The Mary B Sails Again

Mary B on Lake Mendota (1955). Photo courtesy of Jay Payton.

Restoration Efforts Underway for Historic Madison Ice Yacht

On a cold, bright day in February 2016, an iconic piece of Madison’s history came home in memorable style. As the wind freshened, the towering sails of the Mary B iceboat filled and the 39-foot craft took flight—skimming across the ice with the same grace and agility that drew crowds of cheering onlookers to Madison’s lakes more than 60 years ago. That short-but-triumphant cruise was the first of what an enthusiastic group of fans hope will be many such adventures for the venerable Mary B.

After rescuing the craft from a dilapidated building where it had been stored for the past 15 years, members of the Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club are raising funds to return the championship-winning iceboat to her former glory. “This is one of the most famous iceboats from a really interesting and important time in Madison history,” said Don Anderson. Anderson is the owner of The Boathouse and the iceboat enthusiast who rescued the craft from storage. “Putting the Mary B back on the ice, racing, and winning the way it once did, is a way to keep that history alive.”

Winning is a longstanding tradition with the Mary B, which was one of the top performers among the giant iceboats that competed across the Midwest in the 1950s and ‘60s. The handmade craft won the Randolph Hearst Cup four times in the 1950s, and took top honors in 13 major regattas between 1949 and 1964.

“Today, people favor smaller, single-sail boats that hold one person—and the big iceboats have all but disappeared,” said Anderson. A sizable iceboat by today’s standards is usually around 30 feet long with 28-foot-tall masts and 75 square feet of sail. In contrast, the Mary B—with a towering 40-foot mast and 360 square feet of sail – looks like an eagle among swallows. The ice yacht weighs more than a ton, and can fly across the ice at 80 miles per hour in a strong wind.

Commissioned in the late 1940s by Madison electrician O.T. Havey, the Mary B took three years to build and cost upwards of $24,000—equivalent to more than $250,000 today. “Given its history, the Mary B is in surprisingly good shape,” Anderson says. “But it needs a complete going over to bring it back to race-worthy condition. If that mast cracked, for instance, there’s just no way to replace it.”

The project is expected to cost $40,000. Costs will include restoration work, the purchase of an enclosed trailer to store and transport the boat, and reimbursing Anderson, who purchased the iceboat to return it to Madison. “The Mary B has been locked away for years in a private collection,” said Anderson. “Now we have the chance to put it back on ice – to compete and, we hope, win.”

This article was originally published in the 2016 Greater Madison Lake Guide. 

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