I have enough sand in my hair to start my own beach. When I blow my nose … sand. When I clean my ears … sand. When I try to chew … sand. The reason: I’ve been competing all week in the European Sand Sculpting Championship on the northwest coast of Holland.
Before I tell you about this terribly exciting competition and my vital part in it, let me say that I have been sculpting sand the wrong way my entire life. I always thought you just went to the beach with a little plastic bucket and a shovel, made a sand castle, recognizable by the moat, then jumped on it. But this is not so.
First, you need to bring your own sand. Right to the beach! Apparently, the sand that’s already at most beaches is no good for making sand castles. Imagine that. Beach sand is “old sand,” meaning it’s been pulverized into little round grains by the sea and large beachgoers lying on it. For sculpting, you need river sand, which is “young sand” made up of little sliverlike grains that stick together better.
My team was called Team Peukie after Peukie Restaurant, our sponsor. Sound like an unappetizing name for a restaurant? The English-speaking owner didn’t think so (I asked him).
There were 10 of us on Team Peukie, three of whom traveled around the world and did sand sculpting for a living, six who’d taken a sand sculpting course, and one, a writer, who knew how to remove cat scat from a sandbox with Tonka toys.
We procured 650 wheelbarrows of special sand. We also got matching T-shirts and jackets, so people walking by could see we meant business.
There were 10 teams participating in this competition. Most of the 100 sculptors were Dutch art and architecture students, but there was still a pretty diverse mix of ages and nationalities, including a 65-year-old physicist and a 16-year-old tae kwon do expert. Thanks to various sponsors, including a beer company, we were all staying for free in a four-star hotel and getting three free meals per day. It felt like overnight camp but with an open bar.
Each day at 8 a.m., the hotel operators were given the Herculean chore of enticing all 100 of us down to breakfast. Then we’d take a tram to the beach and start our eight hours of labor.
Our first task was to build a giant mound of sand. This was not as easy as it sounds, because you can’t just pile up the sand you brought with you. You need these giant wooden “mulls” that look like waterbed frames. And to compact the sand into the mulls, you need a “whacker.” Roughly the size and weight of a jackhammer, this device thumps the sand with a flat metal plate, shakes your body violently and inspires endless jokes. You also need a lot of beer. The beer, I’m told, is the key. Although, it should definitely not be wasted on the sand.
It took me and my fellow “Peukies” two days to compact five mulls into a sand lump that looked exactly like an 18-foot-tall waterbed, which was not our final design.
The actual sculpting works like this: You have to 1) start at the top and work your way down, 2) keep the sand wet, 3) use special knives and trowels called “tools” and 4) be artistic. We had pretty bad luck with the weather, so most days we were sculpting in freezing drizzle, which numbed my hands and made it very hard to be artistic. At least, that was my excuse.
Once a section has been completed, you spray it with a water and glue mix to help the fine edges of the sculpture survive rain and wind for a few weeks.
Our final design, which started from a sketch and just kind of evolved, turned out to be a life-size naked male angel kissing a life-size naked female human on top of a non-life-size world being cracked open by two much-larger-than-life-size hands. Inside the crack in the world was a utopian society, represented by a candle that lit up at certain times of day when the sunlight passed through carefully concealed holes in the world. The Pacific Ocean cascaded right off the world onto some life-size stairs which, as you might imagine, caused quite a flood. Hundreds of much-smaller-than-life-size, gender-neutral people were caught in the flood while fighting to reach the utopian candle.
What our sculpture had to do with the competition theme of “Royalty” was beyond me, but it looked really cool. In fact, we won the European Sand Sculpting Championship!
The award ceremony was a big deal. We all got bouquets of flowers, just like professional figure skaters. We also got an engraved sand sculpting trowel and a T-shirt from our sponsor, which read, “Life is too short for cheap beer.”
There was even a marching band on hand, but they had nowhere to march, so they just stood in place, which was still quite impressive. There were Dutch celebrity judges (I didn’t recognize a one) and several local politicians and businessmen who made boring speeches.
The awards were followed by group photos and an impromptu international press conference, during which I got interviewed by a French TV crew.
“We are speaking here with Doug Lansky, a professional sand sculptor,” the reporter began. I didn’t bother to correct him.
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