03/10/2014 02:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sailing on Ice

"Our friends the Kufners have invited us to do some iceboating," my wife Sarah says. "Hurry up. Stephanie is waiting at the lawyer's office next to the bagel shop. Grab the camera because they're going to give you permission to take photos from the bridge." "Really? Great! I'm heading out the door."

The snow that fell last month over the gelid Hudson River began to melt. Then it froze again without wind to wrinkle the surface, to transform into a solid clear block -- a glacial costume that offers the best conditions for practicing boating on solid water. Sailing fans have asked the authorities who control river navigation to keep the icebreakers out of Tivoli Bay. The request was accepted, leaving a skating rink more than half a mile across. The white mirror extends to the open canal next to the Kingston side, which enables the passage of cargo ships and oil tankers traveling to Albany -- a tiny line in a massive glacier where it seems water never flowed. It looks like the North Pole. We've begun to break cold temperature records. There are not enough plumbers what with all the burst pipes -- crack crack, like the skin of roasted chestnuts, because of the freeze.

I reach the law office. Stephanie Kufner sees me through the window and gestures me to come in. "Guten morgen. This is my attorney." "Hello, nice to meet you." "Can I see your ID? Okay. I have just signed a paper that notifies that I know you and that you are an excellent person. You are nice, aren't you?" "Yes, and very clean too," I add. "You will need this piece of paper to get permission from the bridge authorities to take photos of the river from above." "Thank you" "We're off", says Stephanie.

In the middle of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge, a flag flutters, perfectly horizontal -- a good omen for sailors. An agent of the New York State Bridge Authority has driven Stephanie and me in a truck with blinking lights from the tollbooth. He parked at the curb and told us he'd wait for us in the truck until we were finished taking photographs. "No rush. Don't hurry on my account," he says, kindly. The panoramic view of the Hudson transformed into a block of ice is quite impressive.

"Hey guys!" Gerald Kufner waves his arms at us from far below. "Helloooo, Kufi!" I think I can spot Sarah, too, standing next to a bonfire that someone has lit in the middle of the river. It's so cold that the fire doesn't even make a pond beneath the firewood.

Click. Click. Click. I photograph the rhythmic, choreographed movements of ice boating. There are the catamarans, gliding like skaters on the long runners installed on their rudders. True historical relics that come out of hiding every now and then. Stephanie points them out to me. The Vixen, which belonged to John A. Roosevelt, the president's uncle. Rip Van Winkle, which still belongs to the Livingston Family. Most are over a hundred years old. Mahogany masts crowned with sails. Click. Click. Click.


Several young people skate over the iced surface, propelled by a towel that they make into a sail. The gusts of wind push them to dizzying speeds. Dozens of cars with New Jersey plates are parked on the bank. In the country's most ethnically and religiously diverse state, ice boating is widely popular. Here on the Hudson, the iceboats travel very fast. The official speed record is 72 miles per hour. However, the large old boats can reach up to 105 miles an hour if the wind is right.

I see many more boats than I expected. Some big wooden ones, measuring 30 to 50 feet, and several single-seater fiberglass catamarans. The modern ones measure 16 feet, have 10-foot masts and float well on the water, for which reason they can also be easily adapted to thin layers of ice. Their design suggests the age of the boat. The most primitive are basically a box on three runners. The side runners are nailed to the box whereas the center runner can be steered like a steering wheel with a forestay. The sail is fixed. Those built after 1853 are triangular with rigs for the main sail. The king was the Icicle, which was 69-feet-long and sported 1,070 square feet of sail. There are still a few vessels from that era, handed down from generation to generation and lovingly stored in the valley's red barns.

Gerald Kufner, also known as Kufi, motions me over to his iceboat for a spin. I help him push off the boat. We then tumble onto the padded wooden plank and head out towards the horizon. Watch out for the boom he warns me, don't even think about raising your head. What with the excitement of the moment and the concern about becoming headless like the famous Sleepy Hollow horseman, I get in a position that doesn't give me a good view of the horizon. I try to improve my view and, lo and behold, the boom smacks me in the temple. It actually just brushes against me, making my hair stand up as if I'd visited the hairdresser. We start to gain speed. The wood creaks and groans like the Columbia space shuttle taking off from Cape Canaveral. When it turns, we seem to be on a rocking horse; one of the runners lifts 3 feet off the ice. I wonder if we'll capsize. No. Gerald is an expert sailor so I'm safe with him. We reach The Jack Frost, a tropical wood beauty that belonged to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. We make a half turn. We seem to be flying. How fast are we going? Some 30 miles per hour. Only 30? I could have sworn we were going 200. We stop. It was fun. Gerald will now take out Sarah and Stephanie will photograph this historic moment.

When my wife returns, we head towards the bonfire. Someone offers us a sip from a bottle of brandy. "Chocolate chip cookie?" "No, thanks." There is all sort of food here. It looks like a Stop and Shop. More and more people join us. We are lucky enough to meet some of the nuts who love this unusual sport practiced assiduously by people born between the 45th and 50th parallel. The kind of fellows that I portrait on my book One Hundred Miles from Manhattan. The Spanish bullfighter Rafael "the rooster" said it: "It takes all kinds of people."