June 28 – July 4, 2019Vol. 21, No. 4

Sailing Through the Ages

Chester Thwing's iceboat is being rigged by Clayton Grant, Fred Saxton, Darryl Day, and Rod Johnson in the early 1970s.

by Rod Johnson

Probably the archeologists have a good many clues as to when early mankind powered their watercraft with a sail. Who thought of the concept is anybody's guess. Perhaps someone hung an animal skin up to dry on their rowing craft and voila, the boat moved without the oars! Maybe a brilliant young Egyptian student came up with a theory about capturing wind power. Regardless, we do know that one of the earliest depictions of a ship under sail is on an Egyptian vase dated 3500 B.C. We also know that square rigged boats with papyrus sails carried on commerce during the same period as they plied the waters of the Nile River. Our own history says the Vikings sailed to America about 1000 years ago.

The sailing vessels mentioned above were limited to sailing in a direction that the wind was going, with some minor variations. Essentially they were being pushed and any destination into the wind was not attainable. It was not until the shape of sails was changed to somewhat triangular that sailing craft were able to make significant headway into the wind with a tactic called tacking.

These sails are called "lateen" from the French latine ("Latin"), a triangular sail set on a long yard at an angle, running fore and aft. Lateen sails can be likened to an airplane wing on end and both are considered airfoils. The phenomenon of lift is created when air goes over the curved side of the airfoil causing a lower pressure than the shorter back side of the foil. Air quickly moves towards the low pressure area to equalize atmospheric pressure and thereby takes your boat or airplane with it. The lateen sails are believed to have been used by the Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean as early as the Second Century A.D., having been imported from the Egyptian (Persian) gulf. Ships fit with lateen sails became much more maneuverable and reliable (without oarsmen) both in trade and war.

Let us remember that sailing is not limited to watercraft. Our own Belgrade resident and Woodland Camps builder/owner Chester Thwing (now deceased), built and sailed an iceboat during the early to mid-20th century — right here on Great and Long Ponds. In the 1970's, Chester's gaff-rigged boat was resurrected by Clayton Grant and sailed on Long Pond. (See the photo above.) Note the location, as the Long Pond shoreline directly behind the old Manor and barn, now the Lakeside Inn.

Craft owned by members of the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club line up on Great Pond in December 2018.

More recently in the winter of 2018-2019, locals were treated to an iceboat show of a grand magnitude. Great Pond became the playground and racing course for the Chickawaukie Ice Boat Club, a Maine based group of avid iceboat sailors. Outstanding ice-boat sailing conditions prevailed for several days with plenty of black ice dusted with light snow. As the ice boats flew across the frozen plain of ice, so did photos and videos fly across the Internet. The club enjoyed themselves immensely and the activity became a spectator scene for the locals.

We see more sails on the lake now than ever, at least in my lifetime. Yes, there are many more boats in general, but it seems that sailing has more than held its own. Undoubtedly, a core group of avid sailors and some beginners that call themselves the Great Pond Yacht Club have a lot to do with this. The members have several races each summer and lots of casual sailing as well. They also sponsor a children's sailing program, available for several weeks each season. The program operates out of the Center for all Season's waterfront and information is available through the GPYC.

What a wonderful and healthy horizon when the sails are up and the wind is brisk. If you haven't been bitten by the sailing bug yet, perhaps it's time. What better way to get out on the water and enjoy a fun and challenging pastime. Carry on sailors!

Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.