On Hurling And Being Hurled

By Douglas Bernon
October 27, 2000
Sellman Creek on the Rhode River, Maryland
38 53.350 N 76 31.920 W

Photo of sunset on the Rhode River Sunset on the Rhode River.

We skedaddled out of Annapolis first thing Sunday morning, getting but a few miles south yet landing light years from the hectic pace of the past couple of weeks. As long as we remained in Annapolis, we'd continue to hang out with friends we love, but 10 days of boat shows, BoatUS, West Marine, Fawcett's, meetings, BAM (Boat Accessory Market — a used-boat-stuff extravaganza), and a rush-rush business trip out west for Bernadette to do a story for CW was enough for us both.

Tonight we're anchored in eight feet of water, just past Camp Letts off Sellman Creek, a northern tributary of the Rhode River. There are no houses here, just the occasional duck blind. A Smithsonian land preserve takes up hundreds of acres ashore with sweet walking paths to nowhere in particular. The trees are bending toward fall: orange and red maple leaves float beside us, while the shore is a patchwork of earth tones stitched to green cloth. All day and into the dusk there are v-formations of geese pointing us to our future. We've spent the past day and a half rowing around, hauling each other up the mast for a change in perspective, reading, baking — slowing down a bit and regaining our bearings. Tomorrow, maybe, we'll say goodbye to the one other boat in this inlet and make some tracks.

Photo of fall color on the Rhode River Fall at the Rhode.

We seemed to break free of Annapolis one step ahead of the law. I've always loved the place and a long time ago I used to live there, but I'm not partial to predatory cops. On our way into town, for unfathomable reasons, we were boarded and searched by the Coast Guard. A distant flashing light from astern came quickly closer, and before you can say "no discharge," their orange fenders were slapping against Ithaka's topsides. In the common-sense department, the first question the jeffe asked over his loudspeaker was "Do you have any weapons?" A practical inquiry. No reason to get blown away by cranky, itchy-fingered sailors who might resent forced invasions. Two uniforms came aboard and with officious politeness stated they were, for our own benefit, performing a "safety check." This included examining our toilet, life jackets, horn, signage, documentation numbers and a number of other things. The problem we faced is that these guys DO carry guns and they DO have power, which is to say we didn't have any choice. On the up side, the last time I was boarded was 26 years ago in the Florida Keys. Maybe it's also a statement about getting older, but this time I could breathe easier then I could back then because now all my Kodak canisters actually contain film. The search went smoothly; they departed, and we carried on.

Photo of Bernadette surveying her empire Bernadette surveying her empire.

This was not our only brush with The Law. In Annapolis one day, while dinghying over to see a guy I heard was using old sailboat parts to make a contraption that hurls pumpkins, a flashing light and siren out of nowhere were all of the sudden next to me, and a local cop with mirrored-sunglasses was bellowing: "Stop your engine and produce ownership of this vessel."

"Sure," I said. "I always carry the official papers in the rubber duck." John Wayne was not amused. This inanity, and the one full day of our finite lives that it wasted to straighten it all out, doesn't merit much detail except to say that I continue to struggle telling the difference between cops and robbers.

Fortunately, Annapolis harbors people who balance that kind of karma, which is why I was searching out the pumpkin guy, Jim Hyde, who owns MB Boats, a highly respected boatyard with a logo that includes the print of a dog paw. This I took as a good omen. His yard is located smack dab in the middle of the Annapolis Yacht Club, near where Ithaka was moored. For the second consecutive year, Jim is competing in a "Punkin Chunkin" Contest. This year's event, the last one of the season, sponsored by the Punkin Chunkin Association, will be held in Millsboro, Delaware, on November 4 and 5. There are a number of categories, each designated by means of propulsion: Engine-Powered, Human-Powered, Human-Powered Catapult, Unlimited Catapult, and Pneumatic Cannons. Unlike hassling people in dinghies, this is an activity to which I can fully relate.

Photo of the Punkin Chunker The Punkin Chunker.

Jim Hyde and crew are competing in the Unlimited-Catapult class. "You can cock it with any device you want," he told me, happy to have someone come in who was interested in what he was up to. "But we use hydraulics." Sitting among the sailboats was an enormous catapult, an aluminum mast with a number of new and unusual welded fittings. The whole thing was affixed to a fulcrum that suggested collaboration between Rube Goldberg and Monty Python.

Hyde loves to talk about what he's doing. "We were the first people to use a sailboat rig," he said. "It's what we know, so it's what we made. See that scale model over by the truck? It threw a lime 550 feet. With the right pumpkin, we'd like to do a good 3,000 feet this year." Hyde prefers "the 8- to 10-pound pumpkins, about the same size as a 10-pin bowling ball. Y'gotta learn to tune your machine. A lotta guys swear by the white pumpkin. Better mass and consistency. That's important because it's gotta leave your machine whole, in one piece."

He is particularly proud of this year's contraption, but will not describe it fully or reveal all its secret parts, sort of like shrouding a newly designed keel underwater until the main event. "We've got thousands of hours in this baby. I even had custom-made springs turned for it. This is our year. We wanna win bad, but time's getting short. The problem is we still gotta work on boats. We try to blow off as many jobs as we can right now. The guys in our class are maxing out at 1,600, 1,700 feet. We'd like to do a good 3,000 feet this year and bring back the big-ass award. It's a carved statue of a guy climbing steps and holding a pumpkin on his shoulders. It's like the America's Cup of chunkin."

On so many levels, I can identify with Jim Hyde and his desire to throw things. In what now seems like a previous life, more than 20 years ago, I was briefly employed as a minor weenie at the United States Metric Board, a now-defunct government agency whose Congressional mandate was "to encourage voluntary metrification." Many of the Board Members were a touch evangelical in their enthusiasm, and dreamed of a metric Lourdes where frail men and women would throw down their yardsticks to find new life forces in liters and meters. To their considerable disappointment, this groundswell never happened, so as part of my job I was assigned to seek out what my superiors termed "major metric conversion opportunities," public events whose organizers would agree to embrace the metric system, thereby educating the citizenry and leading them from darkness.

First I contacted all the serious guys — baseball, golf, football, horse-racing — in fact, every professional sport. Door after door was slammed in my face. Finally, in the panhandle of Oklahoma, I found the Beaver International Cow-Chip Hurling Championship.

Photo of Jim Hyde, builder of the Punkin Chunker Jim Hyde, builder of the Punkin Chunker.

In the United States Metric Board, the Cow Chip People recognized their ideal handmaiden; they would get publicity and a pseudo-endorsement from a federal agency that for some cockeyed reason was willing to spend taxpayers' money to publicize hundreds of people throwing dried turds as far as they could. (I would learn firsthand that discus-style is the favored throwing style, and that your chances are improved by selecting a pie that's not too sun-parched. The retained moisture keeps the mass solid so, like the pumpkin, it's less likely to come apart at launch.)

With some not-needed advice from my superiors about my maintaining the dignity of the U.S. Government, they dispatched me to Beaver, where I competed in the contest, watched the crowning ceremony for Miss Beaver and rode in the parade. My favorite float was a 10-foot-diameter, paper-mache cow flop molded over a go-cart. Dry ice gave off a convincing steam, and the driver's head protruded through an opening in the top but was camouflaged by a helmet shaped like a large bulbous-eyed fly. The motorized pie zig-zagged down the parade route evoking appropriately tasteful comments. My car turned out to be rather less than my fantasized shiny convertible filled with pretty girls. I was put in an old Fairlane with hand-scrawled signs taped on the sides that said: U.S. Metric Board. I had to drive it myself. While metrification has not swept America, I remain a fan, and consider my major contribution to have been announcing all the distances in what the Beaver Judges called "both metric and regular."

I don't place myself in the same lofty category as Jim Hyde and his fellow punkin chunkers, but I have enormous respect for their desire to apply excellence and creativity in the pursuit of the absurd.

As Jim said to me, "This is my sanity. We take a whole week off to live in a soybean field in Delaware. It's a good way to spend time, drink a few beers, play with something that can kill you, and the police have to leave you alone."

I'm all for that.