Bobsled Steering




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By Dan Beard

Of late there has been a great revival of interest among people of all ages in the boyish sport of coasting and tobogganing.  So keen has this become that we find in Europe clubs formed for coasting down the mountain side, and tracks built in deep snows with many difficult twists and turns to test the skill of the pilots on the American bobs, which they use and which are there improperly called toboggans. 

Also some of the New York papers have been filled with letters from bald-headed and gray-headed "boys" discussing the propriety of certain terms familiar to their youthful days and used in connection with the different methods of steering their sleds or bobs down the snowy hillside.  But we will not enter into this discussion, for the good reason that the terms in question, " belly-buster," "belly-whopper," etc., are the ones used by the boys in different sections of the country, and consequently all of them proper in describing the method of coasting where the coaster lies prone upon the sled and goes down head first; but with the improvement of the sled and the bob there have crept in a number of devices for steering these crafts, the use of which

Should be Forbidden by the Authorities

because of the imminent peril the riders incur (especially the helmsman) when they are used.

There are almost as many methods of steering as there styles of sleds. Some people crowd on the sled with

Legs Extended on Each Side

and steer or attempt to steer with sticks held in their hands. others steer by sitting on the front of the sled and

Vigorously Kicking Their Heels 

the surface of the track as they go rushing down the hillside.  This was the popular method in the Southwest, along the Ohio River, when the writer was a small boy, and many legs and arms were broken as a direct consequence of this style of steering.  Another popular method in steering a small sled was to

Sit Sideways on One Leg

and allow the other leg to dangle out behind with the foot resting on the surface of the snow.  This style of steering I have seen used by the tobogganers on Mt. Royal, up in Canada.  It is comparatively safe for small sleds and toboggans, but when the foot is encased only in a moccasin it sometimes receives painful injuries in going down the steep courses, and I have noticed many bloody moccasins on the feet of our enthusiastic sport-loving Canadian brothers.


Figs. 534 and 535 show the coaster going down head first.

This is an exciting and exhilarating manner of coasting, but should never be used on dangerous courses where there is any possibility of the coaster's head striking something harder than a soft snow bank; but on safe hills there can be no serious objection to coasting head first, unless it be that the sport itself is always strenuous and dangerous enough without unnecessarily adding to this element. 

The Wheel

(Figs. 530 and 531) which is in common use, leaves no avenue of escape for the pilot; in case of accident he will be jammed suddenly and with great force against the iron wheel and the inflexible iron upright bar, which can but produce the most serious results.

The Wheel Helm

is composed of an iron wheel fastened to an iron rod which has a "squared" head fitting into a square hole in the hub of the wheel (Figs. 530 and 531); this arrangement causes the rod to turn with every turn of the wheel; the lower end of the wheel rod is also "squared" to fit into the oaken block, which is bolted to the front sled of the bob; thus it may be seen that every turn of the wheel also turns the sled; an excellent plan if no one had to sit behind and astride of the shaft of the wheel.

Built on the same principle as the wheel helm, Figs. 532 (cross section, front elevation) and 533 should never be used, for any sort of iron or wooden steering apparatus which extends above the reach-board contains possibilities of serious or even fatal results to the coasters.  

Rather than use either of the foregoing helms it is better to abandon all steering appliances and depend upon your unaided hands to control the direction of the front sled; a method often resorted to by small boys, who stretch their bodies full length upon the reach-board and. grasp with their hands the front of the runners of the bow- sled (Fig. 534), or the back part of the same runners (Fig. 535), and dart head first down the ice-coated hills. 

The positions shown by Figs. 535 and 534 are those which all boys know under the forceful but eloquent names of "belly-buster," "belly-whopper," or "belly-gut." I will not stop to apologize for the use of these words, for they are now recognized as technical terms, and so used.  But when one goes belly-buster, one leaves but little room for other passengers on the reach-board, and thus loses half the fun of coasting.  One of the best ways to steer a loaded bob is with 

Crossed Lines

as shown by Figs. 536 and 537.  

Fig. 537 shows a Yankee boy's way of using the crossed lines and feet without the aid of a foot-bar, while Fig. 538 shows an immovable iron foot-bar attached to the reach-board.  In the last device the lines cross beneath the foot-bar, pass through smooth eyelets in the foot-bar and some-times end in rings for the hands to grasp.  The advantage of the crossed lines is apparent at a glance; it would be most difficult, indeed often impossible, to turn the sled by a direct pull, but when the line runs diagonally, a slight tug is sufficient to deflect the bow-sled. 

Fig. 540 shows the bow-sled with a stout foot-bar bolted to it and extending half a foot on each side of the runners.  With your feet on the footrest and the reins in your hands you can brace your foot firmly against one end of the bar as you pull on the proper rein with your hand; this gives the strength of one leg and one arm to each pull.  

Fortunately for us all the long solid-runner sleds are now obsolete and no longer to be seen crowded with reckless men and boys whooping down the hill.  These "leg breakers" were guided by the man in front, who vigorously kicked the snow to the right or left as required.  Small single sleds are to this day often guided in the same manner, but not with the same risk to life and limb.  

While Figs. 537, 538 and 540 are all good methods to use, a better one still is to have a foot bar on the bow of the front sled and a handle-bar attached to the king pin block of the same sled (Figs. 542 and 543).  With this double helm it is an easy matter for the pilot to sit in the front of the reach-board with his feet upon the foot-bar and his hands down at his sides grasping the hand-bar on each side of the reach-board (Fig. 524, Van Kleeck Bob).  In this manner he can use all the force of the muscles in both legs and arms to guide the bobsled.  This is the Van Kleeck method. 

When I said that the American bobs in Switzerland were called toboggans it is to be understood that I mean they are so called by the Americans, for it seems that the native Swiss call their rudely fashioned sled a handschlitten and their double runner a luge. At the celebrated Cred d'y Bau run at Caux the luge seems to be a term used for almost any form of sled, and coasting down these mountains is called lugeing.  There are several of these coasting places in Switzerland, one of them five miles long.  There is one at St. Montz called the Cresta which is only three and four-tenths miles long, but the coasters cover the distance in seventy-three seconds. Another place is at the Grindinwold, and all of the American methods of steering or guiding bobs are used at these places.  But it is not necessary for Americans to go to Switzerland to find mountain sides upon which to coast.  There are numerous places within reach of New York, not farther from Manhattan than Tuxedo, which might be used by enthusiastic lovers of the sport, and which would afford long and steep enough courses to satisfy the most enthusiastic daredevil sportsman. 

Our own Rockies in the Northwest are buried in snow each year, and adventurous; spirits can find on their steep declivities places to test their nerve and skill; but whatever course they slide or whatever the location of the hill, let them use common sense and abandon all steering gear which projects above the front of the reach-board, so that when they start downhill they may not only enjoy the the coasting but be reasonably certain of reaching the bottom safely, thus making the ride enjoyable from beginning to end.

See Also:

More Sled Plans

Make Your Own Winter Gear

Winter Activities

Traditional Outdoor Adventure 






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.