed forming the country's first one-design class by a couple of seasons, since Seawanhaka was already racing a standard group of knockabouts—but, in any case, the genius of St. Regis lay not in the original idea but in its preservation.
Idem is the Latin word for "the same," and the name could scarcely be better chosen for the boats or St. Regis itself. This was and still is the lake of luxury, where men are so wealthy that they have no need to buy new toys for the sake of status. These are men who give nothing away recklessly and give nothing up needlessly.
Hunting and fishing brought their grandfathers to the weeds in the 1880s. They chartered private horse vans to lug their families and carriages and tents and rugs and trunks and wine and settled their families in clusters of tents beside the lake to escape the frippery of society life in the cities. They escaped all right. On September 29, 1883, one of the wives wrote a bit plaintively, "With the temperature at 29�, eating out-of-doors no longer seemed just the thing to enjoy." The rougher it was, however, the more the life appealed to families like the Roosevelts and Pratts. Eventually the tents were replaced by clusters of cabins—one cabin for the living room, one for the dining room and kitchen, one cabin for each child, a separate icehouse, boat-house, storehouse, a guide's cabin and so forth for each family—but that is about as plush as anyone wished. There never have been any roads at the lake. At Upper St. Regis Landing, guests still reach camp by waiting at the end of a dock until their host calls for them.