Frostbiting in New England

The competition heats up between a pair of J/24s on Boston Harbor

It was a not-so-balmy 25 degrees, and though Boston had been clobbered with eight inches of snow a couple of days before, the sun was shining and the breeze was blowing 15 knots—perfect weather for racing.

Making my way to the Boston Sailing Center (BSC)—where around 100 sailors race aboard a small fleet of J/24s every Saturday morning from November to mid-March—I met up with my skipper, Karen Kelley, a veteran frostbiter with over 15 years of experience, and fellow crew, Dave Scaplen, Kevin Browne and Dan Smith. 

We all geared up, and I walked—or rather, waddled, thanks to my six layers of clothing, bib, winter coat, thick boots, three pairs of gloves and two beanie hats—down to the docks to be initiated into the rituals of shoveling snow and scraping ice off decks, two things I had never before associated with sailing.

Part of the frostbiting initiation process is scraping ice and snow off the deck

“It’s fantastic boathandling practice for the summer season and a great way for people newer to racing to practice their technique and make connections with other racing sailors,” said Karen as we rigged the boat and prepared to cast off.

“You have to experience it to truly understand it,” Kevin agreed enthusiastically, adding that I was going to love it. And though wearing hand warmers and fighting with frozen lines had never been my idea of sailboat racing in the past, I did.

Not that frostbiting is everyone’s cup of tea. “It takes a certain type of person to sail in this cold,” said Kathryn Carlson, one of our competitors who’s been frostbiting for nearly seven seasons. “On days where the spray freezes to your face, I wonder why I come back,” she said. “But then there are gorgeous, sunny days like this, where I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but on the water.”

“Our rule is that if the wind speed is the same as the air temperature, we don’t go out,” noted frostbiter Nick Lincon. “The worst days are when rudders are frozen in blocks of ice and snow is stuck to the sails.” 

Frostbiters take on a weekend blizzard in Boston Harbor

Nonetheless, it’s exactly this kind of thrill that also attracts people to the sport. Every frostbiter has plenty of stories, even my crewmate Dan Smith, who had only begun frostbiting that season. 

“In November, I was out on the water with a crew of three,” Dan said. “The wind was blowing 15-20 knots and shifty. My teammate was fully hiked out just as we hit a lull. She was dunked in the 40-degree harbor by her butt and was swiftly pulled overboard. Fortunately, she had a good grip on the jib sheet, and while her head was under water, she kept her feet in the boat. After a burst of panic, we pulled her back in. She was soaked to the bone and shivering, but her first words were, ‘Let’s go!’ Needless to say, we placed second that race.”

Despite the risk, the BSC frostbite fleet, which was started when previous owner David Franzel was trying to save costs on winter storage fees, continues to grow every year, so that it now consists of 18 boats. It also attracts a variety of different sailors, ranging from novices to sailing champions. As a frostbite newbie, I could tell that these sailors were serious, and with Karen at the helm, I knew I was in good hands. 

The first two races I spent learning to handle frozen sheets and maneuver on an icy deck. Our third race, however, was the charm, as we nailed our start at the pin end of the line, well ahead of the bulk of the fleet, and headed toward the first mark. The breeze was gusty and inconsistent, and the wind shifts kept us on our toes up and down the windward-leeward course. But we handled both the conditions and the boat well—including the spinnaker—and ultimately took second. 

After that, the competition only got hotter, even as our body temperatures plummeted. Throughout, BSC racing instructor Grant Mathews zoomed around the fleet in one of the crash boats, taking video of every race so we could review our technique and tactics during the weekly chalk talk afterward. Finally, after five races, the race committee pulled in the flags and marks, and we sailed back toward the dock, huddled together as we did so for warmth.

Once at the sailing center, everybody de-rigged, and we all warmed up again inside with a combination of hot chili and cold beer. Despite the cutthroat nature of the racing out on the water, frostbiters are close-knit on land. 

“We suffer together, then party together. There’s a lot of camaraderie among us. If I didn’t sail with such a wonderful group of people, sailing in zero-degree weather with snow goggles on would be a lot more miserable,” said Kathryn. 

Marc Jacobs, who’s been frostbiting for eight years and sails with his original three crewmembers agreed. When I asked him how his race went, he replied with a grin, “Bitter cold, but we placed well and I spent time with my crew. It was a good day. You can’t get much better than a good day on the water.” 


Frostbiting Fashion

The Boston Yacht Club Sonar fleet braves the cold on Marblehead Harbor. Photo by Leighton O'Connor

Quick Tips for Frostbite Newbies

Dress in layers as if you’re planning on going skiing. Wear long underwear, fleece pants, polypro top, fleece sweater(s), a winter hat, neoprene gloves for those wet days, warm socks, waterproof boots and foul weather gear. 

Bring a snack and something to drink to have on board for energy. If it’s sunny, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must! –Karen Kelley



Stay Frosty

For those who have caught the frostbite bug, there are plenty of sailing clubs to check out. Most clubs offer a Fall (October-January) and Winter series (January-April), cool prizes, heated competition and a guarantee to keep your frozen face smiling.

Annapolis Yacht Club
Annapolis, MD

At 1300 on Sunday, you’ll find J/Boats, Catalina 27s, Cal 25s, Etchells and Harbor 20s racing in the Chesapeake Bay. Last season, the club had anywhere from five to 20 boats in each fleet.

Barrington Yacht Club
Barrington, RI

Barrington Yacht Club offers Sunfish frostbiting from late October to April on Sundays at 1300.

Boston Yacht Club
Marblehead, MA

At the Boston Yacht Club, frostbite fleet, team and match racing takes place every Saturday at 1200 from early November to April. There are currently 12 Sonars in the fleet, so expect high attendance and competitive racing.

Bristol Yacht Club
Bristol, RI

Last year, the fleet raced 15 Saturdays and had a total of 88 starts. The club offers competitive sailing to all ages and support to help improve sailing skills in Lasers and Penguins.

Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club 
Chicago, Il

Offering frosbite sailing all winter, the CCYC hosts Vanguard and Laser sailing on Saturdays.

Chicago Yacht Club
Chicago, Il

An ongoing tradition for 70 years, sailors frostbite on J70s, Sonars, Club 420s, Lasers and Vanguard 15s on Sundays.

Frostbite Yacht Club
Essex, CT

If one-design dinghy racing is your scene, check out Frostbite Yacht Club, as they race 420s, Etchells, Ideal 18s, JY15s, Lasers and Scows on Sundays throughout the season.

Photos courtesy of Boston Sailing Center



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