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The Strange Tale of the Ice Soar
As Told to Greg Whitehorse
Outside the windows of the South Side Ice Yacht Club, the Skeeters, Renegades and Nites were effortlessly gliding over the dark gray ice sheet. Suddenly, sailing into view came a chilling blast from the past. A huge stern-steerer, its yellow stained, canvas sails straining against the twenty mile per hour wind. Behind its sheer size, the Skeeters, Renegades and Nites disappeared for seconds at a time before appearing again on the other side.
Two, no three burly men steered and cranked and pulled, trying to tame the unruly beast. Moving in a southerly direction, its left (port? starboard?) runner gently lifts off the ice, a few feet at first, and then quickly shoots skyward. The runner plank is at an impossible angle to the ice. Surely the beast is going to capsize, but no, the three burly men continue to steer and crank and pull and the ice yacht slowly regains a more proper stance on the frozen surface. A slight change in direction to take advantage of a felt, but unseen wind shift, and the beast sailed away from view.
"Arghh... that thar be the 'Ice Soar'," came a grizzled voice from behind. Eye sore? Ice Whore? What? I wondered.
I turned around, behind me stood stout, weather beaten man, who I guessed to be in his 70's. Perhaps he was younger; decades of hard outdoor labor could age a man beyond his years. "Buy a friend a cold dipper and I'll tell you the tale of the 'Ice Soar'."
What the hell, I thought, I had time. The day's racing had finished early in the breezy conditions. Besides, at a buck a bottle a guy could afford to invest a little in a good story.
"She was built in the year 1897." he began. "Fulton Wainwright, he was big in the buggy-whip business ya know, anyhows, he hired a local cabinet maker, 'Bugs' Cooper, to cut the timbers and piece 'er together over that year. Fulton wanted the biggest, fastest, ice yacht on Winnebago."
"Well, ol' 'Bugsy' had never built any kind of ice boat before, so he just sort of made one based on what he had seen out at the lake. When she was done, I'll tell ya, she was one beautiful piece. Fast too."
Wainwright's wife, Agnes Lenore, well she wants ol' Fulton to name the boat after her. Fulton, he goes and names her 'Ice Soar'. Behind his back, folks was saying ol' Wainwright had still named the boat after his wife."
The old man started laughing so hard that beer was snortin' out of his nose. After a few seconds he regained his composure and continued his story.
" Well anyhows, for the next several years the 'Ice Soar' was a familiar site on the local ice."
"She won her share of races too. One year, around 1910, I'm supposin', she made the run to Pipe and back in a little over thirty minutes. I'll tell ya, Pipe and back in thirty minutes, that's damn near flyin'!"
'Whats a fella need to do to get a drink around here anyhow?"
Catching the subtle hint, I head to the bar, returning shortly with a couple of cold ones. After a long swig of his beer, he continued his story.
"Where was I? Oh, ya, anyhows, when it becomes apparent that Henry's Model T's had no need for a buggy-whip, Wainwright's factory, she goes belly-up. Agnes, she leaves poor Fulton. No money, no Agnes she figures."
"Wainwright, he loses everything. Everything but the 'Ice Soar that is."
The old man pauses for a few seconds. "It was about that time that the 'Ice Soar' becomes a pirate ship. Many a cold, winter nights she could be seen in the moonlight, sailing the frozen waters of Lake Winnebago."
"Wainwright and his crew, a bunch of local thugs, would sail into the towns around the lake, raiding local stores and gin mills, fightin' an' hell-raisin'."
"The folks up 'n' down the coast, they all hates the'lce Soar'. But the cops can never catch 'er."
"They make off with barrels of beer, whiskey, food an' loot. More than a few pretty girls sail off on the 'Ice Soar', mostly by choice I'm supposin'."
The old man laughs and then adds; "My throats gettin' mighty parched if you're catching my drift."
I return with a few more bottles of beer. Looking at the bottle in his large, callused hand he says, "Lite beer? I never knowed any good reason for lite beer."
"Well anyhows, it was the winter of '38, colder than a grave diggers ass, the ice was already two feet thick, and it was only December. What snow had fallen had blown off the big lake. One night she's really howlin', 45, 55, mile per hour winds gusts of 70 they say. The 'Ice Soar', she sails into Pipe just about the time the snow starts fillin'in."
"They're a tough lot, but that night they plan on just holin' up, there in Pipe. Even they can't handle the storm that's brewin. Blizzard of '38, the storm of the century, folks call it."
'Well, the boys are just settlin' into some farmer's barn, breakin' open the whiskey, guzzlin' beer, when they hear this faint screamin' outside. Just the wind howlin', they wonder? No, they can hear words. "My baby, somebody help my baby!" 0l' Wainwright, he pokes his head outside the barn door an' sees a women carryin' a large bundle. Fulton yells out, "Over here, come over here!"
'When the woman struggles over to the barn she hurriedly tells Wainwright, "My girl is sick, she needs to get to the hospital in Oshkosh!"
"Not in this storm. Nobody's goin' anywheres on this night," Wainwright tells her.
'But my little girl will die!" screams the woman. "Well, I don't know what came over ol' Wainwright right then," continues the old man. "But he turns to his crew and orders,' Prepare to set sail!'"
"Hoisting those massive sails in the seventy mile per hour wind was probably the hardest work any of those boys had ever done. Yet, somehow they manage. Wainwright, he puts the little girl in the basket next to him. Two others jump in the basket on the other side of 'Ice Soar's' back-bone, one to handle the main, the other the jib".
"Wainwright yelled out, over the howlin' wind and driving snow, "I can't see a damned thing, but I reckon she's a beam reach over to Oshkosh."
'Even in the screamin'wind it takes the boys all their effort to get the 'Ice Soar' movin'. But soon enough the mighty ice machine is gainin' speed and sailin' off, into the darkness. Well, ol' Wainwright, he figures he needs the rest of the crew to move out to the end of 'Ice Soar's' huge runnerplank to hold 'er down. Let me tell ya, it's one thing to try that in a thirty mile per hour breeze, but in pitch black, in sixty to seventy miles per hour of wind and snow, if you're out there walkin' the plank, It's a life or death deal."
"Wainwright didn't see the first fella fall off. Hell, he couldn't even see the end of the plank. But he knew that the beast was harder to control than she was before."
"Eighty, ninety, a hundred miles per hour, how would you know? The 'Ice Soar'just kept goin' faster an' faster. 0l' Fulton, he did know when the second one dropped from the boat. With the 'Ice Soar' runnin' with its plank nearly ninety degrees to the ice, the poor guy lost what little grip he had and fell. He nearly landed in Wainwright's lap. He bounced off the main sail and dropped to the ice. He was never seen again."
"Well anyhows, within minutes Wainwright figures that they're closing in on the Oshkosh shore. How? I don't know, he couldn't see a damn thing. It took all his sailin'skills to turn the ship into the wind without spinnin' 'er. But somehows he does it. And not a moment too soon, If he'd a sailed 'er in another twenty yards, he would of run 'er ashore at over a hundred miles per hour. It would of killed everyone."
"Well anyhows, they gets the little girl to the hospital, just in time to save 'er. But Wainwright knows that they still have to high-tail A outta Oshkosh. When the boys get back to the 'Ice Soar' the wind she's a blowin' at hurricane strength, gusts over a hundred miles per hour, if you can believe it! The local law enforcement is waftin' for 'em. Wainwright an' his crew fight their way back to the 'Ice Soar', with the jib in tatters, they escape, an' sail off into the blizzard."
The old man pauses. "One more beer and I could finish this story," he says.
I again head for the bar, ordering a couple of Budweisers, no lite beer this time. I tell the bartender, "that's quite the story, the 'Ice Soar, I mean."
The patrons of the bar instantly quit talking, the bartender stares icily at me. "What do you know about the 'Ice Soar'?" he demands. All eyes are on me. The room is silent. "The 'Ice Soar', you know, that old stern-steerer that I saw sailing out on the lake today. That old guy back at the table, the guy I've been feeding beer all afternoon, was telling me the story." I reply.
I turned to look back at the table we were sitting at. No one was there. Just a tabletop of empty beer bottles. The bartender leaned in close, 'We don't much talk about the 'Ice Soar' around here fella. That evil boat and her crew of pirates was lost in the storm of 1938." "But I saw it out on the..." I started. "I told you, that boat was lost in '38. That's all you, or anyone, needs to know about the 'Ice Soar'. Don't bring up its name again." With that I gave my two bottles of Bud to a couple guys sitting at the bar and turned to leave the clubhouse.
On my way out I passed a large, framed, picture of the 'A' boat, 'Debutante', hanging on the wall. I had looked over the old black and white image before, but this time, something caught my eye. In the background of the grainy photo there was another iceboat. If you looked closely you could just barely make out the name of that boat. The 'Agnes Lenore'. I put my coat on and left.
Where do you start?
I guess the beginning is always the right place.
My name is Dan Thomson. I live in Oshkosh Wisconsin, you know the place... where they make the big trucks and the bib over-alls (Oshkosh B’gosh!). I’m a cement contractor, a husband, and a father to two teenage daughters. In my spare time, amongst other things, I’m a sometime sailor of sailboats on Lake Winnebago. This story has its beginning on a hot July afternoon. Friday afternoon. The work for the week was done, the bookwork was taken care of, and next week’s jobs were all lined up. I was thumbing through the local paper, the Oshkosh Northwestern, checking out the classifieds when I spotted;
Hmmm.. A free ice boat?
A couple of years back I got to ride in a friend of a friend’s ice boat. A "Knight" I think he called it. Whatever it was, it was a blast! Anyway, a free iceboat. Free! How could you possibly go wrong on a free ice boat? Before I knew it my fingers were pushing the buttons on the phone. Ring.. ring... ring..ring..ring.... And just as I was going to hang up, "Hullo?"
Did you ever stop to think how your life can change due to what seem (at the time) to be rather insignificant things, (like a free ice boat perhaps). Or even by events that transpire within just fractions of a second?
I almost had the phone hung-up. Almost. "Hullo?"
"Hi, I’m calling about your ad in the paper. The ice boat. The free one." "Yeah, it’s here," he answered. "Can you tell me anything about it?" I asked. "Yeah, I’m giving it away to whoever gets it outta my barn. I’ll be around all day tomorrow, stop in, look it over. If you want it, you can have it." After receiving directions to his farm the brief conversation ended. Visions of me skating over the frozen waters of Lake Winnebago in my free ice boat filled my mind. Funny, the boat I envisioned looked just like the "Knight" I had ridden in a few years back.
That evening as I was telling my wife about it, my hands were dancing through the air as I described the ride in the "Knight". I told her how much fun we (emphasizing we) could have. Something to do in the winter. The kids would love it too! And, of course, playing my trump card, telling her that it was mine for the taking if I just went over to get it.
"If he’s giving it away it must not be worth anything. Maybe if you bartered with him he’d pay you to take it away" she laughed. And then adding prophetically, "You know, nothing in life is free." But finally, "I don’t care. If you want it that bad, go get it." Saturday dawned hot and already humid. The temperature was supposed to climb to near one-hundred by afternoon and humid like only July in Wisconsin can be. I went out to my truck, started it and immediately turned the air on. I was heading out the driveway when at the last second I stopped. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I backed up and drove around to the side of my garage where I kept an old utility trailer that I sometimes used for my business. I quickly hooked up to it, then ran into the garage, grabbed some rope, a few tie straps, and all the bungee cords I could readily find. After all I thought, maybe the boat was a little bigger than the one I remember sailing in. The boat was being stored in a barn near Quinney, located on Winnebago’s east side, directly across the lake from Oshkosh. After an uneventful trip I found the right road and drove to the address I was given. It was already near ninety degrees when I stepped from the cool cab of the truck. I parked near the barn but no one seemed to be around. The guy on the phone had told me that the boat was in the barn’s loft and feel free to go up and take a look if nobody was around. Nothing in the large, cluttered loft looked anything like the "Knight" that I was familiar with. Nothing in the room even looked like an ice boat to me. Finally my eye caught a huge pile of odd shaped lumber, wires, fittings, and stuff that maybe could have been it.
As I was looking it over a voice behind me said, "That thar be the Ice Soar."
And you couldn’t argue with the guy, that there was an eyesore. The odd shaped timbers stretched along the full length of the floor. A hole had even been cut in the far wall and some of the parts were sticking through it.
"How big is that thing?" I wondered aloud.
"Never measured any thing on it," the voice answered, "The room is forty feet, I guess that would make some of those parts fifty, sixty feet."
We introduced ourselves. His name was Bub Neiderman. He looked to be well into his seventies, yet hale and hearty in a rugged outdoorsy way. He told me that the boat had been laying in the barn about as long as he could remember. Bub didn’t offer up much information on it, but it seemed to me that he knew more than he was telling. "Man, I don’t know if I want to get into anything this big," I said. "It definitely needs work." "Well, like I told ya," he replied, "it’s yours for the takin’." It was obvious there wouldn’t be much taking that day. In no way were two people going to move much of that boat, the Ice Soar, or whatever he called it. But the vision in my mind was of me sailing the big lake in that big boat. "OK. I’ll take it." I loaded up what I could, runners, wires, a couple of canvas bags (that Bub told me held a couple of canvas sails), and some miscellaneous odds and ends. I made arrangements to come back later (with all the help I could round-up) and get the rest.
The next day after loading up the last of the parts, Bub asked if it was alright if he stopped in time to time to check on my progress of rebuilding the boat.
"Sure, I need all the help and advice I can get," I told him.
My wife laughed out loud when she saw the pile of ice boat I dragged home. Little did she know then just how severely her sense of humor would be put to the test in the next few months.
I don’t know how it happened, but it wasn’t long before every spare minute (along with many I couldn’t spare), was spent working on the boat. Bub would stop by once in a while, never offering much in the way of physical help, but always with free advice (that was worth every penny), or stories of the "olden days" of ice boating on Lake Winnebago. For a old guy, Bub also had a pretty powerful thirst for the Leinie’s Red’s I kept in the garage refrigerator. The free ice boat was also developing a powerful thirst, for money that is. Gallons and gallons of West epoxy glue, orders to the machine shop to replace old parts that couldn’t be fixed, new stainless wires, and lots of Sitka spruce at a gazillion dollars per board foot. And the sails, well, let’s just say sixty-five years of storage does not do wonders for sails that are a hundred years old to begin with. New sails were ordered to the tune of about four thousand dollars. One night Bub asked me what I was going to do with the Ice Soar when she was done.
"Sail it." I replied.
"Well, she was pretty fast in her day. I suspect with all the changes on her she’ll be even faster now. You oughta think about racing her." And so it came to be that the Ice Soar would not only be restored, she’d be improved and modified, and put into racing trim. Bub agreed to crew on her when the time came. As the weeks went by the old boat began to take shape. Wood parts were repaired and fresh varnish was applied. Fittings were fixed or made new. And more and more money was spent. The old oak with angle-iron runners were fine for snow covered ice, but a new set for clear, hard ice was needed. Ring up another three thousand dollars.
Bub seemed to be all but living in my garage now. As I got to know him it became apparent that he had led a rather remarkable life. He had grown up on the shores of Winnebago and had spent considerable time sailing the lake during the winters. He often talked of his friends and the great times they had on the ice. He was a Marine during World War II and had stormed the beaches of the South Pacific, including Iwo Jima, and somehow lived to tell about it. He returned to the Lake Winnebago area after the war, settling near Quinney on the eastern shore. He married, but had no children. And other than his stint in the Marines he never ventured outside Wisconsin.
"They’re all gone now," Bub said. "What’s that Bub?" I asked. "Everyone. They’re gone. My friends, my army buddies, my wife. Everyone...gone." But soon the melancholy feelings would leave and he’d be back to his old self, tellin’ stories of the good ol’ days. Before long another cold winter had settled into Wisconsin. Ice formed on the big lake and the time was approaching when the Ice Soar would set sail for the first time in nearly sixty-five years.
Sometime in late December it was decided by the Wisconsin Stern-steerer Association to hold the Hearst and Stuart Trophy races on Lake Winnebago in early January. This is where the Ice Soar would make her first race start in more than half a century.
The Ice Soar was set up in front of the South Shore Ice Yacht Club the week before the regatta, but light winds prevented any serious sailing. More importantly, I was getting precious little seat time in learning how to sail the boat.
Meanwhile, the other big A class boats were starting to arrive in town for the regatta. Crews were busy setting up defending champion Ferdinand the Bull, the Taku, the Fritz, the newly restored Flying Dutchman, Eclipse, and the only ice yacht that could rival the Ice Soar in size, the Deuce.
The first day of the regatta found the boats facing a fifteen to eighteen miles per hour wind on hard black ice. Some DN’s, Nites (as I learned the "Knight" class boats were actually named), and the lightning fast Skeeters had already held a few races when the big A’s took to the starting line. The Ice Soar proved to be a very comfortable boat to sail in the medium conditions. Bub offered up lots of what may well have been excellent advice for navigating the course, but I still made plenty of mistakes. When the checkered flag fell the Ice Soar crossed the finish line in last place.
It was during lunch, at the yacht club, when Bub and I were going over the race that some old-timer, sportin’ half a snoot-full came over to our table. "Damn the Ice Soar. I tells ya nothin’ good will come from that devil ship seein’ the light of day again. Why don’t ya stick ’er back in the barn she come from!" What the hell was that all about, I wondered?
"Don’t pay any attention to that crap," Bub snorted. "Lots of folk didn’t like the Ice Soar back in her day. Lots of people hated ol’ Wainwright too. There’s stories out there about the Ice Soar, don’t pay any mind to ‘em." The afternoon race was run in nearly the same conditions as the morning’s, with the Ice Soar recording the same finish, last place. The Bull had again rumbled to the win. It really was a better race for us, Bub and I had her running third for much of the race but the wind dropped just a bit and we couldn’t keep the ol’ gal moving fast. At the finish Eclipse was able to nip us at the line. That ended the first day of the regatta.
Later that evening Bub and I were licking our wounds, downing a few beers at the yacht club and tellin’ each other that tomorrow would be a different story. "Ya know," Bub started, "I was thirteen years old the first time I ever saw the Ice Soar. Oh, I’d heard about ’er before that, hell, everyone in these parts had heard ’bout ’er. The Ice Soar was a pirate ship. That’s what people would say anyways." There was along silence. Bub drank deep from his bottle of beer.
"I was fifteen when I sailed off with her and her crew." He continued. "Hell, we weren’t pirates. It was just Wainwright an’ a bunch of kids out tryin’ to have a good time. Trouble always managed to find us. We couldn’t leave a bar without a fight it seemed, and lots of pretty girls seemed to like us. That didn’t sit well with the locals. But we weren’t no pirates, I tell ya. We weren’t no pirates," he trailed off. "Bub, you’re drunk. Let’s go home." Sunday dawned gray, cold, and windy. Twenty-five to thirty with gusts. A storm was getting set to move in.
It was difficult to hoist the massive sails in the gusting conditions, but soon all the big A’s were ready to go. The Race Committee decided to try and complete the third race, three being needed to call the regatta complete. It was hard to get this many A boats together and with a storm moving in this just might be the last chance for the year.
Bub suggested that we recruit another crew member, for ballast if nothing else. It didn’t take us long to round up another guy. Tommy Jones, a local DN racer, volunteered for duty. Brave kid. When the flag dropped to start the race it was in a thirty-five miles per hour blow and the snow was starting to fall.
The personality of the Ice Soar changed completely in the heavy conditions, comfortable was the last word I’d use to describe her now.
The other big, big boat, the Deuce really came alive in the howling wind, and the Bull was as fast as ever.
But the Ice Soar was right there with them. While I steered Bub and Tommy cranked and yanked ropes to control the sails.
We rounded third after the first lap but then quickly caught and passed the Deuce to take second. The Bull was next in our sights and we were reeling him in fast. By the time we reached the weather mark the Bull was just a few yards in front of us. The snow was blinding and the wind had built.
"Ease the main Bub!" I yelled as we prepared to round the mark.
In front of us the Bull’s windward runner shot up to the sky. Somehow the skipper managed to bring it back down. "Ease the main!" I screamed.
The Ice Soar’s runner began to lift off the ice, and yet Bub was cranking the sail tighter and tighter. The runner was soon at an impossible angle to the ice. The snow had cut the vision down to a few feet. Right before he fell off Tommy looked back. He didn’t have time to say anything, his frightened expression said it all. The Ice Soar was starting to spin and I felt myself losing what little grip I had on her. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. My helmeted head hit the ice hard and it hurt like hell. I looked up in time to see ol’ Bub, who had somehow managed to stay aboard, sail away into a wall of snow and then disappear. When I was able to stand I began to call out Tommy’s name. "Over here," He answered.
After reaching him I said, "let’s get outta here. There’s more boats out there, we don’t want to get hit by one!" As we began to walk away we could hear another boat approaching above the noise of the wind.
"Stand still. Don’t walk into it!" From out of the blinding snow she came. It wasn’t the Deuce, or the Fritz, or any of the other boats in the race. Sailing through the snow, less than fifty feet away was the Ice Soar!
I swear, there were eight or nine guys on it, some in the baskets, others at the end of the plank, hanging on to the wires. I think Bub waved as they sailed by, before they disappeared into the blizzard.
I never saw the Ice Soar or Bub Neiderman again. In late February a small article appeared in the back pages of the Appleton Post-Crescent, It noted that several ice fishermen reported seeing a large ice boat sailing late at night. They were afraid the boat wouldn’t see their shanties and run into them. Police investigated but nothing came of it. A few weeks later while I was working in my garage, I opened the ’fridge to get a beer. A new case of Leinie’s Red was sitting in there, a note taped to the top of the cardboard box;
The Ice Soar is in good hands.
Look for us some moonlit night near the shores of Oshkosh . The boys like what ya did with their boat. - Bub
P.S. Thanks for the beer
Worst ice boat way faster than best ice shanty.
No boring fishing regattas.
Good looking girls won't walk a mile out on to a frozen lake to take a picture of a Beaver Dam tip-up.
Three words: Attention! Attention! Attention!
Ice boaters don't worry about mercury poisoning
Only "suggested" that ice boats be off the lake by March 15th
Generally no reason to be totally 'faced by nine in the morning
High level of concentration needed to stare endlessly into hole in the ice not required in ice boating
Can tell wife "three sheets to the wind" is a sailing term
AND THE NUMBER ONE REASON ICE
BOATING IS COOLER THAN ICE FISHING:
NO FISH GUTS!!!
TOP TEN REASONS
WHY ICE FISHING IS COOLER THAN ICE BOATING
(WITH APOLOGIES TO LETTERMAN.)
They say turn-a-bout is fair play. With that in mind I looked long and hard to find ten reasons why ice fishing is cooler than ice boating.
Doesn't matter when you travel 1000 miles and find 12 inches of fresh snow on what the day before was glare ice.
Hard to attach satellite dish and TV to ice boat for watching Packer game.
Fishing equipment stores neatly in plastic bucket in comer of garage during off-season.
No one shouting "Attention, Attention, Attention" thru a bull-horn at you.
Way easier to talk wife into spending $30 on new tip-ups than $30,000 on new Skeeter
One word: PERCH-R-REE!!!
When ice goes out, can still fish.
Get to wear stylish camouflaged green snow-suit to sneak up on unsuspecting crappies
Beer not shaken up by 100 mph ride across rough ice.
AND THE NUMBER ONE REASON ICE FISHING IS
COOLER THAN ICE BOATING:
TIP-UPS WAY EASIER TO SET UP THAN A SKEETER SPAR!!!