Many South Fork residents rejoiced in the spring-like warmth last weekend, washing cars, taking hikes on the beach or even playing golf. Any impact of climate change that lurks over the horizon of topography and time aside, a second straight record-breaking warm winter is drawing few complaints from most. There are a few, however, who slump their shoulders and hang their heads in dejection at what has apparently become a pattern of increasingly scattered “hard” winters.
For Water Mill farmer Thomas Halsey, the winter of 2016-17 is in line to be the first in his more than 70 years that he will not have sailed his iceboat on Mecox Bay.
Yes, there have always been warm winters, and in some of those years nobody in his right mind would have risked a frigid dunking by scooting an iceboat across a narrow fringe of slush ice piled against a Mecox shoreline. But with a pile of guts, a heaping of skill and a dash of foolhardiness, Mr. Halsey always has been able to snatch an opportunity from Mother Nature.
Not this year.
“Iceboating is an on-again, off-again sport,” said Mr. Halsey, who used to trailer his 12-foot DN class iceboat around the country to competitions. “But it has been difficult for several years now.
“My dad, in his diary, seemed to talk about the boats on the pond every year. When the [Mecox Bay Ice Yacht Club] was established in the 1930s, the boats were huge, and you didn’t put them on unless there was a lot of ice. And in those days they put them on in the end of December and didn’t take them off until it was time to put the sweet potatoes in the ground.”
The minutes of the Mecox Bay Ice Yacht Club logbook, which Mr. Halsey keeps in his office, start in the 1940s and offer the best chart of the icing over of Mecox Bay, he says. “When there’s ice, there’s lot of minutes, he said. “When there’s no minutes—well, then there couldn’t have been a whole lot going on.”
There are entries, and logs of the membership, for most years. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there are minutes of club meetings and long lists of members logged year after year. Here and there are gaps of one year, sometimes two years, between entries—the longest is from 1950 to 1953—followed by long stretches of active years.
During a stretch from 1976 to 1991, there is clear evidence that iceboating was a well-attended event every single winter, and the club boasted membership of 30 sailors or more. Since 1999, however, there have only been two entries, one in 2007 and one in 2015. While there were years when the pond did freeze and people did sail in those unrepresented years, the opportunities were apparently not frequent or long-lasting enough to have roused the camaraderie of the club to muster an official recording.
Old records show the pond typically frozen over by Christmastime, when the sun is low in the sky and a skim of ice can quickly thicken even on a sunny day. But as the decades have worn on, veterans say, the first freeze has come later and later in the year, now typically not until mid-January or later. A cold snap can still freeze the bay, but with the sun already climbing higher in the sky, it thickens more slowly, and even a relatively brief warming spell can open gaps of water.
Old-guard iceboaters like Mr. Halsey see that wintertime conditions have become less ideal for iceboating, and coupled with other changes in the community, the generational fabric that once drew new devotees to the sport has become threadbare.
What used to be a broadly embraced local pastime that drew hundreds of family members to the bay’s shoreline in winter—with hot dog cookouts, and Thermoses of hot chocolate, and children ice skating between iceboats parked in colorful squadrons—is now a quiet gaggle even when conditions do allow.
“There’s definitely a generation gap,” said Chip Maran, a 40-year-old Hampton Bays resident who grew up just yards from Mecox Bay. “It was a big community thing when I was a kid. Now, it’s so long between [good winters], it takes a while. If you get two or three weekends of ice, the word gets out, and people start coming out of the woodwork.”
Mr. Maran said his daughter and a handful of other young members of the community are “into it” but acknowledged that the few opportunities for them to participate are not conducive to anchoring it in their winter plans.
Fewer people working as farmers and baymen in the community also means fewer people with stretches of downtime in winter that allow them to take advantage of fleeting iceboating opportunities on Mother Nature’s schedule, rather than an employer’s.
There are good years, of course. The bitterly cold winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15 saw long stretches of weeks where Mecox Bay was frozen solid, lasting well into late March 2015. In those years, boats sat set up on the ice and were left there for days at a time. Kids and families came down on weekends.
But what used to be 20 or 30 boats, or many more, if sailors from elsewhere came for a regatta, is down to barely a dozen. The number of young people on the ice, setting up their own boats like their moms and dads had done, is few.
There are exceptions, of course, the most shining example of which is Mr. Halsey’s 29-year-old protege, Chris Miller of Sag Harbor, who built his own iceboat while still in his teens and has embraced the sport to the extent that his winters take him traveling the East Coast and Midwest in search of frozen water in years when none materializes on the South Fork.
Even he, however, acknowledges that the sport’s labors and contracting windows of opportunity are stifling its popularity.
“It’s difficult—there’s a lot to it, with hauling the boats down and setting them up. It’s not something where you can just pick up and go if you’ve got a couple hours one Saturday,” Mr. Miller said. “There’s definitely something happening with the climate that it could be two, three years between getting sailable ice on Long Island. The sport has changed in that regard—if you want to sail, you have to travel now.”
Mr. Maran, pulling a canvas tarp off his old Yankee-class iceboat, one capable of speeds near 80 mph on “good ice,” said that those who love the sport are frustrated by the stretches of inactivity, watching their boats gather dust.
“We’ve just all got them sitting in the barn,” he sighed. “We call it the Mecox Bay Mothball Fleet.”