Historicist: Sailing Faster Than the Wind

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Historicist: Sailing Faster Than the Wind

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Photo of iceboating on Toronto Bay by John Boyd Sr., December 30, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 19456.


For as long as Toronto has been settled, Lake Ontario has been a source of winter recreation. As soon as the ice closed in, the harbour became crowded with skaters, sleighs bounding across the drifts, people curling, and men cultivating ice for shopkeepers’ iceboxes. And local thrill-seekers—to paraphrase marine historian C.H.J. Snider—skimmed and swooped across the bay in iceboats.
From at least 1824, when Isaac Columbus set up a shop at Duke and Sherbourne and began advertising his ability to, among other things, repair “the irons of an iceboat,” the sport flourished in Toronto. For over one hundred years, Snider writes in his Toronto Telegram column of February 21, 1948, “[t]he glistening varnished bodies, black-enamelled skates, gleaming white sails and many-coloured flags flying from the stays and yards was an unforgettable sight against the blue ice and dazzling snow.”


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Photo of iceboating on Toronto Bay by James Salmon, n.d. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1243.

Torontonians, especially Islanders, took to the sport with zeal. By the 1840s, the iceboat design had evolved—from the earliest versions in seventeenth-century Holland that simply affixed a triangular frame holding skate blades to the bottom of a small sailing vessel—to become purpose-built craft with specially made runners. Toronto’s innate design conservatism, John Summers argues in Material History Review (Vol. 35: Spring 1992), meant that innovations devised elsewhere were not introduced here until the 1940s. While the Toronto type of iceboat was simple enough that many enthusiasts built their own, others could enlist prominent local builders of iceboats (and other watercraft) such as Edward Durnan, whose boathouse was on the Island, and the Walter Dean Canoe & Boat Company, which had a showroom at the foot of York Street.
As ice closed in the harbour each winter, these enthusiasts hauled the disassembled parts of the iceboats—the cockpit, bowsprit, runner plank, and rigging—to the lakeshore. Reassembly was a heavy-duty task. So, once completed, the iceboats would be left on the ice all winter long, with sails rolled up, runners held stationary by wooden planks, and the cockpit covered by canvas. Although the tiller would be removed and taken home to deter joy-riders, the boats were still sometimes found by their owners abandoned in far corners of the bay.
“[I]f speed alone be the cause of excitement,” Dixon Kemp wrote in the influential Manual of Yacht and Boat Sailing, “[f]ascinating pastimes like yacht and boat sailing ought to sink into insignificance when compared with the fascinations of ice yachting.” Because of the effect of apparent wind, iceboats were able to sail faster than the true wind (the Comet was clocked at one hundred kilometres an hour in a 1911 contest with a champion motorcyclist).

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Photo of iceboating on Toronto Bay by John Boyd Sr., January 25, 1927. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 2039.


It was inevitable that the city’s sportsmen would turn to staging races. Starting before a cheering throng at the foot of Bay Street, races under the auspices of the Toronto Rowing Club and the Toronto Iceboat Association followed numerous circuits of the harbour over a triangular course, often for a distance totalling ten to twenty-five kilometres.
To keep the iceboat from upsetting at such a dizzying speed, one or two of the iceboat crew would ride the running board of the windward skate. Then, in turning around a buoy, these crew members shifted to the other side. A “hazardous feat” to be sure, as Snider notes, and “men were frequently thrown” to the ice.
Racing success brought cash prizes—as much as twenty dollars for a first-place finish in 1872—a silver iceboating cup donated by the proprietor of the Island’s Parkinson Hotel, and public adulation via the frequent race reports carried in the press of the day.
On a typical winter’s day by the early twentieth century, as many as fifty iceboats—with names like Snowbird, Silver Heels, Frost, and Ice Witch—were parked on the ice at the foot of Bay Street. Durnan and other entrepreneurs enticed passersby to take a pleasure cruise on an iceboat, which could carry a dozen or more passengers who laid on cushions in the cockpit in an effort to keep out of the wind.

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Photo of iceboating on Toronto Bay by William James, 1900-1920. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 443B.


Although there were no strict traffic rules, there were remarkably few accidents as fleets of iceboats glided around dense crowds of ice-skaters and spectators on their way back to narrow slips. In the days before year-round ferry service, the iceboats were an essential lifeline for residents of the Toronto Islands. The commercial fleets ferried passengers to work or to the shops downtown—and some children had mini-iceboats of their own to get to school. Snider even recounts that a Doctor Sheard was known to use an iceboat to quickly minister to his island-based patients. The Harbour Commission’s Life Saving and Police Patrol employed iceboats equipped with lifebuoys, although Summers notes that officials admitted that “under certain conditions [the iceboat was] of little or no assistance in actual lifesaving work.”
In addition to the blistering cold, the sport had other hazards. “Slush holes,” where drifting snow masking soft spots in the ice and deep snow drifts could topple, even wreck, an iceboat and toss its passengers across the landscape­. “We often got dumped,” Clonie Jones remembered of iceboating with her family in the 1920s. “We rolled out several times.” Evergreen trees, pock-marking the frozen lake, were frequently used to mark dangerous areas.

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Photo of group of iceboating vessels by John Boyd Sr., February 21, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 393, Item 730.


The Toronto Harbour Commission, a five-man committee set up by the city and federal government in 1911, was tasked with modernizing the harbour to accommodate the largest commercial ships. Among the wide array of improvements undertaken, the Western Gap, the narrow western entrance to the harbour long unpopular with larger ships because it was difficult to keep dredged to an adequate depth, was altered. A new channel was dredged just to the south (and the old gap was filled in). As a result of the shifting currents caused by these changes, along with the increasing necessity for grain-storage ships to shift from slip to slip in the winter months, ice no longer formed as regularly or as thickly as before. Later, the introduction of ice-breaking tugs, like the Ned Hanlon (now encamped on the Exhibition Grounds at the old home of the Marine Museum of Upper Canada) and the fireboat Rouille (which could provide ferry service to islanders in the worst of winter conditions), disrupted iceboating by breaking up any remaining ice and undercutting the necessity of iceboats as passenger vessels.
At least one iceboating enthusiast attempted to sue the federal government for having, through the Harbour Commission, “deliberately destroyed Toronto’s finest pastime.” But artist William Buckland’s suit was refused. And, whenever he crossed paths with a politician for the rest of this life, according to Snider, “he would shake the umbrella, which he constantly carried, in the face of that unhappy gentleman and storm: ‘I see we still have no iceboating on the Bay, so I presume, sir, you are still in the hire of the poolrooms.'”
A few iceboaters persisted in sailing on the smaller island lagoons, but the majority dispersed to Lake Simcoe and points beyond. The sport enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1941, when thirty-eight-centimetre-thick ice allowed the staging of full-scale races on the harbour to raise money for the British War Victims’ Fund. Ambition that season that the city might host international ice-yacht races, Summers notes, was publicly expressed but came to naught. And, after more than a hundred years as a popular winter activity in the city, iceboating faded into memory.
Additional source consulted: Toronto Harbour: The Passing Years (Toronto Harbour Commission, Public Affairs Department, 1985).

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