On the first day
of the year a little-known event was commemorated in the small New York
commuter suburb of Port Washington on Long Island. The past commodores of the
Frostbite Yacht Club gathered on the bracing morn after New Year's Eve to
celebrate the anniversary of winter dinghy racing. Frostbiting was born on
Manhasset Bay on Jan. 1, 1932, and since then some of the country's best
sailors have tacked, jibed and, occasionally, taken an icy bath there and in a
hundred other protected harbors and coves on the East Coast.
The brainchild of
the old New York Herald Tribune's Bill Taylor and a group of his cronies, as
the story goes, the first day's racing was a lark, a journalistic invention
that netted a two-column splash in the Trib's sports pages. Taylor, who was on
full-time duty at the yachting desk during the summer season, had received a
winter transfer to the city desk, where he found landlubber news less than
totally rewarding. Why not create a winter sailing story? Some of the finest
sailors of the time competed in that first race, and so the sport was
Arthur Knapp Jr.,
the world-famous sailor and author, was there on Day One, and this year, his
68th, he competed for the 40th time on Manhasset Bay in the Commodores' Trophy
Race, placing fourth. "You know," he says, "it burns some guys up
that they weren't there on the first day. Corny Shields, Jim Moore, Jack
Sutphen—they came the next weekend, and after that it just seemed to catch on.
It wasn't a lark anymore, it was serious competition."
That first year,
George Colin Ratsey of the international sailmaking firm of Ratsey &
Lapthorn won the event. Several different kinds of boats were used but they
quickly evolved into a design that became the enduring vehicle of the aquatic
polar sport. The plumb bows and high protective freeboards remain to this day,
several evolutions later, to knife through the winter chop and protect skipper
and crew from the freezing spray.
In 1946 the
design expertise of Olin Stephens was brought to focus on frostbiting by
Cornelius Shields, resulting in a dinghy called the Interclub. It had a length
of 11'6", a sail area of 72 square feet. About a hundred were built at that
time and introduced across the Sound to Shields' Larchmont Yacht Club, where
the Interclub has stood the test of time.
retired from active racing and Sutphen and Knapp are in semi-retirement, but
the frostbite game has spread up and down the East Coast. Long Island, New
Jersey, the Chesapeake and Marblehead rival Larchmont as centers of frostbite
racing. The Penguin class, an internationally promoted dinghy designed by Phil
Rhodes in 1939 for easy home construction (it, too, is 11'6" long with 72
square feet of sail), has surpassed the Interclub and all other frostbite
dinghies, with more than 10,000 built. Dyer dinghies (eight, nine and 10 feet),
Blue Jays, Lasers, 420s, Flying Juniors, Larks, Lehman 10s and 12s—these are
just a few of the classes in the frostbite sailor's world.
But if the wheel
of the sport has grown, encompassing a band of northern latitudes below the
solid-water iceboating of the frozen Far North and above climates where
year-round sailing is possible, the hub continues to be the western end of Long
Island Sound, where the Larchmont club is in command. And in the driver's seat
at Larchmont is David Smalley, 39, the leader of a rising new generation of
Manhattan corporate lawyer who spends many weekends in Larchmont, won the club
championship the last two years and leads 40 competitors again this season.
The tall and
lanky skipper is a former national champion in the 420 class (a 14-foot sloop
with a world population of more than 20,000). He has sailed an Interclub dinghy
for 12 years.
"The cold? I
don't get cold," he says. "I can't sail well with gloves on, and I
don't wear boots anymore. It actually doesn't get that cold out on the water.
And you dress for it.