Sand sculpting pros use basic tools to create works of art at Fort Myers Beach championship

Daily News/File
"Amazin" Walter McDonald, 69, of South Padre Island, Texas, carves a series of castles at the 24th American SandSculpting Championship at the Holiday Inn on Fort Myers Beach. McDonald will be one of the master sculptors during this year's competition.

Photo by Michele AnneLouise Cohen

Daily News/File "Amazin" Walter McDonald, 69, of South Padre Island, Texas, carves a series of castles at the 24th American SandSculpting Championship at the Holiday Inn on Fort Myers Beach. McDonald will be one of the master sculptors during this year's competition.

Sand castle building as a serious competition seems a little strange. But if top-ranked skateboarders can earn millions, and bikini-clad beach volleyballers vie in the Olympics, why not?

The 26th annual American Sand Sculpting Championship, which returns to Fort Myers Beach today and runs through Nov. 25, is light years removed from kids with buckets at the water's edge. Professional sand sculptors from all over the U.S. and nine additional countries will assemble intricate and wildly imaginative creations up to 12 feet high, with a level of detail and craftsmanship that has to be seen to be believed. Last year, entries carried titles including "Fate Sets Up the Chessboard, While Death Rolls Out the Dice," "Kindlegarten," and "The S-Hands of Time."

Local professional Bill Knight is sitting out of this year's championship, to focus on running the event, as he does all over the country. He will conduct demonstraworkshops for aspiring amateurs. The many programs include an amateur championship. The tools of his trade are familiar, basic utensils, Knight said, and the artistry comes in knowing how to use them.

"You start with simple tools like spoons, forks, and my favorite, a cake frosting knife," he said. "Then as you get advanced, your tools get advanced."

Twelve-time medalist and 2008 world champion Carl Jara of Cleveland, Ohio, one of the top competitors, was reached on the phone at his day job as a museum display specialist, grinding away at the bones of an Australopithecus. His favorite sand sculpting tools include a mason's trowel, a palette knife, and what he referred to as a "high velocity, omnidirectional sand dispersal unit," although you may know it as a plumber's toilet tube.

All the pros say the most important thing is to start with well-packed sand.

"You can't carve it if you don't pack it," warned Jara.

"Learning how to pack sand properly is almost as much an art form as sculpting it," said Knight. "You have to use a lot of water, saturate it, and compress it real good." He uses a standard bucket with the bottom removed as a basic form.

Not every design concept works for sand sculpture, said Knight.

"You can't do palm trees, because the fronds won't stand up. It's quite challenging to go from paper to three dimensions."

The completed piece, after 20 or more hours of work, is sprayed with a light mist of Elmer's glue and water as a bonding agent, an "eggshell coating" to help the sculptures, made, after all, from nothing but sand, to withstand the elements.

And the sand itself is crucial, said Knight. "The sand on Fort Myers Beach is unique. We can actually use the beach sand, because each individual grain is more triangular." Naples beach sand, in contrast, he said, while "it's very beautiful, the grains are more rounded. You can't build it up near as high."

With 50,000 or more spectators expected for the 10-day event, visitors are urged to approach from the south, and take the shuttle bus from Lover's Key. For a full schedule of the daily events and information, visit the event site at www.fmbsandsculpting.com.

26th ANNUAL AMERICAN SAND SCULPTING CHAMPIONSHIP

What: Sand creations by master sculptors, amateur competition, sand sculpting demos and lessons, and arts and crafts booths

Where: Holiday Inn, 6890 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily Friday, Nov. 16 through Sunday, Nov. 25

Cost: Free, children 4 and younger. Advanced adults and kids tickets $4 (Available at Pinchers Crab Shacks, Texas Tony’s BBQ and the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce); $5 at the gate

Getting there: Attendees are encouraged to arrive from the south in order to avoid traffic congestion. Free parking and bus service available from Lovers Key event parking field, 8700 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach.

Information: 239-454-7500 or www.fmbsandsculpting.com

JUNKANOO SAND SCULPTING LUAU

What: Chance to meet the master sand sculptors

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16

Where: Junkanoo on the Beach, 4030 Estero Blvd., Fort Myers Beach

Cost: $30 includes parking, dinner buffet and live entertainment

Tickets: Junkanoo on the Beach 239-463-2600 or Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce 239-454-7500

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