March 20, 2011

Trail & Error: Curling (and ice you do it on) surprisingly hard

By Shannon Bryan
Staff Writer

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. People in brick houses who have neighbors with a lot of expensive windows probably shouldn't throw stones either.

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Shannon Bryan masters the art of not falling down while learning to curl with the Belfast Curling Club.

Photo by Bob Wieluns

click image to enlarge

Teams play on side-by-side sheets at the home of the Belfast Curling Club, Maine’s only curling clubhouse.

Photo by Shannon Bryan/Staff Writer


CURLING derives its name from one of two places, depending on whom you ask. Some say it stems from the Scottish word "curr," which describes the low rumbling sound the stones make while traveling on the ice. Others claim the word "curl" describes the movement of the stone on the ice as it deviates from a straight line. Throwers can control this during release.

A HANDKERCHIEF or tissues are handy to have. The cold air keeps the nose running.

BRISTLED brooms have mostly been replaced by brooms with synthetic cloth. A sneaky bristle that falls onto the ice can redirect the course of a stone.

CLUBS supply stones for players. Curlers don't bring their own stones as bowlers often do with balls. They do, however, often bring their own brooms.

BOWDOIN COLLEGE started a curling team this winter. The team travels to the Belfast Curling Club to practice and recently won the 2011 National College Curling Championships in Chicago. Colby and Unity College have also started curling teams.

And while that sage advice can help guide a noble life, it doesn't translate well down at the curling club, where throwing stones at houses is not only an acceptable practice, it's an art form.

Curling has a history stemming back to the 1500s, but the intricacies of the game remain elusive to non-players. Meaning, for those of us unfamiliar with the stone-centric sport, our understanding is typically limited to watching a few perplexing Winter Olympics finals or cracking wise with a Swiffer in the cleaning supply aisle of the grocery store.

Most of us don't get it.

All that frenetic sweeping and the slowly sliding stone -- it looks a little funny.

But a sport that's persisted since the 16th century must have more to it than the broom. And curling does.

Maine's neighbors to the north have taken to the game with impressive gusto; the province of Saskatchewan even boasts curling as its official sport. Despite our state's proximity to that curling country, Maine is home to only one curling organization: the Belfast Curling Club.

Established in 1959 with a little help from fellow curlers in nearby New Brunswick, the club has a current membership of more than 100 -- some driving in from Waterville, Bar Harbor, Waldoboro or farther to participate in league games and bonspiels (that's "curling tournaments" for we novices).

Belfast Curling Club members Sue and Bob Wieluns were kind enough to meet me recently for an on-ice tutorial, where I learned simply staying upright on the slippery surface was a feat.

There are special curling shoes for those who choose to wear them, but a pair of regular sneakers suffices, too, so long as they aren't worn in from outside, where they're likely to have picked up dirt and other bits that will end up on the ice. You don't want to mess with the ice.

Back in 16th-century Scotland, a frozen pond would do. But these days, curlers are particular about their ice. It needs to be level, clean and maintained at the right temperature. There's no Zamboni. Instead, water is sprayed on the surface to pebble it. The pebbling is what enables the stones to slide easily across the ice and what makes the stones curl (or move away from a straight line).

The clubhouse boasts a wide window overlooking three curling sheets, or courts, which seemed to wake up from a long, cold hibernation after Bob Wieluns flicked a switch and the overhead fluorescent lights flickered on.

The specifications for a curling sheet are defined by the World Curling Federation: 146 to 150 feet long and 14.5 to 16.5 feet wide.

Before we got down to curling business, Bob reached out his hand. Games always start and end with opposing teams shaking hands, he said. And you say to each other, "Good curling."

So we shook and wished each other good curling.

On the ice, Bob used his broom to point out the large bull's eye, known in curling terms as the "house," at the sheet's end. His broom hovered over the line dissecting the house -- the "tee line" -- and the line running down the center of the sheet, aptly called the "centre line."

Terminology is easy. Actually delivering the stone those 120-odd feet to the house at the opposite end was a whole other matter.

Experienced curlers make it look easy. Scratch that. They make it look downright elegant, with a fluid push off from the starting block and a graceful, sliding lunge toward the hog line, where the curler and stone part ways.

(Continued on page 2)

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