Cold, Camaraderie, and Friendly Competition: The Frostbiting Season Begins Again
As winter approaches, most people hunker down and curtail their outdoor activities — especially if those activities include, say, prolonged exposure to the elements and the very real possibility of getting wet. But on a Sunday in mid-November, the parking lot at Centerport Yacht Club on the North Shore of Long Island was dotted with people reaching around like contortionists to pull on dry suits. One-piece outfits as bulky as space suits, with rubber cuffs around the wrist, ankle and neck to seal out water, the dry suits sometimes required the assistance of a bystander to tug into place.
Stacy Hafen, who used to design linens, helped zip up her husband, Felix, a chemical equipment salesman, while their 15-year-old daughter Alex crouched on the pavement, squeezing the remaining air out of her own suit before donning a hat, gloves, and a lifejacket. Then, it was time to stuff thick socks into tall waterproof boots. “It’s nice to get out in the winter,” said Felix, 62, who by this point was almost unrecognizable under the layers.
The Hafens and their comrades were preparing for a day of Frostbiting — the official name for competitive winter sailing. Once suited and booted, the crowd of twenty or so shuffled off to begin rigging: the process of stringing ropes (called “lines” and “sheets” in sailing vernacular), tying knots, hoisting sails, and connecting key equipment that makes each small boat operable. The temperature hovered around 40 degrees Fahrenheit — balmy — but the wind was light, which was a disappointment for some. “Last week it was howling,” said Larry Murphy, an architect, as he set up his boat with his wife, Theresa. “Boats were flipping every two minutes; it was so fun.”
Frostbiting traces its roots to Manhasset Bay in the early 1930s — just 25 miles from Centerport Yacht Club, but a different world in terms of the sailing technology and infrastructure that makes today’s races possible. Local legend has it that a few summer yachters got into an argument in December of 1931 about who could sail their dinghy faster. By the time the contest date was set for January 1st, 1932, word had spread, and the event drew a crowd of sailing enthusiasts who were also eager to test out their dinghies on the frigid winter waters of Long Island Sound. Despite their haphazard boats and the threat of hypothermia in the era before dry suits, those early sailors were undeterred.
Almost a century later, Frostbiting remains a popular way for diehard summer sailors to keep their skills up during the winter months. The season runs from November to March at most yacht clubs throughout the Northeast, where the sport has its most substantial foothold. While some of the larger clubs boast fleets of over 50 boats, Centerport normally holds events with about 15, according to Rich Rubel. A longtime station manager for Amtrak and now New Jersey Transit, he has been coordinating the club’s Frostbiting program since 1996— although it was up and running well before then. Frostbiters do not have to be members of the club to participate, but have to pay an additional $100 for boat storage, on top of the $125 seasonal fee for the program. Other major costs include the dry suit, which can be anywhere from $400 — $1,000, and the lifejacket; about $100.
Centerport Yacht Club can be joined for an initial payment of around $10,000, and dues are about $3,000 per year, but prospective members must first be sponsored by another member family and reviewed by a committee. While anyone with a love of boating is welcome, Rubel emphasizes that Frostbiters are just the kind of members that sailing clubs want to attract— diehard enthusiasts who will engage with the program.
Among the ranks of veteran Frostbiters at Centerport, a recent influx of teenage sailors has been an invigorating force. Since many of them are already serious competitors, Rubel attributes their enthusiasm to their desire to stay sharp all year long. But he also sees the club’s choice of modern, easy-to-handle boats as another factor that attracts young people. Called Lasers and JY15s, they’re about 15 feet long and can be sailed by one or two people, respectively. Other clubs are known for using older, more traditional dinghies, and a club in Cape Cod is even famous for its homemade “frosties” — six foot long plywood outfits that are barely the size of bathtubs. Whatever the model, though, Frostbite races are one-design, meaning that only boats of the same type are allowed to compete against each other. Lasers can cost around $5,000 new, but buying a used one or sailing a JY15 with a partner are ways to get around that price tag.
Out on the water, the Centerport sailors got their bearings as the race committee set up marks and buoys. All hardy volunteers, the race committee members don’t even get the luxury of warmth-conserving physical activity as they keep time and track starts and finishes. Yet, many of them relish the excuse to do something nautical in the winter. Sixty-five-year-old Chris Schneider, a competitive summer sailor on his 40 foot boat, estimates that he’s been helping out with Frostbiting race committee for at least a decade. He’s now the Principal Race Officer, in charge of setting the courses, running the starts, and recording the boat numbers when they finish.
Others take on the organizational duties when they can’t sail themselves. Still recovering from a recent surgery, 24-year-old Jimmy Keegan wasn’t cleared for Frostbiting, so he kept an eye out for wind shifts and capsizing sailors from one of the chase boats. “If someone goes swimming, we get them up and moving as fast as possible,” said Keegan, who works on commercial ships for months at a time and normally sails whenever he’s home. As a form of compensation for a cold day’s work, the race committee gets free beers at the yacht club bar.
Light wind meant that very few sailors ended up in the water on Sunday, but more extreme conditions can quickly turn dangerous as the small boats topple. Races at Centerport are canceled following the 20/20 rule — if the temperature dips into the 20s (in degrees Fahrenheit) or the wind speed is above 20 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Other clubs do not adhere to the same guidelines. A 2016 documentary called “Frostbiters” shows sailors heading out in blizzards; a club across the Sound in Westport, Connecticut determines sailing conditions by throwing a brick on the ice to see if it breaks. As long as the surface cracks, and the harbor isn’t entirely frozen over, they sail.
Besides the bragging rights that come with braving the conditions week after week, Frostbiters are awarded points for each race; the three boats with the highest scores win end-of-season trophies. But most come out for the camaraderie, the thrill, and the serenity of the Sound without any other boat traffic. “This keeps us sane,” said Justin McNally, as he peeled off his dry suit at the end of the day. “Or insane,” quipped his brother-in-law and sailing partner, George Hernandez.
Back in the warmth of the club’s cozy, wood paneled bar room, Frostbiters enjoyed beer, hot soup, and a tremendous plate of chicken fingers and French fries that Schneider passed around. Without their dry suits and face masks, everyone looked human again as they rehashed the day’s races and traded war stories. “It’s a niche sport, it’s not for everyone,” said Larry Murphy as he cradled his cup of soup. “But I look forward to it all week long.”