One enthusiast calls it a capital cure for a hangover. Shivering landsmen regard it as medicine only a masochist could swallow. But for the addicted few who at this time of year like to wrap themselves in layer upon layer of thermal underwear and race across wintry wastes of water in fragile and tippy cockleshells, there is no cocktail more bracing or stimulating than frostbite sailing. One crisp morning last February, Artist Francis Golden put on his earmuffs and watched from both shores of Long Island Sound to see what was so good about it. His artist's eye told him quickly, and on this and the following pages he has tapped some of the special tart, triple-distilled essence of wintertime's purity that puts spice and warmth into a frostbite sailor's sport
All You Need Is a Boat and a Bottle
As near as anyone can determine, frostbite dinghy racing officially became a sport on New Year's Day 1932, in Manhasset on Long Island. It was the result of a challenge hurled during a Christmas party by the late William Taylor at his longtime summer sailing rival Martin Baker. "My little Ratsey can sail circles around that dink of yours any day of the week, any week of the year, winter or summer, spring or fall," was the general gist of the argument put forward by Taylor, then yachting editor of the late New York Herald Tribune. And despite the inclement weather that threatened, it seemed only reasonable to the sailing enthusiasts present to test it at the earliest possible moment.
"It was snowing," recalls Everett Morris, who served as Taylor's crew, later succeeded him as the Trib's boating editor and is now commodore of the Frostbite Yacht Club. "But by the time we got out on the water several other dinghy owners had decided to enter the race." The winner, as it turned out, was neither Taylor nor Baker, but Sailmaker G. Colin Ratsey, who was sailing one of his own boats. This, of course, started a whole new set of arguments that had to be raced off.
Virtually ever since that day the same ardent sailormen and many more besides have spent their wintertime Sundays racing 12-foot dinghies across harbors and inlets on Long Island Sound. The sport has even spread to Chicago, to Detroit and to the bays around Boston, where three good-sized frostbite fleets conduct a chilly rivalry each winter.
This year the 36th annual regatta in Manhasset Bay drew more than 100 entries from clubs all up and down the Long Island and Connecticut shores—Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Sea Cliff, Greenwich, Riverside. "Each year," says Commodore Morris a bit wistfully, "we get a few more members, so we've had to get organized. In the old days all we needed was a boat and a bottle to keep us warm."
Nowadays there is no room for boat-proud challenges like the one hurled by Taylor. The races are all sailed in uniform one-design dinghies—though each fleet has its favorite class. They are all in the 11-to-12-foot range and carry about 72 feet of sail and a crew of two. There is generally a horde of youngsters, all bundled up in layers of clothing by fretful mothers, on hand to crew for their elders. Lightweight crews are generally the best, and one of the original frostbiters, Arthur Knapp (of America's Cup fame), has run through a family of six seeking the most efficient bulk. "When they began to get fat," says Sailorman Knapp, "I fired them and went on to the next child."
Frostbiters are not utter idiots. When the wind is blowing too hard or the waves are too high, they don't race at all. But on a good day when the breeze is brisk, regardless of temperature, they may run as many as six races around a triangular course of a half to three-quarters of a mile. Capsizes are frequent in the always tense competition, and dunkings are taken in stride. "When you hit that water, you feel your heart stop," said one recent victim of such a catastrophe. Nevertheless, says one Manhasset member who helps man the crash boats at each race, "we pull a couple of dozen out of the water every season."
The veterans feel that if you haven't been overboard at least a dozen times you aren't really sailing. Besides, nothing makes the after-race wassail taste better than explaining to those who stayed dry how it happened.