Ice Boat Story Time

Tom Hysop reminisces after the recent death of Bill Perrigo, iceboating legend:

When it came to ice boating, family patriarch Bill ‘Curley’ Perrigo was definitely what you would call ‘old school’. I remember seeing him on the ice at the end of a hard day of sailing with his face bloodied and raw from being exposed to the stinging ice chips and the bitter wind. (I would be thinking to myself; ‘Man, if this is what it takes, I don’t know if I want to do it”!)

Popular theory in those days was that you had to feel the wind on your face in order to find the best possible way around the race course.

I don’t know for sure, but I would bet that Bill Perrigo never spent much time thinking about full-face helmets, or worse, enclosed cockpits (egad!!!), on ice yachts. As far as wind chill goes… forget about it.

Perrigo was more than a tough ice boater however, he was a damn good one too. Regatta wins in both the Northwestern and the ISA, along with victories in the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America races, would appear on his ice yachting resume before he hung up his goggles for good.

His championship winning E Skeeter back in the fifties and early sixties had what I always considered to be the greatest name ever hung onto an ice yacht, Thunder Jet

Nearly forty years have passed since the last time I’ve seen that boat on the ice, and yet the name Thunder Jet can still stir up images of a fleet of bright white sails flying over a frozen surface at some long ago regatta.

Thunder Jet, as I was to learn later listening to the stories Bill Mattison, Jack Ripp, and others would tell of our sport’s past, was really one tank of an Skeeter ice boat. Built heavy to begin with, on windy days its sleek fuselage was further strained by the rumored hundreds of pounds of lead that Perrigo would casually toss in the cockpit before shoving off. Thunder Jet was not built for gentle breezes, it wasn’t made for medium conditions, and ‘building for the average’ wasn’t part of the game plan. Thunder Jet was built for when the wind was howling and it took a genuine set of brass ones to park your butt in a Skeeter ice boat and yank really hard on the go fast rope.

As legend has it, Perrigo’s Thunder Jet was always the last boat off the starting line and usually the last boat to round the top mark. The quicker, (but not necessarily faster), Skeeters would jump out to what seemed to be insurmountable leads. But if it was windy enough soon Thunder Jet could be seen ripping through a fifty boat field like a sharp saw blade through dry sitka.

By the second lap Perrigo would be mid-pack, by the third he’d be battling for the lead, and by the last lap Perrigo and Thunder Jet would be showing a rapidly disappearing stern to the rest of the frustrated Skeeter fleet.

Even though thirty-five mph wind speeds were perfectly acceptable in those days, most regattas weren’t sailed in hurricane like conditions.

But apparently a few were, as Perrigo captured three Northwestern Regatta titles, (1950, 1952, and 1958), two International Skeeter Association championships, (1958 and 1964), to go along with three successful efforts in the Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America series, (1953, 1955, and 1961).

One of Bill Perrigo’s last great ice yachting triumphs came in the Challenge Pennant races sailed on Lake Mendota in March of 1970.

The 4LIYC had won the Pennant in 1964, and successfully defended it for the next five years. Indeed, few thought that the Pennant races of 1970 would produce anything other than a 7th straight 4LIYC victory.

But the Pewaukee Ice Yacht Club had different ideas.

In their bid to wrestle the Pennant away from the 4LIYC, Pewaukee decided to send Art Jark’s lightening fast, ex-Bill Mattison Honeybucket, now named the Nancy E III, to Madison as one of it’s challenging yachts.

And Art Jark promptly tapped Bill Perrigo to steer ft.

The Pennant title came down to the last race of the series that year. 4LIYC’s Dave Rosten, expertly piloting his Skeeter, Pirate, appeared to be headed for victory. But as the long, ten lap, twenty mile race wound down the wind began to pick up. The light snow that had fallen on and off throughout the day began to be blown around at the ice surface.

Soon the swirling snow built to almost surreal white-out conditions. All you could see of the boats racing around the course were the top four or five feet of the mast and sail. Finding the marks in these unbelievably dangerous conditions was next to impossible. On the last lap of the race Rosten could not find the top mark.

Somehow, Perrigo did.

A few minutes later the race scorers and other on-lookers were shocked to see Jark’s V-69, with Bill Perrigo at the helm, streaking toward the finish line.

The Ice Yacht Challenge Pennant of America went to Pewaukee.

Under the toughest of conditions, Bill Perrigo proved how tough he was.

The piece was written by Greg Whitehorse.

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