Back to: Index of Skating(1892)
Transcribed from SKATING, page 198 at Open Library




St Ives

RAPID motion is pleasant to most of us. Dr. Johnson expressed an opinion that 'riding in a post-chaise was a true source of happiness' (presumably on account of its speed); although time may not be an object, we generally prefer a 'Hansom' to the more tedious 'growler,' the 'Flying Scotchman ' to the Parliamentary train. The cyclist must admit that record-breaking is a factor in his ambition to attain high speed, but his pulse will quicken as mile-stone after mile-stone is passed, while he guides his ' Safety ' or his ' Roadster ' on the high road; and I need not comment on the ecstasy experienced by the rider who has allowed a free-going horse to extend himself on the flat or across country. But these methods of obtaining rapid locomotion are dependent on mechanical agencies or something beyond our own physical force, and it is perhaps the consciousness of self-reliance that causes the sensuous joy of a straight-away run of ten miles or so on ice to rival the pleasurable excitement engendered by any other form of exercise.

As my chapters will treat of speed-skating only, it is as idle to contrast the indescribable charm derived therefrom with the more varied and subtle refinements of figure-skating as to compare the manege with the racecourse, the cinder-path with the ball-room; so if I record instances of jealous contempt which have emanated from enthusiastic exponents of straight-away skating, I do so, not with a view of showing sympathy with a partisan, but to illustrate the quaint humour which may occasionally be found in the expressions of the unlettered athletes of the Fen-country. ' Omne ignotum pro magnifico ' is an aphorism inapplicable to the speed- skater who after watching a 'combined figure' threw some coppers on the ice, thinking that no one could make such an exhibition of himself except as a means of earning a precarious livelihood. The withering sarcasm which accompanied the remark, 'Sarve him right,' when an accomplished skater fell in the course of a Pennsylvanian grape-vine, was honest if rude; and the champion who, after gazing for the first time in his life at the performance of a reverse Q, turned on his heels with a shrug of his shoulders and curl of his lip, muttering ' Hm ! 'custom'd to ponds and such loike,' showed that many things besides play acting are 'caviare to the general.'

Speed may be termed the resultant of skill, strength, and endurance, whose influence, though constant, is subtle and intricate; a few general reflections on this subject may be found interesting. The flight of birds may be dismissed as an object of our envy and admiration, but also of our despair. The swift is said to be able to attain the speed of a mile in less than twenty seconds; a pigeon has been known to have accomplished twenty-three miles in eleven minutes; the eiderduck when really under way is almost as speedy; a falcon belonging to Henri IV. of France flew from Fontainebleau to Malta, a distance of 1,350 miles, in twenty-four hours; and other 'couriers of the air' are recorded to have traversed 2,000 miles without rest. Such feats as these are wholly beyond the wildest dreams of humanity. Of quadrupeds, the cheetah (Felis jubata), or the black buck (Antilope cervicapra) may be cited as the fleetest for a short distance. Our interests in the subject will be especially aroused when we attempt to compare the achievements of the rider, the cyclist, and the skater. We may be certain that the best horse of his year, assuming him, of course, to be a stayer, would leave the skater or the cyclist hopelessly beaten over any course from one to five miles in length, and when we remember that fifty miles have been traversed by a cyclist in little more than two hours and a half, 100 miles in less than five hours and a half, more than 300 miles in twenty-four hours, we may be equally sure that mechanical skill has equipped the exponents of that art with an instrument which has enabled them to sustain exertion for protracted periods without fear of rivalry or even comparison. Implicit reliance can at no time be placed in calculations which are based on published 'records,' as these are broken year after year I might almost say month after month but I have endeavoured to arrive at an approximate estimate of the relative speed of these agencies. If we take 1 as the coefficient of speed of a racehorse for one mile, we shall find that 1.3 will very nearly represent that of the trotting-horse, 1.4 that of the cyclist, 1.6 that of the skater. We shall find that at the end of five miles the racehorse still has a com- manding lead, but that the cyclist has overtaken the trotter, an analysis of records giving 7.75 to the former, 7.8 to the latter, and 9.75 to the skater. At the end of ten miles the cyclist will have increased his lead, his figure being 16, against 16.43 of the trotter, 22 of the skater. When twenty miles have been accomplished 32.25 will represent the performance of the cyclist, 35.03 that of the trotter, 44.47 that of the skater, while at the end of fifty miles the skater will be found to have gained considerably with regard to the horse, the cyclist to have shown 'a clean pair of heels' to both; the figures of merit being cyclist 90, trotter 141.4, skater 152.16.

I used the words 'approximate estimate' advisedly, for this analysis of records can scarcely be said to be a fair test of the greatest attainable speed of the skater as compared with that of the cyclist. The latter knows exactly on what day he will run, he can by previous training and practice on the same course with the same machine develop his physical powers to their fullest extent, and he can also undergo that mental preparation which will enable him to know how he can expend his strength to the last ounce without overstraining it. His races are run on a track which is as perfect as human skill can make it, and in a temperature more favourable to exertion than that which may be expected during the prevalence of severe frost.

It is not easy to form a true estimate of the influence of atmospheric conditions on the staying powers of an athlete, but no physiologist will deny that it is considerable. Sustained exertion involves waste of tissue; this is why people get tired. Waste of tissue means combustion of 'organic matter', energy being converted into heat; this is why people get hot. Combustion is synonymous with oxidation, and the lungs can only supply a limited amount of oxygen; this is why people get out of breath. At a temperature of 30 the radiation of heat from the body is greater than it would be at a temperature of 60, therefore more oxygen is required to keep up the normal temperature of the body in a cold than in a warm atmosphere, and a less amount is available to compensate for the waste of tissue caused by exertion.

On the other hand, although the skater may have attained the best possible 'condition' after a course of walking, running, or rowing exercise, his muscles will have had insufficient preparation for the unwonted exertion they will be called on to undergo, and the mental training which alone will teach him when strength should be husbanded, when supreme efforts should be made, cannot but have been imperfect. Skating races are generally run in the afternoon, when the ice is perceptibly softer than it is in the early morning, and upon a track seldom uniform in character throughout, frequently cut up by previous skaters, and often intersected by cracks, which preclude the skater from concentrating his attention on speed, and speed only. Moreover, the races in which the fastest men have competed are almost invariably run either on an oval track, or on a course involving one or more 'right-about' turns. The increase of friction and the unavoidable loss of rhythmic swing in the former of these, and in the latter the loss of speed in turning and the tax on strength in starting after the turn, make the achievement of really good times impossible.

The question may be asked, 'If rapid motion is an element of enjoyment, why should skaters hasten to Holland or the Fens, while a straight course of a mile or more may be obtained on the reservoir at Hendon, within a few miles from the metropolis?' The difficulty of answering this question shows that something more than skating at speed on a track is required for the consummation of the pleasure. Perhaps the ever-varying condition of the ice, a succession of new scenes and objects, the wish to have

Something attempted, something done,
and a feeling analogous to the 'cacoethes scandendi' of the Alpine climber, invest with some romance the anticipation and reminiscences of a day's journey over a frozen highway.

If the achievement of a long run is a sine qua non, the skater must go to Canada, or to the United States, where, before the first heavy fall of snow, the frozen rivers offer facilities that are not met with elsewhere. Elaine, in his ' Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports,' records the accomplishment in one day of a journey on the St. Lawrence from Quebec to Montreal -145 miles- by an English officer. Mr. J. F. Donoghue told me that he and two friends skated on the Hudson from Newburgh to Albany, a distance of ninety miles, in about five hours, after having run in the morning of the same day to Poughkeepsie and back, making in all a journey of 122 miles. Mr. Montgomery, the Hon. Secretary of the American Skating Association, has made expeditions of phenomenal length. These feats are perhaps less marvellous than they appear to be at first sight; for they were for the most part accomplished on an uninterrupted course over good ice, and with 'a wind that follows fast,' but they are scarcely possible in any part of Europe.

At rare intervals the lakes in Cumberland and Westmoreland, Scotland and Wales, have offered a glorious arena for speed-skating, and a panorama of surpassing beauty; but frequent snow, and the great depth of the water, have been found to be prejudicial to pleasant and safe skating. The surface of Windermere was not frozen over in the course of this severe and protracted winter, 1890-91, although many of the smaller lakes pre-eminently Rydal Water were covered with ice of the best possible quality.

The Norfolk Broads, the reservoirs and artificial lakes in England are frequently available, but these scarcely meet the requirements of the traveller; and a continuous run is seldom to be accomplished on English rivers, or even our canals. The superintendents of these water-ways endeavour to keep a course open for traffic; and, as long as it is possible to do so, send men furnished with poles in a barge along the canal. These men tilt to each side of the track the fragments of ice ploughed up by the transit of the barge, and relegate to the dim and distant future the prospects of good ice.

Anticipation of a good day's skating is more likely to be realised by a visit to the Great Level of the Fens, an area of about 1,300 square miles, traversed by four considerable rivers -the Witham, the Welland, the Nene and the Ouse- and intersected throughout with water-ways, some used for draining, some for navigation, which freeze rapidly, and are easy of access. Holme, Peterborough, Boston, Spalding, or Lincoln, on the Great Northern Railway; Cambridge, St. Ives, March, Ely, or Wisbech, on the Great Eastern, are convenient starting points, and anyone who has provided himself with a good pair of running-skates, a spare strap and a gimlet, may promise himself a good day's sport from any one of these places. The country is rich in historical associations, the manners and customs of the indigenes will interest the traveller, while the cathedrals of Peterborough, Ely, and Lincoln, the University of Cambridge, the church at Boston, and the Abbeys of Croyland and Thorney, claim the attention of the archaeologist and the lover of architectural beauty.

If the ice is in good condition, a strong skater will cover ten miles per hour, including incidental delays, without fatigue, and excursions of from fifty to sixty miles in length have over and over again been made. The longest out-and-home run that has been recorded in England was that of Mr. C. G. Tebbutt, who, with his three brothers, Louis, Sidney, and Arnold, skated from Earith to Wisbech and back, a distance of 73.25 miles, in 9.5 hours. I have not heard of any other excursion that exceeded in length a trip that I and two other Cambridge undergraduates made in the winter of 1854, from our University along the river Cam to its junction near Ely with the Old West River, and on that water-way to Earith and St. Ives. There we had luncheon and skated back to Cambridge, traversing 67.5 miles between breakfast and dinner. In the same winter Mr. L. Ewbank, of Clare College, skated from St. Ives to Denver and back, a distance of more than 60 miles.

In this winter 1890-91 two sons of Mr. William Turnill, a Huntingdonshire farmer, skated from Holme Station, via Benwick, March, and Upwell, to Wisbech, witnessed four races, and returned to their home at Sawtry, taking off their skates at the upper end of Monk's Lode. A good day's work, for the time occupied, including halts, was ten hours, and the distance by measurement 66 miles; they must, however, have traversed more in the course of the day, and an inch of snow and much cat-ice impeded their progress between Upwell and Wisbech, and back ten or twelve miles and an adverse breeze retarded the journey homewards in the afternoon of the same day. These feats are by no means remarkable, and longer runs might be perhaps may have been accomplished : but winter days are short; a few miles of bad ice, which may be en- countered when least expected, will cause not only delay but fatigue; stoppages at mills, locks, and sluices occur at provokingly frequent intervals, and a moderate breeze will retard the progress of even the strongest skater. It may be doubted if the accomplishment of a longer run than has been hitherto achieved would compensate the record-breaker for many disappointments, and the conversion of a pleasure into a toil, so I think that the encouragement of such aims is less interesting than a brief description of expeditions I have recently made, which for beauty of scenery, variety of incident, and facility of execution can scarcely be rivalled.

Huntingdonshire cannot be classed among the counties of England pre-eminently remarkable for beauty of scenery, but that it has a charm of its own would be admitted by any skater who had started with me on December 26, 1890, from Huntingdon and run on the river Ouse past the pretty village of Hartford the Mills at Houghton and Hemingford, to the quaint old bridge and many-gabled houses at St. Ives. Several consecutive nights of hoar frost had covered every leaf, every twig, every blade of grass, even every spider's web, with a coat of rime; the fields were covered with snow, and the white garb of nature enriched by contrast the colours of the mills, churches, thatched cottages, and other objects of man's handiwork. The ice was strong enough to bear a loaded waggon in some places, unsafe in some, very dangerous in others, and we gave and received information from the many friends we encountered on the ice. Here was Mr. Donoghue with his hands clasped behind his back, gliding with the ease and grace that char- acterise his movements on ice, there an athlete or two from the Fens about to run in a local race, and members of the rival teams of St. Ives and Bury Fen who were to compete for supremacy at Bandy in the course of the afternoon; with all these we exchanged friendly greetings> Below St. Ives staunch the Ouse presented a novel appearance. The river hei;e is clear and shallow, but the current is rapid, and for a mile or more the mid-stream was open water, but on each side of these 'wakes' (l) was a strip of strong ice varying in width from four or five yards to as many feet, often sloping at a perceptible angle from the bank to the water, often broken by cat-ice, cracks, and rushes, but affording a means of transit perfectly safe, and both easier and quicker than walking on the towing- path. Then followed a glorious run past Bluntisham Ferry to Earith; a chat with a local veteran at a river-side public- house, who spun yarns of 'how he runned agen Jonathan Sharman forty year ago come new-year's day,' and an after- noon's homeward spin, rendered easier by familiarity with the obstacles overcome in the morning.

1 A local word meaning open water in a frozen stream.

An excellent day's skating may occasionally be obtained within easy reach of the metropolis on the canal which connects Woking with Basingstoke. Frequent locks at Brookwood and Bisley cause many stoppages between Woking and Frimley, but anyone who puts on his skates at North Camp 'flash'(2), within a stone's throw of the North Camp Station, on the South-Western Railway, will find a run of at least ten miles interrupted only by one lock - at Aldershot. The scenery is varied and beautiful in its way, and is better seen from a canal constructed at an elevation above the surrounding country than from a river or an artificial drain which necessarily traverses the lowest levels. The banks clothed with heather, gorse, and fern, Caesar's Camp and the Fox Hills breaking the horizon, the tall dark pines of Pystock Wood overhanging the ice, the 'flashes,' or reservoirs, fringed with drooping reeds and forming a resting-place for many a worn-out and half-submerged barge, and the picturesque bridge and farmhouse at Crookham, present features which appeal to the heart of an artist, rarely to be met with in the interminably straight water-ways of the Fens. Between Odiham and Basingstoke the canal passes through a tunnel, necessitating the removal of skates and a walk of some distance; but when the frost has been severe enough to make the ice safe beneath the many bridges which span the canal, there is no better course to be found within a thirty-miles radius from London.

2 A local word signifying a lake adjoining the canal.

The reminiscences of such excursions as these, pleasant although they may be, are less varied and less interesting than those of a visit to Holland in time of frost. In January of this year 1891 the present writer, his son, and 'our artist,' accompanied by a young Dutch acquaintance, put on skates at the Central Railway Station, Amsterdam, on the broad surface of the Y. Hundreds of ice-bound vessels, every conceivable variety of sledge drawn by horses, skaters, or dogs, a regiment of Dutch soldiers rifle in hand returning homewards, dismissed from an ice parade, two sturdy boys with skates on their feet having an honest stand-up fight with fists, an angler whose rod and line thickly coated with rime testified to his patience and enthusiasm, could not fail to arouse our interest.

After running a short distance in the direction of Zaandam we turned northwards, and crossing a bank found ourselves on ice so hard and smooth that we wished our blades had been recently ground. A run of ten miles or so brought us to Monnikendam, on the shore of the Zuyder Zee, where we saw a fleet of ice-yachts condemned to inaction by the snow which had recently fallen. Looking eastward we could perceive nothing but a frozen sea save where the horizon was broken by the Island of Marken, but the snow, accumulated by the north-east wind, made skating well-nigh impossible. Having so nearly reached our destination a retreat was not to be thought of, and we traversed two or three miles of snowfield on foot, until a swept track enabled us to run merrily to the island. The gabled houses of Marken, and the picturesque dresses of its inhabitants, are they not written in the pages of 'Baedaker' and visited every summer by thousands of tourists? so I will only make mention of a costume of unparalleled eccentricity worn by a native 'masher.' His feet were encased in wooden sabots, his legs in knickerbockers that could not have assumed such voluminous dimensions without the aid of an improver of some 'sort, while his head was protected by a tall hat that might have been bought in Bond Street and worn in Pall Mall. In our return journey a favourable wind enabled us to plough through or over the wreaths, billows, and drifts of snow with greater ease and speed, and we reached Monnikendam at sunset, whence a run of fifty-five minutes brought us back to Amsterdam before the twilight had been subdued by the deepening shades of night.

We accomplished another run which was more thoroughly sui generis than any of which I have seen a record. A start was made at the gas-works near the Haarlern-plein, Amsterdam, and we ran in an easterly direction by Half-weg to Haarlem, a fresh breeze from the north aiding rather than impeding us. After slowly working a passage through the picturesque town over rough and dirty ice, we turned southwards, and felt the wind, which by this time had freshened to something like half a gale, blowing right aft. The ice was as hard as steel, and generally smooth, but occasional hummocks where the surface had been broken up and had frozen again, frequent patches of cat-ice, long reeds here and there imbedded in the ice, and a spin-drift of powdered snow whirled in eddies round our feet, provoked emotions in our hearts which I will not attempt to analyse. No sail was required, metaphorically we scudded under bare poles; one of our party did so literally when he fell, lost his hat, and had a stern chase of a quarter of a mile or more before he could overtake it and the mad excitement of that twenty-mile run from Haarlem to Leyden will never be effaced from my memory. The wind, still favourable, moderated, and we skated rapidly along a canal which led us through groves of oak and beech and brought us, after a run of about ten miles, to the environs of the Hague. I regret that an estimate of our speed is a matter of conjecture, but the distance traversed exceeded forty miles, and the inci- dental delays caused by ferries, bridges, and more than one wrong turn must have encroached a good deal on the four hours during which we were travelling.

skating in a blizzard

Skating in a blizzard

I should feel that I had imperfectly executed the task I have undertaken if I did not give some account of Whittlesea Mere, once known as our great Southern Lake; once the theatre of ice sports, varied in character, and accessible to all classes; once the delight of the sportsman, the naturalist, the fisherman and the skater, whose avocations have been consigned to oblivion by macadamised roads, and crops of roots and cereals. According to a survey made in 1786, its area was at that time 1,870 acres, its length from east to west three and a half miles, its breadth from north to south two and a half miles; its depth varied from seven to two feet. Subsequent surveys taken by Sir John Rennie in 1835, and by Mr. Walker in 1844, showed a gradual diminution both of the extent and depth of the lake; but until 1850, in which year was consummated that triumph of engineering skill over the laws of nature, the drainage of the Mere, its surface in time of frost afforded opportunities for recreation unparalleled in this country. Little or no agricultural work could be done in severe winter weather, and a general holiday was granted to, or rather enforced on, all except the few who were employed in cutting, carrying and stacking sedge. All were ready enough to enjoy this holiday, and as soon as the ice was reported to be safe, thousands of skaters might be seen converging towards the carnival of fun and frolic, which was held on the broad surface of the Mere, from Peterborough, Holme, Ramsey, Yaxley, and other more distant towns along the frozen ice-ways.

It was seldom that this sheet of ice was uniform throughout. Anyone who crossed the Mere might skate for half a mile or so over a hard smooth surface, known in the country as 'glib' ice; he might next traverse ice frozen where a stiff breeze had ruffled the water, and he would have to struggle as he best could over a rough hummocky surface, which would shake every bone in his body and make his teeth chatter, or perhaps a crack two or three inches wide and extending across the whole Mere might be encountered. These cracks were caused by the expansion or contraction of the ice consequent on a sudden change of temperature, and the disruption of the surface, and the grinding of the edges one against another was sometimes accompanied by a report which would awake the echoes of a still night far from the scene of action. Another obstacle to progress was cat-ice, formed where water had overflowed the surface, had been there partially frozen, and had then escaped, ashamed of the mischief it had caused; but the most treacherous, though fortunately exceptional, foe to the skater, was an impalpable dust frozen into the ice, of sufficient tenacity wholly to destroy the ' glibness ' of the surface, and to bring even the strongest runners to unexpected grief. The Fenmen, trained from infancy to pioneering on ice, knew how to avoid or surmount these difficulties, and indications of the most convenient routes soon became apparent. These routes generally converged towards some part of the Mere where a race was to be held, and a day seldom passed without an event of some sort being improvised a new hat, a fat pig, a leg of mutton, or a purse of money being offered as prizes, stewards being elected and authorised to enforce the rules which usually governed these contests.

The short duration of frost in this country offers little encouragement to the sport of ice-yachting, but it is remarkable that the construction of a skate-sail was never suggested as a means of varying the somewhat monotonous repetition of racing in heats. It is as much to be regretted that an arena so suitable as Whittlesea Mere was not then utilised, as that the relative merits of skate-sails now in use, differing widely, as they do, in construction and detail, are not tested at the present time.

A writer who assumed the name of 'Glacianaut' gives an excellent description and illustrations of a sail which he con- structed in England more than ten years ago, and found to be suitable either for one or two navigators. His sail is oblong in shape, about 9 ft. 6 in. in length, about 4 feet high, made of unbleached calico. The only spars are a mainyard travers- ing the centre of the sail lengthways, and two light upright spars attached to each end of this mainyard. The sail is provided with reef-points, which should be used when it is carried by one skater; when two navigators are at work, both hold the mainyard, one of them being in front of the other. The leader is answerable for the direction, but is under the command of his comrade, on whom devolves the task of trimming the canvas.

In tacking the sail is alternately to windward and leeward of the skater. When close-hauled (say on the starboard tack) the sail being on the lee side of the man, the right or weather foot will be in front, the other foot behind it, the left hand will be forward, the right hand, which answers to the main-sheet, holding the yard behind his back. When it becomes necessary to go about the skater luffs sharply to windward, the sail shakes, the feet are changed, the hands remaining in the same position as before, the sail rapidly fills on the other side, and the skater shoots away on the port tack with his sail to windward of him. (The Field, Feb. 15, 1879.)

In this manoeuvre the strain on the sail is considerable, and 'Glacianaut ' gives an alternative method (2) by which the sail is kept to windward by turning the skates to leeward, and running for a moment before the wind, shifting the hands while so doing. Then with a slight turn of his skates to windward, and trimming his canvas accordingly, the navigator shoots away on the new tack. ' Glacianaut ' recommends this method to a single navigator, the former if two are using the sail.

2 The Field, March 1, 1879.

This equipment, although very simple and inexpensive, is not as serviceable as the sail which is made and used in Sweden. By the kindness of Mr. W. F. Adams, Hon. Sec. of the London Skating Club, I had the privilege of seeing at the Club Rink in the Regent's Park the dexterity with which manoeuvres can be executed with a Swedish sail by an experienced skater. The sail used by Mr. Adams was made by Eastman of the Sportsmagasin, Stockholm. It is of white duck, about 7 feet in height, about 9 feet wide at its base, tapering to about 3 feet at the top. The spars, which are made of light bamboo, were fitted in England under Mr. Adams' supervision. They consist of a strong but light mainyard, and of two lighter spars, to which the sides of the sail are fastened from top to bottom. The sail is provided with two sets of reef-points on one side, but these are hardly adequate; it would be well to be able to shorten sail on both sides in rough weather. The spars are jointed so that they can readily be put together or taken to pieces; when they are strapped together, and the sail is neatly folded, the dimensions of the apparatus are inconsiderable. Its weight and its appearance are not very different from those of a salmon-rod and a macintosh. Whether he is 'going free' or ' beating to windward,' the navigator must always keep the sail between himself and the wind. When the wind is dead aft the skater carries the yard behind him on a level with his shoulders, holding it in position with both his hands; his body is nearly erect, and his feet parallel with one another, about six or eight inches apart. When he wishes to 'go about' he must remember that he must not act as he would if he were on board a yacht --run the boat's head into the wind, and get way on the new tack he must rather wear himself, at the same time shifting the mainyard from one shoulder to the other, turning his body back to the sail, changing his position so that what was the hind part of the sail on one tack becomes the fore part on the next, and grasping the port spar with the left hand if on the port tack, or the starboard spar with the right hand if on the starboard tack. The employed arm and shoulder will now be thrown forward, the unemployed arm being left free; the body must lean towards the direction from which the wind is blowing, the foot which corresponds with the employed arm, i.e. the foot which is to windward, being in front of the other foot, the prows of both skates pointing in the line of intended motion. At each successive tack the position of the body, shoulder, foot and hand must be shifted; but these manoeuvres can be executed in a few seconds by a practised skater without any danger of ' missing stays ' or any other mishap. Mr. Adams tells me that he can sail within three points of a steady breeze, and that with a fresh wind from the most favourable quarter slightly before the beam he can attain a speed of thirty miles an hour.

Sailing on skates: wind right aft

Sailing on skates: wind right aft.

Sailing on skates: close-hauled

Sailing on skates: close-hauled.

How the forces of nature can minister to the requirements of man may be illustrated by a notice of the Danish skate-sail, an excellent description of which is given by Mr. T. F. Hanmer in the 'Century Magazine.' ( Vol. xxiii. p. 726. The Century Company, New York. F. Warne &Co., London.)

The Danish rig resembles the mainsail and topsail of a square-rigged boat, except that the two sails, which are made of light cotton duck, are in one piece. The mainsail-yard is fastened by straps to the shoulders of the navigator, and the topmast, which can be raised or lowered with ease, is attached by a gaff to its centre. This supports the topsail-yard, which should be of light spruce or bamboo. The mainsail is 7 feet wide at its base, 6 ft. 2 in. at the yard, 3 ft. 8 in. in height. The topsail tapers to 5 ft. 10 in. at the top, and is 2 feet in height. Sprits, about 6 feet in length, are attached to each of the lower corners of the mainsail, and are held by the navigator. When rolled up, the entire panoply is scarcely more bulky than a large cotton umbrella. With this equipment, a sailor of the Island of Amager, opposite Copenhagen, sustains the part of boat, sail, keel, rudder, ballast, captain and crew; he can lie his course within five points of the wind, and can manoeuvre himself in less space and in less time than the most expert ice-yachtsman. A prudent skater would make his first essay with a reefed main-sail and in a moderate breeze. The sensations of a beginner are a consciousness of having lost all hold of the ice, and a wish that his skates were heavy enough to give him more ballast; but a little practice will give him confidence, and show him how he must preserve his balance when on a wind,' or ' going about ' in a stiff breeze, details of which are given in Mr. Hanmer's interesting article. I will venture to quote Mr. Hanmer's description of an incident which shows how skate-sailing may be instrumental not only in recreation but also in sport. He says :

One sunny breezy winter day I joined a small party of Danish skate-sailors in a cruise on the Sound between Denmark and Sweden. Three or four miles from the land we espied at a distance something black on the ice, for which we steered, supposing it to be a wounded wild duck or goose. It proved to be a large fox which was out after wounded water-fowl. When he saw us bearing down on him he made for the nearest land, but was soon overhauled and nearly surrounded. When we came too close he would turn his head and snap at our legs. While we were thus flying over the ice discussing between ourselves what a nice skating cap his pelt would make, and dividing in advance the brush, pelt and nose, Reynard suddenly came to a full stop and we all flew past him. He then broke for the land, and nearly reached it before we could tack and come up with him again. We enjoyed the chase too much to despatch him at once; but his foxship soon learned the principles of skate-sailing, and watching his opportunity he dodged us again, and set his course nearly into the wind's eye where we could not follow him, and nose, pelt and brush soon disappeared in the dry grass of the shore.

Wild-fowl shooting on Whittlesea Mere

Wild-fowl shooting on Whittlesea Mere

Sport of a less exciting character was within the reach of the Fen-skaters. When the ice was black and transparent, and the water was clear, large pike could be observed with as great, perhaps greater, distinctness than in the tank of an aquarium, and could be followed as they tried to avoid their unexpected foe. Many an exciting chase ensued. There is a tradition that on one occasion a fish weighing 12 Ibs. was pursued until it was tired, that the ice was then broken and the prize secured. When we remember the extent of shoal water in the reed-bound estuaries of the Mere the smile of incredulity with which this anecdote has been received may give place to agnosticism, if not to assent. Whittlesea Mere was also a favourite resort of the wild-fowl hunter. For this purpose a sledge on bone-runners about 16 feet long, 3 or 4 feet broad, was required. In the front of this sledge a fence of upright reeds was arranged which partially concealed the projecting muzzle of a long duck-gun carrying a heavy charge of shot. Kneeling in the hinder part of the sledge, and punting himself along with two iron-shod sticks, the sportsman was enabled to approach to within a short distance of the islands of sedge, which were to be found near the shores of the Mere, and were frequented by flocks of duck, teal, widgeon, and other wild fowl.

Nor was Whittlesea Mere the only resort of sportsmen in those days. A writer in the 'New Sporting Review' (Vol. xlv. p. 72.) gives an account of an expedition he and some fellow-students at Cambridge University made in 1815. They started at 8 A.M., gun in hand, and with skates slung over their backs. On their way to Ely they killed twenty-three couple of snipe, three brace of teal, and a bittern. They dined at Ely, and skated home by moonlight, reaching Cambridge at 11 P.M. It is, perhaps, not very surprising that the writer adds, 'We all were so stiff next morning that not one of us could walk across a room.'

I have endeavoured to illustrate the relations borne by the art of skating not only to recreation but to the sports of fox-hunting, racing, fishing, and shooting, and if I do not dwell on its instrumentality in pastimes, it is because the really fine games which can be played on ice, curling and bandy, will be elsewhere treated in this volume, and because I think that it is idle to chronicle the abortive efforts that have been made to play at cricket or lawn-tennis on a surface so ill adapted to those games. But mention may be made of military exercises which from time to time have been practised on ice. I have already alluded (Chap. 1. p. 9.) to the feat of the Dutch musketeers in the sixteenth century; regiments of the Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch armies have frequently been, and are at the present time, drilled on ice. Skating parades have at no time formed part of the training of the regular forces in England, but our volunteers have made more than one attempt in this direction. On December 29, 1860, three companies of the Lincolnshire Battalion, after practising manoeuvres on ice, skated 'in fours,' rifle in hand, on the Witham, from their head-quarters near Stamp-End Lock, to Boston; and ten years later a similar attempt was brought to a successful issue near Huntingdon.

Dutch Soldiers returning from drill

Dutch Soldiers returning from drill.

In January 1871, the river Ouse, swollen by recent rains, flooded the adjacent meadows, and ample fields of excellent ice were the result of a subsequent severe frost. At that time I commanded the 1st Hunts R.V., a corps of two companies, and I ordered a parade without rifles or side-arms, but with skates, and more than half of the strength of the corps responded to the summons. The men 'fell in' in single rank, and, except when in 'skirmishing order,' joined hands. 'Formations of line from column,' 'column from line,' 'countermarching,' and light-infantry movements were executed with admirable precision and rapidity, and it was a subject of regret to me that when I subsequently had the honour to command an Administrative Battalion in the Fen-country, and might have expected a muster of about 300 men, the weather, 'varium et mutabile semper,' prevented me from carrying out my intention of repeating the experiment on a larger scale. Although a travesty of the regulations laid down in the F.E. book, such exercises are not without their use; they are replete with interest to performers and spectators, and they illustrate, what I have already said, that the art of skating is the Fen man's second nature.